EMK Institute builds civic pride

The Edward M. Kennedy Institute for the United States Senate opened on Columbia Point a year ago this week with a presidential visit and high hopes befitting a building that bears the name of one of the nation’s great political leaders of the 20th century. Since then, the EMK — as we call it— has already become an integral part of our city’s civic life. In the last year, more than 10,000 children and teens have visited and immersed themselves in floor debates in the reproduction of the Senate chamber that serves as the EMK’s centerpiece.

“I think of the Institute as being in the space between a museum and an experience,” says Dr. Jean F. MacCormack, a Dorchester native who serves as the EMK’s president. “It’s like a political theme park.”

Aside from learning about Sen. Kennedy’s monumental contributions to the nation— and the workings of the Senate that he loved— the EMK’s mission is to promote civic activism, voter participation, and civil discourse. Visitors, after soaking up hours of history and current policy debate, are asked to commit to doing their part in democracy— including signing a pledge card promising to vote in the next election. The Institute plans to send out reminders just ahead of this year’s election.

For this presidential campaign season, the EMK has installed a huge electoral map that summarizes the primary and caucus results state by state. Next to it, visitors can “vote” for their favored candidate by dropping ping-pong balls into tubes. More events are in the works around the debates and the conventions this summer.

The importance of its mission is affirmed by the results of a national civics survey commissioned by the EMK Institute last month. The study, conducted via telephone, included a sample of more than 1,000 adults, including 822 registered voters, and asked a range of questions about government, the Senate in particular. The findings are alternately disturbing and hopeful:

• Less than half (46 percent) of respondents know that each state has two senators and only 16 percent could name both of their senators unprompted.

• Only 36 percent of respondents know that the US Senate is charged with confirming a new Supreme Court justice, despite all of the publicity surrounding the vacancy left by the death of Justice Scalia in February.

• Only 16 percent of those surveyed have contacted their representative in the US Senate or the House in the last five years.

• And yet, of those surveyed, four out of five agree that “Americans can create social and political change” and 85 percent agree that “educating youth about our government leads to a better functioning society.”

Sen. Kennedy believed that citizens would be more engaged— and less cynical— if they could experience what what it is like to be a US senator, even if only for a few hours. His legacy is extremely well served by Dr. MacCormack and her colleagues. They are bringing in scores of students each day to do exactly that. We are fortunate to have them in our backyard here in Dorchester and— over time— to share this resource with the country and the world.

– Bill Forry

Notice: Reporter offices closed on April 8

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