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.
The American Commonwealth Partnership (ACP) is an alliance of community colleges, colleges and universities, P-12 schools and others dedicated to building “democracy colleges” throughout higher education. A Presidents’ Advisory Council, composed of distinguished college and university presidents who have long been leaders in engaged higher education movement, offers continuing counsel and wisdom (see list below).
Launched at the White House on January 10th, 2012, the start of the 150th anniversary year of the Morrill Act which created land grant colleges, signed by President Lincoln in 1862, ACP uses the concept of democracy colleges from land grant and community college history. Democracy colleges convey the idea of colleges and universities deeply connected to their communities, which make education for citizenship a signature identity.
The work of building democracy colleges draws on a rich tradition, dating back to Abraham Lincoln’s presidency:
The White House meeting, “For Democracy’s Future – Education Reclaims Our Civic Mission”, marked a new stage of coordinated effort to bring about a commitment to civic education and education as a public good. It was organized in partnership with the White House Office of Public Engagement, the Department of Education, the Association of American Colleges and Universities, and the Campaign for the Civic Mission of the Schools.
At the White House, the Department of Education released its Road Map and Call to Action on civic learning and democratic engagement, described in remarks by Secretary of Education Arne Duncan. The National Task Force on Civic Learning and Democratic Engagement released A Crucible Moment, a report to the nation on the need for a shift in civic learning from “partial” to “pervasive.”
ACP highlighted institutions that have taken steps toward becoming democracy colleges, including community colleges, liberal arts colleges, state colleges and universities, and research institutions. ACP continues to consult with Undersecretary for Higher Education Martha Kanter and her Office of Postsecondary Education on policies to strengthen higher education’s public engagement and is also helping to organize state level policy initiatives on the topic.
The ACP coalition promotes several initiatives including:
The Deliberative Dialogue Initiative, in partnership with the National Issues Forums Institute (NIFI), is organizing a discussion on campuses and in communities on higher education’s role in America’s future. It is to be complemented by a communications effort to convey the potential of higher education in teaching skills, such as listening, deliberation, teamwork, negotiating different interests and views, to work across differences on public problems. Research by NIFI suggests that the public is largely unaware of higher education’s contributions to such skill development – seen as an urgent need by citizens of many views and backgrounds in order to turn around the growing divisiveness and polarization in America.
Citizen Alum Initiative, directed by Julie Ellison of the University of Michigan, aims to change the framework of alumni relations, partnering with alumni as “do-ers” as well as donors. Citizen Alum aims to find the hidden treasure—the creative, civic, intellectual, and social capital of alumni – especially recent “gap alums” and alums who opt out of conventional roles, supporting them as contributors to their home communities and as allies in education.
Student Organizing Initiative is a campaign to deepen the civic identity of college students, develop skills of deliberative public work, and strengthen the DemocracyU social media campaign and website as resources for students to share their stories and address their concerns for America’s democracy. This initiative is also exploring strategies for putting cross partisan citizen-centered politics back at the center of the highly polarized election campaign of 2012.
Pedagogies of Empowerment and Engagement Initiative is an organizing effort spearheaded by Blase Scarnati of Northern Arizona University. It will identity and collect the details of effective pedagogies of empowerment and engagement across the country that teach skills to work across differences. The group will also recruit new sites and partners.
Public Scholarship Initiative is organized by Scott Peters of Cornell University, Tim Eatman of Imagining America at Syracuse University, and John Saltmarsh of NERCHE (UMASS Boston). The team have began a participatory research project with various institutions on the work of building democracy colleges in the 21st century.
Campus-Community Civic Health Initiative, coordinated by the American Democracy Project in partnership with the National Conference on Citizenship, is developing ways to assess the impact of colleges and universities on community and campus civic health.
Civic Science Initiative is organized by John Spencer at the University of Iowa, Scott Peters at Cornell University, Molly Jahn at the University of Wisconsin, Rom Coles at Northern Arizona University, and Harry Boyte at Augsburg College and the Humphrey School of Public Affairs, University of Minnesota. Civic science is a framework for understanding scientists as citizens, working with other citizens in ways that respect different ways of knowing, deepening collective wisdom on public questions, and developing civic agency.
ACP Policy Initiative, building on policy discussions with the Department of Education in 2011, focuses on state level policies strengthening engagement, and is consulting with the DOE on an ongoing basis about policies to strengthen engagement.
Presidents’ Advisory Council
Nancy Cantor, Chancellor, Syracuse University
Brian Murphy, President, De Anza College
M. Christopher Brown, President, Alcorn State University
Thomas Ehrlich, President Emeritus, Indiana University
Freeman Hrabowski, President, University of Maryland Baltimore County
David Mathews, President Emeritus, University of Alabama
Paul Pribbenow, President, Augsburg College
Judith Ramaley, President, Winona State University
Inaugural Host Institution
Augsburg College, Minneapolis
Harry Boyte, Director, Center for Democracy and Citizenship
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