Civics Education

Dwayne Stenstrom is in charge of recruitment and retention at Sinte Gelska University. As my official host for the two days I was there, I had a chance to speak with him extensively about life on the Rosebud Reservation and at the university. Although I’ll write more about what I took away from my time on the reservation, I do want to say that it’s worth reading this interview in full. I suspect it’ll challenge your assumptions and understanding of the United States’ history and tribal culture. You can find the first two posts from my time in Rosebud here and here. You can also hear Dwayne talk about his experience growing up on NPR.

What it takes to be a good citizen:

I think one word that would sum it up is: be productive. Be a productive member of the environment you’re apart of. Do all that you can do to better the people around you.

Why he doesn’t vote in United States elections:

I guess in my world, I understand the concept of sovereignty and the makings of treaties. One of the things that I find is that if historically, if someone voted in a state or national election, it led to a conflict for the individual and the community. A treaty means two sovereign entities make a deal. So, I have my allegiance to my tribe first.

I’ve always felt that I had to be one or the other, either a tribal member or the citizen of the state. I always had to choose. I’m always going to be a tribal member. I dabble in the other world because I haven’t had a choice. Because of the experiences I’ve had over the years, I much prefer being a tribal member.

The American government wronged him and his family:

When I was eight years old, I was taken from my mother. And I was placed in a non-Indian home. At the time, I thought I would only be there for a few months. That few months transformed into twelve years.

I think about why all of that came to be. I don’t have any justification as to why they did that. It didn’t make sense to me back then, and it definitely doesn’t make sense to me today. One question I asked the government is whether there had been an adult male at home with me whether I would’ve been able to stay. The response I got was, “Yea, probably”. Ironically, I had two brothers who were serving in Vietnam. They would have qualified as adult males. But they weren’t in proximity because they were fighting for the country.

I did have an opportunity to reconnect with my mom ten years after I left her. We did have a little conversation about what went wrong. But I only got to know her for five months before she passed away. In a speech I gave in class, I talked about the little van that dropped me off. I kept waiting for it to come back. It never did.

Which is especially a problem, given the importance of family in tribal life:

I think what’s different between Native American culture and predominant American culture is the way people go about getting the basic things we all need. When I was in the home I was placed into when I was eight, I remember we went hunting one time and shot three dear. We had it processed at a meat locker. Their son came over later that week, and he was having a hard time and needed some help and some food. The dad basically said, “Get out there and make a living.”  And I was thinking, where I came from, it would’ve been different. We would’ve helped family and given food.

For example, one time, when I was still with my mom, I thought we were going to go somewhere on a trip. But then I saw my mom cooking, and was worried we weren’t going to get to go. But she told me she was cooking so that if someone stopped by, we could feed them. I still think about that till this day. Today, I lock my doors. When I was growing up we didn’t have to. My mom was going to leave food in our open house for anyone who needed it!

The things Americans need to know about tribal history:

One of the topics that is being talked about today is the Doctrine of Discovery (which allowed Christian conquerors to take all lands from non-Christians). When I started researching what that meant, I realized it did have a huge impact on the native community, and that it continues to today (the Vatican still has not rescinded the Doctrine).

Another part of history that has impacted me personally is the Indian Child Welfare Act (which was supposed to guarantee children would stay with their families). It’s still on the books, but it’s not used in a way that helps the community.

In 1997, the Adoption and Safe Families Act was passed. States look at the act as superseding the Indian Child Welfare Act, even though it’s not supposed to. Kids are being taken off the reservations and adopted out into other communities. People now ignore the Indian Child Welfare Act.

My wife and I signed up to be foster parents ten years ago. We had to take a training course. About the fifth week, I became offended – why was a non-Indian person treating me how to be a parent to an Indian child? Never once during the training was the Indian Child Welfare Act brought up, except for when I brought it up. When my wife and I became foster parents, we got only one call, then never heard from them again. Meanwhile, they’re saying they need more Indian foster parents! To me it’s ridiculous what’s going on there.

How he’d like non-indigenous Americans to interact with tribes and reservations:

I’d want predominant Americans to engage with the tribal community with a willingness to understand. We don’t need anyone coming over here to fix us or save us. We need them to want to understand. We have a language and a way of life that has sustained us forever. We don’t need people coming over here telling us how it can be improved. Respect our culture for what it is.

