Taking inventory of the community before doing public work

At InterDistrict Downtown School (IDDS) in Minneapolis, Minnesota, Public Achievement is part of the ninth-grade civics curriculum. Danielle Peterson, Minnesota organizer for Public Achievement and an experienced PA coach, is working with social studies teacher Molly Keenan to co-coach two ninth-grade teams as they develop skills to be powerful, active citizens.

In this third interview in a series, Danielle describes an exercise she uses to get students thinking about the community context in preparation for choosing the issue or problem they want to work on.

Danielle: The stick figure exercise is about getting to know yourself. The community walk is taking inventory of the community. What do you see that’s good? What’s not good? Who do you see? What are they doing? Are there vacant lots? Are there public spaces for people to gather? Is there public art? Vandalism? Are there free and safe places for young people to go after school? Are there places to buy fresh fruit and vegetables, or other healthy food?

Before we set out for our walk, I gave the teams a checklist with these questions and space to write comments.

What was the reaction of the young people to the community walk?

In our first discussion after the walk, they said “I didn’t realize there was a homeless shelter [close to our school]? and “I saw a lot of kids out that I thought would’ve been in school.? They said they saw a lot of places for people to be public, including the downtown library, which a lot of kids use. They noted that there wasn’t a lot of green space near the school, and they like green space and know that it plays a valuable role in city life. They didn’t like that there weren’t a lot of places for kids to go.

I think they got a lot out of the community walk. They say they’re more observant now, asking themselves “What am I seeing and why is it that way??

Was it difficult to make arrangements to take the students out of school?

The school values Public Achievement, so they’re pretty supportive of kids going out on the community walk. I would add that most of the time, when you give young people some responsibility and challenge them, they rise to the occasion. No one tried to sneak away!

Is there anything else you'd like blog readers to know?

This exercise has the potential to give young people a kind of public stage. For example, during our walk, students stopped to talk to a group of striking carpenters walking a picket line. Later, the students said they were aware that at that moment they represented IDDS, and they took that seriously. The carpenters were thrilled that the young people took an interest in what they were doing.

Visit the blog in a few weeks to read about the issues young people at IDDS have decided to work on.

Hubert H. Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs