Communication professor David Domke has taught a popular lecture series at the university and led civil-rights pilgrimages. Now he’s moving to champion causes he values and that are under attack today.
David Domke is evolving again. It’s a constant process for people who are willing to learn about themselves and the world, and rewarding to those, like Domke, who are propelled by that knowledge to act.
Domke is a University of Washington professor and chair of the Department of Communication, but he’s planning to leave academia in a couple of years to be more deeply involved in civic and political life.
“I’m not an activist,” he told me this week. But he believes he can help other people be more effective at championing causes he values. It’s not as if he’s been quietly on the sidelines of issues, though. He’s written and spoken prolifically about religion, race, politics, health care and more.
You may know him from one of his lecture series at the UW. He’s also gotten attention as one of the leaders of intergenerational, interracial, civil-rights pilgrimages to places where civil-rights history was made. The journeys are educational, emotional and inspiring.
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Domke himself found a mentor in one of the people who helped shape the program, Bernard LaFayette, who as a college student in the 1960s helped spark a powerful movement of young people against racial inequality.
“They were willing to make decisions that guaranteed challenges in their lives,” Domke said. “And they did it over and over again.”
LaFayette, who continues the social-justice work he began at 20, will lead a nonviolence workshop in Seattle next month.
Domke, who turned 50 last weekend, was in his mid-40s when LaFayette became his mentor. “I felt it was important to me that if I felt there was something I can do, I should do it,” Domke said.
Each of us finds our own way to be engaged, and at first Domke found his as a reporter, working for a series of newspapers in the 1980s and early 1990s, including The Orange County Register and The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
Then he got the teaching bug. His father taught high school and his two sisters are teachers, and Domke saw how rewarding that was for them, so he went back to school and earned a Ph.D. in 1996.
Domke came to the UW 19 years ago, and he said he enjoys his work, but there are limits to how involved he can be as a professor, especially in politics.
A few years ago, after he’d given a speech at Temple Beth Am, a man asked about how schools approach teaching about evolution. Domke gave him a scholarly answer, but afterward, the man said that because he was Jewish the question was more than academic to him. It mattered personally if some schools framed their lessons in Christian beliefs.
Domke began thinking about his early life in a working-class family in Dearborn, Michigan. His mother died when Domke was young, and his father raised five children on a teacher’s pay. How do policies affect families like his? There is value in detached study, but it’s also important to remember every public policy is personal to someone.
Still, his move toward more community engagement was tempered by concerns about appropriate boundaries for a professor.
A community organization in Port Angeles asked him and some colleagues for help with a human-rights ordinance they were pushing. Providing information seemed OK.
Over the next few years he became more vocal about issues that concerned him, but still within an academic framework. He sometimes got angry reactions, which caused him to pause and figure out what he really believed, what was worth facing unfriendly fire.
Recent challenges in his personal life have added to his move toward more engagement. His wife of 26 years has Lyme disease, which has reminded him it’s important to use the time we have well. Because of the courage she has shown, Domke said, “the least I could do is act with ethical courage myself.”
They have two sons, one 15 and one 9, and he said he cares about the kind of education they get and the kind of country they have.
So, when his term as department chair ends in 2019, he’ll take a different path, one he’s still figuring out.
He’ll give more talks and put on more workshops about everything from health care to the environment to gender and racial equality.
He’ll be free to play a role in political campaigns, maybe helping candidates get their messages out.
Domke said he wants to help push back against recent attacks on voting rights, and to speak out against denigration of the press.
Everyone has a part to play in making a better world. Domke quoted Joanne Bland, one of the civil-rights foot soldiers who meets with pilgrims when they visit Selma, Alabama. “A puzzle isn’t complete until the last piece is in place. What is the piece you’re going to contribute?”
That’s an important question for everyone.