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Democracy Plaza provides students an outlet for discussing social issues among their peers

January 28, 2014

For nearly a decade, social issues and political opinion have popped up on the IUPUI campus in a series of open conversations called “Pass the Mic” and in messages scribbled in public spaces on the campus, all part of a unique program called Democracy Plaza.

Democracy Plaza.

Students focus on the impact of the government shutdown during one “Pass the Mic,” which featured conversation and Democracy Plaza’s traditional pizza as food for thought.

The plaza, often referred to by students involved with it as “DP,” has become a rallying cry for issues large and small, giving IUPUI students an outlet for their thoughts, ideas and observations.

The program started in 2004 underneath the Business-SPEA breezeway with a collection of chalkboards that IUPUI students could adorn with phrases, comments or critiques about any issue that motivated them. And it was coupled with the “Pass the Mic” event that encouraged freewheeling debate from anyone with a point of view to express.

These days, it has spread indoors to the Campus Center, with an area offering dry-erase boards that provide the same type of outlet for observations -- and still featuring “Pass the Mic” discussions.

“DP is evolving to include more programs, events and conversations through a social justice lens, which will allow students to engage in more depth the intersections of politics, policy and social justice issues,” said Amanda Bonilla, the assistant director for social justice education at IUPUI and the advisor for Democracy Plaza.

“Democracy Plaza plays an integral role in moving our campus and community forward by creating safe places for students to have their voices heard about important and controversial issues,” said Mary Ankenbruck, the director of outreach for Democracy Plaza.

Ankenbruck believes that DP fills a pivotal role on a college campus, reminding IUPUI students that it is OK to think for oneself.

“By helping students see the large spectrum of opinions out there about various political, social and cultural issues, we foster community and understanding,” Ankenbruck added. “Students see that not everyone thinks the same as they do and they can learn and grow from acknowledging those differences.”

Ankenbruck realized quickly that Democracy Plaza was a vital part of IUPUI’s campus culture.

“I was attracted to DP because I realized how it set IUPUI apart from other universities,” she said. “I thought it was amazing that here was this organization that actively sought out student opinions on issues, not just merely tolerated those voices. I knew I wanted to be a part of it from the time I took a campus tour before freshman year and saw the chalkboards filled with questions and thoughtful comments.”

Democracy Plaza falls under the Office of Student Involvement, and its “Pass the Mic” program has stood the test of time. It has featured conversations on scores of local, state and federal issues.

Democracy Plaza.

The chalkboards that have conveyed thousands of messages and opinions throughout Democracy Plaza’s history are quieter during the winter, but activity is expected to increase with students this spring.

“Democracy Plaza is a medium for a more tolerant and understanding community,” said Alan Hancock, the director of finance and administration for DP. “I was drawn to this organization because I have always been interested by the numerous difference perspectives we all have of the same concepts.”

To Hancock, the outcomes are simple, yet obvious. “We will achieve a more civil IUPUI community one step at a time by facilitating meaningful dialogue over sensitive topics to gain better understanding of others’ perspectives,” he said.

While “Pass the Mic” encourages freedom of expression, Ankenbruck believes the opinions expressed often remind students "they are not alone in their sentiments,” she said. “They can feel supported and can even join together with like-minded individuals to create student groups, organize protests and more.”

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