Recent successes of Black Lives Matters and the racial justice movement have demonstrated the power of organized public action. They have inspired a swell of attention to issues of equity and interest in civic engagement. This new awareness has created the opportunity to expand our notion of how to ready adults for civic participation in today’s world. A topic once anchored in understanding how government works and voting, it is increasingly clear that preparation for full civic engagement involves a broader set of advocacy, communication, technology, research, problem-solving and leadership skills, as well as opportunities to practice those skills.
One education program that has moved in this direction is English Innovations (EI). Developed by OneAmerica in Washington state and now coordinated nationally by the National Partnership for New Americans, EI is a model that rests on 3 pillars: English language, digital literacy, and civic engagement. Its latest report describes a shift to building a stronger integration between the education program and OneAmerica’s broader mission to “build power and leadership among immigrant and refugee English learners in Washington State.”
In this report, the authors describe a curriculum that addresses a continuum of engagement starting with basic awareness of community resources and moving to involvement in community campaigns and ultimately to organizing and advocacy. And because OneAmerica is active in or leads so many community efforts (in immigrant integration, economic and environmental justice, etc.), there are myriad ways that adults can investigate issues and apply their developing skills in the real world. EI serves as an “entry point” for directly impacted community members to join OneAmerica’s work.
EI leaves behind the approach to civics education that focuses solely on what we can do as individuals and introduces adults to taking action together – about real issues and contexts – and invites them to see where collective engagement can take them. Volunteer Shi Ya notes that EI “builds power through conversations about power.” Such conversations raise people’s understanding that a large part of civic engagement is holding decision-makers accountable after they have been elected and educating others so they can join you in informed action. These activities require skills we’re not accustomed to teaching in adult education, but should.
Other organizations are exploring ways to deepen the role of education in preparing adults to build, protect, and participate in a responsive democracy. Stay tuned for more blog posts on that topic!