Gettysburg College’s Eisenhower Institute Celebrates Democracy Week

The Eisenhower Institute (EI) at Gettysburg College held its second annual Democracy Week celebrations with a week full of events and activities aimed at getting young people engaged in the political process, celebrating American democratic values, and reducing political polarization through building bipartisan trust between political adversaries. 

This year’s theme was “In Democracy We Trust.”  The theme “reflects the Eisenhower Institute’s goal of rebuilding our trust in government, information, communities, and people, across difference,” said EI Executive Director Tracie Potts.

Potts said the event promoted civil dialogue and getting people with different views respectfully engaged with each other.

“To make democracy work, to make it inclusive, we must learn to navigate difference. We can’t be afraid of it or pretend that it doesn’t exist. It turns out it’s not so scary to listen and learn from people who don’t look and think like me. It’s energizing. And it’s essential,” Potts said.

“Living in a bubble, with people who think just like us, is not democratic. America has always been a place where people have different backgrounds, ideas, and beliefs. Our country was created because people wanted a different life, and the freedom to determine what that looks like. Our history in Gettysburg leaves a powerful example of what happens when we can’t work out differences peacefully,” Potts said. 

Potts connected EI’s goal with the organization’s namesake, President Dwight D. Eisenhower, who spent his post-presidential years in Gettysburg. She discussed how Eisenhower “surrounded himself with people who brought different ideas to the table, seeking a middle way.” 

This year’s celebrations included many new events, activities, and people. In attendance were former U.S. Representatives Bob Goodlatte (R-VA) and John Yarmuth (D-KY), who spent multiple days conversing with students and faculty and offering insight on the importance of democracy. 

The first public Democracy Week event, “Rebuilding Trust in Government,” involved a panel discussion between former Representatives Goodlatte and Yarmuth on the impact of public opinion on government policy and how community leaders can rebuild the country’s trust in its government. Goodlatte, a Republican, and Yarmuth, a Democrat, demonstrated how to respectfully engage in dialogue with people you disagree with. The two went back and forth on various issues, often disagreeing but always respecting their counterparts’ voices. 

Both representatives did agree on one thing—that political polarization is harming the United States. At the conclusion of the event, Goodlatte encouraged the audience to get involved in politics, saying that “the country needs you.” 

The most popular Democracy Week event was a “Lunch & Learn” event hosted by Deputy Editor of Spotlight PA Sarah Anne Hughes. Spotlight PA is an award-winning independent media outlet covering Pennsylvania politics. The room was packed as students, faculty and community members gathered to hear from Hughes and enjoy lunch.

Hughes talked about her work at Spotlight PA and the watchdog journalism that they partake in. She also explained Spotlight PA’s new democracy initiative, a series of tools available on their website that helps Spanish-speaking people access their English-language content.

“What we realized over the past three years is that we can have an impact on Pennsylvanians in much smaller ways that matter just as much, which again is why we launched the Democracy Initiative,” said Hughes.

Democracy Week ended on Friday, September 22 after the Democratize America Festival. Students and faculty gathered at Gettysburg College’s Stine Lake, enjoyed snacks, and shared why democracy is important to them. EI provided a microphone and encouraged students to sing and share poetry about democracy. One student sang “The Star-Spangled Banner,” while another recited President Lincoln’s “Gettysburg Address.” Students were also challenged to answer the question, “What does democracy mean to you?”, which was written in chalk on the sidewalk. Written student responses included “equity & equality” and “the right to choose.” 

Reflecting on Democracy Week, Potts hopes that students walked away with an increased passion for civic engagement. 

“You can vote. You can speak out. You can listen to people with different ideas and perspectives. You can choose to get accurate, credible information. You can get involved in a community group advocating for positive change. It all helps support the idea that in America, power rests with the people. We just have to remember to exercise it,” she said.

The Eisenhower Institute at Gettysburg College is a nationally recognized center for public policy with dual locations in Washington DC and Gettysburg. Working in the legacy of President Eisenhower, the Eisenhower Institute connects the next generation of leaders with its team of experts in various public policy-related fields. 

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Vincent DiFonzo, intern, is a junior student at Gettysburg College, originally from West Chester, PA. He is studying international affairs and history with minors in political science and economics. Outside Gettysburg Connection, Vince is an editor for the Gettysburg Social Science Review (GSSR), serves as the opinions editor for the Gettysburgian and works for as the managing editor of Ike's Anvil. Vince loves traveling, geography, and discovering new music, and will study abroad in Berlin this spring.

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