Civic literacy conference aims to provide insight to scholars, general public


Sheila Suess Kennedy

An offhand comment by a student in a class led by School of Public and Environmental Affairs faculty member Sheila Suess Kennedy a few years back is making a difference in IUPUI’s academic circles these days.

Kennedy is a SPEA faculty member and a former executive director of the Indiana Civil Liberties Union. She was also a lawyer who served as a corporation counsel for the City of Indianapolis during the William H. Hudnut Administration (1976-92), and she is a passionate advocate for civic literacy.

The student’s remark — she didn’t know the identity of James Madison (the fourth U.S. president) when Kennedy asked a rhetorical question about what Madison would have thought about Internet pornography, based on his constitutional writings — challenged the longtime faculty member to find an answer to the “civic deficit” that affects students and Indiana residents.

To address the problem, Kennedy launched the Center for Civic Literacy in SPEA thanks to an IUPUI Signature Center grant. The center is the organizer for the upcoming “Connect the Dots” Civic Literacy Conference Aug. 22 to 24 at the Crowne Plaza Hotel in downtown Indianapolis.

Kennedy also established the new “Journal of Civic Literacy.” Its first issue, published on July 1, featured a cover story by Supreme Court Justice David Souter, in addition to contributions by members of the center faculty and conference leaders.

“Low civic literacy doesn’t just damage the political structure,” Kennedy said. “It makes it difficult to do business and even affects science and medicine, even social work. We want to raise awareness of those issues.”

Kennedy hopes the conference will provide insights about civic life both for scholars and the general public, and offer advances to essential knowledge and skills in what citizens need to know to navigate the 21st century. The center is working closely with the Indiana Bar Foundation, scholars on the IU Bloomington campus, people from other schools and universities and members of the center’s National Advisory Committee, among others.

Kennedy believes the Journal of Civic Literacy could play an increasing role in the success of both the center and the conference.

“Believe it or not, in a world where I thought there was an academic journal for everything, there was no interdisciplinary journal devoted to the role of civic knowledge,” Kennedy said. She believes that the journal can take a holistic look at the role played by civic knowledge across disciplinary domains.

“One research center is not going to ‘cure’ a problem of this magnitude,” Kennedy said. “We need to determine what happens to a diverse society when citizens are ignorant of the only thing disparate groups have in common.”

by Ric Burrous

Call for submissions: The Journal of Civic Literacy

America’s low levels of civic knowledge have been repeatedly documented. The Journal of Civic Literacy is a project of the Center for Civic Literacy at IUPUI. It is a new open-access, online interdisciplinary journal focused upon publishing high-quality, peer-reviewed articles on issues of American civic literacy, defined as that level of public knowledge necessary for informed civic participation.

Civic literacy for our purposes encompasses an acquaintance with:

  • American history, both episodic and intellectual;
  • An understanding of the nation’s constituent documents, their roots and their subsequent amendment and interpretation, and;
  • Sufficient familiarity with and comprehension of basic economic, scientific and policy terminology to permit the formation of reasonably informed opinions on matters of policy disputation.

We are interested in articles addressing:

  • The causes and consequences of low levels of literacy,
  • The role of public education, the comparative efficacy of available curricula and programs (what is working? why and how?),
  • Connections between the current media environment and deficient civic understandings,
  • The role of civic literacy in holding public servants accountable for ethical and trustworthy public service, and
  • Theoretical submissions that consider the role of civic knowledge in the multiple arenas of our common American life.

The Journal’s editorial staff recognizes that practitioners, community members, engaged citizens and others add much value to the ongoing conversation around these issues. Accordingly, in addition to the research articles that will form the basis of each issue, we will welcome contributions to a separate section, the Citizenship Conversation, in which we hope to highlight contributions from government figures, lawyers, political actors, nonprofit administrators and board members, schoolteachers and others concerned about the effects of our civic deficit. Those contributions can take the form of opinion pieces, “best practices” reports, reviews of pertinent books, descriptions of programs and other essays consistent with the Journal’s focus.

The journal will initially be published twice a year by the Center for Civic Literacy at IUPUI. Its editorial board includes scholars representing a wide range of disciplines: political science, public administration, education, science, religious studies and business.

Additional information about the Journal and the submission process can be accessed at on the journal’s website. Questions about this Call for Papers or the Journal of Civic Literacy should be directed to Sheila Kennedy ( or