If you think speech class is just a place to hone your public speaking skills, think again.
It’s important to note “both the history of the study of public speaking and the importance of showing students they have a voice,” says Professor Brianne Waychoff of the Speech, Communications and Theatre Arts department.
“Public speaking within communication studies dates back to Ancient Greece and the study of rhetoric that became necessary with the establishment of democracy and more people having a ‘voice’,” she explains.
In that sense, she adds, public speaking “is inextricably linked to the concept of citizenship.”
Advocates for stronger communities
Applying those expectations of public speaking to the “persuasive assignment,” Professor Waychoff matched small groups of students with the non-profit organizations Recycle-A-Bicycle; Girls, Inc.; the Urban Justice Center; Career Gear, and the Jackie Robinson Foundation.
“You must act as an advocate for the group you are assigned,” her instructions read, and the students sought to persuade their classmates to support their organization’s efforts to solve a problem in the community.
Todd Guadagno, a Liberal Arts major who is “leaning toward media arts” and worked as a musician and guitar player before entering college, was in a group that focused on Recycle-A-Bicycle.
"First we went to talk to a representative of the organization," he says. "Then I took the introduction, and others did the problem and solutions."
Recycle-a-Bicycle fosters environmental education, provides bicycle repair training to teens, donates refurbished bikes to underprivileged children, and conducts other community-based activities.
Sammy Dawoud, a science major who plans to transfer to a pre-med program once he graduates from BMCC, as well as Maya Wilson and Brandon Mifflin, were also in the Recycle-A-Bicycle group.
“They have many programs that could reduce crime in our communities,” Dawoud points out, adding that the organization benefits the health of urban youth.
“They address childhood obesity with bike rides with children ages 10 to 17, throughout New York City,” he says.
Activism through communication
Each student group began by drawing in the audience, establishing common ground and credibility, then presenting the problem and solution their organization addresses.
The Recycle-A-Bicycle group recommended to the audience that they support the organization’s efforts by joining at the level of friend, ally, advocate or ambassador; volunteering with the organization; participating in its sustainability activities, or donating a bicycle.
“My background has always been in social justice and activism,” says Professor Waychoff, who has helped students organize protests and participate in events including the 2004 March for Women’s Lives in Washington, D.C.
For students considering a career in communications, her own background shows the multi-disciplinary directions the field can go in; leading, for example, to performance and giving voice to social activism.
Having earned a B.A. in Theater and an M.A. in Women's Studies, both from the University of Northern Iowa, Waychoff then earned a Ph.D. from Louisiana State University in Communication Studies, with a focus on Performance Studies and a minor in Women's and Gender Studies.
She has performed and published widely, and serves as Secretary of the National Communication Association Convention’s Performance Studies Division.
Students as citizens—with a voice
In the course of preparing their presentation for class, students in the Recycle-A-Bicycle presentation group attended the organization’s five-borough bike tour. They collected brochures, explained their class project, and were asked to share it with Recycle-A-Bicycle, when it was complete.
Their PowerPoint presentation made an impression on Helen Ho, the organization’s development director, and she reached out to the students in an email, sharing that they “did a better job at this than most reporters or grad school journalism students that come our way. We are honored!”
“I do the assignment regularly and it gets stronger each semester,” says Professor Waychoff.
“It shows students that they have an impact on the world and makes public speaking a real-world skill … I find it is very empowering for most students and when you put faith in their ability to be agents of social change, their own trust in themselves grows. Especially when the assignment is done in groups.”