Have you seen A New Light in Harlem?

Our original upload to YouTube got over 600 views in just a matter of days! We had to do a *tiny* bit of clean-up, so we uploaded a new version (click below).

The film features interviews with General Colin Powell, Dean Vince Boudreau, and faculty, students, alumni, and board members, spotlighting the amazing community we have up here on the City College campus.

Do you know a young person who wants to be a leader in public service? Get access to world-class preparatory coursework and field experience without amassing piles of debt?

Are you a scholar, educator, or community organizer looking to break down walls between the Academy and the surrounding community? Who knows that in order to find better answers to pressing questions of the 21st century, we need to hear more voices?

Watch and learn more about the mission of the Colin Powell School—”A New Light in Harlem.”



The Public University: Seeing the Whole Picture

Vince Boudreau, Dean












by Vince Boudreau, Dean, Colin Powell School for Civic and Global Leadership

What does it mean to be a public university? For decades, there were two distinct definitions—so bound together that when they became estranged, nobody seemed at first to notice.

On the one hand, public education referred to a finance model in which citizens and government officials pledged support for those working in its schools, and so allocated money from public coffers for that purpose. Students in public universities could expect to pay less for their tuition, and people living in states and cities anticipated supporting that education through their tax expenditures.

A second meaning evoked broader and more soaring ambitions and, for generations, the American public understood that the university system was the greatest of equalizers. Universities helped construct just and prosperous societies; they shored up the foundations of democracy; they contributed insight that helped us resolve some of our most pressing social issues. These universities existed at the intersection of our collective need to be smarter, and our egalitarian inclination to seek progress in the aggregate, to rise or fall as one people. Everyone, in this view, had a stake in the vitality of public universities.

But this collective understanding didn’t hold. In discussions about the role of public education, there was soon confusion—not with what public education was for, but with who it was for.

People began approaching public education with suspicion. Misplaced concerns about undeserved individual entitlement began to shoulder aside our original aspirations. We began to equate support for public education as essentially the transfer of resources with individual students—beneficiaries of largess—and began speculating on who among them, as individuals or categories, deserved that support. This is an impoverished and narrowly calculating formula that no longer allows for a deeper sense of social purpose. In essence, places like City College were forced to revisit our most important founding discussion, first broached in 1847: Was a university education for the elite only, or for everyone?

We founded the Colin Powell School after a decade of building out scholarship and fellowship programs that recognized the great potential and outstanding achievements of some of our very best students. As we did so, we hoped both to provide for them in extraordinary ways what others receive as a matter of course, and to suggest the potential of so many outside of these programs. It was good work. But we moved from programming that centered on a collection of leadership programs to a school serving over 2,600 students because those opportunities should not have been extraordinary—but rather the routine provision of a public education institution that functioned as it was originally intended. Building out this capacity is the current and great task of our school.

We must reframe discussions on the costs of the public university. A crucial starting point is that any conception of public that separates beneficiaries from the social whole is inadequate. Cutting financial support for public institutions results in higher social costs of living in a place where opportunities are hoarded and prospects for advancement seem dim and distant. We measure those costs in violence, in hopelessness, in sickness and insecurity. We measure them in the widening spaces between those who are privileged and those who are not—in de facto economic re-segregation, in under-employment, in achievement gaps and school-to-prison pipelines. We measure them, as well, in the horrible certainty that vast stores of talent, generation upon generation, lie wasted.

We are, in fact, in the middle of a great crisis in our ability to think of ourselves as a whole people, and to plan for the prosperity of that whole. Over the past decades, the decay of the middle class has not happened in isolation—it has taken place in direct relationship to the decay of visionary institutions set up to create and nurture the middle class.

As state budgets around the nation are cut, often the first thing that is affected are our schools. The way forward cannot be assembled from so-called merit-based programs, designed to reward individuals over ostensibly less talented or deserving peers. Opportunity should not be a prize or an award, but a basic provision of our systems and institutions.

