UNION, NJ – Students who have an interest in becoming community and policy advocates will have the chance to do so with a new undergraduate course coming to Kean University this spring.
The history course, titled “Social Movements: History and the Call to Action,” will be taught by former Democratic state Sen. Raymond Lesniak.
“I’ve been to many institutions and I don’t believe that an advocacy class like this exists,” Lesniak said in a phone interview on Nov. 14. “I will teach students how to turn their passion into action.”
Prior to his new-found teaching career, Lesniak served in the state Legislature for almost 40 years, representing Union County first as an assemblyman in the 21st and 20th legislative districts, then as a senator for the 20th district since 1983.
He believes that his 40 years of experience will make this an invaluable learning opportunity for students.
“Unfortunately, a lot of students do not participate in the political process,” he said. “This course will allow them to do that.”
At the beginning of the semester, students will choose a cause they support, and Lesniak will help them maneuver through the different levels of government to make an impact. In theory, it’s possible for each student to focus on a different cause.
Lesniak also serves as president of the Lesniak Institute for American Leadership, at Kean. The institute focuses on seven core causes — including addiction, animal welfare and gun legislation — but the former senator doesn’t believe that these values will carry over to the course. He emphasized that he will leave the choice entirely up to each individual student.
“Whether I personally agree with them or not will be irrelevant,” he said. “Just think about it, every teacher has individual beliefs no matter what subject they’re teaching. My roll is to educate, not choose sides.”
To make a point, Lesniak brought up an incident at his institute’s inaugural event, Youth Against Gun Violence: Keep the Movement Going, which took place in April.
The event was a roundtable discussion with New Jersey high school and college students and public officials, including officials from the administration of Gov. Phil Murphy and members of the state Legislature.
Among the high school students who attended was a young National Rifle Association member, who debated his position that there should be more guns in society.
“If he were in my class, I would’ve given him a high grade because he was so articulate and knowledgeable,” Lesniak said. “I’m looking forward to having students that have different views on subjects because that’s a great way to learn.”
When a student picks a specific cause, they will need to have a “good working knowledge of their subject.”
“I’ll instruct my students on how to build support for their cause,” he added. “I will certainly challenge students on either side of an issue to help them learn.”
Throughout the semester, Lesniak will bring in guest lecturers ranging from elected officials to consultants and reporters. Who is brought in will depend on the causes chosen by the students, but he believes that Republican state Sen. Tom Kean of the 20th Legislative District would be an example of one.
Lesniak believes that Kean has a broad perspective on many issues, and that he would be able to talk about any issue from both sides.The semester will also include a trip to Trenton, where students will get the chance to attend legislative sessions and committee meetings.
The trips to Trenton will be based on “hot-button issues” that come with the new semester.
Lesniak, who retired from his law career in January 2017, mentioned that he learned to believe in the Socratic method during his time in law school. The Socratic method is a form of cooperative argumentative dialogue.
“I know that I can be unbiased,” he said. “It’s important to hear various different views on any subject.”
Lesniak has plans to donate his salary to his institute.
“It is unique and that’s what makes it so exciting,” he added. “It’s a lot of work but it truly is a labor of love.”
Depending on the success of the new course, Lesniak is hoping to expand it to a degree in advocacy down the road.
The course, which Lesniak believes has a cap of 20 students, will meet every Tuesday and Thursday morning come the spring semester.