Garret S. Batten '89 is the Assistant Director at Project Pericles, a consortium of liberal arts colleges and universities promoting civic engagement and social responsibility in higher education. Prior to beginning in his current position in 2011, Batten spent close to a decade consulting in various capacities at the Ford Foundation. Civic and democratic engagement and social justice have been common themes in much of his work.
Batten followed his stepfather, Nick Moore '71, to Hotchkiss, entering as a prep from the Indian Mountain School in 1985. "At Hotchkiss, I was a fine student, but not a great one. I was always interested in history and politics. We often discussed politics around the dinner table at home - this was the Reagan era - but it was at Hotchkiss where these interests really blossomed. Faculty member Lou Pressman was truly inspiring. I took two courses with him, philosophy and ethics, and he helped put these interests in a larger context.
"Lou also went out of his way to help me with the college process, and it paid off. Not that I am recommending this approach, but I was originally rejected early decision from my first choice, Kenyon College. With Lou's help and the help of the College Office, Kenyon reconsidered my application. I thrived at Kenyon. Small liberal arts colleges are wonderful learning environments with access to outstanding faculty members - similar to Hotchkiss in many respects." Batten received his B.A., magna cum laude, in Sociology, and was a member of Phi Beta Kappa and Sigma Xi, a scientific research society. He also met his future wife, Allison Lomonaco, at Kenyon. They were married in 1996.
After college, Batten had a number of jobs, including working at the LaGuardia and Wagner Archives at the City University of New York, where he designed and wrote local history curriculum for use in New York City public schools. He was subsequently accepted into the graduate program in Sociology at New York University (NYU).
While at NYU, he was a member of the GSOC-UAW organizing team, which, as part of a groundbreaking decision by the National Labor Relations Board, was the first group of graduate students to win the right to unionize at a private university. "This was an eye-opening experience with international students getting unfairly pressured and wild claims about how the union would ruin faculty-student relationships. We were teaching a large percentage of courses and deserved the protection that collective bargaining affords and that our colleagues at public universities already enjoyed." In 2003, Batten received a master's in sociology from New York University. His areas of specialization included political sociology and social theory.
Batten joined the Ford Foundation in 2004 as consultant to the Vice President for Knowledge, Creativity & Freedom. He worked on the design and implementation of the Difficult Dialogues Initiative, a $5-million effort to support scholarship, teaching, and civil dialogue about difficult political, religious, racial, and cultural issues in undergraduate education. Batten co-wrote and edited the Foundation's statement in support of academic freedom that was disseminated to more than 3,000 college and university presidents. "Post 9/11, Difficult Dialogues, was, in part, started to address reports of anti-Semitism and Islamophobia on college campuses. We have made some progress, but a lot remains to be done. Unfortunately, the issues addressed by Difficult Dialogues continue to be just as relevant in today's political climate." Through a partner organization, the Thomas Jefferson Center for the Protection of Free Expression, Batten oversaw the initiative in collaboration with the Center's Director, Robert M. O'Neil, former University of Virginia president and leading First Amendment scholar. "Faculty members at the participating colleges and universities were so passionate about this work. It was very rewarding to collaborate with them around some really tough issues. I was more than a little naïve about the depth of the problems they were confronting. Recent movements like #BlackLivesMatter and #MeToo are raising awareness in an important way." A group of grantees and Batten went on to establish the Difficult Dialogues National Resource Center to continue this work.
In 2012, Batten joined Project Pericles. Founded in 2001 by philanthropist, Eugene M. Lang, Project Pericles works directly with its member colleges to promote civic engagement and social responsibility in the classroom, on the campus, and in the community. Project Pericles works to empower college students as effective advocates, citizens, and leaders.
"The whole service movement in education, Hotchkiss included, has done a good job of getting students and others engaged. And we are consistently improving how we think about this work as schools do a better job of really listening and collaborating with community partners. Project Pericles' emphasis is on integrating civic engagement across the curriculum. Its philosophy is that engagement is most effective when it is coupled with academic knowledge, letting students understand issues within their larger context and seeing how different disciplines and professions can help address problems."
"We are at a critical point for our democracy, both in the United States and around the world. This has, to some extent, given many of us a renewed sense of purpose. It is critical to get young people more engaged." Voting rates among college students and young people are abysmally low. According to the Institute for Democracy and Higher Education, less than 20 percent of eligible college students voted in the last mid-term election. Of those registered to vote, less than 30 percent did so.
"We need to effectively engage young people in the political process," he says. In that vein, Project Pericles has expanded its work in voter registration and turnout on its member campuses. Through its Student Choices-Student Voices program, the organization works with student-led task forces on their campuses that are focused on engaging students in the electoral process, as well as creating a space for constructive dialogue. With support from Young Invincibles, Project Pericles is developing a module for faculty that illustrates how voting matters. This includes an overview of the registration and voting process. This model will have a national reach through Project Pericles' partnership with the Students Learn Students Vote (SLSV) Coalition, a diverse group with over 240 local, state, and national organizations dedicated to increasing student voter participation.
"I am really inspired by what I see young people doing in response to gun violence and a host of other issues. We are seeing a wave of youth mobilization. Hopefully, they can channel this energy productivity into the political process and make some significant changes."
To learn more about Project Pericles, visit: www.projectpericles.org/projectpericles