What he wants for people on reservations:

I guess awareness. People need to understand our true history. It’s not really talked about here. I teach general psychology, and I try to incorporate a lot of Native American thought into my classes. What I’m finding is that a lot of people are unaware of a lot ideas and teachings that should have been passed down generationally. But because the education system doesn’t talk about tribal history (since schools are run by the South Dakota government), our own people doesn’t see it as a priority.

Also, we need to have more self-responsibility. People here have to let themselves know that it’s okay to be who they are. We don’t have a lot of choices today on this reservation. This reservation has something like 85% of unemployment. A lot of people feel like there’s not really stuff for them to do. When I go out and cut wood, I cut wood for a lot of different people. If people knew that doing that chore would have value to a lot of other people, it would make workers feel better about themselves. A lot of people have the mentality of, “Why bother?” That mentality isn’t just around here. It seems like a lot of people have just given up.

It’s important for us to believe. We’re going to have our trials and tribulations. But it’s how we respond. At one point in my life, I gave up. I remembered something my grandfather told me: “Never blame anyone for the circumstance you find yourself in. Take responsibility for all that you do because once you start blaming, people have power over you.” I didn’t see myself as spiritual back then. When he was able to remind me of where I came from, I was able to see how the experiences I had made me the person I am today.

A story on the power of optimism:

I try to put it into a positive perspective, because the negative side of me is too negative. One of my favorite stories is about two boys. There’s a boy who’s pessimistic, thinks life will be terrible. They put him on a chair in the middle of a bunch of toys. They told him he could have whatever he wanted and then left for an hour. When they came back, he hadn’t moved. They asked him, “Why didn’t you play with anything?” He said, “I’m afraid I was going to break something.”

The next boy is an optimist. They take him to a room and put him in a chair, too. But surrounding him is manure. They tell him to have all the fun he wants and leave for an hour. When they get back, the boy is sitting in the corner and throwing the manure up in the air. They ask, “What are you doing?!” He said, “With all of this stuff in here, there’s bound to be a pony somewhere.”

The four values he lives by:

My grandfather had four values: Spiritual, Social, Political, Economic. He said always look at them in that order. I’m always grateful I have another day. I don’t have any guarantees that tomorrow will come. So I try to make my day as positive as I can. I also have a resource where I can go to and talk about the problems in my life. All of those things are a part of spirituality. By remembering everything you’ve been through, that’s what can keep you going.

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Matthew is a senior at the University of Chicago, where he is the President of the College Republicans. A political science major, he’s passionate about the need for all of us to challenge ourselves to learn more about the other side. It’s worth noting that the other member of the College Republicans I spoke with said he thought Matt is the best citizen he knows, because Matthew genuinely and generously engages with people who disagree with him everyday.

He’s already politically engaged:

I’m one of the Ward Committee Men in Chicago. I’ve done a lot of civically engaged things, in terms of working with the Fifth Ward community to help improve trash collection and guaranteeing that there’s a good election system. Before I was elected, there weren’t Republican ballot judge at the primaries, and so I worked to make sure that for the general election that every polling place had an election judge that was not a Democrat. At Ward meetings, each committee man represents the votes of the number of people who voted for him, so I take my decisions very seriously when representing the people who elected me.

Why he disagrees with safe spaces:

Dean Ellison, of University of Chicago, said he doesn’t support intellectual safe spaces. That’s something that people who disagreed with the university didn’t talk about. I agree with the Dean. I oppose safe spaces like the one at Brown University when a speaker came to campus, and the campus set up a safe space with play dough, coloring books, and videos of frolicking puppies. Those kinds of safe spaces treat college students like we’re completely inept and can’t hear anything that challenges our world view.

That’s not what the University of Chicago is about. That’s not what any university should be about. Just a few days ago, Ben Shapiro spoke at Berkeley, and the university offered counseling services to students who didn’t even attend the event, students who were just disturbed by his presence on campus. The problem with that is if we treat every speaker as a trauma, it undermines our ability to help people with mental health challenges.

If you don’t like a speaker, don’t go to it. Or go challenge it. But the response should not be to go to coloring books. Continue reading Free Speech, Safe Spaces, and National Pride

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Last Monday, I had a chance to sit down with Northwestern President, Dr. Morton Schapiro. Our conversation touched on the American political system, the importance of both safe spaces and uncomfortable learning, and why students need humility. I’ve broken the interview up into three parts and have edited it slightly for clarity.

 The American System, and Why it Works:

Our written values are exemplary:

What does it mean for all men to be created equal? Well, the founders were men, white men, property owners, and that (should) give (us) a lot to think about. (But) freedom of religion, freedom of expression, individual liberty are great things. I think that the values we have in the U.S., that we have written down but don’t always live, are good ways to live. One of my fields is development economics, and I’ve spent time in seventeen countries. I’ve been in a lot of countries where I’ve said, “Man, they could use a Constitution like ours.”

