Law and Politics People and Community

Seeding democracy, political activism through robust debate

Newly transplanted University of Miami political scientist Matthew Nelsen fosters advocacy and civic engagement through pedagogical practices and research that views local-level institutions as the microcosms of democracy.
Photo by Joshua Prezant/University of Miami-- University of Miami professor Matthew David Nelsen, poses for a picture in Coconut Grove on the corner of 35th and Charles Ave. near the St. James Baptist Church.

University of Miami assistant professor Matthew David Nelsen is a proponent for civic engagement to foster democracy. Photo: Joshua Prezant/University of Miami

Matthew Nelsen doesn’t withhold his own political views in the classroom and doesn’t shy from modeling an unpopular position on immigration, policing, voting rights, or whatever the thorny issue might be.

And by encouraging students to disagree, pose counterarguments, and engage in robust debate, he’s confident that he’ll achieve his desired outcome—spurring political activism.

“There are decades of research to show that having open conversations about politics—even at times contentious—are associated with students who have higher rates of political knowledge and with greater intent to vote later on in adulthood,” said Nelsen, an assistant professor for the University of Miami College of Arts and Sciences Department of Political Science.  

In his work as a teacher and as someone long interested in politics, he has focused on the strategic nature of how to motivate more people, especially young, marginalized voices of color, to engage in the democratic process. To do that Nelsen eschews the advice he has heard for as long as he can remember: that you shouldn’t know your teacher’s ideology.

“I take the opposite approach to say—if we expect our students to talk about politics with one another and to have these discussions in class with people who may be complete strangers, that takes a degree of vulnerability and a willingness to share,” Nelsen said. “And I don’t think it’s possible to effectively get my students to have these sorts of discussions if I am not willing to share and model that vulnerability.”

Joining the University this past summer, Nelsen relocated to Miami from the Midwest, where he was born and spent most of his life. His father was an electrician, his grandfather worked on the railroads, and Nelsen grew up in a strong union family.

“I was constantly going to family events put on by the unions affiliated with different family members. From there I got really interested in politics and political campaigns,” he explained. He started working on his first political campaign through his father’s International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers union.

“That really instilled the love of politics—grassroots organizing, just chatting with people, and the commitment to public service,” Nelsen said.

After earning a B.A. in political science and Asian Studies from St. Olaf College, Nelsen got a M.A. in social science from the University of Chicago, and his Ph.D. in political science from Northwestern University. Between degrees, he taught elementary school through the Teach for America program both in San Antonio, Texas, and Chicago, Illinois.

“The commitment to public service, focus on civic education, and the time in the classroom was quite formative,” he noted. “It really aligned with my values, and I found it appealing and really a good fit.”

Nelsen credits longtime mentor Cathy J. Cohen, chair of the Department of Race, Diaspora, and Indigeneity at the University of Chicago, and her work on the intersection of youth political engagement and race and ethnicity in the United States, for her profound impact on his research and career trajectory.

As part of his community-level research in Chicago, he worked interviewing teachers and students in schools. He spent months, too, developing research on rural identity.

Now Nelsen is transitioning that place-based research to South Florida, fostering projects that invite students to get to know the communities that surround them.

His urban politics class is designed around students identifying a problem in a Miami neighborhood of their choice and then spending time there, making observations, identifying community stakeholders, and leaning on the expertise of individuals living in those neighborhoods to better grasp the critical issues that affect them.

In the first semester of the class, about half the students were from Miami; this semester, only a third are from the area.

“It’s really meaningful for the students who didn’t grow up here to prompt them to spend more time in the city beyond the Coral Gables Campus, more time intentionally going out and exploring part of the city that they may have been interested in, but just haven’t the time or opportunity to do it before,” he said. 

His research continues to rivet on the ways in which local institutions are both at the heart of how to best achieve democratic ends, yet simultaneously pose some of the biggest hurdles to that aim.

“The majority of politics happens in your own backyard,” Nelsen said. “If we think about big national questions, such as immigration and policing, we oftentimes think about these topics as they relate to national-level debates. But the policy solutions, regardless of where you stand politically, are oftentimes embedded at the local level.”

He’s especially interested in drawing on the understanding and experiences of people living in the communities to generate solutions to the socioeconomic challenges they face. 

“For example, with regard to civic education, a lot of the answers that I put forth in my research are generated from the people who spend the most amount of time in civic education classrooms—students and teachers,” Nelsen explained. “So, the way I frame my research and design courses, such as the urban politics class, is to really push people to think about the best solutions that are already being utilized by the people doing the work on the ground. These are the individuals we should be seeking out to generate potential solutions.”

His research focus on how to make civic education more empowering for racially marginalized youth has further strengthened his strong ideas and commitments, much of which is covered in his new book, “The Color of Civics: Civic Education for Multiracial Democracy,” which will be published this summer.

And in the increasingly polarized political environment, Nelsen said that he often comes across individuals who are concerned that teaching history in a more critical way may be a turnoff for some people.

“So even though I have commitments that are very much in one camp, I know that it is a necessity to meet people where they’re at and to hear them out and to try and understand where they’re coming from, regardless of ideology. The strategic aspect of politics necessitates that we learn how to compromise at times and how to talk to other people,” he pointed out.

“I’m constantly trying to figure out how to understand what’s motivating people and to understand if there’s a way to bring them into my camp—a bit in terms of advocating for the type of civic learning that I think is really meaningful,” Nelsen said.