By Harry C. Boyte
At a level deeper than policies and prescriptions, elections are contests about different collective narratives — the story that each candidate is telling us about the future. These involve not only the candidate and what he or she will do but what the rest of us do as well.
All of us need to flesh out a new story for our future by building on President Obama’s successful challenge in the second debate to Mitt Romney on the Benghazi attack which killed Ambassador Christopher Stevens and three other US citizens.
Obama applied the “terror” label to the attack in his first public statement. But the more important aspect of the Administration’s response was a “different kind of politics.” Such politics, far from demonizing opponents, is based on recognizing different interests and finding common ground where it is possible. Though it goes against the grain of our highly polarized society, examples can be found, in very different places.
For instance, Minnesotans United for all Families is using such a politics in their fight against a proposed anti-gay marriage amendment to the state constitution. Such politics is emerging in efforts at reform in higher education. It has roots in civic and populist movements like the freedom struggle of the 1950s and 60s.
In the case of Libya, such politics needs to be explained.
In fact, Obama’s White House and the State Department responded to the Libyan attack and more broadly to demonstrations across the Arab world in the wake of an anti-Muslim film released on YouTube, in ways far different than the simplistic “good versus evil” foreign policy touted by Romney and his neoconservative advisers. And their response, in significant measure, worked.
By now, Mitt Romney’s story is well-established. He is less a diabolical right winger portrayed by many on the left than a “boss” who tells lame jokes and waits for people to laugh – and they better, as James Lipton of “Inside the Actors Studio” put it on Chris Matthews show “Hardball” after the second debate.
A boss-president would also throw his weight around in the world. A US leader trying to be a global CEO in the 21st century is a worrisome thought.
Do we want a boss or a president? Lipton asked, comparing Barack Obama, facing down Romney on the issue of Libya, to Gary Cooper on “High Noon.” Lipton has Romney down cold. But he misses on President Obama.
Obama generates hope and connects best with the American public when he is a “citizen president,” not a town marshal but rather an organizer of collective efforts to address common problems. Obama is more like Will Rogers, who brought communities together to address their challenges in his movies of the 1930s, than Gary Cooper in “High Noon.”
Obama’s role as citizen organizer, widely missed (or dismissed) by political pundits, was key to the 2008 ‘Yes We Can’ campaign. Obama revived it in his acceptance speech at the Democratic convention this year, when he declared that “as citizens, we understand that America is not about what can be done for us. It’s about what can be done by us together, through the hard and frustrating but necessary work of self-government.”
Such citizen work is a different kind of politics. It engages people “where they are,” not where one would like them to be. It recognizes the right of people to be different, based on respect for their stories, interests, and cultures. Far from being weak or apologetic, it requires great skill and poise.
Such politics appeared in Obama’s Cairo speech to the Arab world on June 4, 2009. Long practiced by successful diplomats as well as by community organizers, it has been at work in the aftermath of the Benghazi attach and in the midst of the anti-American violence after the anti-Muslim YouTube video.
Republicans charge that the Benghazi attacks were part of the global Al Qaeda movement and that the Administration has been covering up the connection. But facts on the ground appear to be far more complex.
David Kirkpatrick reported in the New York Times on October 16 that Libyans who witnessed the assault and knew the attackers say they had another motivation. “A well-known group of local Islamist militants mounted the attack in retaliation for the American-made video. That is what the fighters said at the time, speaking emotionally of their anger at the video without ever mentioning Al Qaeda, Osama bin Laden, or the terrorist attacks of 11 years earlier.”
It was important for the president and the State Department to send a message that “no act of violence will shake the resolve of the United States,” as Obama put. It was equally important to signal respect for Muslims and for Islam, and to recognize that the anti-Muslim video generated legitimate anger.
This was the strong message of the administration immediately after the attack and in the weeks following, from UN Ambassador Susan Rice’s remarks on news shows to Obama’s speech at the United Nations. The press corps and voters should be pressing Republicans about their views on such respect.
As a result of the US message, Libyans turned out in large numbers in pro-American demonstrations expressing shock and shame about the Benghazi attack. Libyan officials declared their intentions to work with the FBI team investigating the attack. Across the Arab and Muslim world, the combination of behind the scenes pressure and public pronouncements from the administration distancing the US from ant-Muslim views calmed the situation.
Violence and anti-American demonstrations subsided.
In sum, the Administration’s different kind of politics helped to tame a wave of anti-Americanism threatening to get out of control.
Americans are desperate for such politics, in a time of profound dysfunction in ‘politics as usual.’
Harry C. Boyte is Director of the Center for Democracy and Citizenship at Augsburg College, a Senior Fellow at the University of Minnesota’s Humphrey School of Public Affairs, and National Coordinator of the American Commonwealth Partnership.
We sat in his office in the State Capitol. He laughed that he had “survived the session, and can look back at it with some humor.”
“The question, ‘what is the purpose of higher education?’ is profound. Higher education needs to be so much more than getting a credential. As a society we place an amazing emphasis on getting credentials. In many corporate settings the higher education degree is used as a sorting device in employee selection. Obviously we all know the degree is important but it should not be the sole determination of whether or not an individual will be a good employee or a good citizen.
“In the end, I believe the most important role of higher education is to prepare people to be life-long learners, to be immersed in life experiences, and to give back.
