National Adult Education and Family Literacy Week, along with providing an opportunity to draw attention to the importance of adult education, reminds us of the need for widespread civic engagement. Despite WIOA’s almost singular focus on workforce development, many practitioners are thinking about the role of civics in adult education. Threats to the education budget, along with the elevated stress and economic instability related to looming issues such as affordable health care, hostility toward immigrants and people of color, and climate change, beckon us all to be more strongly engaged in civic life. Both ESOL and ABE instructors are pondering the civic skills and practices adults need in order to participate not only in the Educate and Elevate campaign, but in the many community conversations and activities relevant to adult students’ concerns. If we want to help students fully understand and engage in the high-stakes decisions that affect them, we need to up our civic game! So here are three suggestions:
- Recognize the importance of civics by making it part of your adult education mission. Define a program approach that prepares adults for a rich variety of civic activities (the underlying skills, knowledge, and practices overlap considerably with those that adults also need for work!). Consider using civic frameworks to guide your thinking, such as the American Association of Colleges and Universities Civic Engagement Value Framework, or the civics categories outlined in NELRC’s Civic Participation and Community Action Sourcebook. Think about what a “civic pathway” might look like.
- Provide opportunities for adults to practice the art of civic engagement together. Surround them with peer support and recognizable role models to help inspire them to step into new roles and activities: educating decision-makers (Educate and Elevate), preparing to participate in elections (Voter Education, Registration, and Action), staying informed about immigration issues (Emerson Collective), or learning the many ways that people like them have been and continue to be agents of change (The Change Agent).
- Explore the abundant connections that can be made between civics and the world of work that is the current focus of instruction. For example, demonstrate that skills transfer across contexts by teaching students how to apply their developing tech skills to both work and civic tasks. Break down false silos by considering work as a civic topic (What rules about working conditions do we live by? Who makes the rules and how can/have workers affected those rules? Examine the data regarding job trends, wage rates, or demographic patterns. How can people impact those trends?)
Over time, civics in most programs has been narrowing to a slim, though important, set of activities (letter-writing, voting, citizenship prep). In a vibrant democracy, civic participation entails more than that. If we want to fully raise our voices, we need to commit to a robust vision of civics that responds to the urgency of our times.