Diversity & Democracy: Civic Learning for Shared Futures
Diversity Innovations Institutional Leadership and Commitment
Diversity Digest Volume 9, Number 1

Diversity Digest
Volume 9,
Number 1
(2005)

Download our print issue (PDF)
Campus-Community Connections
The Civic Work of Diversity
Educating Multicultural Community Builders: Service Learning at California State University Monterey Bay
Education for Democracy: Place Matters
In the Aftermath of Hurricane Katrina
Curricular Transformation
Narrative and Community: Civic Engagement and the Work of Diversity
Promoting Cross-Cultural Understanding for Students of Science and Technology
Research
Research Shows Benefits of Linking Diversity and Civic Goals
Diversity and Civic Engagement Outcomes Ranked Among Least Important
Academic Service Learning for Effective Civic Engagement
Faculty Involvement
There Is No Substitute for Experience
Student Experience
The Personal Is Still Political: HIV/AIDS Education and Prevention
Institutional Leadership and Committment
Communicating Common Ground
Resources
Resources for Diversity and Civic Engagement
The Civic Engagement Imperative: Student Learning and the Public Good
 

Education for Democracy: Place Matters

By Nan Kari, codirector of the Jane Addams School for Democracy, and Nan Skelton, codirector of the Center for Democracy and Citizenship at the Hubert H. Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs

This sense of being in a place, being here, is a wonderful perception that involves the whole body—heart and mind, without any separation.                      —Sandra Piccinini

JAS student tutors elementary school children

JAS student tutors elementary school children

Jane Addams School for Democracy (JAS) was founded on the premise that the textured stuff of a neighborhood—its history, geography, accomplishments and problems, and especially its people—creates an essential context for civic learning and public contribution. JAS is an existential place where people shape their identities in a relational experience with others.

Today we witness growing divisions among people along many lines of difference. Students frequently talk of their sense of disconnection from community life, a condition the academy does not, and perhaps cannot on its own, adequately address. The emphasis on abstract theoretical knowledge creates an intellectual culture separated from knowledge gained from lived experience. Young men and women, second-generation immigrants especially, often tell us that their age-segregated college experience distances them from relationships with children and elders of their cultures of origin.

There are few places where people can establish intergenerational and cross-cultural relationships in public settings. Often these relationships, when they do happen, form around tutoring or other one-way, service-based exchanges. The barriers to egalitarian relationships are real: differences in languages, customs, worldviews, education, and economic status. All of the barriers impede relationships and understanding across difference.

To ensure an authentic multicultural education that nurtures the skills and attitudes for democratic participation requires more than a selection of readings “about” diversity, diversity training workshops, or even service projects. In order for students to see themselves as public actors, competent to make significant contributions, they need to engage in sustained work in real places where they can experience the complexities of society.

JAS opens such an intercultural space—a place that connects the academy with the West Side neighborhood of St. Paul, Minnesota. Like Jane Addams’s Hull House in Chicago, JAS is located in an immigrant neighborhood. Here Hmong, Somali, and Latino families live alongside residents of European descent. Envisioned as a democratic organization, JAS was cocreated in 1996 by immigrant leaders, students, and faculty from the University of Minnesota, the Center for Democracy and Citizenship, and the College of St. Catherine and staff from the local settlement house. Though not a bricks and mortar school (it convenes two evenings every week inside the neighborhood high school), JAS is an important public space and communal context in which to build authentic relationships across age, culture, and language groups.

The broad vision of engaging people as active agents in a shared public life cannot be achieved through individual relationships alone. Public work is the animating context for civic learning. We regularly convene public forums with political candidates that engage people across four languages, for instance. We worked with U.S. Senator Paul Wellstone and Representative Bruce Vento to gain support for passage of the Hmong Veterans Bill. We organize an annual neighborhood Freedom Festival to recognize new citizens. In 2004, we convened a press conference at the state capitol to educate Minnesotans about abuses of the human rights of Hmong people left behind in the Laotian jungles. Both houses of the legislature subsequently passed a resolution urging Congress to press the issue in trade negotiations with Laos. In all of these examples, when Somali, Hmong, and Latin American immigrants and U.S.–born citizens work together on significant, visible public issues, the power of a diverse public becomes evident. In the process, people of all ages learn to cross borders of class, culture, age, and language.

Academic environments teach processes such as literature review, research, writing, and presentation as paths toward knowing. The JAS learning environment also emphasizes the importance of lived experience as a viable route to new knowledge. Personal histories shared by men and women from places all over the world offer rich teaching and learning opportunities. The stories from Laos, for example, convey a face of the Vietnam War rarely glimpsed in English-language history books. Because Hmong is only recently a written language, Hmong history is not yet widely recorded by those who lived it. Somali people also have important experiences to share about their country’s history, especially the causes and effects of the ongoing civil war. The long war has disrupted civil society so deeply that many Somali adults cannot participate in formal education and therefore don’t have the writing fluency to easily capture lived history in their native language.

Storytelling has become an important part of JAS—it is the way we convey to others who we are as individuals and cultural groups. But it is also the collective narrative, an American story, that JAS tells, the story of coming together of people of all ages from diverse places and cultures. It is the story at the heart of American democracy, in which diverse groups of people act together in public to improve our common lives—a story to be retold with each generation as people make places home.

For more information about the Jane Addams School for Democracy, see www.publicwork.org/jas.

Questions, comments, and suggestions regarding Diversity & Democracy should be directed to Kathryn Peltier Campbell at campbell@aacu.org.
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