01 Sep

Steve Schewel

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The Saturday night before classes started, Steve Schewel was in a Durham police car. For the past several months he has been riding along with officers on their Saturday night beats. As a current Durham City councilman and former School Board member, Schewel embodies the leadership ideals he has been teaching in the Hart Leadership Program for fourteen years. “My students have a strong idea of a virtuous private life,” Schewel stated. “They want to be good employees, partners, and parents. I try to put the idea in their head of something more: how to also live an exemplary public life as well. It’s good for others and good for you to think about a public contribution.”

For last year’s Leadership, Policy and Change course, Schewel examined the fine line between civil liberties and national security, and people’s motivation to act. The class delved into stories about public whistle-blowers and the actions of Edward Snowden. Schewel wanted his students to explore how a private moral compass can lead someone to take a public stance.

“Professor Schewel didn’t hit you over the head with the overt message but gave clear examples of why you should live an exemplary public life,” stated senior Sam Butensky, a Biomedical Engineering major who took the course. “In our last class he read to us his keys to live a happy life and told us that a public virtuous life is part of it.”

Schewel directs a comment to a student.

Each year, Professor Schewel recreates his syllabus to include current events and readings he finds particularly relevant to his topic. This semester Schewel is examining ideas about American social movements, a theme he often explored during his early years of teaching the Leadership, Policy and Change course. This time, the emphasis is on political change driven both by people in authority and people at the grass roots. Together, the class will examine the leadership lessons and moral choices of a range of historical and current figures, including insurgents Sam Adams, John Brown, and Harvey Milk as well as people leading from a position of authority such as George Washington and John F. Kennedy.

Texts for the class include historical works, social psychology, biography and Hollywood films, as well as coverage of current events including police controversies in Ferguson, MO; the Moral Monday movement; and the rise of the Tea Party. Schewel’s course requires a significant amount of reading, but as he explained, “If you ask a lot of students, you get a lot in return.”

During this semester’s class, Schewel’s students will examine ideas about social conscience: how does someone decide to be brave and join a movement? He wants his students to explore the idea that if one person is willing to step out and do the right thing, then others will follow. “Abolitionist John Brown was a person of tremendous conscience but he took the lives of others; he was willing to perpetrate violence for a cause he believed in,” Schewel explained. “His story makes you think about modern day terrorists. What are the limits of what your conscience tells you to do – even if you think you are in the service of a noble cause?”

Students react to Schewel's comments.

While Schewel’s Leadership, Policy and Change course may have evolved through the years, he says one thing has remained consistent, “The students are smart as hell, work hard, and care about others. I believe the Hart program attracts the most socially-committed students but there are plenty of those students out there.” He adds, “Some students come to leadership classes because they want to lead or understand how to lead and think they do or don’t have ‘it,’ but my job is to help them see that anyone who adopts certain important practices can lead change. Leadership is the willingness to step out and take some personal risk, to join and lead a movement of change.”

“Being a leader is not just about being a good speech maker, it is working with others to help a community face value conflicts honestly and work toward solutions,” he stated. “Anyone who thinks consciously and can adopt a set of practices can be a leader.”

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