Duke Professor Deondra Rose wants to reshape the way we talk about government.

At a packed Tuesday evening event at the Regulator Bookshop, she contextualized her research in a conversation with Durham Mayor Steve Schewel. Rose’s recent book, Citizens by Degree: Higher Education Policy and the Changing Gender Dynamics of American Citizenship examines the role that higher education policies have played in empowering American women to become more economically independent, socially integrated and politically engaged.

Rose is an assistant professor in Duke’s Sanford School of Public Policy and also holds an appointment in the Duke Political Science department. Her work centers around American political behavior and development, inequality and higher education policy. Citizens by Degree—published in January 2018—highlights the interaction between these forces.

“It’s public policy, in part, that made us the people we are today,” Rose said. “In higher education policy, this means that in providing access to college, we can actually help people become more politically engaged. And I think there’s something really powerful about these policies and their capacity to shape the political landscape.”

Rose calls this process a policy feedback loop. She argues that policies like Title IX, the Higher Education Act, and the National Defense Education Act not only expanded women’s access to college but in doing so, increased their involvement in American civic life. Her book explores the many ways that women have revolutionized American institutions as they gain access to them. And she says that the Triangle is a great example of it.

“Women are empowered by the education that they’re able to attain in places like Duke or N.C. Central or N.C. State… Or even that other one down the road,” Rose said, referring to the University of North Carolina. “Political scientists know that people who have more education are more likely to get involved in politics. And when we see that women vote at higher rates than men, when we see the high representation of women in elected offices in Durham and beyond, I think education is one of the factors that is helping to push that.”

In 2018, the majority of Durham County registered voters—53 percent—were women. If Rose’s research holds true, this high political activity could be linked to the high educational attainment in the area. According to census data, 58.8 percent of women aged twenty-five to thirty-four in Durham County hold a bachelor’s degree or higher; only 51.4 percent of men in the same age group have a bachelor’s. Further, this political engagement translates to more Durham women in office. Current City Council members are not only majority women, but majority women of color—all of whom are working mothers. The Durham County Board of Commissioners is also majority women.

But for both Rose and Schewel, the conversation doesn’t stop with women.

“When I think about what she’s saying, it makes me think more about how we can have policies that do empower people,” Schewel said. “Over time, these policies empowered women not just to get an education but to become full citizens.”

During their talk, Schewel brought up the participatory budgeting initiative as an example of the way that the city of Durham tries to engage its residents in the political process by letting them decide how to spend $2.4 million. He wants to extend this engagement throughout the community, a goal he thinks can help increase trust in the city government.

“I think for example about our language access policy, where we really want everything that the city does to be available to people in Spanish,” Schewel said. “If people are able to access what their government is doing in their own language, it’s going to be that policy feedback situation. It’s going to empower them.”

Schewel’s investment in these ideas is exactly what Rose wants to spark in policymakers. She has been active not just as a professor and researcher, but as one of the engaged citizens she spends her life studying. Rose served on the City-County Committee on Confederate Monuments and Memorials last year, helping to decide the fate of Durham’s toppled Confederate monument. She said that she and other academics want to get out of the “ivory tower” and help facilitate change.

“My hope is that I can provide some lessons to help lawmakers re-imagine some of the problems and the solutions that they have in mind,” Rose said.

When an audience member asked what one policy she wants to be remembered as having influenced, Rose took a moment to think. When the answer came to her, she smiled wide, jokingly.

“To do away with the electoral college,” she said. The crowd cheered.