Growing Change Agents

As part of the 2019 SSSP Annual Meeting, I had the pleasure of convening a panel of four scholars exploring the role community-based organizations play in engaging, developing, amplifying, and connecting youth to the larger world as social actors and agents of change.  The four presentations by Lauren Dent (University of North Texas), May Lin (University of Southern California), Jessica Sperling, (Duke University), and Wendall Wallace (University of the West Indies) shared research that included multiple contexts from youth police clubs in Trinidad and Tobago (Wallace) to a national orchestral music program targeted to youth (Sperling) to racial justice youth organizations in Southern California (Lin) to tribal youth engaged in emergency preparedness (Dent).  

With methods from deep participant observation to randomized control trials (RCT), the four scholars side-stepped the traditional take on social change that tends to examine the skills, strategies, and tactics of youth to mobilize and exert political power. Instead, these presentations collectively told a more humanistic and developmental story.  With foci on opportunity provision, social-emotional learning, building of collective identity through culture and safety, and leveraging of youth as leadership assets, these scholars highlighted that social change efforts targeting youth need to dig deeper than simple leadership skill development or issue campaign work.  

The intrapersonal and interpersonal attitudes and dispositions to affect change don’t just materialize. They are developed over time, through multiple experiences and in multiple contexts. Wallace shared how the police clubs create contexts where youth can start to see themselves in a different way — as confident and able to achieve.  Sperling’s work with Kidznotes, an orchestral music program, highlighted the importance of not only measuring traditional markers of success like academic achievement, but capacities such as executive function, prosocial behavior, and dispositions like persistence that allow youth to move into collaborative work with others. Lin’s research further stressed the need to create spaces for active listening, reflection and emotional sharing in youth change work.  This sort of healing culture is especially critical for youth of color whose often traumatic experiences in school and society benefit from being unpacked as sources of strength and collective identity. Finally, Dent’s exploration of youth in disaster preparedness efforts spoke to the real gaps and needs youth can fill in much change work if given the space to lead. In fact, their contributions can transform the work as they bring their skills and perspectives to endeavors. 

Over the last decade and a half, the growing body of work on the sociopolitical development of young people, especially as agents of change, has grown. I thank these four scholars for their contributions to this body of work.

The Act of Responding

As I am reflecting on my dissertation research about youth engagement and my experiences with community-based engagement efforts, it is not lost on me how important it is for individuals and groups to be responded to. The response acknowledges that they exist and have a voice.

But it seems for true engagement and ownership to happen the response needs to one of openness and support. The “that’s a great idea how can I help” or “that’s fantastic, do you know what might make it better” or “You have something there, you might want to consider these challenges or barriers so you don’t get stopped.” What is not helpful or empowering is the “We’ve tried that and it won’t work” or “You can’t do that” or “You are not doing that right” or “Others are already doing that.”

The best response is not only open and supportive but also helps to connect and build — the “That’s a great idea, let’s see who else is one board” or “X,Y, and Z are also working on that — let’s talk to them too.”

So, how responsive is your group, organization, community, or political processes?

Learning for Long-term Success

In November of last year, I shared a list of seven principles that our spaces for learning and development need to address in order to create young people (and ultimately a society) with strong civic capabilities.

This is the first in a series of blog posts that will explore each principle within the context of my work at JFF’s Student-Centered Learning Research Collaborative.  My ultimate goal is to integrate my thinking around civic capabilities and student-centered learning. Clearly, this is an effort to rationalize my day to day work more fully.

PRINCIPLE ONE

Organizations and individuals should be able to develop capacities to sustain and grow themselves for long-term success. 

 All good learning environments should “grow” leaners for “long-term success.” But what does long-term success mean and what should one grow? 

One marker of long-term success is meaningful work. This suggests learning environments should allow individuals to develop skills and knowledge that lend themselves to practical application in work-oriented pursuits.  To this end, competency-based learning (one of the four student-centered learning tenants) and by extension, learning that can happen anytime and anywhere (another student-centered learning tenant) are well aligned with building work skill mastery. In other words, learning should be experiential a la John Dewey.  

