Citizens of Iowa commit themselves to early childhood developmentPosted: June 22, 2012
The people of Iowa are serious about the well-being of their young children. Their earnestness was shown this past week at Get Ready Iowa, a convergence in Iowa City of psychologists, early childhood development specialists, speech pathologists, P-12 administrators, policymakers, daycare providers, parents, and many others who shared a common concern: how to facilitate the healthy development of Iowa’s youngest. This included discussions on civic science, a signature initiative of the American Commonwealth Partnership.
Much of conference was dedicated to the latest, most innovative scientific findings in the field of early childhood development. But the uniqueness of the conference lay not just in the top-notch research expounded by scientists at various presentations; it was also evident from the composition of attendees.
By bringing together folks from all walks of life—scientists and laypeople, educators and parents, policymakers and citizens—Get Ready Iowa made a clear statement: improving early childhood development in the state will take all of us. The best scientific research needs to be coupled with the wisdom, experience, and power of the community if it wants to make a significant public impact.
This is the stance of civic science, that scientific research needs to be embedded in local communities, and that stance was translated into action on the fourth day of the conference, when about 25 Iowans took part in a round table discussion to exchange points of view on issues related to early childhood. The group included a state legislator, nonprofit leaders, concerned parents, daycare providers, school administrators, researchers, and many others. Facilitating the conversation were Harry Boyte of the Center for Democracy and Citizenship at Augsburg College and John Spencer of the Delta Center.
Because a project on civic science brings together people from a variety of backgrounds and disciplines, the day required a sort of “Organizing 101” that would provide tools and concepts important for collaboration. So Boyte, a long-time organizer, began the discussion in the morning by asking about people’s self-interests. Why were people there, anyway? The stories were diverse and heartfelt. One parent voiced the concern that access to resources for parents was inequitable. A daycare provider had an interest in expanding the conversation to include children ages 0-3, since most of the conversation around early childhood focuses on 3-5 year olds.
Concerns about the mental health of children, as well as issues affecting children with special needs, were also shared by people who alluded to personal experiences with such issues. The process thus unfolded in a way that opened up the agenda to include interests from a variety of people and angles.
A discussion on rule-breaking then ensued. Boyte asked people to share stories of instances when they “broke the rules” for the sake of education, the implication being that Iowans were “breaking the rules” by taking science out of the laboratory and into the community. A boy seeing Jurassic Park at age 5, a child who defied his parents to build an electric circuit, and finger painting in a strict private school were among the highlights. The stories both loosened people up and drove home the point that new ground was being broken.
The dialogue in the afternoon moved toward action steps, as group members began talking about assets, strategies, and challenges in furthering early childhood development. Group members spent a considerable amount of time highlighting and deliberatingIowa’s potential “civic institutions,” spaces where citizens could organize and work together on issues pertaining to young children. Small group discussions formed around several viable sites: the Iowa Children’s Museum, the communities of parents, schools, daycare centers, and theDeltaCenter. Participants then reported back to talk about the strengths, weaknesses, and action strategies for each institution. It was highlighted, for instance, that the Children’s Museum was accessible due to its convenient location (in the mall). Daycare providers were held up as deep sources of community knowledge. Interestingly, and fittingly, many of the weaknesses described underscored the need for greater collaboration among those at the table. Could researchers from the Delta Center bring their scientific know-how to daycare centers? Could parents find respite from their busy days at the Children’s Museum?
As the conference began to creep into the evening, and the sound of dance music in an adjacent ballroom started pounding (the conference was in the downtown Sheraton hotel), people were about to call it a day. But before everyone left, the conversation went around the table one more time, as people committed themselves to 1-2 concrete actions that could be done immediately. Ideas ranged from the re-tooling of Facebook pages to more service-learning projects for psychology students. People also shared their reflections on the day as a whole, and there was a general sense of enthusiasm around the table. Everyone was energized by the conversation and excited for the work ahead. They enjoyed the intimacy of the conversation and the opportunity to connect with others sharing a common cause. New feelings of agency were palpable, a fact acknowledged even by the group’s highly-respected scientists. People knew that something meaningful was starting to happen.
For more on Get Ready Iowa and the concept of civic science, check out this editorial from a local news publication.
Hunter Gordon is a graduate student at the Humphrey School of Public Affairs, University of Minnesota. He is also an organizer with the Center for Democracy and Citizenship in Minneapolis. In his spare time, Hunter likes to read about history and philosophy, run, and have one-to-ones with his baby daughter.