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
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.”
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)