THE BLOG
10/21/2015 01:44 pm ET Updated Oct 21, 2016

Education as a New Frontier of Democracy

I've had the pleasure of beginning a biweekly dialogue ("Bridging Differences") at Education Week on democracy and education with Deborah Meier. Deb is a mentor and old friend, and one of the great educators of our time. She founded the famed Central Park East Schools in East Harlem (subject of several films including "Music from the Heart" with Meryl Streep), as well as the Mission Hill School in Boston. These helped to launch the national movement for small schools.

Meier argues that relationships which support student growth and agency -- not information delivery or testing -- need to be at the center of democratic education. Young people need space to experiment and try things out, make mistakes, and learn through experience. And this requires adults -- teachers and staff and parents -- who encourage and support such learning based on agency. Students' most important learning is "habits," like learning to think "what is the evidence?", "why does this matter?" and "what would someone with another perspective say?", not acquisition of knowledge.

Her arguments remind me of what is called "relational organizing." This idea comes originally from the civil rights movement. Ella Baker and Bob Moses, among others, distinguished between "mobilizing" and "organizing." The distinction has been developed in broad-based community organizing and spread to environmental groups and elsewhere.

Mobilizing is transactional, focused on outcomes like getting large numbers of people to vote, sign a petition, contact a legislator, go to a demonstration, etc. It bears resemblance to education which "teaches to the test."

Organizing is transformational. It takes time. It involves investing in people's growth, connections with others, intellectual capacities, ability to act effectively in public -- their civic agency. At the heart of organizing is building productive relationships.

Hahrie Han's book, How Organizations Develop Activists, compares "low-engagement" local chapters of two national organizations (a health group and an environmental group) with "high engagement" local chapters. Low-engagement chapters mobilize. High engagement chapters do some mobilizing, but they emphasize organizing, relationship-building and developing members' capacities. They are also far more effective in building power, sustaining members' engagement, and achieving results over the long term.

A distinction from the organizing world, between "public" and "private" relationships, is also extremely helpful in developing agency. Public relationships are those in schools, colleges, or workplaces. Private relationships are in families and among close friends. It's always a matter of more or less not either-or. But recognizing that in public settings the goals shouldn't be intimacy, being liked, and loyalty, but rather mutual accountability, respect, and getting things done makes a large difference.

In our own work, growing from the Center for Democracy and Citizenship for many years at the Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs (now merged with Sabo Center at Augsburg), we have found it possible to integrate organizing skills and concepts into educational settings.

Dennis Donovan, national organizer for the youth empowerment initiative Public Achievement, has worked with faculty and students in translating organizing skills like public narratives and one on one relational meetings into school cultures, as well as the departments of nursing and education.

The one on one meeting, for instance, involves learning the "citizen professional" practice of meeting with another person to discover their self-interests -- passions and motivations. It is key to building public relationships.

Through such work, young people learn to think about their own life stories, or "public narratives," as well as others' motivations. It's worth noting that they often express huge relief when they learn to build "public" relationships since the cultural messages they've received collapse any distinction between public and private.

Alyssa Blood, who has studied special education students in Fridley Middle School (described in this Youtube video) who do Public Achievement, found that development of what she calls their "public persona" -- learning that acting "in public" shouldn't be the same as behavior "in private" among their buddies -- is transformational. It greatly increases their confidence and agency.

Other corners of Augsburg College are picking up civic skills and concepts like citizen professional. In the elected faculty senate last year at Augsburg, Bill Green, Michael Lansing, and Bob Cowgill decided to do one on one relational meetings with the other senators. "It made a huge difference to hear people's interests, their views of what the senate should be, and their thoughts on making the senate work better," said Michael Lansing, chair of the history department. "The senate became much more productive and strategic. It is meeting regularly with the administration now, helping to set the agenda of the college."

The dialogue with Meier combines with our experiences with schools and Augsburg. Such relational experiences in education hold potential to shift how people see and experience such settings from abstractions like "institutions," to living democratic communities.

They also reinforce my conviction that educational settings are a new frontier of democracy.