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
JAS student tutors elementary
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.