Property rights and rule of law are fundamental to any country:

I hope being an American would mean to respect basic human rights. It hasn’t always been that way in this country. But beyond that, I also think the rule of law is so important, specifically respecting property rights. I’ve worked in countries where socialist governments nationalized everything overnight. It was such a disaster. You have to respect individual liberty, you have to respect property. If you have laws, you have to abide by them.

One of my colleagues wrote a new book about the culture of economic growth. He argues that some countries have developed and others haven’t, even today, because of respect for laws. In so many countries, the laws are situational. There’s an expediency for the judiciary, for the executive branch. We don’t have that in this country. We don’t always agree on the law, but it is great to be in a country where the law matters. If you don’t protect property rights, you don’t get any investment in capital, human or physical.

Checks and balances:

After the election, I said I had a lot of faith in checks and balances, particularly the independent judiciary. A lot of people said, “That won’t happen.” Well, checks and balances have worked. “So-called” judges have maintained their independence in a beautiful way. Congress has been more of a mixed bag. I think the brilliance of our founding is really that system of checks and balances. (It means) that if there’s a President who has certain kinds of views that aren’t consistent with a lot of other people’s, there’s a limit to what they can do. It’s still not perfect. The President still has the nuclear codes, but it’s a lot better than a lot of the places I’ve been.  Continue reading A Conversation with Northwestern University President, Dr. Morton Schapiro

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My Skewed Education:

Having grown up the son of two teachers, education was always a topic of conversation at my dinner table. From what teachers could do better, to what I wanted to learn, I always talked to my parents about school. I’d always known that my experience was abnormal, both because of my parents’ jobs and where they had them: a secular private school. As I moved through high school at my parents’ school, the conversations I had with my peers turned towards college. Most of the colleges people mentioned were “elite” schools: University of Virginia, Duke, University of Pennsylvania, and so on. As a high school student, this conversation seemed like the norm to me, like the one everyone, everywhere had.

Leaving My Educational Bubble:

Until last Thursday, I had never stepped foot on a community college campus. While in Bowling Green, though, I was lucky enough to go to Owens Community College in Findlay, Ohio. I watched and listened as students scribbled notes, talked to advisors, and caught up with friends. But there was a difference in what students had to do to be able to go to school. Students such as Tosh worked full-time jobs and commuted to school. They needed to juggle two types of learning, two types of effort, in order to get to where they wanted to go. Continue reading Leaving the Bubble

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Mike and Floyd are long-time residents of Bowling Green, Ohio. Mike is a lawyer and a former chair of the local Republican Party. Floyd is a business owner. They both think that Bowling Green is an amazing community but that certain things, namely civics education and access to opportunity, have changed across the country.

On what makes Bowling Green special:

Floyd: I think we have a particularly good community, where most everyone is a good citizen. People do their share when it’s necessary and when they need to come forward. In another life, I worked in retail for a chain, and I moved around every year. This community works better than anywhere I’ve ever been. There’s normally a Democrat sitting where you’re sitting, and we have coffee every day. That’s what makes this community special.  Continue reading Community, Civics, and the Changing American Dream

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This post is my last one before I jump into the normal content of the blog: interviews with people. But before I begin posting those, I want to be honest about my own thoughts. Having read on the state of citizenship and learned about many organizations’ amazing work, I feel like I’m ready to write about what I think the keys to being a good citizen are.

A Class Discussion:

First, though, I want to share an anecdote that might explain why I feel so strongly about this subject. In a class I took in college, there was a reading on jury discrimination in post-Civil War Virginia. Many black men did not have the chance to serve on a jury because prosecutors feared that black jury members might make it harder to convict former slaves of accused crimes. As a result, many black defendants lacked the basic right of a jury of their peers, and many black men didn’t have the right to serve on juries. A federal judge took action and jailed several Virginian judges for violating the Constitution.

As my class debated whether the federal judge made the right choice, I realized how important it was for all of us to have conversations like that one. I learned how crucial our government system was, and how little I understood about it. More importantly, I recognized that being a citizen – listening to the potential crimes of my peers, voting for elected officials, being equal before the law – was not an opportunity many people have had. Being a citizen, then, was something to cherish. (For more on this story, see David Moss, Democracy: A Case Study).