In blog posts to come, I’ll be exploring the way this mission plays out at the Colin Powell School for Civic and Global Leadership, building on this discussion of why we should care about public education in the first place. We’ll look at what happens within the walls of our school, how and when students begin to make sense of the college setting, and the myriad ways in which they sometimes don’t. We’ll also explore some of the other, broader purposes of the public university, including its capacity to speak in particularly necessary ways on some of the most important questions that confound our nation. We’ll also look at the legacy of public education on our social fabric and the ways that things may have shifted. In the end, I’ll discuss what we’re working to achieve at the Colin Powell School–to maintain the truest vision of public education in an environment grown increasingly hostile to our founding purposes.

Breathing Easier in Myanmar

Monks Protesting in Burma

Monks protest for democracy in Burma in 2007. Photo by Robert A. Coles/Creative Commons.

By Center Director Vince Boudreau

The first time I went to Burma was in 1998, traveling on a tourist visa despite the fact that I was intending to conduct research about the country’s bloody 1988 democracy protests.  An old friend had set up interviews for me, as well as a program of visits to tourist spots (where I was to wear loud Hawaiian shirts to assure authorities that I really was just a tourist). Establishing that I was a tourist, he said, was essential—not for my safety, but for the well-being of the brave women and men who agreed to talk to me.  And then he told me the following story:

All of the universities in Burma had been closed for several years. Students are an important political force in Burmese society, and when things got restive, the soldiers simply shut down the campuses and sent everyone home.  In this way, the decades following 1988 produced lost generation after lost generation—young people who came of age when schools were closed, students who went to jail and remained there for decades, and in consequence of both, a society without a reliable strata of educated youth.

“Subversive” Discussion
In those moments, when schools were closed, teachers often gathered groups of young people and tried, outside the confines of any formal educational institution, to teach them, hoping in this way to strike some small blow for knowledge and enlightenment.  One such student, my friend told me, had undertaken to write a history of the Burmese student union in the last years of the parliamentary period (before, that is, Ne Win’s dictatorship came to power in 1962). The key players in that movement were then in their late 70s and 80s, and the chance to get a full history of the period was fast drawing to a close. Under the teacher’s supervision, the student interviewed the old student union officials, and wrote a document with the heft and seriousness of an MA thesis. And then, he passed it around to the various informants (18, in all) to make sure that he got the facts straight.

When they went to prison, it was for engaging in subversive and seditious discussion.  The student and teacher went for producing the document. Seventeen of the 18 informants went because they read the document—that is, consumed what was judged to be traitorous writing.  The 18th man was blind, and so never set eyes on the document.  Rather, the person who read the work aloud to him went to jail. Nobody received less than 20 years, and most could never realistically hope to step outside the prison walls again.

Grave Risks
It was a cautionary tale, one my friend passed on to impress upon me the grave risks that my informants would take to tell me their stories.  I needed to be utterly committed to their safety and security: The punishment for political talk, once discovered, was devastating and certain. I would be forced to leave Burma, but I would be safe; my Burmese friends would surrender their freedom. It was as heavy a burden as I’ve ever carried, and I left the country greatly relieved to have it seemed to me than (as it does now) to have placed nobody in harm’s way.

Center Director Vince Boudreau delivers a presentation of governance to Myanmar's military and government personnel.

Loosening Government Controls
The story came back to me this past week, when news broke that the government of Myanmar (as I am now willing to call the former Burma) announced that it would abolish censorship restrictions on private writings. There are still government controls for some written work, and a thousand other ways in which Myanmar can slip back into authoritarian rule. Insurgency and ethnic violence are but the most obvious of these proximate dangers. Remaining economic sanctions are an important obstacle to democracy and development that should fall sooner rather than later. But hardly a week has passed in these last six months without producing some new evidence of a transition gathering steam. As planks supporting the old dictatorship fall, new structures of representative government and more robust rights and freedoms have risen.

And so I was drawn to think about the Burma of 1998, and the heavy weight of censorship and brutality it pressed upon its people.  I returned to Myanmar in early July, and will be back in September.  It is not yet utterly remade, neither fully free nor totally safe.  But it is different, and changing and a place in which to vest some hope.  And when in July I felt for the heaviness of my first visit, I didn’t feel a thing.

