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.