This is the seventh in a series of seven dispatches from a visit by students in the Southern Oregon University Honors College to South Africa.

Between 1970 and 1976, the American toy company, Hasbro, marketed a line of action figures, titled the “G.I. Joe Adventures of …” series. Joe, who came in different variations of hair and skin colors, stood 1 foot in height, and was accompanied by a full set of accessories, including clothing, gear, and a Jeep-like vehicle. Each Joe was designed around a particular adventure theme, such as jungle, ocean, mountain, or desert. While these “dolls for boys” maintained a military theme, which was inspired by the original G.I. Joe of the 1960s, the adversaries for this new line of G.I. Joes were natural disasters like floods, earthquakes, or fires. The War in Vietnam had prompted Hasbro to reconsider making human beings the enemy; in fact, some of Joe’s army fatigues even displayed what appeared at first glance to be a chicken-foot peace symbol. As a boy, I had three of these G.I. Joes, and they all talked. The Talking Adventure Team Commander featured eight voice prompts, activated by pulling a string on Joe’s chest.

We can never be fully aware of how, and to what degree, childhood experiences influence our adult thoughts and actions. However, I know that as I landed at the Johannesburg Airport last month, Joe’s voice prompts, which I had not thought about for many years, rushed into my mind in rapid succession. Later, I reflected on each of Joe’s eight recorded statements, in light of the learning objectives of Southern Oregon University’s Democracy Project.

• G.I. Joe’s Voice Prompt #1: “I've got a tough assignment for you.”

Promoting democracy and civic engagement among young people can be a “tough assignment.” Cynicism and apathy abound in a culture that mocks our politicians and societal dysfunction. However, despite its flaws, Winston Churchill was right when he said, “Democracy is the worst form of government, except all the others.” While democratic nations have economic and political differences, they seldom go to war with one another. Our greatest hope for a healthy, prosperous, and sustainable future is to engage young leaders in the processes of democracy and conflict resolution. These are the primary objectives of the Democracy Project at Southern Oregon University, and it is a “tough assignment” worth pursuing.

• G.I. Joe’s Voice Prompt #2: “This is going to be rough. Can you handle it?”

Higher education in the State of Oregon is chronically underfunded. Educational priorities have shifted from a broad liberal-arts approach to a “practical curriculum” that focuses on training students for employment. Educational professionals at the elementary, secondary, and post-secondary levels are urged to maximize results while reducing costs. In this climate, inspiring young people to engage in democracy, is “going to be rough,” because it seems like a lofty ideal that has no direct applicability. However, despite “rough going,” we must prioritize this in our schools and universities because our collective future depends on it. Together we can handle this.

• G.I. Joe’s Voice Prompt #3: “We must get there before dark. Follow me!”

“The dark” can be an analogy for a variety of challenges. Does it symbolize a future of widening income inequality, drug addiction, food insecurity, increasing crime, or irreversible climate change? “We must get there before dark,” before it is too late, and the most viable solutions to our collective problems lie in engaging teens and young adults in educational activities that challenge them to grow, and that allow them opportunities to transform themselves from learners into leaders. No single individual, whether in business, politics, or religion, will provide lasting universal panaceas. Instead of looking for somebody to follow, we need to work collaboratively, as a network of leaders, to address our shared social problems.

• G.I. Joe’s Voice Prompt #4: “The Adventure Team has the situation controlled!”

The “situation” is NOT controlled, and we should remain skeptical of claims to the contrary. We must avoid easy answers, especially “solutions” that blame others. We need to take responsibility, and realize that the decisions we make every day contribute to our collective future. We must live our lives purposefully, with mission and vision. If we want to see change in the world, to paraphrase Mohandas Gandhi, then we need to start by “being the change we wish to see.”

• G.I. Joe’s Voice Prompt #5: “Set up Team Headquarters here.”

There is importance to location, but only relative importance. Ashland, Oregon, is as good a place as any to start a movement that explores how democracy is understood, implemented, and promoted around the world, and at every level of decision-making. Look for opportunities for local and regional partnerships, rather than initiatives from Salem or laws from Washington, D.C. For initiatives of the Democracy Project to be successful, it requires participation by people in Ashland, across the country, and all around the world. More important than location is a willingness to learn from one another. We have much to share with people around the globe, but we have much to learn as well, especially in the areas of health care, education, social welfare, energy policy, transportation, and criminal justice.

• G.I. Joe’s Voice Prompt #6: “Contact Adventure Team Headquarters right away!”

Clear and honest communication is vital, as are transparent decision-making, and collaboration. Top-down hierarchy is antiquated and proven to be ineffective in most team environments. A culture of shared governance must be fostered if democracy is to thrive.

• G.I. Joe’s Voice Prompt #7: “The Adventure Team is needed in Africa.”

In July, fourteen students traveled to South Africa as part of SOU’s Democracy Project. They learned about the lasting vestiges of imperialism, colonialism, and racial segregation. They explored South Africa’s present-day struggles with wealth disparity and inequality of opportunity. They witnessed political manipulation by a president who is interested in self-promotion and the accumulation of wealth. They came to see the similarities between South Africa and the United States, and recognized the answers South Africa found in the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, and how the 1994 South African Constitution could be applicable to the United States.

• G.I. Joe’s Voice Prompt #8: “Mission accomplished. Good work men!”

In the early 1970s, G.I. Joe congratulated his “men,” because men were still predominantly the decision makers in society. While far from equal, we have come a long way in terms of gender equality, and our society is better for it. We must encourage full civic participation by all groups and individuals. Diversity of experience and perspective makes us strong. Our mission is far from accomplished, but if the criteria for success involves motivating students who are dedicated to intellectual growth, service, community engagement, and responsible global citizenship, then Southern Oregon University’s Democracy Project is a step in the right direction.

Next year’s Democracy Project “Adventure Team” will travel to Panama and Costa Rica, and we invite you to join us. More information will be available by contacting the SOU Honors College at honorscollege@sou.edu.

—Dr. Ken Mulliken is executive director of the Honors College at Southern Oregon University.