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UW Oshkosh students at a past American Democracy Project event.

UW Oshkosh students at a past American Democracy Project event.

The American Democracy Project is set to host a timely lecture on justice and incarceration in America by U.S. Attorney James Santelle on Feb. 18 at 7 p.m. in Reeve Memorial Ballroom.

Santelle, an attorney in Wisconsin’s eastern district, will also discuss broader community issues such as education and health-related topics. Santelle’s presentation is part of a planned speaker series focused on government policy, hosted by the American Democracy Project (ADP).

The ADP began in 2003 as a nonpartisan initiative of the American Association of State Colleges and Universities (AASCU). Shortly thereafter, the University of Wisconsin Oshkosh joined the ranks of the 231 colleges and universities that have participated in ADP’s mission, which the AASCU website states is a “multi-campus initiative focused on higher education’s role in preparing the next generation of informed, engaged citizens for our democracy.”

The UW Oshkosh branch of the ADP has been an active voice for democracy and an encouragement for civic engagement on campus. One of the organization’s most recent events was the State of the State discussion where the area’s elected officials presented their perspectives on current state issues and fielded questions from the audience. ADP has also hosted the 2010 State Assembly Debate, has run multiple campaigns to encourage student voting and is an integral part of the University’s annual Constitution Day events held every September.

Chairman of both the University’s political science department and the ADP committee, David Siemers, said Santelle’s lecture on justice and incarceration is a particularly timely discussion for Wisconsin and the state’s universities. The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported that for the 2011-2013 budget the Wisconsin state government, for the first time, designated more money to the Department of Corrections than to the state’s public universities. According to the Population Reference Bureau, the United States has held the top spot for incarceration rates around the globe since 2002.

“We are really hurting ourselves, financially and otherwise, by our zeal to lock people up and throw away the key…,” Siemers said.

The increased spending on incarceration is what led the ADP to book Santelle to discuss the topic and the possibilities of alternative sentencing for criminals, Siemers said.

“We need to make connections with our community and move beyond the four walls of the classroom in order to make a meaningful, positive impact in the world,” Siemers said. “We envision events that involve the community and are community-regarding.”

Braden Frederickson, a senior elementary education major who has been involved with the ADP committee since 2010, was instrumental in bringing Santelle to UW Oshkosh. He said he expects students will enjoy Santelle’s entertaining, yet professional, style.

“He is a talented speaker, and every word he writes or speaks is filled with meaning and passion,” Frederickson said. “I think anyone who wants to be entertained while also academically roused should come listen to U.S. Attorney Santelle.”

While the community benefits from ADP events, Frederickson said students gain even more insight into American democracy and the opportunities for civic engagement by becoming involved with the ADP. He said the organization provides a unique opportunity to take democratic action in a nonpartisan format.

“Although everyone is entitled to their own opinion, the bigger picture that everyone works for the good of America has been sometimes overshadowed due to the petty politics at the local and national levels,” Frederickson said. “ADP serves as a link that holds opinion and that bigger picture together…, and that strand that holds those two notions together is rather important.”

Frederickson said that “everyone is accountable for maintaining and protecting this idea called democracy” and that students of all majors have the opportunity to do so in the ADP. Assistant Vice Chancellor Carleen Vande Zande said UW Oshkosh believes in preparing students to become active and informed contributors to civic progression.

“University life is an excellent setting for the development of civic habits of mind,” Vande Zande said. “We strive to offer experiences and opportunities that expose students to speakers, events and programs that provide challenges to current thinking and exposure to diverse points of view. We value the participatory nature of our democracy and ADP provides innovative ways for students to participate.”

The ADP has also promoted community development through the annual Creating a Stronger Community Contest. The contest awards community-building projects in the area, with a first place prize of $1,500 to go toward the recipient’s project. Last year’s winner was UW Oshkosh graduate Dani Stolley who founded an urban agriculture startup called Growing Oshkosh.

Santelle’s lecture is an example of just one component in the ongoing process of civic growth, something Siemers said requires involvement from all citizens.

“Everyone is a citizen, and democracy doesn’t work without engaged, knowledgeable citizens who want to make a difference in the world,” he said.

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