Humphrey program involves children in community issues

After a deep breath, Morgan McKenna, a shy, bright-eyed eighth-grader, read aloud the questions she’s planning to ask Middle Eastern students.

“Do they study different languages?” McKenna read. “What do they think about war?”

While Washington is trying to build democracy an ocean away, 31 University students are working with children like McKenna to plant some democratic fruit in their own backyard.

The Humphrey Institute’s citizenship education program, called Public Achievement, is embedded in St. Paul’s Frog Town and downtown Minneapolis. At St. Bernard’s School and the Interdistrict Downtown School, University students work with students in grades six through 12.

The program aims to show kids like McKenna that they have the power to change things that are important to them in their communities.

Public Achievement is structured with one University student coaching a group of six to eight middle school and high school students. The younger students are asked to think of an important community issue and to find a way to act on it.

In the program, the schools are working on everything from building a relationship with Middle Eastern students to fighting animal cruelty.

Harry Boyte, a senior fellow at the Humphrey Institute, helped form Public Achievement in 1990 as a University-based civic engagement program. The program is now worldwide and gaining momentum.

“We’re trying to fight what we are being told from the media and government that a citizen is not just someone who does goods deeds and votes,” Boyte said. “A citizen is someone who sees their life as building a democratic culture.”

The British government created a similar program, called Citizenship, as a part of its national curriculum in 2002.

Japan is also considering a kind of national civic engagement program.

Harumi Yoshimura, a Japanese researcher, visited St. Bernard’s and the Interdistrict Downtown School in Minneapolis on Oct. 13.

“Our educational ranking has fallen and someone needed to be blamed,” Yoshimura said. “The education system was blamed. We are looking especially at Public Achievement as something that could help the system.”

Yoshimura, who visited England to research the national curriculum for England, is working on behalf of a corporate, governmental and educational alliance from Japan to address what is seen as an increasingly apathetic younger generation.

Boyte said he sees some of the same apathy in Minnesota. The University and students used to be more involved in the Minneapolis community, he said.

“I think what has been lost is a sense of place. The University is a place and Minnesota is a place with neighborhoods,” he said. “Students need to understand this place, its history, its culture.”

Danielle Peterson, Minnesota Public Achievement organizer, said she understands “place” as students relating their schoolwork to what is going on in the community around them.

“University students can get caught up in academia,” Peterson said. “It’s important to get out into your community and see how you fit into the broader world.”

At St. Bernard’s, McKenna and groupmate Maria Diez are showing that people don’t have to be in academia to fit into the broader world.

“It will be up to our generation to keep things going to work against war,” Diez said. “We need to be informed about what is going on around the world.”

Public Achievement began in 1990 by asking young people around the metro area what they can do about problems in their communities.

“They had a whole list of problems,” Boyte said. “But no one had ever asked them what they could do about it.”

That’s exactly what Public Achievement started asking.

“Young people’s power and energy has largely been ignored,” Boyte said. “We are just trying to give them the tools they need to act with power.”

On Thursday, a group of students from Colgate University, who have been involved in Public Achievement, will visit and tour Minnesota’s version of the program. Plans are also in motion to have community “house meetings” to address issues and concerns around the metro area.

“It all starts with conversations to break the silence,” Boyte said. “Students need to discover again their true values and that they can act on them with power.”

Campus Desk Editor Anna Weggel welcomes feedback at [email protected]