By Ethan Lowenstein
On October 5, 2015, the Detroit activist and scholar Grace Lee Boggs died at the age of 100. I am among the fortunate many who had the opportunity to work and organize with Grace and who were touched by her presence. Grace’s efforts to help young people develop a deep sense of belonging to their communities, and a sense of their own worth through the practice of making their communities more just and loving places, continue to inspire what we do at the Southeast Michigan Stewardship Coalition (SEMIS Coalition). In the face of the social and ecological crises we are currently confronting, and with an educational system that sometimes seems more concerned with test scores than with community, Grace’s educational message and our work at the SEMIS Coalition couldn’t come at a more important time.
I first worked with Grace 15 years ago during Freedom Schooling discussions that were held by the James and Grace Lee Boggs Center, the Detroit-based organization for community leadership and change that Grace founded with her husband, James, in the early 1990s. Grace and her husband were passionate about schools and the role of imagination in change. The discussions drew inspiration from the Freedom Schools in the South during the 1960s and were based on the belief that schools not only needed to teach academics but help young people to develop a sense of themselves as agents of change and decision-makers. The discussions focused on liberating our imaginations to picture schools as they could and should be.
When asked for advice by an Eastern Michigan University (EMU) student at a talk at EMU some years back, Grace smiled and said without hesitation, “Grow your souls and stay in the same place for a long, long time.” For much of her life, Grace wrote about revolution as an evolutionary process, stressing that the reason past revolutions had failed is because people had not evolved into full human beings, and therefore, once in power, they just reproduced the old system. She saw the role of schools as helping young people become “solutionaries” — people who are skilled at creating beloved communities, who, through being attached enough to their place and thirsty for self-growth, are able to simultaneously transform and heal themselves and their communities.
How we support educators, both classroom-based and community-based, in their work to help youth become solutionaries is one of the critical questions of our time. Our work in the SEMIS Coalition and in the College of Education at EMU has required us to think carefully about growing visionary educational communities in the times that we live in. In the education world, the approach we are using is called place-based education (PBE). In our experience, PBE — using the local community, including the environment, as the primary site for eliciting curiosity, posing questions, and envisioning possibilities and then acting to bring them into the world — is the most promising approach to education given our historical moment. While the PBE approach can be considered good old “progressive education,” aiming to meets the needs of the whole child, what makes it different is its central focus on healing relationships with each other and fellow community members in the natural world (the plants, animals, water), and in our particular place over long periods of time. It’s important to note that this focus on place-attachment and stewardship is not new, however; many indigenous cultures have educated their youth in this way for millennia.
The Southeast Michigan Stewardship Coalition
The SEMIS Coalition works with teachers from over 17 schools and over 25 community partner organizations in the region to help young people become citizen-stewards of their local communities and the Great Lakes. We are part of a larger state-wide organization called the Great Lakes Stewardship Initiative. We use a strength-based coalition model — in which our members contribute their gifts to the commons and express their need for support to fellow community members. We provide intensive supports to adults to learn how to use a place-based teaching approach. These supports include professional development, curriculum coaching, small grants for projects, and a welcoming, nurturing community in which educators can regain some strength, pause, reflect, and be with other visionary educators as they seek their own transformation and the transformation of their schools.
A couple of weeks ago, I ran into a parent of a SEMIS Coalition youth leader. The youth leader was deeply impacted by her SEMIS teachers and membership in the Coalition during fourth and fifth grade, and had done a presentation on her stewardship work in front of 150 adults at the Rotary Club of Ann Arbor. Having given similar presentations to other adults and youth many times prior (through her work at SEMIS Coalition), the student was confident, ethically grounded in her beliefs and love of her place, and articulate about solutions for healing that place. Through her experiences at school, she was able to develop a relationship with the natural world. Unfortunately, now in middle school, her opportunities for connecting to the outdoors have drastically decreased. Her mother lamented that her daughter’s educational experience has been deeply affected by not having recess and access to nature through school.
In the last several years I have been in dozens of schools and spoken with teachers and community-based educators from all over the country. The story is the same everywhere. Recess, the arts, and unstructured opportunities for learning are being removed from the school schedule at a time when it is most necessary for children to be inspired by these experiences.
Grace Lee Boggs was fond of asking “what time is it on the clock of the world?” What reality, at this moment in history, wants to and needs our help to emerge?
On the one hand, we live in a consumer culture that fractures us from what matters most. Many of our children are sped up, wound up, and cooped up in buildings. Testing pressures and a narrow focus on “academic achievement” tell a story of what it means to be human that is based on individualism and competition, not caring and community. Separated from neighbors, nature, and from older generations, children and the adults in their place are generally not being provided the opportunities to, as Grace Lee Boggs would say, “grow their souls.”
At the same time, another story is being told. We live at a time when, if we really pause and listen and sense with others, we can feel a new reality that wants to emerge, and that with a little stewardship from us, will emerge. It is the time of the “great turning” as Joanna Macy would say, an opportunity to transition to a healthier more sustainable world. In the region, there are many educators engaging in hopeful, healing work — who are helping the youth they work with become solutionaries. Ask any SEMIS Coalition teacher, for example, about their work, and they will tell you a story that will fill your heart.
Creating New Community Rituals
Creating new ways of “doing community” and celebrating together is important as we change the way we “do school.” Our year ends with an annual Community Forum held at EMU. At this forum, young people and adults engage in inter-generational dialogue around the social-ecological issues youth and their community partners are working on together. Last year 150 people attended 13 youth-led presentations and workshops at the Forum. When adults see third graders acting and thinking as solutionaries, and high school students from different backgrounds and parts of the region talking to fourth graders about their own leadership development, work and college aspirations — they leave with a different story of what education is and can be —they leave with hope. They also leave with more critical thinking and communication skills than can be measured on any test.
How can you help? Connect with us on Facebook and Twitter (@semiscoalition), join conversations that are happening on our blog (http://semiscoalition.org/blog/), or donate to help students become solutionaries through the SEMIS Coalition. Most of all, have conversations with your neighbors and schools in which you vision what schools can be. Such conversations, sustained over a long time, can change the world.
Dr. Ethan Lowenstein, Director of the SEMIS Coalition, is a professor of teacher education at Eastern Michigan University and the 2015 John W. Porter Distinguished Chair in Urban Education. Before his career in higher education, Dr. Lowenstein taught high school social studies in New York and was the 1996 New York City Board of Education Teacher of the Year for alternative schools. For more information about the SEMIS Coalition or EMU’s teacher preparation program, you can contact Dr. Lowenstein through the SEMIS Coalition website at http://semiscoalition.org/our-people/.