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Visiting Northern Ireland, President Oxtoby Sees Colleges and Communities Working Together to Build Democracy

June 26, 2014

By David Oxtoby

I am writing this from Belfast, Northern Ireland, where I am attending a conference at Queen's University on Higher Education for Democratic Innovation.  Leaders from Europe and the United States are discussing how real-world connections between colleges and their communities can create new democratic institutions and prepare students for citizenship.

The Belfast location was not chosen by accident. I have learned so much over the last few days about "The Troubles," as the Protestant-Catholic conflict dating back to 1969 is called.  While the level of violence has fallen drastically, there are still walls between Belfast neighborhoods where the connecting gates are closed on the weekend to prevent conflict. So it has been particularly interesting to hear how Queen's is working with neighborhood organizations to rebuild trust, to encourage young people to attend university, and to strengthen democracy at the grass roots level.

Other interesting presentations and discussions have described partnerships between Widener and Chester, Pa., between Salford and Manchester, UK, and between Rutgers and Newark (a fine talk by Nancy Cantor).  All this shows clearly that democracy is not just a subject for abstract classroom discussion, but a critical contemporary issue that is brought to life through community partnerships. Pomona's Draper Center for Community Partnerships is right in the middle of such activities, and I am proud of the role our students are playing in the communities around us in Southern California, helping to break down the walls that separate people from one another. --David Oxtoby

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