Times They are A-Changin’ – Part II

By Tricia Seifert (@TriciaSeifert)

In the last week, two countries in North America have celebrated birthdays. On July 1, Canada celebrated 150 years of Confederation, which many have reclaimed as 150+ years in recognition of the centuries of indigenous people inhabiting that land. The United States celebrated 241 years of the signing of the #DeclarationOfIndependence, which was read aloud and tweeted by @NPR on the 4th of July.

Education has long been heralded as key to a thriving democracy. The historical trauma that residential boarding schools inflicted on indigenous people in both Canada and the US, however, has sullied the promise of education. Yet, “facing the truth,” as Suzanne Stewart (@SuzanneLStewart) and Charles Pascal suggest in their editorial in the Toronto Star, is indeed worthy of celebration.

Many institutions including my own, Montana State University, purport to “to improve the human prospect through excellence in education, research, creativity and civic responsibility.” With celebrations this past week north and south of the 49th parallel, I have been thinking a great deal about how educators engage students to enact their civic responsibility such that education’s promise can be fully realized in these two countries and beyond their borders in the next 150 years.

I believe part of civic responsibility is engaging in the political and public policy process. Today I share a small action I took to bring public policy discussions, particularly as they pertain to education policy, to the forefront in the MSU Department of Education.

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Engaging in the Policy Conversation

Every week I send an email communication, the Monday Minutes, to students, staff, and faculty in the Department of Education. With the start of a new year, a new President taking office in the US, and new legislative session beginning in our state capital, it seemed timely to begin including information about various public policy proposals at the local, state, and federal level in addition to the usual announcements, opportunities, and event information.

Recognizing that this was an addition to the previous semester’s weekly communication, I prefaced the section titled, Policy Update – Opportunities for Civic Engagement with the following statement,

Part of being an educator and professional is to be aware of and engage with public policy relevant to your work and daily practice. This section of the Monday Minutes is designed to share public policy and legislation that pertains to our work as educators.

In each week’s communication, I aimed to include information about policies at the national/federal, state, and local level. I wanted people to recognize that public policy discussions, pertinent to their professional practice, happen all around them and at every level of governance. Over the course of the second semester, I shared information about a:

  • Local bond issue to fund a second high school in our community
  • State legislation that would provide less operating funds to the Montana University System, resulting in a tuition increase for students
  • President Trump’s federal budget proposal

In each case, I provided links to learn more about the issue and how to contact directly one’s elected and appointed public officials (US Congress, state legislators, school district personnel).

In the heat of these political times, many may wonder how to engage students, staff, and faculty in a way that is non-partisan. The text below is taken verbatim from how I introduced the federal budget proposal.

From a National perspective:

If you have not reviewed President Trump’s budget proposal, I encourage you to do so here. The proposal has SIGNIFICANT implications for public schooling and higher education accessibility. Please voice your support or opposition to our federal legislators. It¹s easy to do, simply click on this link: https://www.senate.gov/senators/contact/

I was clear to frame the civic action in response to the policy proposal in terms of one’s “support or opposition.” This is crucial; I am more than aware of the public discourse that purports faculty members seek to indoctrinate students. The US Secretary of Education, Betsy DeVos, drew much attention in February stating,

“The fight against the education establishment extends to you too. The faculty, from adjunct professors to deans, tell you what to do, what to say, and more ominously, what to think.”

My intention with this small action with the Monday Minutes Policy Update – Opportunities for Civic Engagement is not to influence students, staff, or faculty members’ policy perspectives but to invite them to engage in public policy discussions as a matter of professional and civic obligation. To me, education that encourages and invites the community to engage in matters of public policy debate, development, and implementation is central to a healthy democracy.

Although I need to assess to what extent Department of Education students, staff, and faculty acted on this information, a number of people stopped by my office this semester to thank me for making this information easily accessible. Sometimes all you need is an accessible link to inform yourself in order to take action and make your voice heard.

Two Small Wins

So what’s my take-away from the two small actions discussed in the last blog posts?

I think what hits home is that providing an opportunity for people to interact with new ideas (whether those ideas are advanced by people in a discussion or a policy document) is simply what educators do. It’s not flashy; it’s part and parcel of what education is — interacting with new ideas. I didn’t do anything big in either of my actions but people came out of the experience with more information. They encountered new things to think about, questions to ponder, and possibilities for action. As David Kolb stated years ago, “learning is a process.” The small actions I took gave a chance for folks to further engage in that process.

I’m curious what others have done to discuss religious, spiritual and worldview diversity with students. I’m also interested in how you have invited students, staff, and faculty to engage in the public policy conversation.

What have been your successes? What challenges have you experienced? Please take a moment to “leave a reply” and be part of this critical conversation as we navigate these changing times.

