The Political Engagement Pilot Project was a one-year experiment we launched in January 2016. Based squarely on the three-stage SOL model of a preparation course in the spring, a collaborative project with a community partner in the summer, and a capstone course about policy and leadership in the fall, PEPP was an intensive leadership development program focused on politics.

Service Opportunities in Leadership has been a signature program in the Hart Leadership Program for more than two decades, and by the summer of 2017, a total of 403 SOL students have worked with community organizations in 45 countries.  Over the years, SOL participants have been involved in fields such as health education, the environment, human rights, economic development, and women’s empowerment, as well as policy and politics.  The focus of the SOL program has been engagement in what we call “leadership for public life,” which includes working productively with value conflicts in communities, and mobilizing people for difficult problem-solving work.  SOL was part of a national study about political participation among college students, and our pedagogy is featured in a book called Educating for Democracy.

We created Political Engagement Pilot Project experiment after a group of students, faculty, and administrators at Duke began discussing political engagement opportunities for undergraduate students a couple of years ago. It became clear that many students were interested in civic engagement, but not necessarily in political participation.  The discussion group felt that given the immense policy challenges facing our society today, it was imperative that we learn together how to engage in productive political activity, revitalize our political culture, and rebuild the health of our democratic institutions.

The Sanford School of Public Policy recently created POLIS: the Center for Political Leadership, Innovation, and Service. By dedicating a center to the political leadership development of students, Sanford’s goal is to inspire a new generation to make our politics better.  The Hart Leadership Program offered to help POLIS by designing and sponsoring PEPP for one year.

PEPP students started their yearlong commitment in the spring of 2016 by taking a preparation course called Political Participation and Leadership, co-taught by Alma Blount and Steve Schewel, who serves on the Durham City Council.  When students returned in the fall after completing their summer politics projects, they took a capstone course in Sanford School of Public Policy such as Adaptive Leadership, or Leadership, Policy, and Change, or they completed a capstone project of their own design, with guidance from the Hart Leadership Program.

Fifteen PEPP students conducted politics projects in eight cities across the U.S in 2016. They worked in places as varied as a Congressional office, a firm that conducts data analysis for political campaigns, a think tank that conducts independent analyses of candidates’ platforms, and an advocacy organization focused on ending domestic violence. You can read more about their projects under Students and Projects.