“I spoke to 300 young women at Girls’ State the other day. They were all high achievers. I’m sure most will be going to college. They will make A’s and so forth. I asked them, ‘What do you want your life to be remembered for? What do you want your legacy to be?’ These are questions that are not often asked. In many cases young people probably have not had the life experiences to think about the meaning of ‘success’ beyond academic success.
“When I think back on my high school class, the high achievers in academic terms weren’t necessarily those who achieved financial success or who gave back to their communities. A focus on achievement is good. Getting good grades is good, but not at the risk of producing individuals who may think in narrow terms. A cancer researcher maybe brilliant in terms of his or her ability to understand the workings of a living cell but may be less able in terms of human interaction and problem solving.
“We need to have a discussion in the legislature about the purpose of higher education.”
Harry Boyte is a National Coordinator of the American Commonwealth Partnership (ACP)
The article originally appeared on the National Issues Forums Institute’s website.
“It’s Our Problem, We Should Be the Ones to Fix it”: Teens Use a Democratic Model to Address Teen PregnancyPosted: June 5, 2012
By Shonda M. Craft, Ph.D., LMFT, University of Minnesota
From commencement speeches to campaign speeches, the affirmation that today’s teens will be tomorrow’s leaders permeates our social rhetoric. In the last decade, advances in technology and social media have virtually ensured that almost any adolescent in our country can express his or her opinions in a public manner that has been unparalleled throughout history. Thousands of YouTube videos pay daily homage to eclectic offerings ranging from montages of dancing cats to poignant testimonials of bullied lesbian and gay adolescents proclaiming that life “gets better”. All over the country, teens are speaking up and speaking out about issues that impact their lives and, as a consequence, are directly contributing to the cultural conversations about these issues.
According to an April 2012 report from the CDC, “[t]he U.S. teen birth rate declined 9 percent from 2009 to 2010, reaching a historic low at 34.3 births per 1,000 women aged 15–19; the rate dropped 44 percent from 1991 through 2010.” The report also shows that some disparities continue to exist between racial and ethnic groups, and that all but three states witnessed this declining rate. Obviously, some existing prevention models must be working, yet there is still room for significant improvement.
In March 2009, the Citizen Teen Pregnancy Prevention Project launched at South High School in Minneapolis. It was an attempt to provide “proof of concept” that a democratic model typically utilized with adults could be successful with a new constituency. The Citizen Professional model, developed by Dr. William Doherty (Professor, University of Minnesota) is a way of engaging professionals and community members to collaborate without typical hierarchical relationships to address issues traditionally defined as individual problems from a more community-focused perspective.
The “citizen teens” included female and male students who had been identified by their teachers as leaders in the school. The “citizen professionals” were representatives from University of Minnesota, school social workers, and community health advocates who served as facilitators of the process. In accordance to the model, the adults participated alongside the teens into deep conversations about how teen pregnancy impacts girls, boys, children, families, and communities. Initially, the girls group and the boys group had separate conversations. Then the groups joined and began to formulate a set of shared messages and strategies for sharing their work with others. The name of the group was dubbed SMART (Sexually Mature and Responsible Teens), which set the tone for how these citizen teens would be described by adults and peers who witnessed their action steps and heard their messages.
During “lunch table conversations” SMART shared messages such as:
The project drew to a close in April 2012, and truly ended on a high note: the teens appeared on a local radio program focused on health issues, were interviewed for a story that was aired on Minnesota Public Radio, and told their stories for a forthcoming DVD being produced by the University of Minnesota that chronicles their work.
The traditional conversation about teen pregnancy is often rife with finger-pointing towards teens with low self-esteem and uncontrolled hormones, parents with poor monitoring skills, or schools who have usurped the moral duties of families to pedal condoms and eschew abstinence. Recent movies such as Juno and television shows such as Sixteen and Pregnant have popularized, normalized and even idolized teen pregnancy. But this group of teens embraced a more community-focused perspective, with messages that resonated with their peers and drew accolades from their teachers, parents, and community members. Clearly, this project is proof that teens are ready, willing, and able to maturely discuss teen pregnancy.
Dr. Shonda Craft is Assistant Professor in the Department of Family Social Science at the University of Minnesota. Her research focuses on addressing health disparities using community-engaged models, with a focus on sexual health. She is also licensed as a couple and family therapist.
Momentum is building in the American Commonwealth Partnership, and we have a unique opportunity to leverage support for our work. The Center for Democracy and Citizenship has a challenge grant that will match any new and increased gift made by May 31st!
The ACP strives to democratize higher education by opening access, improving curricular and co-curricular teaching and learning, and creating an ethos of public engagement to make life better for all of us.
So far, generous supporters like you have contributed $13,785 . Help us reach our goal of $20,000 by making a contribution today. Please click here to make a contribution of $50, $100, or $250 today.
The skills needed in both the workplace and our society as a whole require cooperative and productive citizenship to build an equitable, sustainable democracy. To develop such capacities, higher education needs to tap the full participation of all, and integrate science with arts, humanities and design. This requires bold action. ACP develops strategies to help realize these goals.
Higher education must rise to the occasion, and ACP aspires to be the resource and a meeting ground for this great work.
Help us to build a better tomorrow for students and America as a whole. And please spread the word by sharing this link on Facebook,twitter and other social media.
