Civics Education and Activism

Civics Education and Activism

Hi, I'm Willow, and I'm new to the Center for Civic Media. I'm a research affiliate, which I'm still not clear on the meaning of[1], but I'm looking at how flat organizations scale and I love it here. I used to think it was decentralized groups, but then I read Charlie's excellent blog post and knew better (Charlie, who has recently shaved his beard and it is freaking me out). Before I was here, I was in Seattle - another Geek Promised Land - working with hackerspaces and education. I still juggle digital disaster and humanitarian response work with a group called Geeks Without Bounds. This is my first blog entry on the Center's roll, and is flavored with my own ranty-pants tendencies - if you're looking for the live notes of the event itself, they are linked below or back a few entries on this blog.

A topic which has rightfully taken up a significant portion of my brain cycles since arriving to Boston is, "what does civic engagement even mean?" In this vein, I had the honor of attending Harvard Law School's Civic Education Conference today, and the sanity of sitting with the Center for Civic Media's Erhardt. My own #vizthink notes were the usual stick figures, from which I took breaks to transcribe with the slap-stick comedy of co-live-blogging - typing over each other, inserted comments, egregious misspellings. Erhardt absolutely did the lion's share of the typed live-blogging, and you should check out his entries.

There were four panels, all with prestigious panelees, and all with heart-felt commentary. Everyone agreed that education is broken, including (or especially) civics education. A focal point of the conference was that civics education has gone by the wayside, and that this is a strong systemic indicator of a larger cultural illness, and a cause of future national woes. The discourse of sixties were glorified (but no one talked about the activism), an understanding of balancing testing metrics and classroom autonomy was expressed, and the children were empowered alongside the instructors. Everyone will learn so much! And through that education, everyone will have a chance to speak! Confetti was thrown, and a unicorn manifested by the stage. (But seriously, you can check out the live notes for panels 1, 2, 3, and 4. Finding the unicorn should be cake.)

Let's take a few steps back for a moment in this handy time machine I have just found in my pocket. The first conversation I had around civic engagement in Boston was with the amazing Jo Guldi, who pointed out that things like townhall meetings are therapy, they are not participation. Participation is striking, is protesting, is making sure you are heard even when those at the top don't want to hear it. It is the demanding to have an active role in the world which you inhabit. Therapy is talking about what is going on and how it affects you, coming to terms and acceptance to those structures. In therapy, there is no assumption that what you care about will come into play. In response to this conversation, she wrote a great brief history of participation on her blarg, focused on participatory mapping.

This story is strewn with the wreckage of technologies for participation past. ... All of them, originally, made similar claims -- to create a more informed citizenry, to free expertise from the constraints of disciplinary prejudice, to incorporate the poor and disenfranchised in the political process, and to thereby enliven society.
Remembering the long trajectory of this process is important to discerning the difference between the hopeless reiteration of bad methods past and radical tools for transforming society.

Back to the more recent past[2]. During the panels, there was much talk about the cynicism of youth around civic engagement. Much hand-wringing around "if they only knew how to interact, they would!" Well, maybe, but only for certain demographics. Most of the youth of the day (and I'd argue most of the population of all ages) feel disenfranchised because they ARE, in fact, disenfranchised by that system. External to the traditional systems, there is lots of engagement happening, on platforms that those currently in power don't fully understand[3]. But their approach is not to empower youth to build their own systems, mentoring them with institutional and historical knowledge. Their approach is to only listen to anyone speaking the right language in the right place (while wearing the right clothes, etc etc) and continue charging forward saying "we would have listened if only they had spoken." Maybe they just don't know how to listen, maybe the Illuminati exists and it's totally intentional.

There was chuckling about how boring civics classes can be. Panelists talked about the sorts of discourse they had in school during the 60s around the Vietnam War. They talked about how having the ability to talk about controversial subjects made them better citizens. They spoke about a current lack of support for instructors in schools who wanted to address hot topics. Those in my row (myself included) wondered if that discourse had actually happened in the classroom, but agreed that controversial subjects are far more engaging and worthwhile to address, including (especially?) in the classroom.

One group which was represented well on the final panel (as well as in my heart) is Facing History and Ourselves, a fantastic initiative around how to speak about difficult aspects of our past. This not only gives a more realistic understanding of context and progression (which then allows us to act more knowingly in the present), but also trains students and instructors in how to communicate about difficult topics. So there are, in fact, people taking actions in the field around difficult discourse.

People spoke on the fear of polarizing classrooms and communities around issues. That most controversies are "vanilla'd" if allowed in at all. That we must learn to disagree without being disagreeable. But how are we to do this without practice? How are we to be exposed to differing viewpoints if not in school, the main purpose of which is exposure to new ideas and to be socialized? The ability to act upon your beliefs, and the ability to have respectful discourse while knowing where boundaries are, is an objective both challenging and utterly worthwhile.

The question I asked of the panel of Justices[4] was about this ability to ACT upon the knowledge gained. Their anecdotes about changing laws (the funny story of Grendel's liquor license being the closest to home) were highly dependent not only upon their knowlege of systems but upon their access to levers of power. Students at Harvard are maybe not the most indicative of the rest of the US population's ability to gain traction around their concerns. The answers I got were along the lines of knowledge being empowering enough[5].

Education IS a great place to start to bridge that gap, but what I heard today is doing it wrongTM. What was discussed today (except for the fourth panel, which did a much better job of acknowledging and bolstering current efforts[6]) would simply reify the current, broken system[7]. There was no place for dissent nor even honest discourse in what was proposed. Lip service was paid, but no route to action was offered. If a truly informed and empowered generation came out of a magically formed school system which incorporated these views on civic education, those individuals would be promptly jailed the moment they attempted to put those skills into use.

In short: don't talk to me about being cynical about your old, busted system when the very way you refer to civic education doesn't even involve engagement. You belittle the new future we are building, and in doing so you have no part in it. The population the majority of the speakers at this event have the objective of creating is a well informed, but still passive, one. A system which makes no space for being tested and questioned will rightfully crumble from its own rigidity and frailty. So how about you come play with us, instead?

My favorite example of continuum from our current education system into engaged citizenry is with All Hands Active in Ann Arbor, Michigan. They set up a program with a local school, where they went to teach the kids every once in awhile. Ideally, as those children age, they start attending the hackerspace of their own accord, contributing back to the community which helped to support them. They learn how to build more advanced things. And because the hackerspace scene is tinged with politics (please, American spaces, be more so in this), discourse has a route to engagement for all ages. Also, they play with insects and neuroscience.

1. Apparently I just get to hang out and read all day. And write things. Who does that?! I am the luckiest.
3. Say, for instance, so many of the things the Center has to do with. Go team us!
4. Side note: don't shout "CHECK YOUR MIC" at a bunch of Justices while being a blue-haired punk-patch wearing kid, nevermind the bowtie. It leads to the same sort of anxiety jumping out of your car at a military checkpoint to get your ID from the trunk causes.
5. Insert privilege rant here.
6. Including the Tribunal Ban system in League of Legends. Be still my geeky heart. This is a game where you are paired with 3 other random people, and if someone on the team treats the others ill, a case can be brought against them. Seriously fascinating, given the utter lack of "civics education" many of the participants have had in any formal system.
7. This is not to say I'm not glad the conversation is being started. But the Cancer Walk isn't what cures the cancer.