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.
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.