Harry Boyte, National Coordinator, ACP
The room was surging with energy as members of Occupy Wall Street mingled with attendees at the town hall meeting. Harry Boyte and Dennis Donovan, organizers of the event and long time community organizers, invited students, colleagues, and all others interested in learning more about a variety of controversial social issues. This week’s topic: Occupy Wall Street.
The over-arching theme of all ‘Town Hall Meetings’ is the regular practice of democracy. It is assumed that all persons attending understand and respect the fundamental principle that guides the town hall meetings: with democracy comes a responsibility as citizens, to learn about what is going on in this country and to delve into discussion and debate, freely, as we decide for ourselves what we believe in. Free and open debate, unhindered by intimidation nor disrespect is critical to the success of the meetings. The clock struckseven o’clock and it was time for the meeting to begin.
Mr. Donovan directed the crowd to chairs positioned in a circle, an arrangement intended to facilitate open discussion. He began the meeting by emphasizing key points. “Democracy is argument,” he explained. He reminded the participants, “the freedom to express differing opinions and to debate high profile and controversial issues is a privilege that never should be taken for granted. SeveralOccupy Wall Street [OWS] members interrupted his remarks to suggest changes to previously established discussion guidelines. The OWS ideas were overruled respectfully, and the meeting resumed with the customary participant introductions. “We are the 99%… We are the 99%…” Attention was once again directed to a group of OWS members chanting in unison. As their voices swelled, the room seemed to fill with a sense of unease and tension. What was the reason for their behavior? Did the group misunderstand the purpose for and principles of the meeting? What were the motives? Whatever the reason, the tenacity of the group was evident as members indirectly intimidated other speakers, challenged Town Hall motives, and criticized the Town Hall image as detrimental to its cause.
Sam, a college aged participant, had observed and listened intently to the interaction between the OWS members and the other attendees. He was intrigued by the interaction and curious about how the OWS responded to several questions. Finally, he could hesitate no longer, boldly raised his hand and was invited to speak: “Currently, I am taking a history class designed to go over American history from 1945 to the present…with that said, it seems that your intentions are good, but it doesn’t seem like the OWS has clear goals and therefore, lacks in credibility. Also, the end goals they do have are not necessarily tangible.” He paused in anticipation of a response.
A response soon followed. Scott, a self-proclaimed ‘leader’ of OWS, spoke candidly and passionately about his work experience and observations of the movement. “My experience during my first day with OWS triggered a ‘what do YOU want’’ question and made me feel like there were forty people and forty different messages… a bit of a narcissistic movement”. Scott concluded by explaining that OWS had no other goal but to achieve active involvement. “We cannot all agree…the trouble is getting involved and the problem is the process”.
Harry Boyte, co-planner of the Town Hall Meetings and seasoned organizer, joined the discussion by acknowledging that the movement exposed very vividly the issue of inequality inAmerica. However, he warned the group about the inherent harm of fostering and furthering divisiveness. Boyte used the example of a woman at the meeting. He described her emotions by saying that she “felt hopeless, OWS gave her hope”. He cautioned, “You cannot go about dividing the world into good and bad and expect to gain momentum and ultimate success”.
The discussion intensified and emotions heightened. Respectfully, Oliver, a middle-aged gentleman, stood to respond to Boyte’s comment, “Polarization is incredibly dangerous. Yes. But OWS is bringing together a diverse group. Although, I do not see a middle ground, there is an awful lot of one-liners and rhetoric flying as the gap is widening, and I am seeing a deep fractioning of society”. Likewise, another participant addressed the divisive nature of the “99%” chant. “Why”, it was asked, do you eliminate the 1% from the discussion table? Isn’t it more productive to include the 100% in the conversation? You advocate for involvement, political change, and empowerment of the citizenry. Why would you exclude 1% of the population? It has the image of divisiveness and hypocrisy.” The OWS member responded, “The reason why we do not invite the 1% to the table is because they own the table.”
Several participants voiced their opinions regarding the tactics used by the OWS to attract public attention. Hate speech and vulgar actions, it was noted, would eventually destroy the OWS public image and the group’s message. The OWS member placed blame on media’s reporting of events and the tremendous emotional response that ensues when confronting established power. “False media interpretation”, he said, “It gets intense when people go up against power”. Many who sat in the circle of chairs may have considered the OWS GROUP ‘intruders’. Yet, despite this unexpected and uncomfortable intrusion, those in attendance learned much about both sides of the issue. Discussion became intense at times. Yet, the non-OWS participants had an opportunity to hear the issues of the OWS first hand, observe their passion, and gain a better understanding of their position.
The OWS, on the other hand, was the recipient of excellent advice. They learned that the public was confused by the inconsistency of the message, impatient with the polarizing strategies and tactics used, and saw hypocrisy in the group’s policies and beliefs. It became clear that if the OWS movement is to continue and earn public attention and respect, it must achieve a very clear and consistent message, redesign strategies, and invite the 100% to the table.