The Five Keys:

This story and the discussion that day hint at many of the traits that I think are important to being a good citizen. At this moment, I think that the five keys to being a good citizen are:

  • Informed advocacy. Advocacy without knowing about an issue is often not effective and can often be counterproductive. Knowing the topic is important, and so is knowing the candidates in an election.
  • A willingness to listen. During class that day, people’s answers were quite varied. In fact, some of them made me uncomfortable. But in that class we had to listen, and then wait our turn to reply. This approach to public conversation would benefit us all.
  • Compassion. We need to care about the well-being of our country and each other for all of us to thrive.
  • Generation Citizen’s idea that we have to have confidence in our actions really resonated with me. It’s hard to remain engaged, and encourage others to engage, if we don’t believe in our value as citizens.
  • A belief in the process. I think at the end of the day, people have to believe in democracy, its potential, and its workings for it to work.

Maybe the people I will talk to will talk about these same traits and actions. In some ways, though, I hope they don’t. I hope they challenge me to imagine citizenship as something different and show me that someone, anyone can be a good citizen in a variety of ways.

If you are interested in reading more of my thoughts on being a good citizen, you can find them here. Have thoughts on the keys to being a good citizen? Send them to me at [email protected]

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Given that data suggests citizenship is in poor condition, I wanted to find some existing ideas on good citizenship. Below, I provide three different visions of what citizenship could and should be. None of these are meant to represent my ideas; I’ll publish those later. Instead, these examples outline some of the amazing efforts of others to encourage good citizenship.

Generation Citizen: Confidence + Habit = Participation

The front banner of Generation Citizen’s website makes its mission clear. It reads: “Generation Citizen believes all students have the right to civics education that prepares them to participate in our democracy.”  The organization, according to employee Sydney Menzin, seeks to “build a habit among citizens to be engaged.” The tool to realizing this idea?  An action civics curriculum, taught to 5th through 12th graders across the country.

Menzin says habit-forming is key because students need to be confident citizens. One story Menzin told me stood out. At first, students often say that there’s no way they can make a difference. They believe no one important will listen to them. But then volunteers, who are local college students, show videos of previous students’ experiences. These students talk about senators who wrote them back and projects that city governments implemented. After seeing the video, students begin to believe they can make a difference.

Continue reading Existing Ideas on Citizenship

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Before I left for my travels, I wanted to know the state of citizenship in our country. What are people saying? Does it seem like people are good citizens? Do they care if they are? Existing research suggests I might be in for a disappointing trip.

Civics Education Failing?

If tests are any indication, it seems like struggles with civic engagement begin at a young age in America. On the 2015 National Assessment of Educational Progress, only 23% of 8th graders were considered proficient in Civics. The average student scored a startling twenty-six points below the proficient level. But students do not only lack knowledge. They also lack an appreciation for citizenship’s and citizens’ importance. For me, the most alarming finding from NAEP was that fewer than one-in-five students could “explain how citizen participation affects democracy.”

Democratic Decline

It’d be one thing if only our youngest citizens lacked knowledge and confidence. But I found that these problems continue and maybe even worsen as people age. Researchers Robert Stefan Foa and Yascha Mounk recently showed that almost a third of American millennials do not believe that living in a democracy is “essential.” 24% even think democracies are bad or very bad. Sadly, people vote at rates that suggest they really do feel this way. In 2017, the Pew Research Center found that the United States ranks 28th out of 35 OECD member countries in voter turnout and that only 64.1% of eligible Americans are registered to vote.

It didn’t surprise me, then, that a Google research team showed that almost 50% of Americans could be described as “Interested Bystanders.” We, as Americans, tend to be people who are “paying attention to issues around them, but actively not voicing their opinions or taking action on those issues.” People want to be involved, but they often don’t know how. Likewise, it seems like people prefer local civics – because they feel like they can make a difference – but still don’t vote in local elections.

My Take on Citizenship Today

American citizenship appears to be in a difficult place. People aren’t voting. They don’t trust the federal government. And maybe most importantly, they don’t feel like they matter.

But the point of this trip is to go beyond the data, beyond the common narrative. I want to know what people think when they talk to someone on the street about these issues, and I want to know if they do care, but just don’t know how to show that they care. Citizenship is more than a number, or casting a ballot. I think it is about stories and experiences. I know it’s about how people live their lives as Americans and members of their communities. Hopefully my project will offer more detail on whether citizenship really is so dire.

More Resources:

Want to learn more on the state of Civic Health? Visit these sites!

Campaign for the Civic Mission of Schools

Pew Research Center

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