Member Spotlight: Dr. JoEllen Chatham
Orange County, CA - November 17 - Politically astute and driven by an inquisitive appetite for knowledge, Dr. JoEllen Chatham has dedicated her career to broadening civic literacy in Orange County and beyond. Predicated on a lifetime of accomplishments in the fields of political science and Republican politics, she currently serves as the Director of the Center for Public Policy, Citizenship and Ethics at Concordia University Irvine. Dr. Chatham envisions the Center as a regional hub for teaching programs and professional development regarding Constitutional education and the founding of our country.
Growing up with her WWII veteran father under low-income living circumstances, Dr. Chatham's conservative viewpoints were influenced by his hard work ethics and his professional experience in government security and intelligence facing non-democratic sources.
“My family had a strong sense of patriotism,” Dr. Chatham explained. “Not just red, white and blue patriotism, but a real understanding of it. From the responsibilities of freedom to our Christian beliefs that all men are created equal with a duty to one another and to ourselves.”
Though she was raised conservative, Dr. Chatham has always believed in exploring the other side on the pretense that you need to be able to defend not only your own argument, but your opponent’s argument as well.
“Only knowing my own point of view is not enough,” she began. “Investigating and debating is a good thing because at the end of it, you either strengthen what you believe in or you learn something and change your mind. The search is healthy.”
Throughout her career, Dr. Chatham has been devoted to a wide-range of political and non-profit causes, but civic education continues to be her main passion. She noted a few numbers for perspective on the low priority that our current education system has for teaching civics. In 2010, the Federal government appropriated $150 million for civic education but by 2020 that money had been reduced to $5 million.
“That’s a problem,” expressed Dr. Chatham. “$54 is spent per year, per student on STEM education, but only a nickel is allocated to civic education.”
At Concordia University, Dr. Chatham works to narrow these education gaps. Last September, Concordia hosted an entire Constitution Week featuring a full convocation, speakers doing public readings, an essay contest, and booths around campus throughout the entire week. The Center has a wide range of activities moving forward, according to Dr. Chatham, including a series of lectures at the Richard Nixon Library in Yorba Linda which had started prior to pandemic lockdowns and are now resuming in January.
To add further diversification to existing online programs like “Teaching American History” from Ashbrook University or iCivics by Sandra Day O’Connor, Dr. Chatham’s Center at Concordia is spearheading a project to help professional development for teachers of civics. She noted the most typical issues, such as professors teaching civics while only holding degrees in history, or some of them being afraid to teach civics to remove themselves from controversy or trouble.
Through the Center, Dr. Chatham envisions programs that are non-partisan but foundational. Ideally, one would learn the history of our country and how it works, and additionally include education on the mistakes that were made.
“Our history is not that the constitution was bad, it’s that we faced troubles when we didn’t actually live up to it,” Dr. Chatham explained. “We have to learn from the founding principles of our history and dispel myths such as the Constitution being sexist.”
Dr. Chatham wears her passion for civic education as a badge of honor. Whether it is by passing out tokens fashioned with QR codes to allow students to access a digital copy of the Constitution on their cell phones at any time or by keeping a pocket constitution in her purse, Dr. Chatham leads by example to inspire a deeper understanding of our nation’s founding principles.
“As Thomas Jefferson said, ‘If a nation expects to be ignorant and free, in a state of civilization, it expects what never was and never will be,’” Dr. Chatham stated in regards to our Founding Fathers's fervent belief in civic education.
“Only knowing my own point of view is not enough. Investigating and debating is a good thing because at the end of it, you either strengthen what you believe in or you learn something and change your mind. The search is healthy.”
- Dr. JoEllen Chatham