As a witness to this event, this writer learned a tremendous lesson about democracy. Some participants may have left the meeting feeling angry and disappointed. They may have thought that the meeting had failed in its purpose due to the unexpected conflict and intense dialogue. Some may be disappointed because the meeting did not ‘come off’ as planned. Others may get lost in determining who one or who lost. Many may be uncomfortable with the tenacity and persistence demonstrated by the participants. However, this observer believes the meeting was a great success and it fulfilled its intended purpose. Information was shared, opinions were discussed, and both sides were heard. All one has to do is review Mr. Donovan’s introductory comments:
“Democracy is argument. The freedom to express differing opinions and to debate high profile and controversial issues is a privilege that never should be taken for granted.”
On April 19, 2012, Winona State University hosted the inaugural civic summit on the National Issues Forum and American Commonwealth Project Deliberative Dialogue Initiative on Shaping Our Future: How Should Higher Education Help Us Create The Society We Want? The first national conversation using this issue guide was held in honor of WSU’s retiring president, Judith Ramaley, who is a tireless advocate for higher education and its civic mission. President Ramaley serves as a member of the President’s Council for the American Commonwealth Partnership.
Over 110 participants attended the Civic Summit at Winona State University. Individuals came as high school and college students, university faculty and staff, community members, higher education experts, media editors and journalists, local law enforcement, and business people. It was quite the range of participants and they were mixed in groups with WSU students as trained moderators through the Minnesota Campus Compact moderator training series.
When organizing the Civic Summit, we immediately determined the event should be student led, as moderators, participants and organizers. This stems from our rich experience in student organizing and mobilizing efforts. It also reflects our experience with the Center for Democracy and Citizenship’s training led by Harry Boyte and Dennis Donovan in the “We the People” series held with the Minnesota Campus Compact in Spring 2011. For many of the fifteen plus students who became moderators, this was a new experience. Despite its unfamiliarity, the students rose to the challenge, prepared their notes, and were comfortable enough to welcome others to their tables. Each group of approximately 10-12 guests had two students—one as moderator and one as recorder. Each group was designed to have a variety of individuals from different backgrounds, however the structure was very minimal to encourage open and honest discussion. With little formality, students forged ahead, were indeed taken seriously by others, and extolled confidence and credibility to members of their groups.
“Seeing the different levels of a university present in one group with community members truly provided unique input regarding the different approaches. Seeing the differences between the views of students, professors, and members of the administration was extremely interesting, however, what was more exciting, was seeing the areas they agreed upon – that higher education does indeed help us create the society we want…” Laura Lake
One particular group that was indicative of the principles behind the NIF process included a local and well-respected business person from the Winona community. Known for his conservative underpinnings and his large contributions (nearly a quarter of a million annually to local grants and scholarships for students and community members), this community member began with strong support of American exceptionalism and Approach One. It was evident of the potential generation gap experienced within the group as the local businessman began the discussion by voicing his stereotype that young people were lazy, took out too many loans, and used the money to go on vacation. As one student shared his personal experience in joining the army (ROTC) to fund his education and his education at MCTC and transferring to WSU, without adequate financial aid and the lack of family support to co-sign loans, group members visibly recall the local businessman becoming more favorable and open to thinking about other ideas and other perspectives, with genuine respect towards the student advocating for and needing more student and financial aid. It became clear the businessman had changed his mind after he heard the student’s personal experience and was open to seeing the other side as the group’s discussion continued. In the end for the local businessperson, Approach II received support to train responsibility through community service. While there was not an overall consensus regarding one approach over the other in this group and many others, this particular experience in the Winona Civic Summit: NIF Forum demonstrated a student and a businessman taking each other seriously and respecting their differences on the shared purpose of higher education.
One aspect of the Civic Summit that makes it so exceptional is that people of all walks of life participate in the democratic process together. Having such a diverse group of individuals discussing a public issue or good can cause participants to feel hesitant about what the outcomes of the dialogue will be. Student-moderator Courtney Juelich, had first-hand experience with this principle within her democracy pod:
“At first many of the students, both college and high school, were apprehensive about talking openly with adults. They were not quick to answer the posed questions and often looked to myself or to the three older members of the group after a question was stated. After introductions and finding common ground on themes and experiences, communication was fluid and respectful between all members in my democracy pods.” Courtney Juelich
Even though participants came from all sorts of backgrounds but with a shared interest and common purpose, in the end the differences we previously used to distinguish ourselves were less important and noticeable than the sense of community, which was established over the shared principles of mutual respect and open discussion. Student-moderators thoroughly enjoyed the process and felt empowered to be taken seriously and welcomed in a group of diverse generations and members. We feel very fortunate to have launched this national conversation on the role of higher education in communities such as ours. We also want to thank all of the participants for thoughtfully contributing to the health and well-being of democracy and deliberative dialogue in Winona. Special thanks are extended to the Kettering Foundation, the National Issues Forum, and the American Commonwealth Partnership for granting us permission to pioneer this dialogue. We wish President Ramaley the best in her retirement from Winona State University and appreciatively recognize and celebrate her support of the civic mission and the civic responsibility of the university with Winona and beyond.
Courtney L. Juelich is a junior at Winona State University and a major in Political Science and Public Administration with a minor in Economics. She was one of the student organizers of the Civic Summit. Her hometown is Chanhassen, Minnesota. She was the creator and writer of the 2012 Warrior Grant named “The Green Grant”, which after winning the student referendum vote will create a self-sufficient composting system for the Winona State campus to collect organic food scraps as well as to educate the student body on the process of composting and how it is beneficial to the environment.
