Posted by: chrismaser | October 10, 2009

GIVING CHILDREN THEIR RIGHTFUL VOICE—A DEMOCRATIC REVOLUTION

We must—for the children’s sake, if no other—discard our view of the Earth as a battlefield of subjective competition, where our human “superiority” reigns over that of Nature, where my “superiority” reigns over yours, and where the “superiority” of adults reigns over children. We will all be better off if we instead consider the Earth in terms of complementary efforts in which all gifts are equal—including the innocence and imagination of children. Each, in its own way, is important to the health and well-being of the whole, living system. I say this because life demands inner struggle and tenacity, albeit tempered by outer cooperation and coordination, which continually fits and refits each living thing to its function. Complementary efforts, such as those of among adults, as well as those between adults and children, imply equality among people, and human equality represents the stage upon which hope, dignity, and social-environmental sustainability can reign for all generations.

To accomplish this philosophical revolution requires innovative ways to engage children in the democratic process. The following are some possibilities:

  • Addressing the School Board
  • Interviewing New Teachers
  • Creating a Community Vision
  • Resolving conflicts
  • Healing the Land

ADDRESSING THE SCHOOL BOARD

The first thing adults can do to begin the engagement of children in the democratic process is to have members of every school board go into the classrooms and ask the children what they want from their educational experience and why they want it. Have them write essays, and take those essays to the board meetings, where a surprising amount of wisdom can be gleaned from them. Then honor the children by applying that wisdom to their educational curricula.

This is a critical exercise because we adults view education solely from our points of view—increasingly science, math, business, and global competition. Meanwhile, the softer, social aspects of the liberal arts slip farther and farther away, which renders our society evermore competitive—and impersonal, something we can ill afford. I say this because it’s imperative for a truly democratic society to be not only well educated but also well balanced in the breath of its knowledge if it is to survive the of trials of time and simultaneously be trusted in the realm of its international diplomacy. Trust, in turn, is earned through honesty, compassion, cooperation, and the willingness to openly share the best our culture has to offer of its humanity. We, however, are rapidly becoming an increasingly unbalanced, secretive, and unilateral society, which gravely endangers our trustworthiness—and so the long-term survival of our democracy.

INTERVIEWING NEW TEACHERS

I recently heard of a progressive school in Texas with an enlightened way of interviewing prospective teachers. Each applicant is interviewed by three panels:  one of teachers and school administrators, one of parents, and one of the students who will have the teacher that is hired. I think this is a superb idea because every teacher influences his or her students (for better or worse) throughout their lives and can be instrumental in the life-path a student chooses to follow. I have had a few outstanding teachers in my life, and I am profoundly grateful for every one.

CREATING A COMMUNITY VISION

I always have children present when I help a community come to grips with a vision of its future desired condition. At times I set up a panel of grandparents, parents, and children so that three generations are represented. Then I have the grandparents tell the audience what the community was like when they were children and what they wanted from it as they grew up. Next, the parents share their feelings, and finally the children tell their grandparents, parents, and the audience how they view the community and what they want from the community.

In one case, the children turned to their parents and told them to stop growing marijuana, which was the community’s main, cash crop. They went on to tell their parents that, while they (the children) were being taught to tell the truth, they had to lie to protect their parents and keep them out of jail. Needless to say, the audience, constituted of community members, was very quite.

I then had the audience form small groups, each with at least one child. The groups were to describe their desired future condition for the community. The adults were so impressed by the contribution of the children, they asked the children to present the groups’ results to the whole audience, which the children did with a great deal of enthusiasm.

Next, representatives from the various groups were to cooperate in drafting a vision statement that encapsulated the desired future condition. Again, children from each group were delegated to help draft the vision statement for the whole community—a vision statement that is still in effect more than five years since it was drafted.

In another instance, Dr. Dean Button, Director of Program Development, School of Humanities and Social Sciences, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, Troy, New York, writes:

Maser recalled, during our interview, that the group [of fifty adults] was struggling to verbalize their vision of where they wanted to go: “I said, ‘Okay, now I want from each of you a one- or two-sentence statement of what you think this all means, what you want you community’s future to be like. ‘They wrote. Some of them had to write a paragraph, but a vision statement has to be one or two sentences. . . .  The challenge is that most adults come from their heads. So, we went around the room and they read their statements, but each one was rejected—until they came to a girl who was a sophomore or junior in high school. (I had told them in the beginning that I wanted some children to participated. I wanted young folks.) When the young woman read her statement—which came straight from here (refers to heart), unadulterated—they all said, ‘Yes! That’s it!'”

This moment was singled out by several of the participants as one of the most memorable of the entire process. Months later, it was recalled with a mixture of incredulity and pride. Even some of the “old-timers,” who expressed impatience with the emphasis paid to “process,” had a noticeable shift in energy and enthusiasm when making the recollection.

An official with the Forest Service recalled: “They went through all kinds of gyrations at the meetings—identifying their mission and value systems, those kinds of things. Some of them worked and some of it was probably wasted energy—but the interesting thing is a lot of the stuff in here came from a couple of high-school kids. I was at that meeting, and what came out of those kids was really like a light went on to that committee! Gee! That’s what we’re really here for! That was of value to me. I thought, man! That’s great! When the local kids see what they want out of their landscape—and they live here—not the adults—it’s the kids. . . .”

RESOLVING CONFLICTS

I have also found that having children participate in the resolution of environmental conflicts tends to have a sobering affect on the adult disputants, who often tell kids in effect: Do as I say—not as I do. In other words: It’s okay for me to act this way, but not for you to act the same. Thus, the presence of children not only helps the adults to act with greater psychological maturity than they might otherwise consider but also gives the children a voice in the outcome. After all, whatever the future brings, it’s the children who must be able to navigate its circumstances—circumstances passed forward as the legacy of the disputants’ decisions.

Here, it’s good to note that every conflict must end in a shared vision of the future toward which to build if it is to be truly resolved. In this sense, crafting a vision statement prior to the eruption of a conflict can be thought of, and acts as, preemptive conflict resolution—not only for the adults but also for the children.

HEALING THE LAND

Whenever I’m asked to help a community come to grips with a vision and a subsequent plan to repair some aspect of its degraded landscape, I have the person in charge contact the community’s schoolteachers and get permission for volunteers to visit with the children. Once in the classroom, a volunteer explains to the children what is going on, discusses with them what they want the healed land to look like, and finds out why that is important to them. The children are then asked to write essays (stated in the positive) that will inform the community leaders of what they (the children) want the land to look like when the healing is completed and why that’s important to them. In other words, the children are being asked for their counsel with respect to the future condition of their community’s landscape, which also represents the possibilities for the children’s future.

As with the other visioning processes, the children also participate in deciding what to heal, how, and why. Through the combination of essays and personal participation in the visioning process, as well as the healing itself, the children not only have a voice in the future of their community but also have a vested interest in the physical outcome. In this way, whatever the landscape becomes, it is also partly their gift to the members of the community—present and future, which might someday include their own children. This is truly the practice of inclusive, participatory democracy.


 

Related Posts:

• Children Deserve A Voice In Their Future

• The Great American Irony

• How The Use Of Language Teaches Children They Are Inferior

• Children Deserve A Voice In Their Future

• Changing Our Adult Thinking

• Democracy

• The Challenges Of Leadership

• The Essence Of Leadership

• Our Institutionalized Resistance To Change

• Meeting Fear

 


© Chris Maser, 2009. All Rights Reserved.

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If you want to contact me, you can visit my website. If you wish, you can also read an article about what is important to me and/or you can listen to me give a presentation.



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