Sunday, April 22, 2012

Civic Space: a kinesthetic experience

In both of my history classes we have been examining the expansion of democracy in the 19th and early 20th centuries. In World History we have been asking ourselves whether or not suffrage alone is sufficient to consider a country democratic. Who needs to vote? Who has the vote who doesn't? Is it possible to have universal adult suffrage and not have democracy? We have asked ourselves what else might be required. Some students suggested a written constitution might be a prerequisite, others wanted a legal system that treated everyone the same. Still other students felt guarantees of basic human rights were essential ingredients for a functioning democracy. Interestingly, none of them on came up with the idea of civic space, civic organizations, or civic engagement. Alexis de Tocqueville identified American volunteerism or the tendency to form associations as a defining characteristic of American democracy. My students have grown up with this most basic and necessary ingredient as a part of the air they breath. Every Saturday, these self same students may see this at work when two groups share the public square in West Chester, PA. On one side of the intersection are those carrying flags and signs telling us to  "Support our Troops" or "Thank our military heroes". On the other side of the intersection another group carries flags with the stars arranged in a peace symbol and holding signs telling us that "War is not the answer" or "Support our troops, bring them home".

Occupy Wall Street is back in New York (though you wouldn't know it from the non existent news coverage). Every weekend in the spring groups gather for walks, health festivals, protests and rallies (large and small). This rainy Sunday morning, 17 Westtown students and assorted adults joined several hundred other folks from around Delaware and Chester County to participate in the Walk MS event. With their feet and in the rain these kids engaged in the public discourse around Multiple Sclerosis. They helped to re-create and sustain the civic space so vital to a successful democracy. While not as dramatic as the March on Washington in 1963 or the Bonus Army occupation in 1932, this was civic engagement all the same. These weren't truckers protesting fuel prices or public workers in Wisconsin protesting changes in their pay structure. They were, two girls whose mothers have MS. These two girls wanted to raise awareness of the disease for their peers and take action in a tangible way. Their friends wanted to help. This is how all movements large and small begin. These two girls and their friends now have another experience upon which to build of making change, of being involved. Citizenship is not waiting for good things to be handed down from on high (it never has worked that way-ask Alice Paul) -- waiting versus acting might be the difference between being a subject and being a citizen. These Westtown students have begun to understand through their walking today, that citizenship means action. Whenever we create space for our students to actively engage as opposed to passively receive we insure the health of our democracy.