Laura A. Lake is a junior at Winona State University and a major in Political Science and Public Administration with a Music minor. She is involved in Pi Sigma Alpha, Political Science Association, Student Senate, and National Residence Hall Honorary, and is currently a Resident Assistant, and will be an Assistant Hall director in the following year. Laura was the lead organizer of the Civic Summit. Her hometown is Hillsboro, Oregon.
Kara Lindaman serves as the American Democracy Project Coordinator at Winona State University, where she is an associate professor of political science and public administration. She also serves on the Steering Committee of the American Commonwealth Partnership and enjoys collaborating with civically minded and passionately motivated students such as these.
By Megan Felz, Freshman, University of Minnesota
In our ever-changing society, we are constantly faced with the challenge of evolving and adapting to what the world and its situations demand from us. Along with that, I believe it is important to constantly challenge what we thought we previously knew and develop our beliefs in addition. I was given the ability to do just that when I attended a debate at Trinity Church. Trinity church, a recent addition to the Cedar-Riverside intersection, is located at what was once St. Martin’s Table, a restaurant where 85% percent of their profits were donated to charity. Though St. Martin’s Table is no longer in business, Trinity church does an excellent job at keeping its spirit and values of community alive.
One way they are doing that is by serving as a public forum for people to address and talk about issues that they are passionate or want to learn more about. This debate, moderated by Harry Boyte, was centered around Patriotism, and included a diverse group of individuals of different ages, socio-economic statuses, professions, and beliefs. Accompanying this diverse group of people, came a diverse group of opinions in regards to patriotism, both positive and negative. On a positive side, there were people who were intensely proud of their country and felt a deep connection to it. On the opposing end, others felt detached and under represented by the idea of patriotism. One person mentioned that they couldn’t identify with “the face” of patriotism, and therefore didn’t feel patriotic. Nonetheless, accepting and building off of these differing viewpoints is part of what makes a debate so exciting and inspirational. And it is through this wide range of people that I was able to get a better idea of what patriotism means to me.
The very idea of debating how we feel about patriotism is, in essence, patriotic. The spirit of democracy is highlighted in a passionate, fervent, and controversial debate. Being merely a presence at such an event, addresses the need to nurture and channel beliefs and opinions, as well as challenge others to do the same. Growing up, I never gave much thought to the idea of patriotism; honestly, prior to this debate, I hadn’t even thought much of it. I thought, since I am American, I was automatically patriotic; I thought I was entitled to carry the label of patriotism and everything that it stands for. I didn’t feel the need, or the urge, to earn the right to use it. Being patriotic is more than just a label; it is a sense of pride. It is a sense of pride in the values that your country stands for, and a pride that you are able to be a part of it. Having the freedom to share our opinions and the luxury of listening to those of others is one of the most fundamental values of America, and using these values to their utmost extent is just as important.
Another core value that I found in patriotism is taking an active involvement or interest in the well being of your country. I feel that it brings you closer to your country when you have a stake in its well-being. This promotes a sense of unity, responsibility and accountability, which further solidifies the bond of citizen and country. This also holds true on a smaller scale as well. Taking an active role in your community or a common area, such as Trinity Church, I feel is patriotic because it allows for growth as an individual, and the ability to identify with others, by being exposed to other people and experiences.
No matter the extent to which someone believes or identifies with the ideals of patriotism, I still believe that there is a constant need to challenge what society has deemed “patriotic”, and encourage people to form their own ideas in regards to the word. It is important to nurture and cultivate diversity and use these assets as a means of growing and maturing as individuals.
We need to stop harping on contradicting others and worry less about the need to prove ourselves right, and focus on growth. We need to grow as individuals, in order to help America grow as a country and to see the change that we talk so much about. It is easy to ridicule someone; it is hard to listen and to see the world from their perspective. If the overall goal is to achieve a united front, we first need to clear out the baggage that each person is individually predisposed towards. We need to figure out how to foster a sense of community; but before we ask how, we need to ask why. Why is it so important to create a sense of community? I personally believe that it is because we can get more accomplished together than we can alone. First, we need to foster cooperation in order to eventually establish it. We need to get everyone’s perspective on it, before we can understand our own, and work together on establishing a mutual and unanimous feeling towards accomplishing it. Once we are able to understand and establish a basis of what patriotism means to each of us, we can begin to mold the beliefs of individuals together and construct the role of patriotism in America.
Megan Felz is currently a freshman at the University of Minnesota. She is a student in the College of Liberal Arts, and at the moment, undecided in her major, with the intent of a Spanish minor.
By Harry C. Boyte, American Commonwealth Partnership National Coordinator
At the forefront of change will be a monthly online newsletter about activities and developments in the American Commonwealth Partnership (ACP). ACP is an alliance of colleges and universities, schools and others dedicated to the democracy college ideal for all higher education. Democracy colleges have a signature identity of strong connection to their communities, where students learn skills of working across differences on public problems and discover the democratic possibilities of America.
I’ve just come back from San Antonio. Blase Scarnati, director of the First Year Seminar at Northern Arizona University, and I did a featured session on the American Commonwealth Partnership at the Academic Affairs meeting of the American Association of State Colleges and Universities (AASCU). This biannual meeting once simply involved provosts, but in the last several years larger teams have come to help facilitate change in their institutions.