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Times They are A-Changin’

By Tricia Seifert (@TriciaSeifert)

It has been five months since I posted about the changing political times and their influence on post-secondary education in the United States. In the interim, several courts have ruled against President Trump’s ban on travel for people from six predominantly Muslim nations. But just yesterday, the Supreme Court of the United States allowed for the travel ban to be enforced provided that the travelers from these six nations do not have a “bona fide” relationship to the US. The Court’s ruling has been interpreted as permitting those from Iran, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria, and Yemen to attend a university or deliver a speech as having “a credible claim” of a relationship with a person or entity in the US. Students and scholars from these countries may travel to the US. But in an ever-changing political climate of what constitutes “bona fide”, these students and scholars may feel uncomfortable, unwelcome, or most importantly, unsafe to do so. International students and scholars who are not from the banned countries may also question travel to the US and decide against it.

When the executive order was signed, I was worried that students from one of the six countries who had gone home might not be able to return to their studies. I was concerned that parents who are graduate students from one of the six countries presenting at a conference might not be able to come home to their children. I live fairly close to the Canadian border and could not help but think about the possible grad student from Iran who went to present an academic paper at a conference in Calgary being prevented to cross back into the US. I was thinking especially of their children and the extent to which the student teachers from Montana State University are prepared to support these international kids in their classrooms.

Five months ago, President Trump’s attempt to ban people from predominantly Muslim countries moved me to think about how to bring discussions of diversity and public policy to the forefront in my work with students, staff, and faculty. Today, the Supreme Court’s decision to uphold parts of the travel ban, particularly as it pertains to limiting refugees from war-torn countries, has me thinking about how educators support students to understand different religious, spiritual, and worldview perspectives.

Taking Action

Like so many, I felt and feel a bit paralyzed by what I can do. With everything that calls for my daily attention, what actions can I take? What is within my sphere of influence?

[I want to note that I wrote this blog post on Saturday, June 24. The US government’s enforcement of the executive order travel bans has changed tremendously in the last 24 hours and I have updated to reflect the day-by-day changes that Americans and others from around the world are experiencing with respect to US policy. What I share is what I have done in the five months since the initial executive orders were announced. The US Supreme Court’s actions in the last day have only strengthened my resolve.]

Examining Religious, Spiritual, & Worldview Diversity

Because the travel bans are focused on countries with predominantly Muslim populations, I feel it is important to begin by acknowledging the religious diversity of today’s college campus. I knew I needed to take advantage of the good work that already being done in this arena and not re-invent the wheel.

In February, I tapped into the NASPA live webinar series that focused on supporting Sikh and Hindu students. This was a useful starting point as the series was timely and because it is not uncommon for Sikh and Hindu students to be mistaken for Muslim students. It is noteworthy how few students know the difference between these religious faith traditions, despite the nearly two billion people around the world who practice these traditions.

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I was grateful for the insight provided by Dr. Simran Jeet Singh (@SikhProf), Assistant Professor of Religion at Trinity University and senior religion fellow with the Sikh Coalition, a civil rights advocacy group for the Sikh community and Cody Nielsen (@campminmatters) who interviewed Dr. Singh.

Over the course of an hour, Montana State University Department of Education students, staff, and faculty learned about the basic values of the Sikh religion and the outwardly physical characteristics displayed by Sikhs. You probably have seen the long, uncut hair often wore tucked up in a turban. But beyond the outward signs, I was struck by the similarity of Sikh values to Christianity and other world religions.

Dr. Singh spoke about Sikhs service to God, which manifests in serving the world, selflessly inspired by love. He also spoke about remembrance and the pillars of engaging in one’s community, the concept of oneness of God, and the ideal of love. Thinking about the Christian lessons from my childhood, I noted how in the Sikh faith suffering results from failing to recognize the oneness and divinity in each being. To me, this spoke to my Sunday school lesson of loving one another.

I was motivated to provide this opportunity to learn about other religions because so few students, staff, and faculty (outside those in the Religious Studies department) know about the values and principles that guide faith traditions outside their own. Faith, religion, and worldview is a key dimension of our students’ identities; it often shapes students’ behavior and how they interact with others. Think about how people from different faith traditions extend greetings, whether it is appropriate to make eye contact, and how and how often they pray. And yet, it is not uncommon for people to have no knowledge of the principles and values of the religion, faith tradition, or worldview that guide these behaviors and interactions.

Stated simply, if our college and universities are to prepare teachers and leaders to support all students, they need to understand their students’ religious, spiritual, and worldviews.

Yesterday, I shared my interest in creating a Worldviews Passport program with our student government president and Office of Activities & Engagement staff. The program would introduce students to the principles and values of a host of faith communities and invite passport holders to reflect on how understanding that worldview will enable them to interact inclusively in work and community settings. As we talked, the student affairs staff got excited about partnering with student clubs and working together to connect with the community.

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Changing Times and Greater Resolve

I was excited with possibility. Then I came back to my computer and learned about the Supreme Court decision.

The need for people to understand different religious, spiritual, and worldview perspectives has never been greater. These actions taken by the US government have only strengthened my resolve that the safety, security, and future of nations lies with educators who invite students into the great wonder that is learning about ideas that differ from your own.

Only once we understand the other can we be understood.

Next week I will share the second small action I took as a result of President Trump’s executive order banning travel from six predominantly Muslim countries. My mantra is “small actions yield small wins.”

I want to hear from you. We are part of a worldwide community of educators. In light of the changing political times, how are you supporting students? As always, I invite you to be part of the conversation by leaving a comment.