Experiential learning is well suited for the skills needed for successful work, what are often referred to as deeper learning competencies, soft skills or 21st century skills.  So what does growth for long-term success in the work life have to do with civic capabilities?  It is not hard to draw links between the skills developed for work-oriented pursuits (e.g. communication, collaboration, creative and critical thinking) and their applicability to civic-oriented realms such as grassroots organizing, volunteering, or issue advocacy.  Civic work is work.  It is a type of social production with different sorts of goods resulting, civic goods (e.g. collective action to improve the environment, increased understanding of important issues, stronger bonds between neighbors).

At the same time the idea of learners sustaining and growing “themselves” suggests that there is an individual value to learning.  This leads easily into the idea that learning is lifelong and never ending.  Therefore, long-term success could be found in any learning endeavor that is personally fulfilling.  Here, personalization and ownership of learning, or learner agency, are key student-centered learning ideas at play. Personalized in that every person will have a unique set of learning motivations and goals they will want to pursue.  Owned, because the motivation to engage comes from the individual who is driven in pursuit of their learning own goals and objectives.

With this frame, one would want to “grow” the ability of individuals to understand what interests them and how to choose the correct action to take to maximize that interest.  A constant assessment of whether or not one is actually achieved one’s end goals in their learning pursuit would be critical.  So here, skills like critical thinking, reflection, metacognition, problem-solving, decision-making, and host of other executive order skills are demanded.

What does this framing of long-term success have to do with civic capabilities?  To know one’s self and to act on one’s own interests is agentic.  To have agency or to act in an agentic manner, is core to civic action. But what is really important about the idea of learners sustaining and growing “themselves” is the idea that learners “should be able to develop” themselves.  It is the idea of having the ability that enforces the concept that learners have agency.  It is not that “individuals must develop” (which is prescriptive) or we “must develop individuals” (which is paternalistic). Rather, individuals “should be able to develop”, if they so choose. They are not being forced to sustain and grow, they are simply being afforded the opportunity to do so. And assumed in this principle is that ALL learners should be afforded this opportunity.

Connecting “ME” to “WE”

Image result for self-organizing teams

A few years ago, my former teammates at CIRCLE worked on a set of civic capabilities that every person should be afforded.  Adapting Amartya Sen and Martha Nussbaum’s  human development and capabilities framework, we came up with a pretty great list of 10 civic capabilities.  I share this background, because out of that work myself and the other CIRCLE team members thought through our own extensions and modifications that we would add.  I came across my list of 7 principles that connect the individual (me) to a larger collective world (we).  I share them here as I start to contemplate what it means to connect student-centered learning to the development of civic capabilities:

  1. Organizations and individuals should be able to develop capacities to sustain and grow themselves for long-term success.  (Related values:  knowledge, education, investing)
  2. Opportunities for involvement in civic and political life should be equitable and accessible. (Related values:  justice, fairness)
  3. We should strive to create compassionate and tolerant environments that support a diversity of views, opinions, skills and talents. (Related values:  empathy, love, openness, generosity)
  4. Our civic and public spaces should allow for the development of respect, trust and connection. (Related values:  belonging, community)
  5. Those who hold power should be accountable to all members of society, especially those who are most marginalized. (Related values: justice, fairness, trust)
  6. We should work in solidarity with others to promote fairness and work always towards positive change.  (Related values:  community, cooperation, belonging, hopefulness, impact)
  7. Fearlessness and courage are needed when confronting those who curtail the freedom, happiness, and lives of others. (Related values:  liberty, integrity, duty,  ethics)

Claiming Identity

March 17th is not only St. Patrick’s Day, it also the day my mom was born.   Happy Birthday Mom!!!  Patricia McCarthy who later married a Sullivan.  Seems like you can’t get more Irish than that.  While my first name isn’t particularly Irish — my siblings, Kevin and Colleen, couldn’t bear more Irish monikers.

Growing up in an Irish Catholic family with many cousins, aunts, and uncles, there was always a lot of pride in this Irish identity.  Green shamrocks, Irish jigs, affiliation with the church where many of the Irish families went, and later in life trips to Ireland. Yet both of my grandmothers were French Canadian,  Quebecois.  Both spoke French as children and up until their marriages, both had been part of long, long Quebecois lineages. My cousin Jeannie McCarthy, who later became a DeSantis, has done the leg work to map the tree on my mom’s side.