We had intense conversations about ACP, within our session as well as before and after. Overall, the weekend underlined both challenges and opportunities for the sustained work of “building democracy colleges.”
We reported on results from field testing and focus groups organized by the National Issues Forums Institute (NIFI), ACP’s partner in launching a national discussion on higher education’s role in America’s future. The discussions in communities and on campuses will begin in April and continue through the year. The Department of Education has suggested several ways in which they might help.
Research last year on public views toward higher education and the first tests of the framework to be used in the discussions have generated important findings.
The draft framework presents several alternative roles for people to consider and discuss: higher education as an engine of economic growth; as a path to the middle class for those from disadvantaged backgrounds, and as a contributor to communities and the democracy. People want to integrate all three, not choose among them.
But most people also seem unaware of ways in which colleges and universities can play this third role. Since the last two decades have seen significant civic engagement work in higher education, this finding suggests a communications challenge, also highlighted by sympathetic participants from outside of higher education at the White House gathering, who commented that phrases commonly used to describe engagement – civic mission, civic engagement, and others – would not be easily understood by broader publics.
When the third option is illustrated with examples of higher education’s helping students and faculty learn skills and habits of collaborative work across differences on public problems, it generates surprise and animated discussions. Few people are aware that colleges or universities can play any role in teaching such skills. But across many differences, Americans are worried that “we are less and less able to work across differences to get anything done,” and fear for the future of the nation. Citizens are alarmed by Congress, but see polarization, inflammatory rhetoric and gridlock extending to every level of society and to all sorts of issues, from local zoning changes to reconstruction of the nation’s electrical grid.
Powerful forces feed the polarizing dynamic, including the formula, with roots in 1970s activism, which dominates most civic and political campaigns: identify an enemy; define issues as good versus bad; and use inflammatory language to shut down critical thought. Talk radio, cable news and the internet are potent operationalizing tools.
At San Antonio, there were strong examples of developing capacities for collaborative work that push back against such polarization. Blase Scarnati described the curricular innovations at NAU which involve hundreds of students in interdisciplinary Action Research Teams as part of the First Year Seminar. Students undertake public work projects on issues – immigration, weatherization, school bullying and others – in ways designed to teach such skills and build public relationships with diverse groups, connected to interdisciplinary learning. Over supper one evening I heard a rich account from Dayna Seelig, Associate Vice President for Academic Affairs at Morehead State University in Kentucky, about her own work over many years in teaching such skills and habits to students, faculty and staff of the university.
But such stories are rarely told in describing engagement efforts, and I believe that most examples of teaching and learning collaborative public work remain invisible. There is a need to shine a spotlight on education for such efforts. There are also strong institutional incentives for doing so in a time of public alarm about the fraying of American society and ebbing public support for higher education. The initiatives of ACP (deliberative dialogues, student organizing, Citizen Alum, civic science, pedagogies of engagement, community civic health, public scholarship, and policy) all help to foster education for collaborative public problem solving. But it will take sustained effort to make such teaching and learning central to institutional identity.
What might a “Democracy College Morrill Class” look like dedicated to this task? We suggested the possibility of a cohort of colleges and universities that make an explicit commitment for sustained collaborative learning to deepen curricular and co-curricular engagement in civic work. It is now only the seed of an idea, but even without detail there was considerable interest. Several administrators said that their institutions would definitely like to be involved.
Find more information about ACP here
The New York Times salutes the American Democracy Project and The Democracy Commitment — two of our leading partners — in it’s edition on February 5, 2012. The New York Times Knowledge Network, the educational division of The Times and co-founder of ADP, is publishing an insert on education.
The full back page of the insert recognizes the American Democracy Project and its community college sister organization, The Democracy Commitment. For more see: The New York Times Knowledge Network
Both organizations focus on preparing college students to be informed, engaged citizens for America’s democracy. The American Democracy Project and The Democracy Commitment are two of the founding organizations behind The American Commonwealth Partnership (which we gave life to via DemocracyU).
ACP is a broad alliance of higher education, P-12 schools and educational groups, philanthropies, businesses and others, part of a coordinated effort with the White House Office of Public Engagement, the Association of American Colleges and Universities, and the Department of Education, to begin a year of activity called, “For Democracy’s Future – Reclaiming Our Civic Mission.” ACP’s role is to “deepen the civic identity” of educational institutions, moving engagement from activities to strong commitments to education as a public good.
January 10, 2012
This is a great day and an important moment for education leaders who want to take civic learning to greater heights and expand its impact. And it is an important day for all of us who care about nurturing a vibrant democracy. As we’re nearing the end of our conference, I’ll try to keep my remarks relatively brief. But I hope this meeting will be the start of something big for the civic learning movement, which has failed to receive the attention it richly deserves.
My hope is that this meeting will serve as a call to action–to make civic learning and democratic engagement a staple of every American’s education, from elementary school to college and to careers. The publications of A Crucible Moment and the Guardian Of Democracy reports, the formation of the American Commonwealth Partnership, and the release of our own roadmap today for advancing civic learning and democratic engagement, are an auspicious beginning.
Unfortunately, we know that civic learning and democratic engagement are not staples of every American’s education today. In too many schools and on too many college campuses, civic learning and democratic engagement are add-ons, rather than an essential part of the core academic mission.