Read more about Vince Boudreau and our other contributors here.

Keeping the Dream Alive — But Not Waking Up Yet


Many undocumented students and workers–called DREAMers– now eagerly await more details about a new immigration policy that could alleviate their perpetual fears of deportation. News of the policy is a victory worth celebrating. But it still does not fulfill their hopes of becoming permanent residents or citizens in the country they call home.

The new initiative, announced by President Obama last month, will permit DREAMers, named for those who would be affected by the Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors Act,  to receive a two-year postponement from deportation proceedings and apply for a work permit. To qualify, individuals must have arrived in the U.S. before turning 16 and be younger than 30. They have to have lived five or more years in the country, and have no criminal convictions, be pursuing a college education or serving in the military. And they must also prove they have “an economic necessity for employment.”

President Barack Obama says that the initiative “is not amnesty.”  He went on to say the policy “is not immunity. This is not a path to citizenship. It’s not a permanent fix.” Yet it is “the right thing to do.”

Not An Empty Gesture

So far, he has been criticized for abusing executive power and bypassing Congress’ authority. The President’s decision is a calculated move, as he seeks to win support from Latino voters and other immigrant groups in the upcoming election. Despite his motives, the new immigration policy stands as a small victory for DREAMers and immigrant advocates. It undoubtedly will change the lives of many young people.

READ MORE: Immigration Reform: A First Step Toward Elevating the Future

The new policy will allow the Administration to use enforcement resources to detain and apprehend illegal immigrants with serious criminal histories, as well as those who pose a threat to national and public safety.  The Administration now considers DREAMers, who haven’t broken any laws, “low priority cases.”

A Chance at a Dream

Work authorization and a deferment of deportation will allow these young immigrants to pursue the American dream. Obama’s initiative will afford DREAMers graduating from college a chance to legally gain employment.  They will have the opportunity to financially support their families and contribute tax dollars to the economy. Anyone can relate to this dream. But they will have to wait and see how the policy gets implemented.

So far, this stands as a temporary measure. DREAMers will have to re-apply for a stay of deportation every two years, as well as renew their work permit.

They will have to keep their dream alive of someday seeing the passage of the DREAM Act. This bill, co-authored by Republicans and Democrats, has yet to get enough votes in the Senate to become law. It would facilitate the granting of  citizenship to the children of immigrants brought to the country by their parents.

With this bill stalled in Congress, those young immigrants are far from having the stability and legitimacy they desire and deserve. Though they now have less to worry about, their undocumented family members, still facing the specter of deportation, are not so lucky. – Ezra Christopher

Ezra Christopher is a former New York Life graduate fellow. Read more about her and our other writers

Coming to Terms with Calderón’s Crackdown on Cartels

felipe calderon president mexico war drugs

This article was originally published by Dissent magazine on May 11, 2012.

With Mexico’s presidential elections just around the corner, questions about the country’s future—and its bloody war on drugs—hang heavy in the air. The new issue of Foreign Affairs features a brief argument from Robert Bonner addressing this uncertainty, and offers a spirited defense of Mexican President Felipe Calderón’s fight against the country’s narcotraffickers. Bonner, former administrator of the Drug Enforcement Agency and commissioner of U.S. Customs and Border Protection, is hardly a stranger to the drug-fueled violence and corruption ravaging Mexico. The effects have been devastating: anywhere between45,000 and 67,000 people have been murdered since Calderón’s efforts began; the country’s alphabet soup of local, state, and federal security and judicial organs have been largely crippled by graft; and the power of the so-called “Mexican cartels” seems to have metastasized within and beyond Mexico’s borders.

The Argument for the “Tough Hand”

Yet, “despite all the negative headlines,” Bonner argues, “the next president will find that the government has made huge gains in the last five years…By using force and launching large-scale reforms of Mexico’s law enforcement institutions, [Calderón] has already destroyed some of the cartels and weakened several others.”