I never knew either of my grandfathers, the ones who connect me to my Irish roots.  My mom’s father died when she was nine.  As I’ve gotten older, I find it strange that this Irish identity was so embraced while the Quebecois just sat in the corner.  I think some of the claiming of the Irish identity and ignoring the Quebecois has to do with power dynamics in a small rural town (including tensions around language and assimilation) and some has to do with  patriarchy.

In the years since my mom’s death, I have looked at the long, long line of women who made me possible, finding my way back to Marie Bardin born about 1597 in La Rochelle, France whose daughter Marie Boisdon would marry Jaques Vézina and travel with him to New France in the mid-1600s.  My Irish ancestors would come nearly two centuries later.  Up until my generation, my direct ancestors had not moved far from that 90 miles between Montreal and Malone, NY.

So on this very Irish of days, I also want to celebrate those French women who came before me, as well as that first generation who blended the French with the Irish, my mom and her siblings.  They have left me with an identity that is more than just being a Sullivan.  While I am at it, I  wish a happy birthday to Don Bernier who is a Franco-American born on St. Patrick’s Day.  Seems appropriate to note him here 🙂

[NOTE:  The family crest in this post was created by my cousin Joel Chapin whose mother was born Ruth McCarthy. He crafted it for our first official family reunion and it perfectly reflects the binding of the Irish and French that was our grandmother, Grace May (or Mary) Labelle McCarthy.]

The Cost of Creating Knowledge


So I was there and now I am here.  I left a research institution for a decently sized nonprofit.  This has meant losing access to a number of tools that facilitate and allow new knowledge to be built — Institutional Review Boards, statistical software, sophisticated surveying tools, library resources, and more.   Tens of  thousands of dollars in knowledge creating assets no longer easily accessed.  Luckily the new nonprofit has some capacity to start building this infrastructure.  Some it will need to be borrowed.  This is because staffers have social capital to access it through their networks or other affiliations. We also have the most expensive asset –  hundreds of thousands of dollars of human capital that knows how to create knowledge.

But what if you are a grassroots organization trying to provide evidence that your reality is actually real?  What if you are fighting against the knowledge creation resources of a much more well resourced opponent?  What then?  I may be lamenting my diminished research capacities, but I am still far more privileged than many.

Being Represented

The global is local. I may not be able to change things at the federal level, but change at the local level is possible and doable.

democracy2

The election of Donald Trump as the 45th president and the near domination of the GOP at almost every level of government has me thinking a lot about what it means to be in a representative democracy. As I see the President-Elect assemble his cabinet, I do not see any person or persons who represent my vision or me for a future. While I can’t speak for the majority of voters who voted for someone else other than Mr. Trump, I doubt they see themselves or their interests represented there.

At this moment, North Carolina’s elected representatives in the state house are stripping the powers of the incoming Governor, a Democrat, who after an extremely competitive race ousted the GOP incumbent responsible for supporting regressive bills that resulted in concrete hardship, both economic and social, for the state. These very same legislators are also the ones who worked to curtail the voting rights of African Americans and young people. They did not succeed.

This anti-democratic move, so like the recent election of Mr. Trump, is a fight to see who will be represented in our government. This has me thinking a lot about my very own local elected bodies. And how like the election of Mr. Trump, I do not feel represented by those who sit on either the City Council, nor the School Committee. I do not see myself, my values, nor my Lowell represented there. There have been a few glimmers in the last twenty years, but they are fleeting.

I’ve lived and worked in Lowell for almost two decades. From the moment I first came to Lowell, I have loved its diversity. The mix of history, culture and perspectives from across the globe are like no other in the Commonwealth. I have thought this is the closest I will get to a mini-NYC in New England. Lowell is big enough to contain many lives and many stories, but small enough to belong and be known, even if one is constantly referred to as a “blow-in” or “outsider” by some. Lowell is fortunate to have committed civic actors who care, love and strive to make the city a better place. Lowell’s nonprofit sector is amazing and I don’t think we fully understand how rare it is the collaboration and partnership that happens here. But most of all, Lowell’s people sustain me. They are the reason I continue to remain invested.

