Three scenes from my day:
9:10 am: In the Longworth House Office Building, sitting with two congressional staffers, my colleague Carrie, and one staffer’s seeing-eye dog—sharing information about youth voting. Congress has just established a program to promote youth participation in elections: young people will serve as poll-workers or will join in mock votes. The staffers who are meeting with us helped to draft the bill; now they want to make sure that it is well implemented. They seem interested in our data and our list of other people to contact. We suggest that the program needs to focus on high school kids who are not academically successful (because most college-bound students will vote anyway); and there ought to be young people on the appointed board. We are late for the meeting because we went to two incorrect offices before the found the right one—walking by way of various steam tunnels, back staircases, and corridors of power.
10:30 am: In an office loft on hip U Street, in a building occupied by a brewing company, a big gym, and many tech companies. I am in the offices of American Speaks, meeting with several new members of the steering committee of the helping to integrate the new folks into an ongoing organization that they have just agreed to join.
My personal goal is for several groups that use different methods for public deliberation (e.g., interactive websites, large face-to-face groups, simultaneous church-basement conversations) to hold simultaneous national youth conversations on the following topic: “What should be young people’s role in public life?” Some possible answers: “Politics is irrelevant; young people should volunteer and participate in their families and communities.” “Politics is uniquely corrupt today, so we should await reform before we participate.” “There are new forms of ‘politics’ that we young people are inventing and that are better than the old ones.” “Politics is always a bit dirty and unpleasant, but it’s no worse than usual; and you have to play the game or your interests will be ignored.”
There seems to be considerable interest in the idea of a national deliberative exercise using several methods.
3:15 pm: At a High School in Hyattsville, MD, helping to teach a class on oral history. Our subject all quarter is the desegregation of the County’s public schools. We are three white teachers and our dozen students are African Americans, Latinos, and immigrants. (Exactly half of the day’s attendees were born in Africa.). The discussions are good, but often very intense and emotional. We are meeting today in the principal’s windowless conference room to accommodate an elderly visitor who cannot manage the steps to our usual classroom. The visitor is a retired postal worker and community activist who attended segregated schools in the county, but her younger brother was the first African American student at the high school where we are sitting, and was also part of the first group of Black students at the University of Maryland. Her sister integrated a local junior high school. Her mother (who had an 8th-grade education) sent these siblings alone into all-White schools, so I asked whether her mother was part of a social network of African Americans that favored integration:
“[Shakes her head] It came from her. My mother always thought that our schools were second-class. … There were not many people in our community who thought that way. … In the long run, in all instances, [desegregation] was not a better thing.”
I asked her whether she would have desegregated the schools, if she had been in charge of the school system back then: “I probably would have kept them segregated, and I would have demanded that the schools be given equal funding … I think that the teachers I had in the segregated schools were much more dedicated than the teachers I have seen since.”
I don’t know what to think about desegregation, but I believe our students are learning something about how to grapple with a complex, emotional social issue that deeply affects their interests.