Calderón has made security the central focus of his presidency. As Bonner writes, “Calderón set about reforming Mexico’s law enforcement institutions using a three-part strategy: creating a new, professional federal police force; rebuilding each of the thirty-two state forces and giving them the responsibilities of the discredited municipal police; and overhauling the judicial and penal systems.” These efforts have not been lost on the Mexican public. “As a result of Calderón’s determination and success against the cartels,” notes Bonner, “his approval rating now stands at 52 percent.”

Rising Violence and the Loss of Human Rights Protections

Mexico under Calderón has pursued a far more heavy-handed approach to destroying the cartel networks than the anemic administration of Vincente Fox. Calderón’s government has relied on the military as the primary tool to fight the cartels. To a degree this makes sense: trafficking networks have penetrated Mexico’s various law enforcement bodies so thoroughly that the government can’t depend on the police to keep basic order, much less to go after organized crime. The military, by contrast, has been largely buffered from organized crime’s corrupting influence. But the results have been grim: violence has spiraled out of control as the military takes control of state and local law enforcement bodies, assuming responsibilities for which it is not properly trained or funded. According to government statistics, the first nine months of 2011 left over 12,000 dead, and the violence shows no sign of abating. The first quarter of 2012 witnessed steady fighting between traffickers and the military, as well as attacks on the civilian population. In a particularly chilling incident, four teens in the northern city of Cuernavaca were abducted, cut to pieces, and dumped in the street with a warning note from a local gang. Just this week, nine people were found hanging from a bridge in the border city of Nuevo Laredo, while another fourteen heads without bodies were discovered near its town hall.

On top of the staggering body counts, many human rights protections have become casualties of Mexico’s militarization. As Alejandro Anaya Muñoz has shown, judicial reforms pursued by Calderón have reduced due-process guarantees in the name of fighting the war on drugs. The number of charges of human rights violations against the ministry of defense has risen precipitously during the Calderón era, especially in those areas of the country where military action has been focused. According to Human Rights Watch, “An important reason [military] abuses continue is that they go unpunished. And they go unpunished in significant part because most cases end up being investigated by the military itself.” International calls for reform on this front have been consistently rebuffed by the Calderón administration.

Worse still, there’s little evidence to suggest that Calderón’s “kingpin” strategy—modeled after the Colombian anti-cartel operations a decade earlier—will even succeed. Bonner, pointing to the alleged successes in Colombia, argues, “In the last three years alone, the Mexican government has captured or killed over forty major cartel members…dismantled the Tijuana cartel and severely weakened the Gulf, the Juarez and La Familia Michoacana cartels.” But there are several reasons to be wary of analogies to the Colombian case. There, the government’s victories over insurgent groups came at the cost of increasing authoritarianism, and through political pacts with conservative paramilitary groups—themselves responsible for a significant amount of Colombia’s drug trade—which have now consolidated considerable political power in northern Colombia. Moreover, it is hardly clear that killing kingpins leads to a reduction in violence, as Calderón has claimed. Indeed, it may be quite the reverse, as recent episodes in Tijuana and Cuernavaca suggest.

A Middle Ground?

Bonner is certainly correct to point out that Mexico’s next president will meet with unrelenting, brutal opposition from the country’s drug traffickers. And whoever wins this summer’s electoral contest should continue to make security a priority, as Bonner argues. But to claim that Mexico faces a stark choice between acquiescence, on the one hand, and a continuation of Calderón’s mano dura(“tough hand”) militarism, on the other, is wrong.

The next president should make efforts to temper, if not outright reject, Calderón’s profligate use of the military, and should make protection of human rights a cornerstone of any policy aimed at rolling back the power of traffickers. Calderón’s successor ought, too, to push back harder against American pressure that privileges supply-side answers to the drug problem (which has the effect of flooding Mexico with weapons) while doing comparatively little to address demand for drugs in the United States. Doing so will demand tremendous creativity and the courage to weather possible public disapproval from citizens exhausted by fear and insecurity.

Still, there’s reason for hope, as the 2008 constitutional reform fight makes clear. Faced with a bill from the president, the Mexican congress—including members of the Calderón’s own party—forcefully argued that Calderón’s proposals violated human rights protections guaranteed by the constitution and forced the president to back off some of the more severe elements of his original proposal. Military brass would also certainly welcome relief from the rising casualties and overstretch that Calderón’s policies have engendered.

Any solution, finally, must revitalize and hold accountable Mexico’s institutions of criminal justice, however great the challenge. The alternative is more years of bloodshed and further backsliding into the legacy of authoritarianism the country has so desperately fought to escape. – Michael Busch

Michael Busch is program coordinator for the Colin Powell Program in Leadership and Public Service. Read more about him and our other contributors here.

An Opportunity to End the Conflict in Somalia

When the Somali Islamist Group, al-Shabaab withdrew from Mogadishu last week, the move presented an excellent opportunity for the Somali government, and the African Union (AU) to consolidate their forces, and strengthen the defenses around the capital. Much more than that, it presented an opportunity to unify a country devastated by over 20 years of conflict, and to extend the now emboldenedtransitional government’s authority to other parts of the country.

Before the withdrawal from Mogadishu, al-Shabaab had tightened the noose around the few neighborhoods of the capital the western backed transitional government controls. International isolation, or perhaps fear of entanglement into the Somali conflict by outsiders emboldened the group to go as far as pledging allegiance to al-Qaeda, and to conduct terrorist attacks outside Somalia. Over the past few years, it ruled most of southern Somalia under strict Sharia law, complete with beheadings and amputations of people it suspected of breaking Islamic laws. Al-Shabaab seemed invincible, and it was poised to take over the whole country—until a few weeks ago.

Somalia is now suffering from the worst famine in many years, and instead of easing the suffering of the Somali people; al-Shabaab became an impediment. The group restricted the movement of much-needed humanitarian supplies, and prevented people from seeking help outside the areas it controls. While the drought and famine are a natural phenomenon, the suffering that resulted is not. The policies of al-Shabaab, and its refusal to accept foreign aid in many cases has contributed to the devastation. The group’s inability to provide leadership in the face of the drought and famine has undermined its credibility, so much that it has lost the goodwill it brought when it emerged as a stabilizing force in 1996.

Nevertheless, the international outcry over the deaths of thousands of children from the famine, and months of fighting with African Union forces backed byprivate security firms sponsored by Western governments weakened the group’s hold on the capital, forcing a precipitous withdrawal of all its forces from the city. The hasty withdrawal exposes al-Shabaab’s weaknesses in the face of real pressure from both within and outside of the country. It also creates an opening for the African Union and Somali government forces to expand their reach and authority to other parts of the country for the first time in decades.

Sadly, the will to act forcefully is what was, and is still missing on the part of the international community, especially the African Union. Nigeria and other African countries who pledged to provide troops have so far failed to follow up with their promises, and the organization was criticized for not mobilizing support for the famine victims. The black hawk down debacle still haunts the United States, and prevents it from fully engaging in the Somali conflict. While money is being spent on security contractors, and for the training of Burundian and Ugandan forces that make up the bulk of the African Union forces, more needs to be done in terms of long-term tactical support. These forces are still inadequate and ill-equipped to mount any type of serious operations outside Mogadishu. If al-Shabaab is allowed to recover and regroup, it might be able to seize the capital again.

Now that al-Shabaab seems to be vulnerable, all those who really care about the suffering in this country should step up support for the Somali government and the African Union forces. The international community, through the African Union should provide more funding and logistics, and encourage other African countries to increase the number of AU forces in the capital to allow for not only its defense, but also for a potential expansion into the countryside. This will free up large areas of the country so that humanitarian assistance can freely flow to the country. While important, it is not enough to just send food and medicine to Somalia and to the refugee camps of Kenya. Only through expanding the government’s authority to most of the country will suffering on this scale be avoided in the future. A final resolution should be sought, and now that al-Shabaab is on the run is the perfect opportunity.