Despite my love of Lowell, every local election cycle I am disappointed. I don’t doubt the fact that those who run and are elected to local bodies love and care for Lowell as much or more than I do. I don’t doubt that they are driven and aspire for what they see as best for the city. Yet, every new Council and School Committee draws its winners from a very small and limited group of the City’s populace. While they are committed public servants, their perspectives are narrow. I do not see all of Lowell represented there. The vibrant ethnic and immigrant communities, the young, the artists, the newcomers or blow-ins, the neighborhoods and so many more perspectives are missing. They are not represented. And because a diversity of backgrounds and experiences are not on our elected bodies, our local public institutions and policies suffer. Lowell suffers. We may be amazing in so many ways, but we could be even better if more of us were represented.

So while I feel despondent about the federal government representing me and I see limitations in so many places, I feel confident that Lowell’s politics could and can be better. We are about to enter into a new local election cycle and there is an opportunity to expand who represents us. There are multiple pathways to make this happen and I urge us all push to make our politics more representative. It might not be easy, or without conflict, but I believe it will benefit us in the long term. I am thinking through what I will do to make this vision a reality, and if you are in a place like Lowell, or even Lowell, what will you do?

The Open Dinner — A Modest Step towards an Engaged Community

Community Dinner

I have a wonderful friend, Y Sok.  She is a bold Cambodian woman who is by far one of the most amazing hosts.  In another time and place, she would be the mistress of a sparkling Salon.  Y has recently moved to Manchester, England to join her newly wed husband Jonathan.  Prior to her departure from Lowell, Massachusetts (whose blueprint came from Manchester), Y ran weekly Tuesday night dinners.  They were open invitation to her broad network.  You could bring along any guest and there was always room and food.  It was a standing thing and the best part of the whole evening would be the eclectic mix of people and the conversation.  The food was always fantastic, but the conversation and connection even more so.

Now Y is hosting weekly Friday night dinners in her small abode in Manchester to anyone who signs up to her club.  It is a free club organized through MeetUp.  She cooks the mains and the guests bring the sides.  That is the contract.  Here’s her report out on the dinner last night:

It went great. Best one so far. I have close to a hundred members now, and all dinners booked months in advance. Meeting really interesting people, from all walks of life. My next one is Polish food. Last night we had a newly separated rich guy, a mechanic, a Venezuelan ex pat widow, a retired teacher, a curtain maker, and a pub owner. I usually do the main dish, and they bring everything else. They love the idea that they have to research the country, and recipes. Jonathan helps serve Drinks, and cleans up.

What would happen if we each did something as simple as invite a bunch of strangers to dinner?  Not even once a week, not even once a month, but just ONCE.  Who would show up?  What sort of new connections, ideas and relationships would be formed?  It is a bit scary to open one’s home to the unknown.  It takes some courage.  I’m not sure if I have such courage.  But what if I did? What if you did?

Note:  image courtesy of – http://sf.funcheap.com/event-series/free-community-dinner/

What is the Internet’s Constitution?

TCP/IP

Peter Levine asked “how to teach the constitution of cyberspace?”  Is it possible for students to “critically assess the basic rules and structure of the Internet, much as they should understand and be able to criticize the US Constitution”? I agree with Levine that the massive, complex, and dynamic system that is the Internet is hard to suss out.  Where would one begin to critically assess?  Where are the founding principles codified?

Thinking on this it occurred to me that if we went back to the early 1960s we may indeed be able to articulate the founding blueprint of the Internet, its DNA, its Constitution.  Skimming through a couple of historical documents — most notably Janet Abbate’s Inventing the Internet and Roy Rozenzweig’s Wizards, Bureaucrats, Warriors, and Hackers: Writing the History of the Internet, I am wondering what we might learn about the values and design of the Internet from two key protocols – TCP/IP and HTTP.   The former are the essential protocols that allow everything on the Internet to work and the latter the gateway that ushered millions online.

Admittedly technical language such as these can be off putting.  The purpose and intents for the design not always clear to the lay audience.  And while the U.S. Constitution was written and ratified to provide the scaffold for an emerging nation, these protocols were designed for an emerging communication system which has grown to embody a massive, virtual and electronically fueled “cyberspace”.

So what are the principles, values, and essential design features of these protocols and what might they tell us about democracy online?