Too many elementary and secondary schools are pushing civics and service-learning to the sidelines, mistakenly treating education for citizenship as a distraction from preparing students for college-level mathematics, English, Science, and other core subjects.
And most institutions of higher education now offer civic learning as an elective, not as a critical component of preparing students to compete in a knowledge-based, global economy.
This shunting to the sidelines of civic education, service learning, political participation, and community service is counterproductive. Preparing all students for informed, engaged participation in civic and democratic life is not just essential–it is entirely consistent with the goals of increasing student achievement and closing achievement gaps.
It is consistent with preparing students for 21st century careers. And it is consistent with President Obama’s goal to have the highest proportion of college graduates in the world by 2020. As Tony Wagner of the Harvard Graduate School of Education says, there is a “happy convergence between the skills most needed in the global knowledge economy and those most needed to keep our democracy safe and vibrant.”
Now, it is sometimes said that civic learning is old school education. In an era of texts and tweets, and the instant democracy of the Web, civic education can seem antiquated.
And it is absolutely the case that much needs to be done to reinvigorate and elevate the quality of civic learning in America. Yet even the most casual glimpse around the globe today shows that civic learning and democracy very much matter in 2012.
From the uprisings in the Arab Spring to the tragic shootings a year ago in Tucson at a Congress on the Corner event, Americans have been reminded again that freedom matters—and that democracy is its embodiment.
The advent of a knowledge-based, global economy opens up unprecedented opportunities, but it creates unprecedented global challenges as well. What happens in Vegas doesn’t stay in Vegas anymore—or anywhere else in America.
The United States can no longer meet global challenges like developing sustainable sources of energy, reducing poverty and disease, or curbing air pollution and global warming, without collaborating with other countries. And the U.S. cannot meet those global challenges, both here in our local communities or abroad, without dramatically improving the quality and breadth of civic learning and democratic engagement.
These new global and communal challenges will require U.S. students to develop better critical thinking skills and cross-cultural understanding. Fortunately, high-quality civic learning equips students with the very skills they need to succeed in the 21st century—the ability to communicate effectively, to work collectively, to ask critical questions, and to thrive in diverse workplaces.
It’s also worth remembering, as Justice Sandra Day O’Connor says, that civic knowledge is not inherited “through the gene pool.” It is not passed on in mother’s milk. It is learned—at school, and at the dinner table. Schools matter.
This year marks the 150th anniversary of the Morrill Act, the landmark law which created our nation’s land-grant universities, and subsequently our nation’s Historic Black Colleges and Universities.
Since our founding, America’s leaders have recognized that one of the most important purposes of educating the nation’s citizens is to protect and strengthen democracy.
Many Americans are aware that the founders stressed the importance of civic learning and participation in K-12 education. But fewer people realize that civic learning has played a longstanding leading role in higher education as well.
That is one reason why I am so encouraged by the new report that our Department commissioned from an independent, blue-ribbon task force of educators, A Crucible Moment: College Learning and Democracy’s Future.
It presents a smart and thorough analysis of civic learning and democratic engagement in higher education. And I absolutely share the task force’s sense of urgency about the need to bolster civic learning and engagement on our nation’s campuses and in our communities.
One of the most troubling findings of the task force report is that the longer students stay in college, the wider the gap becomes between “their endorsement of social responsibility as a goal of college and their assessment of whether the institution is providing opportunities for growth in this area.”
Surveys find that only about one in four college seniors report that their understanding of the problems facing their community and their knowledge of people from different races and cultures were much stronger at the end of college than at its start.
These findings make plain that our institutions of higher education—and their elementary and secondary school partners—need to expand and transform their approach to civic learning and democratic engagement.
This is not a time for tinkering, for incremental change around the margins. At no school or college should students graduate with less civic literacy and engagement than when they arrived. More and better is the challenge before us–and that is why your leadership is critical if we are to take this work to another level.
As the task force report also makes clear, the quality of civic learning is not a new concern. Our founders believed that informed citizens were a bulwark against tyranny and vital to a functioning democracy.
Recall that Thomas Jefferson founded the University of Virginia. Benjamin Franklin also believed college should not be reserved for the elite, but should instead cultivate “an inclination joined with the ability to serve mankind, one’s country, friends, and family.” And President Lincoln, who signed the Morrill Act in the midst of the Civil War, declared that education was the “most important subject which we as a people can be engaged in.”
This deep-seated commitment to civic learning and engagement peaked in higher education after World War II, when millions of G.I.’s headed to colleges and universities on the G.I. Bill.
In 1947, President Truman’s Commission on Higher Education released a landmark report that called for states to create a system of community colleges to help accommodate the vast number of returning veterans enrolling in higher education.
It is telling that the commission did not present its recommendations simply as an economic imperative. In fact, it argued that “the first and foremost charge upon higher education is that at all levels and in all its fields of specialization, it shall be the carrier of democratic values, ideals, and process.”
Today, 65 years later, I am absolutely convinced that this is the moment to advance civic learning and democratic engagement, once again. The time is ripe for reform because the state of civic knowledge and engagement among Americans is poor–even as the interest in civic learning and engagement among students, teachers, and faculty is growing.
