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.
Post-Event Discussion:”For Democracy’s Future: Education Reclaims Our Civic Mission.” We invite all to join us on facebook and twitter @DemocracyU and convene a local debate on the importance of higher education’s civic mission.Posted: January 10, 2012
Reinventing Citizenship and the Role of EducationCitizenship has different meanings. For some citizenship means voting. Some see it as a legal status, or obeying the law, or being a good person and a role model. To others it means respecting those of different views and backgrounds. “Productive citizenship” means making a public contribution through work, paid or unpaid – one can be a citizen teacher, a citizen business owner, or a citizen homemaker.There is no single “right answer” to the question, “what is a citizen?”People also have different views on where education for citizenship takes place. Some see families as the main “school for citizenship.” Other stress schools, colleges, universities or religious congregations. Many see all these playing important though differing roles. This discussion is intended to begin an ongoing national conversation on the topic of what is citizenship, what role does civic education and engagement play in being a citizen and how do we educate for it?
Some questions to get you started:
- If you were explaining the responsibilities that come with being an American citizen to a visitor from another country, what would you say?
- As citizens, what do you think we owe to future generations?
- What are the roles and responsibilities of different groups (e.g. families, schools, colleges or universities) in educating citizens?
- What are your ideas for how we can learn to listen to each other and work together across partisan and other divides?
- What are the skills and values of 21st century citizenship? Do we have new or additional responsibilities that we didn’t have in the past?
- Do you think it’s important for students to get involved in civic work on campus and in their communities at large?
- How can civic engagement benefit our democracy as a whole?
A Crucible Moment: Civic Learning and America’s Future DemocracyU- American Commonwealth Partnership’s website. Center for Democracy and Citizenship The Center for Democracy and Citizenship collaborates with a variety of partners to promote active citizenship and public work by people of all ages. The center’s work is grounded in the belief that a healthy democracy requires everyone’s participation, and that each of us has something to contribute. National Issues Forums InstituteNational Issues Forums (NIF) is a network of civic, educational, and other organizations, and individuals, whose common interest is to promote public deliberation in America. It has grown to include thousands of civic clubs, religious organizations, libraries, schools, and many other groups that meet to discuss critical public issues. Forum participants range from teenagers to retirees, prison inmates to community leaders, and literacy students to university students.NIF does not advocate specific solutions or points of view but provides citizens the opportunity to consider a broad range of choices, weigh the pros and cons of those choices, and meet with each other in a public dialogue to identify the concerns they hold in common.
A Crucible Moment: College Learning and Democracy’s Future
A report from the National Task Force on Civic Learning and Democratic Engagement
In response to widespread concern about the nation’s anemic civic health, A Crucible Moment: College Learning and Democracy’s Future calls for investing in higher education’s capacity to make civic learning and democratic engagement widely shared national priorities. The report calls on higher education and many partners in education, government, and public life to advance a 21st century conception of civic learning and democratic engagement as an expected part of every student’s college education.
A New Vision for Civic Learning in Higher Education
An earlier definition of civic education stressed familiarity with the various branches of government and acquaintance with basic information about U.S. history. This is still essential but no longer nearly enough. Americans still need to understand how their political system works and how to influence it. But they also need to understand the cultural and global contexts in which democracy is both deeply valued and deeply contested. Moreover, the competencies basic to democracy cannot be learned only by studying books; democratic knowledge and capabilities are honed through hands-on, face-to-face, active engagement in the midst of differing perspectives about how to address common problems that affect the well-being of the nation and the world.
Civic learning that includes knowledge, skills, values, and the capacity to work with others on civic and societal challenges can help increase the number of informed, thoughtful, and public-minded citizens well prepared to contribute in the context of the diverse, dynamic, globally connected United States. Civic learning should prepare students with knowledge and for action in our communities.
Components of 21st century civic learning should include:
- Knowledge of U.S. history, political structures, and core democratic principles and founding documents; and debates—US and global—about their meaning and application;
- Knowledge of the political systems that frame constitutional democracies and of political levers for affecting change;
- Knowledge of diverse cultures and religions in the US and around the world;
- Critical inquiry and reasoning capacities;
- Deliberation and bridge-building across differences;
- Collaborative decision-making skills;
- Open-mindedness and capacity to engage different points of view and cultures;
- Civic problem-solving skills and experience
- Civility, ethical integrity, and mutual respect.
- Reclaim and reinvest in the fundamental civic and democratic mission of schools and of all sectors within higher education
- Enlarge the current national narrative that erases civic aims and civic literacy as educational priorities contributing to social, intellectual, and economic capital
- Advance a contemporary, comprehensive framework for civic learning—embracing US and global interdependence—that includes historic and modern understandings of democratic values, capacities to engage diverse perspectives and people, and commitment to collective civic problem-solving
- Capitalize upon the interdependent responsibilities of K-12 and higher education to foster progressively higher levels of civic knowledge, skills, examined values, and action as expectations for every student
- Expand the number of robust, generative civic partnerships and alliances locally, nationally, and globally to address common problems, empower people to act, strengthen communities and nations, and generate new frontiers of knowledge
A Crucible Moment provides specific campus examples illustrating how to move from “partial transformation to pervasive civic and democratic learning and practices.”
See www.aacu.org/civic_learning/crucible for full report; see Chapter 3 for full set of recommendations.
 Adapted from the National Issues Forums Institute
A Live Event at the White House: The American Commonwealth Partnership and The Department of Education Join To Launch a Year of Citizenship and Civic EducationPosted: January 6, 2012
On January 10th 2012, at the White House, a group of higher education and civic leaders with government officials will launch a year of activities to revitalize the democratic purposes and civic mission of American education.
The event is called: “For Democracy’s Future: Education Reclaims Our Civic Mission.” The Department of Education and the American Commonwealth Partnership (ACP) have joined with the Association of American Colleges and Universities, whose major report to the nation, “A Crucible Moment: Civic Learning and Democracy’s Future”, will also be released on that date.
The year will include a coordinated series of activities – local dialogues, forums, town meetings, and projects fostering civic identity. The goal is to strengthen the role of colleges, schools and other educational groups in educating students to be citizens; in connecting to local communities; and in engaging with the urgent problems of the nation. The year 2012 marks the 150th anniversary of the Morrill Act, signed by President Abraham Lincoln, which created land grant colleges across America.
“For Democracy’s Future seeks to change the long term dynamic that has led to an ‘ivory tower’ culture in many colleges and universities,” said Harry Boyte, chair of the ACP and Director of the Center for Democracy and citizenship at Augsburg College. “In a time of mounting challenges, the nation, and our local communities, cannot afford to have higher education on the sidelines. It needs to be back in the middle of problem solving and helping to lead a rebirth of citizenship,” he said.
The January 10th event will be streamed live at the White House ( http://www.whitehouse.gov/live. ) Viewers are invited to host their own discussions during the afternoon breakout sessions. More information and a discussion guide will be posted on our site soon.
About the ACP and DemocracyU
The American Commonwealth Partnership is a cross-partisan campaign which is 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. The American Commonwealth Partnership (ACP) was formed last year and brings together colleges, universities, community colleges, schools and other civic partners to create a strong “civic identity” in families, schools, professions, colleges and universities.
We are honored to be participating in this national effort to promote higher education’s civic mission.
For more information, please contact Karina Cherfas at firstname.lastname@example.org.