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Free school focuses on civic engagement for all

Leslie Dollen, left, and UWS professor Daniela Mansbach stand in front of the Superior Public Library March 28. Dollen has started a citizens free school, which will offer classes at the library this month on how to run for public office and gender issues. (Jed Carlson / jcarlson@superiortelegram.com)

A pilot project designed to make civic engagement a reality for everyone kicks off this month. The Citizens Free School for Democracy will offer classes on gender issues and a series on how to run for public office at the Superior Public Library.

"This is not political at all," said founder Leslie Dollen, who worked as a public defender in Douglas County for 23 years. "I'm concerned about our democracy. I would like us all to learn how to protect it."

Superior Mayor Jim Paine and 2nd District City Councilor Jenny Van Sickle will teach the strategy and mechanics of running for office from 6-8 p.m. April 18, April 25 and May 2 at the Superior Public Library.

"We want to pull the curtain down on what it is to run for office," Van Sickle said. "We want people to see how accessible that opportunity is."

The course is aimed at women seeking office and their allies. It will include information on deadlines, documents and a chance to look through the paperwork involved.

"There are a lot of systemic barriers that keep particularly women and women of color out of positions on commissions or elected office as well, so we want to make sure that quality resources are available to people in the community, no matter where you come from," Van Sickle said.

The policies public officials make impact people who have no seat at the table.

"It's important for us to make sure the table is more representative," Van Sickle said, noting that only three of Superior's 10 city councilors are women.

Dollen was excited to add the three-part series to her class list.

"I think that's just a really outstanding opportunity for just people like me, regular people, being able to learn from a mayor and a city councilor, this is how you do it," she said.

The free school will also offer classes on gender taught by Daniela Mansbach, an associate professor at the University of Wisconsin-Superior. The first, "Gender in Our Everyday Life," takes place from 6-8 p.m. Tuesday, April 9, at the Superior Public Library. It examines how experiences are shaped by a person's identity.

"It's not just gender, not just female," Mansbach said. "It's about sexual orientation, it's about the intersection of class and race and adversity and gender. I think it is a really interesting topic and debate to have among people that share a community."

Everyone is invited to come share their own positions and experience, from high schoolers to senior citizens.

"There really is no prerequisite beside living in the world, being who you are," Mansbach said.

She will teach additional stand-alone classes: "Gender Identity" April 16, "Masculinity: How does living in a gendered society affect our men and boys" April 23 and "Women and Politics" April 30, all from 6-8 p.m. at Superior Public Library.

"From my position, it's a great start," Dollen said. "There's a plethora of information about gender identity issues I don't know about. The more I know, the better citizen I am and the better voter I am."

The lawyer said she would like to expand the free school to offer classes on social media, constitutional law and more. The turnout at this month's courses will determine whether it expands.

Visit the "Citizens Free School Superior, WI" Facebook page or email ldollen49@gmail.com for more information or to register, although pre-registration isn't necessary.

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