Box City Vigil 2009

This afternoon, a small team of eighth-grade girls from St. Bernard’s School in St. Paul, Minn., will head to the state Capitol with supplies they’ll need for sleeping outside: a cardboard box, layered clothing, maybe some snacks.

They’ll be participating in Box City Vigil 2009, an event organized by students at two Bloomington high schools to raise awareness of youth homelessness in a time of serious budget cuts at area shelters.

Using Public Achievement to take on homelessness

St. Bs PA team

At St. Bernard’s, students use the Public Achievement (PA) civic engagement model to do serious work on a public issue of their choice, with coaching by a student from the University of Minnesota’s leadership minor program. PA teams meet for one hour a week to plan, do work, and reflect on what they’re learning.

Claire, Alexa, Tiana, Rachel, Melissa, Bridget, Sami and Mariah came together as a Public Achievement team last fall. Their first coach, Elora Turner, helped them identify homelessness as an issue they care about, guided them in doing research, and kept their spirits up when they started to feel overwhelmed or defeated. Elora was “always bubbly,” they said, and made citizenship fun. The team, including Elora, would often meet after school so they could get more work done.

Last fall, they went to a homeless rally where they met Minnesota state Senator John Marty. “He said that homelessness was a big thing for him,” says Claire, “so we thought, ‘okay, maybe he would give us a lot of support.’” They added him to their power map.

After the semester change at the university, the team got a new coach named Brandon Olson. He helped them role-play phone calls and getting both positive and negative responses so they could feel confident when setting up visits to a Salvation Army homeless shelter and The Bridge for Youth, which offers emergency shelter beds for young people, and in presenting their ideas.

They also practiced before calling Sen. Marty’s office to request a meeting. The team had developed a plan for a sleep-out at the Capitol to raise awareness about homelessness, and – going back to their power map – decided Sen. Marty could be an ally. When they did meet with him he was less enthusiastic than they had hoped, but through his secretary - and a call to Capitol security – they learned about the Box City Vigil. (It may be worth checking in with yourself at this point: when was the last time you asked a state senator to work with you on your effort to address a public problem?)

After more phone calls and planning, the girls are looking forward to assisting Box City Vigil organizers with check-in, assembling toiletry kits for donation, and by leading games. “Homeless people are going to be there [too],” says Claire, and will see that “we care about them. We don’t just walk past them and don’t notice them, because we do.”

Lessons learned

The girls have been doing Public Achievement for at least a couple of years, some of them since 3rd grade, and they say this year has been the best experience. They’ve had good coaching and they work well together as a team. “We know our strengths and weaknesses,” explains Claire. They’ve also had many opportunities to practice and develop their communications, planning, and time management skills – skills that are essential for civic work. Rachel said she was “sooo nervous,” before speaking recently about the vigil to all of the high school students at St. Bernard’s, but her team members agree that she rose to the challenge. The team also says they have had a lot of fun doing civic work, an important lesson for adults, especially, who may think being serious and having a good time are mutually exclusive.

Listen to the team talk about characteristics of a good coach, what other young people should know about Public Achievement, and what Public Achievement would look like with adults. (3 1/2 minutes)


Elora Turner’s Public Achievement Experience with the Power Puff PA Girls!

I remember my first time going to meet this lovely group of girls who I volunteered to coach through my Leadership class. I remember being nervous that they were all highly energetic girls-especially since I was a single coach! Then I realized how this ould be an amazing learning opportunity to help guide these girls about an issue I am very passionate about and build trust without having gender barriers or the communication complications that often arise with a co-coaching partner.

So being relatively new to the rules and traditions of St. Bernard’s-a private Catholic school, I was hesitant to delve into a taboo topic that the girls chose-Youth Homelessness and teenage prostitution. Also, most of the girls had previous stereotypes and prejudices against “the homeless” being “dirty bums”, which was a myth because a large percentage of people who experience homelessness are women and children. I thought the best place to start our project was for the girls to get to know and trust me, feel like a cohesive team and then start to break down the stereotypes and narrow down the daunting topic of homelessness.

Luckily these girls have so much energy and passion that all we needed to do was tap into their shared self-interests and develop their ideas from an issue to a problem and project (the good old Public Achievement way). Power-mapping was essential for our group to clarify what problem within the issue of homelessness they wanted to work on-I think we did about five power maps because our topic was so broad! Also, all our previous stereotypes clouded the discussion and so we continually needed to clarify and research the issue they were trying to understand.

It was a challenge for me as a coach to step back and let the girls learn from their mistakes and successes instead of me just telling them what do. The beauty of their power mapping and goal setting help our PA group reach their ultimate goal of going on a field trip to learn more about the issue, interview professionals who work with youth homelessness and make a video to present their work. So at the end of the semester, we toured both-The Bridge for Youth and Booth Brown House for Girls-two very different shelters for teens. I believe these experiential learning visits helped the girls better understand the reality of teen prostitution and the strong connection to youth homelessness. They were challenged to make changes in their own lives by being more welcoming and kind to their female peers as poor self-esteem and lack of community often are the root problems for this issue.

As a coach, I became thrilled when my students had begun to see the connections to their power mapping, their self-interests, and their abilities to build power as young leaders. My favorite moment was when we were talking about power and I asked the girls how much power they wanted and they understood that they wanted “a lot!” of power to make a difference! Hence their awesome group name, the Power Puff girls!:) We do a pretty fantastic cheer to get everyone rallied up, ready for social justice and to help build team solidarity!

In all honesty, I probably never would have had the success coaching if it hadn’t been for my mentor and the Public Achievement Director, Dennis Donovan, for his encouragement! He visited my group during PA time and he encouraged the girls to work really hard in order to get on the CDC blog!

Therefore this posting has been a long-term goal for the Power Puff girls! After having spent the night sleeping out at the capitol with the girls just last Friday, I realized how much they have grown just since last semester! I am also very grateful they had a positive coach like Brandon to help support them in their leadership development!

I have reciprocally benefited from my Public Achievement coaching experience with these young ladies! After understanding the incredible power-building potential that Public Achievement helps youth develop, I decided to apply for a UROP to study the leadership development from coaching Public Achievement. Successfully being awarded the grant for this research project this summer, I will interview current and former PA coaches, students, and instructors in both Minnesota and Palestine. I will focus on researching a comparative study between the two places and their programs to analyze the leadership techniques coaches use to help teach youth civic engagement and also how coaches reciprocally benefit from this civic program.

Hubert H. Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs