Hope Leonard just wanted to help her peers at Centenary University in Hackettstown become more politically engaged. She didn’t expect her idea to translate to an award.
Leonard, a Bordentown resident, received a Newman Civic Fellowship, which recognizes college students who are committed to social change. The fellowship began in September 2018 and will run through May. Leonard, a social work major with minors in political and governmental affairs and sociology, was honored for starting Centenary’s Student Mobilization Committee, an advocacy group that aims to raise political awareness and to foster a spirit of inclusion.
Leonard and her fellow honorees were selected by Campus Compact, a countrywide organization that aims to encourage democracy through civic engagement and community development. She was nominated by Centenary president David P. Haney. Each school is allowed only one nomination.
According to the Campus Contact website, nominees should “engage in collaborative action with others from campus or from surrounding communities in order to create long-term social change,” “take action in addressing issues of inequality and political polarization” and “demonstrate the motivation and potential for effective long-term civic engagement.”
“I’m very honored to be Centenary University’s first student nominated and selected for this fellowship,” Leonard said in a press release. “Knowing that I’ve made such an impact at Centenary is really incredible and touching. I’m so grateful for this opportunity, which will provide me with a chance to connect with students across the country.”
As part of the fellowship, Leonard traveled to Boston to attend national conference with other receipients in November, where she met with with other Newman Civic Fellows. She will also participate in regional and state gatherings and virtual events.
Leonard first learned about the fellowship through her mentor, Tiffany Kushner. Kushner told her about Campus Contact and then informed her that Haney and other members of Centenary’s administration wanted to nominate Leonard for the fellowship.
“I was surprised, since I didn’t realize there were national groups that were looking for students doing the work I’m passionate about,” Leonard said.
She originally started the Student Mobilization Committee, a non-partisan organization, in 2016 by organizing a presidential policy debate in preparation for that year’s election. Her goal was to provide an avenue for students to ask candidate representatives questions about policy issues to help them on election day and beyond.
“I hope to engage students with the democratic process at all levels so they are able to make informed decisions when it comes to voting in elected officials,” she said.
The committee consists of a three-person executive board. Attendance for meetings and events ranges from 20 to 100 people, including students and faculty. The group also works with a local group, Indivisible, to organize voter registration drives prior to elections.
“Our mission statement is, ‘To create awareness of social, political, and environmental problems facing the world and the community within the student body of Centenary University and to foster solutions.’” Leonard said. “We plan events that tackle hard issues such as race, gender inequality and environmental justice.”
These were issues that were especially important in the Centenary community, Leonard said.
“Centenary is a predominately white school in an overwhelmingly conservative area,” she said. “With all of the racial tension both on the news and within the community, students of color had no platform to speak about their experiences in a calm environment. Having our discussions centered around race gave students of color an outlet to voice their concerns not only to their peers but also administration.”
Leonard is an only child and graduated from Bordentown Regional High School in 2013. Her mother, Susan, is retired, but she continues to work as a student teacher supervisor at Rider University, as well as providing in-home services to children with special needs.
Leonard would like to eventually earn a master’s in social work and work in a governmental capacity at the federal or international level, possibly at the United Nations. She is no stranger to the organization, though—through Centenary, she has attended two national social work conferences held at the U.N.
Every March, the U.N. hosts Social Work Day, a conference where social workers visit from around the world to listen to speakers and presentations. Leonard said visiting the U.N. helped her think about issues on a global level. She ntoed that Terri Klemm, a Centenary professor, was the keynote speaker at at the workshop in 2017. That year’s conference was centered around environmentalism, and Klemm was chosen to speak based on her anti-fracking civil disobedience protests and activism. The 2018 conference was based on sustainability, and Leonard took park in the student program, which featured small group breakout sessions.
It’s all work that she plans to continue doing not only at Centenary, but also into her career. And Leonard is confident that once she graduates, her peers will continue on with the work that she and the members of the Student Mobilization Committee started.
“I hope The Student Mobilization Committee continues once I graduate because democracy doesn’t stop when it’s convenient and these problems will never fully vanish from society,” she said. “Thankfully the other members of the executive board are just as passionate about this sort of thing as I am. We recognize the importance of engaging young voters who are able to have a voice in legislation through a task as simple as voting.”