Mohamed Jallow is a former Colin Powell fellow (Class of 2008/2009). He is currently a program associate at the Council on Foreign Relations.

Is Democracy Possible in Africa? The Case of Nigeria

13 down and 12 more to go! That’s the number of presidential elections that have taken place and are still coming up on the African continent (including the islands) in 2011. Although the “Arab Spring” has ineluctably branded the year as a year of revolution in Northern Africa (and the Middle East), it is the less-publicized events in sub-Saharan Africa that will fundamentally reshape the notion of democracy on the continent, for better or for worse.

The recent upheavals in countries like Côte d’Ivoire, Gabon, and even Burkina Faso, have made many reconsider the effectiveness of democracy in facilitating development in Africa. Some still believe that it will someday work. After all, it has worked in other countries, and there is clear evidence that democratic nations tend to have accountable governments which is key to ensuring growth. Others have dabbled with the idea that democracy is just not fit for Africa. They support their opinions by citing the long list of rigged elections and post-election violence that seem to have further weakened the prospects of ever achieving a functioning form of democracy.

Personally, I am more in line with the former group. Obviously we can’t categorize every single African country because each political situation is different but there are positive signs of change in the political dynamics of certain key nations. There is a growing popular demand for accountability and social justice throughout the continent by a population that, empowered in part by the events in Tunisia and Egypt, is becoming even more defiant. If you had asked me five years ago what my biggest fear was concerning politics in Africa, my answer would have been that it was the feeling that people had become so inured with their inadequate and often oppressive governments that they had lost the zeal to engage in politics. So to hear about mass protests and increases in voter turnout in certain nations, I am encouraged and reassured that the goal of democracy is still an achievable one.

Let’s take Nigeria for example. If I was to describe, in a nutshell, Nigerian politics prior to the April elections, I would probably refer to it as an ethno-religious game of musical chairs between North and the South but with members of the Southeastern region excluded from key positions. The fact that there hasn’t been a president from the Southeast of the country since its independence makes the election of President Goodluck Jonathan a very significant turn of events. Also, in a country with a tradition of military regimes and rigged elections, knowing that the elections were deemed the most transparent in decades by national and international observers marks a new beginning in the electoral politics. These are good signs for democracy in Nigeria for two reasons. The first is that it mounts pressure on the current administration to address the underdevelopment and marginalization of the Southeast, especially in the oil producing areas that have been neglected by the federal government for over 50 years. But more importantly, it provides the opportunity for the new administration to forge a government that is truly representative of the ethnic plurality within the nation.

It is with cautious optimism that I write this though. Having a president from a minority group does not in itself signify change, it only opens the door for the opportunity to effect that change. And although the past elections might have been credible, the results depict an even more polarized nation with a vast majority of the North voting for their regional candidate Mr. Buhari and the South voting overwhelmingly for Mr. Jonathan. This leaves the president-elect with the daunting task of reconciling the South with an especially angry North. He must now answer to previously marginalized groups in the South without alienating the voices of those in the North (and the rest of the country as well). Achieving this will require him to team up with Northern leaders (perhaps even collaborating with Buhari, if possible) to attempt to appease public dissent with his presidency in the North. And with the ongoing riots and an opportunistic Boko Haram (a Muslim sect hostile to democracy and anything non-Islamic) taking advantage of the chaos to reap havoc, President Jonathan has a very difficult presidency ahead of him.

But that’s democracy, isn’t it? Nobody said it would be easy but it’s definitely not impossible. No country today with a functioning democracy achieved it without conflict so the recent upheavals throughout the continent shouldn’t be used as an excuse to lose hope in democracy. And with an increasingly globalized world, it is becoming much more difficult to cover up repression. Leaders now have to be accountable to not just their citizens but to the watchful eyes of the international community. Civil society is burgeoning throughout the continent and the youth are becoming a lot more vocal. Widespread democracy in Africa is probably still decades away, but strategic incremental steps towards it are being made.

Chukwudi Onike is an alumnus of the Colin Powell Fellowship program. He graduated with a BA in International Studies in 2010 with a focus on conflict resolution.