A new generation of innovative, entrepreneurial organizations is promoting civic learning and engagement at many schools and college campuses. Some are government-led initiatives like AmeriCorps and our Department’s Center for Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships.
But there are so many outstanding public, non-profit, and private initiatives, like the Campus Compact, Ashoka U, the Interfaith Youth Core, Justice O’Connor’s iCivics online initiative–and many other service-learning programs, social entrepreneurship, and civil discourse programs that have blossomed in the last two decades.
Unlike traditional civic education, civic learning and democratic engagement 2.0 is more ambitious and participatory than in the past. To paraphrase Justice O’Connor, the new generation of civic education initiatives move beyond your “grandmother’s civics” to what has been labeled “action civics.”
The goals of traditional civic education–to increase civic knowledge, voter participation, and volunteerism–are all still fundamental. But the new generation of civic learning puts students at the center. It includes both learning and practice—not just rote memorization of names, dates, and processes. And more and more, civic educators are harnessing the power of technology and social networking to engage students across place and time.
How do I know that the new generation of civic learning can be both engaging and exacting? I was lucky enough to have the opportunity both to promote and witness the impact of high-quality civic learning firsthand when I was CEO of the Chicago Public Schools.
I see that Brian Brady from the Mikva Challenge in Chicago is here today. So is my friend, Marc Shulman, and a number of students from the Chicago High School for Agricultural Sciences. That was one of my favorite high schools.
They have produced hundreds of civic learners who have done some amazing projects in their communities. Brian helped those students to organize and run an advisory council for me. And their insights on how policy decisions impacted students’ lives were profound and invaluable to me and my team.
The Mikva Challenge has also done an incredible job of recruiting and training high school seniors and juniors to serve as election judges in Chicago. Now, anyone who knows Chicago politics, knows that is not an easy job!
But literally, even before they can vote, high school juniors in Chicago are now signing up to be election judges. The Mikva Challenge recruits and trains 2,500 high school students in Chicago for each election cycle. And those students account for nearly 20 percent of election judges in Chicago. Could Brian, Marc, and the students here today stand to be recognized?
Finally, I want to encourage everyone here today to read the Road Map and Call to Action that our Department is releasing today to advance civic learning and engagement in democracy.
It outlines our agency’s role in civic learning. And it lists nine steps we will take as we strive to serve as a constructive catalyst for change.
I want to especially thank Undersecretary Martha Kanter, Assistant Secretary Eduardo Ochoa, Phil Martin, and Taylor Stanek for their leadership in putting together today’s Call to Action.
They intuitively understand the profound and enduring value of civic learning, and they have been tireless advocates for civic learning and engagement efforts. I know they are grateful to the Steering Committee, which has been instrumental in preparing today’s program and bringing all of us together.
I won’t take the time now to run through the nine steps in our Call to Action in detail. But it’s important to recognize that our Department is already doing a lot to support civic learning and democratic engagement–and that we have a special opportunity now to enhance those efforts.
The Federal Work-Study program currently mandates that institutions of higher education use at least seven percent of the total amount of funds awarded to provide community service jobs for students.
In the 2009-10 award year, $222 million was used to fund community service jobs—and that sum doesn’t include a much larger pot of non-federal matching funds.
To cite another example, our Center for Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships is working with the White House and the Corporation for National and Community Service to oversee the President’s Interfaith and Community Service Campus Challenge.
Several hundred colleges and universities have signed onto the President’s Interfaith and Community Service Campus Challenge. To date, more than 270 colleges and universities have committed to a year of interfaith and community service programming on their campuses.
College students participating in the Challenge select one service priority for their interfaith initiative, in areas such as poverty and education, health services, and support programs for veterans and military families.
Our team is convinced that there is much more that we can do to further enhance civic learning and democratic engagement.
We can convene, catalyze, and recognize K-12 schools and postsecondary institutions that are committed to high-quality civic learning.
We can encourage states, schools and postsecondary institutions to conduct civic audits and publish their plans and outcomes for educating students for informed engagement in civic life.
We can identify additional civic indicators.
We can spotlight promising practices–and encourage further research to learn what works. We can leverage federal investments and public-private partnerships.
We can–and we will–encourage public service careers, especially to help in the outreach, recruitment, and hiring of more than 1.6 million great teachers that our nation will need over the next decade. And we will continue to support civic learning as part of a well-rounded K-12 curriculum.
I also ask you to challenge us with how we can be most helpful. And, while we are passionate and committed, we are absolutely clear that we cannot begin to do this work alone. To succeed, this great effort to advance civic learning and engagement in democracy needs visionary leaders.
It needs higher education faculty and deans, and teachers and principals from our K-12 schools.
It needs creative non-profits, foundations, dedicated entrepreneurs, business leaders, jurists, artists, actors, and lawmakers.
And it needs federal, state, and local leaders to promote high-quality civic learning and establish innovative public-private partnerships.
That is why I am so inspired by the quality of commitments from the education community announced earlier today. It is why I am so encouraged to see the extraordinary coalition that has joined hands in the American Commonwealth Partnership to promote high-quality civic learning and new forms of engagement and scholarship.
With your courage and your commitment, I believe we will begin to restore civic learning and democratic engagement to its rightful place in our nation’s schools and colleges.
Thank you—and thanks to everyone for their participation in today’s meeting. Together, let’s get to work.