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You have the power to change your life and your community. Make sure you use it.

Civics as a term encompasses the things people do that affect fellow citizens. Civic educationentails the theory and practice of citizenship, including the rights and responsibilities for members of a society.  


In January 2020, a Howard G. Buffett Foundation gift of $2.48 million funded the creation of an eight-year project to promote deeper civic engagement. The Jerry J. Dawson Civic Leadership Institute (DCLI) seeks to ensure that students develop a deeper understanding of how democracy functions and how to contribute their talents to impact their community. 


Helping young people process what’s happening around them is a core facet of equipping them for independence. Establishing the Institute during the most challenging year in recent memory lends added resonance.  


“Many of us have never seen or experienced a time like this,” says DCLI Coordinator Dr. Juanita Morris, who oversees all aspects of the program’s design and management.


“Both our national and local communities are facing obstacles and injustices in a space that is new for many of us. We’re dealing with natural disasters, civic and social unrest, an uncertain economy, all within the midst of a global healthcare pandemic.”  


A primary program component is encouraging students to pursue careers in fields that serve theneeds specific to our community. In Year 1 of programming for DCLI, these careers are represented through three pillars: 


  • Pillar I: Public Safety 

  • Pillar II: Healthcare  

  • Pillar III: Politics and Local Governance  


“These are completely separate fields, conceptually,” says Dr. Morris.


“But at this moment in history, public safety, healthcare and politics have become inextricably intertwined. Each day they continue to draw closer and closer to one another.” 


DCLI students who engage fully are eligible for Richland Community College scholarships to cover the cost of an associate’s degree in these career areas, including nursing, paramedic support, firefighting and legal professions. In Year 2, related pillars in Social Entrepreneurship and Education will introduce additional paths to serving the public good.      


The Institute is the namesake of retired Sheriff Jerry Dawson, whose thoughtful nature and approach to service left a positive imprint on local public safety during his 30-year career.Following retirement in 2008, Sheriff Dawson served as an Adjunct Instructor of Criminal Justice at the former Decatur Area Technical Academy and Richland Community College. His personal sense of investment in the community informed his eight years as a City Councilman, where he approached decision-making with an eye on what treats all citizens most fairly.  


“Early in my career I worked directly with a number of young people who made mistakes,” Jerry says.


“Those interactions opened my eyes to the support kids need to make good choices as they mature. Later I looked back on that experience and really tried to get to the root of things and understand where our challenges are. In Decatur we are blessed with resources to explore new ways of addressing these challenges. We’re fortunate to have community members invested in creating an environment that helps students grow into positive, productive citizens.”  


DCLI enrichment activities in development will target students at Eisenhower High School and MacArthur High School, as well as engaging kids at the lower grade levels feeding into upper grades, particularly through the Public Service Academy at Stephen Decatur Middle School and initiatives such as a Civics Club forming at Hope Academy.  


An early example of DCLI programming is the creation of a non-partisan information portal geared to helping the community make informed decisions within the electoral process.


This site pulls together resources to inform young citizens about the voting process, introduce them to candidates of all political affiliations, highlight what positions are elected and how local elections impact our lives, and learn how to actively participate in shaping governance. With local elections slated for spring 2021, DCLI anticipates direct involvement from students who perform candidate interviews to create video content throughout the campaign process. 


A focus on personal values prods students to think about how their decisions affect their own lives as well as those of others. The Institute design emphasizes the importance of personal voices to public conversation on topics that impact all of us, then encouraging active steps to be involved in a thoughtful way. 


“Communities are strongest when the broadest cross-section of citizens are engaged and work together to improve the quality of life for everybody,” says Howard Buffett. “We believe the Jerry J. Dawson Civic Leadership Institute will give Decatur’s young people opportunities to see how they can pursue careers that allow them to engage, support and be the future leaders working to improve their community.” 


Development includes collaboration with community partners such as Crossing Healthcare, the Decatur City Council, Decatur Police Department, Decatur Memorial and St. Mary’s Hospitals, Heartland Technical Academy, the Macon County Board, Macon County Circuit Court, Macon County Sheriff’s Office, Macon County State’s Attorney Office, Richland Community College, Millikin University, Workforce Investment Solutions and state and local lawmakers. Each of these entities and other new partners will underscore opportunities to discover how decisions made at a young age impact life thereafter.  


The DPS Foundation will continue to update our stakeholders on creative DCLI developments, and to document the impact of this unique approach to engaging students.

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