What is a Newman Civic Fellow?
Nominations for the Newman Civic Fellowship will continue until February 1st! College and university Presidents are encouraged to nominate a civic-minded student whose work betters their campus and surrounding community.
Alexis Smyser, who will be graduating this May from UIC with a major in Communications and minors in Urban Planning and International Studies, is one such example of a Newman Civic Fellow who strives to make change in her community.
Road to the Newman Civic Fellowship
Alexis grew up on the west side of Chicago in Humboldt Park. Her parents were active participants in the local community; her mother ran for the Illinois state senate in 1990, and her father was an active church and community leader.
After high school, Alexis served a year in AmeriCorps with Public Allies, a nonprofit, once helmed by Michelle Obama, which promotes youth civic engagement. Alexis said that her experience with Public Allies cemented her passion for civic engagement work.
“Public Allies gave me the opportunity to learn from both local leaders and global leaders,” she said. “Being able to study the methods communities have used to create positive social change around the world, and discover the different perspectives and cultural lenses that people apply to those positions of leadership was important. I think it was one of the biggest influence on my current work.”
As a student at UIC, Alexis was a founding member of LPODER, a new student organization that aims to increase awareness of urban planning within the Latino community. LPODER works with both college and high school students to develop urban planning skills and increase the Latino retention rate in the field, which she said only has 4% Latino representation country wide.
Alexis recently helped bring LPODER’s mission to her home community. Through a partnership with an after school program at West Town Bikes, LPODER worked with high school students who were passionate about bicycles and turned their enthusiasm for the project into direct community action. Alexis said that connecting the students’ interest in bicycling to issues facing the community helps the kids naturally come to understand shared ownership of a community.
“The students were taught how to collect street traffic data, how to draft public policy proposals, and how to look at neighborhoods as Urban Planners,” she said, “and now they’re getting ready to propose new bike lane routes to the city council. They are really excited. They want to address dangerous streets and intersections around their neighborhoods in Belmont Cragin and Humboldt Park. It shows them how civic action can really work for and improve the community.”
Joining the Newman Civic Fellowship
It was this kind of passion for community action that earned Alexis a nomination to the Newman Civic Fellowship Conference, where she met with student leaders from around the country. She said that one of the most interesting aspects of the conference was learning about the various challenges facing community activists depending on the type of community they live in.
“I thought it was interesting to see the strategies students from more rural communities used to build grassroots awareness for their causes,” she said. “Being from Chicago, I have a certain way of interacting with grassroots initiatives that might not work in other cities.”
Alexis has continued to stay in contact with the friends she made at the Newman Civic Fellowship Conference online. She said she finds it inspiring to see what each of them have gone on to do.
“I saw that one of the other fellows gave a speech at South by Southwest this year,” she said, “and I found that to be really motivational. It inspires me to explore greater opportunities for myself via platforms I might not have thought of before.”
Alexis has been keeping busy since the conference by organizing a fundraising event at the popular local art gallery, Congruent Space. The fundraiser put the work of well-known local artists up for sale in order to raise funds for the ongoing hurricane recovery efforts in Puerto Rico.
As she continues to work within the community, Alexis continually reminds herself why her voice is important.
“We need to let them know that we are here, we intend to hold them accountable, and we are preparing to take our turn at leadership in all sectors.”
“As young people, we have a lot of power,” she said. “We are one the largest voting blocs in the U.S., and we can’t take that for granted. We can’t let our elected officials think that our input doesn’t matter because we don’t care enough to show up to vote. We need to let them know that we are here, we intend to hold them accountable, and we are preparing to take our turn at leadership in all sectors.”
One piece of advice Alexis would give to young people who want to make an impact in their community worthy of the Newman Civic Fellowship, but aren’t sure how, is to follow your interests.
“Not everyone is going to want to join a political group; not everyone is going to want to join an identity or arts-based group,” she said. “But everyone can find a community that they share an interest with, and they can work to use their skills and interests to contribute to the greater community.”
Alexis is just one example of a successful Newman Civic Fellow candidate. Last year, five schools in Illinois were represented by students engaged in their community. Campus Compact wants to continue to recognize the great work being done by college students in Illinois, so make sure to let your President’s office know of this opportunity to recognize civic engagement on your campus.