By Angela Bonfiglio
For a number of years, I have found a variety of sources of inspiration to see why it is important to be an active citizen in the world and for me personally to take action and participate in what is most important. This inspiration has come from sources such as my faith, inspirational leaders, people who believed in me, and being struck by some of the deepest issues that face our society, such as racism, poverty and inequality in schools. It is an imbalance in equity and fairness that is at the core of many of these issues.
As humans we are always changing. This is especially true in college where opportunities continue to arise as learning takes place inside and outside the classroom. If the person I was, knew the person I am today, we would not recognize each other.
At the end of my sophomore year at Augsburg, I became involved in Redeemer Lutheran Church, located on the North Side of Minneapolis. Redeemer is a different kind of church. It is focused on the immediate community around them, but utilizes the agency of its diverse membership to be “a beacon of hope” for the neighborhood and for the world. Between the church and the non-profit, Redeemer is involved in projects including housing, food sustainability, youth, anti-racism, and employment. In North Minneapolis there has been disinvestment for a number of years, which is reflected in high unemployment rates, poor schools and a population exodus.
As a part of a scholarship from Augsburg, I was supported to work at Redeemer, and was asked to be the Program Coordinator for the Redeemer Afterschool Program (R.A.P.), which was being reworked into a weekly outreach program focusing on arts and music as a tool for building youth leadership and community. I was very excited about this opportunity and said “yes” without really knowing what I was getting myself into.
I had the opportunity to take on a leadership position and figure out more about what it means to work with others. Along the way the children we worked with provided inspiration and helped us understand how the program should be run based on their needs.
My latest source of inspiration has come from my experience studying abroad in Namibia. I was there for a six week summer program with the Center for Global Education at Augsburg for a class on development and an internship with the Namibian Women’s Health Network. I was exposed to a number of people who are working in their communities to make a difference and create change around huge problems that the country faces, such as having one of the highest rates of income inequality in the world. I was also inspired by people who served their time and energy with such a sense of care and joy. It was beautiful to watch a small community at work, building on each others’ activities. I was constantly thinking of my Redeemer community and ways that I could bring back lessons from this experience. I was given so much more than I ever gave over those six weeks.
Now as I continue my role at Redeemer, these sources of inspiration provide fuel for the work that I do. Our goal for R.A.P. is to build a beloved community where kids feel a sense of safety and belonging. My experience in Namibia definitely helps me in thinking about what the beloved community means in my own spaces and places here in America.
Angela Bonfiglio is an undergraduate student at Augsburg College in Minneapolis, Minnesota majoring in sociology and minoring in youth and family ministry. She works at Redeemer Lutheran Church in North Minneapolis as the afterschool program coordinator. She recently spent time studying abroad in Namibia with the Center for Global Education and interning with the Namibian Women’s Health Network.
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 Susan O’Connor, Ph.D. Associate Professor, Augsburg College
Last year, the special education department at Augsburg College engaged five pre-service teacher candidates from our program to join with teachers in classes for students labeled with emotional and behavioral disabilities (EBD).
Working with children from Fridley Middle School in Fridley, Minnesota, the idea was to experiment with a shift from a behavioral to an empowerment approach to pedagogy. The initial goal was to drive institutional change in the field of special education, with a different approach to educating K-12 students and preparing pre-service teachers.
The Augsburg team of faculty and teacher candidates spent a full year working as coaches in a youth civic learning and civic agency initiative called Public Achievement, developed by the Center for Democracy and Citizenship.
In Public Achievement, young people work as teams on public work projects of their choice — collaborative efforts in which they learn the skills of working across differences, negotiating the everyday politics of their local settings, and developing a civic language to understand themselves as responsible and efficacious citizens.
In this case, working with the Public Achievement approach sharply broke the mold of special education, which often uses behavior modification techniques, such as students needed to earn points or rewards for positive behavior
Students met with pre-service teachers or coaches on a weekly basis to determine what they wanted to work on and how they would go about achieving their goals. The two classroom teachers also held a class in public achievement daily to reinforce the work. Students made phone calls to businesses, wrote letters, invited community members, such as vets who were homeless and representatives from solar energy companies, to the school to gain perspective on the issues they were pursuing. They spent a day at the State Capitol meeting with legislative representatives on issues of homelessness and presented to the Fridley School Board their findings on the potential for solar energy savings for the school. All of these activities needed curriculum in a meaningful and hands on way.
The results far exceeded what we thought would be achieved and change occurred on every level. I don’t know that any of us faculty or classroom teachers thought we would see such engagement and transformation from the students. This might say more about our training programs and the field than anything. It confirmed that these are not “bad” kids but rather kids who need a venue which recognizes their abilities. Pre-teachers were also greatly impacted. The opportunity built confidence and allowed them to learn a different way of dealing with behavior. They were able to see the students as just that, students. Children who are not defined by their label but rather their potential. For us faculty, we learned the more we stepped back and acted more as guides to our coaches (pre-service teachers) they, like the K-12 students, rose to the occasion and took on leadership roles.
In my over 30 years in the field amidst all of the standards, testing and techniques that continue to be set forth, I have never seen any process that has had as great an impact in this period of time. Against the grain of the “EBD” label, these young people – who were often labeled “problem students” – became “problem solvers.” They took responsibility for decision-making and action steps on two projects, bringing solar energy to their school and exploring policy issues and developing support for families who are homeless.
“Public Achievement is about adults letting us make a change,” explained one Fridley Middle School sixth grader. “They let our class choose what we wanted to do to make a change in our community. The students do all the big stuff and the adults do the little stuff.”
The project with Public Achievement also resulted in positive changes among classroom teachers, college faculty, and school and community culture. These broke down stigms of students labeled EBD and created a platform and method for them to develop as confident, skilled public actors.
Cheryl McClellan, one of the graduate students, sums up her transformation, “This project has challenged my assumption… I now have a new understanding of civic engagement as a teaching tool and philosophy capable of bridging the divide between special education and the greater community.”
In her view, “Leaders and visionaries have emerged from this group of students often labeled as ‘behavior’ problems. The students have announced their presence to the school community and redefined what it means to be in an EBD special education program.”
Working with Dennis Donovan, national Public Achievement organizer, the Augsburg Special Education team will incorporate Public Achievement into our entire core curriculum next year. We see the model as relevant for the whole field of special education.
Susan O’Connor is a member of the education department andcoordinates the special education program at Augsburg College. She earned her master’s and PhD in special education from Syracuse University at Syracuse, NY. Her research interests are in disability studies, diversity and issues related to families of children with disabilities. More recently, she has developed a model for public achievement with students with mental health needs. She has extensive international experience, having worked in Morocco and the West Bank.