Miami University’s Menard Family Center for Democracy to Enhance Understanding of America’s ‘Civic Health’

Empowering students is woven into the fabric of Oxford, home of Miami University, and that’s at the heart of the institution’s recent news as well.

Today the university announced the Menard Family Center for Democracy. “We have a democratic system that relies on cooperation, respectful disagreement, and civility—on learning from one another,” said John Forren, the inaugural executive director of the Menard Family Center and the chair of Miami’s department of justice and community studies. “There’s a lot of evidence that we need this kind of work in our communities as much as we ever have. Our center will equip students to identify and solve public problems.”

The university expanded on the project in its announcement:

“Housed jointly in Miami’s College of Arts and Science and College of Liberal Arts and Applied Science, the center will create and support a year-round slate of student programs at Miami’s three Ohio campuses and beyond.

New learning opportunities – including on-campus talks, leadership training programs, dialogues with civic leaders, and “hands-on,” immersive workshops – will expand opportunities for students to enhance civic knowledge and their practical ability to work effectively as leaders within their local communities. These programs will complement and strengthen existing programs like the popular JANUS Forum which began in 2013, attracts thousands of students, and engages notable intellectuals on issues like inequality, the opioid crisis, and the role of government.

Faculty from several academic disciplines will collaborate on scholarly research, experiential learning programs and curricular development aimed at enhancing public understanding of the institutions, ideas, and practices that invigorate civic life, especially constructive dialogue that fosters mutual understanding.”

Forren said that for years, the university has been working through various programs to help students develop practical tools to engage on the issues they’re passionate about—to identify a problem and figure out how to work with their communities to alleviate the challenge. One such effort came through collaboration with the U.S. Department of State, in which student leaders from countries around the world were tapped to live at Miami for a summer and work together intensively to target problems in their home communities and develop plans to address them in concrete ways.

“Why do you need an ally? How do you talk to them? What are their strengths?” Forren said students asked. “If you give people access to multiple points of view, you can help them make significant positive change in local environments.”

The center’s creation is made possible through two multi-year grants to Miami totaling $2.95 million from the John Menard family and from the Charles Koch Foundation. Developed by Forren and others on the Miami faculty, the center’s mission is “to create and support direct community-focused programming, engaged teaching, and applied research that promotes democratic theory and practice, enhances our understanding of America’s ‘civic health,’ and builds the capacity of citizens and communities to collaborate in solving problems across philosophical, political, and social lines.”

Read Miami’s news here and find the grant agreement here.

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