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.
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.
By Samuel T.O. Neisen
In the spring of 2012 at the University of Minnesota I took an organizing class- “Organizing for the Public Good”- and it changed my life. See I have always been interested in public work, helping others, and trying to strive for “a more perfect union” and even a more perfect world, however it wasn’t until the last several months that things have started to become clear. I have discovered my passions, my self-interest, and how I want to go about achieving these things. My interest has been sparked and a fire has been ignited within me to actually become an agent of change. I discovered organizing is the way to do so. Moreover, I have started working with the American Commonwealth Partnership (ACP) and have discovered that now more than ever this world needs committed citizens to positively transform the world.
Over the past several months I have uncovered a passion: a passion for education. I want the country to rethink its concept of education and change the paradigm so education becomes a way in which everyone is empowered to improve their own lives. With these beliefs everyone can have the skills to make any change they would like to see in the world. Everyone will be empowered. There are no rescuers, helpers, or Moses for people; only empowerers. There is no need for an alphabet soup of programs hoping to help “underprivileged;” from day one for a child, there will be communities, families, and schools, all there to help support, educate, and build this child up into a benevolent, contributing, and compassionate member of society. Only with this new paradigm will everyone have the tools to become empowered to change their community, and their world, around them. Organizing is the key to achieving this.
Even after I realized this passion I was unsure as to how I would go about changing this paradigm or even what this new paradigm would look like. That is until I started working with the ACP. Finally I have realized what this new culture of education would look like: Public Achievement. See on May 31st, 2012 was Fridley Middle School’s Public Achievement celebration. And it was remarkable. At Fridley the 5th– 8th grader special education students take part in Public Achievement. And by watching their presentations one can tell these students are engaged and actually care about going to school and learning. Public Achievement should be the model for this new paradigm of education. These students at Fridley took charge of their education; they were engaged, captivated, energetic, and enthralled about what they were learning. They wanted to go to school. That fact in itself is remarkable as in many places these students- special education students- are the ones pushed aside, marginalized, and told they cannot do anything making it hard for them to want to go to school. However with the Public Achievement model they are pushed to make something of themselves and they believe in themselves which engages them in the world. Frankly I never thought I would see this level of engagement from special education students. Yet Public Achievement empowered them and the beneficial results are extremely apparent.
Moreover, at the celebration, Harry Boyte asked the students: “so what do you think you have learned over the course of the year? Have you grown and developed new skills?” In response to this literally every single student’s hand shot into the air, energized to talk about their experience. It was remarkable to see the engagement and excitement this new mindset of teaching did for students.
The deep level of engagement drives me to work to make Public Achievement part of every student’s learning all across the nation. If special education students can grow so much I can only image what would happen if every student was empowered. I even wonder about what would happen, and how our entire country could grow, if a model like this would be applied to businesses, governments, and other places in the public arena. How much more responsive, effective, and benevolent could our country be? Could we actually start to work together to solve the big problems and not just bicker about minuscule details? One can only wonder.
Still as I take time to reflect over the past several months and all that I’ve learned I truly believe organizing is the way to actually transform the world and make positive change. Small groups of committed people actually can reshape the way the world works. Yet people need to start doing things. Critiquing neoliberalism or racism or deindustrialization won’t solve problems; work will. We all need to start connecting with others, building bonds and building bridges across the divides so we have power networks to do work and actually make change. People are so often caught waiting for a superman to come rescue them. There is no superman. No politician, nor president, nor CEO, can save the world. It takes all of us to do so. Even then it will be difficult. Public work is messy. But by working together I have hope we can transform our world.
We are lucky we even have the opportunities to work to change our society. It is a uniquely American aspect that we have. It is privilege. We must make the most of it. Even Thomas Jefferson said “A little rebellion now and then is a good thing.” Let’s make a little rebellion. This is our democracy and our right to make the changes we want to make in the world. This is democracy; so let’s put it into action.
All in all, as I now sit and ponder over all my experiences I am filled with hope- hope for a better tomorrow. I have the skills to make the world whatever I want it to be. I am empowered. Yet as I reflect on my writing here I realize this is a call to arms of sorts; a call to action. We are at a crucial time in history where we all need to work together to start solving some big problems we are facing. We need to get to work. Even though I am filled with hope, as I now know how to make positive change, I am urging others to start organizing in their communities. Start working. Start connecting with people that are different from you. We must bridge these divides and work collectively to solve these problems. Only then will there be any semblance of the world that could be. Work together, connect with others, and stop waiting for superman. Just act; let us all make the world what we can only image it to be.
Samuel Neisen is a junior currently studying history and Spanish at the University of Minnesota. Sam is working with the Center for Democracy and Citizenship at Augsburg College and looks to continue to use organizing as a way to empower others.
“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.