Citizenship Schools

Pattern number within this pattern set: 
Lewis A. Friedland
University of Wisconsin-Madison
Carmen J. Sirianni
Brandeis University, Dept. of Sociology

Some of the the skills of citizenship, like basic communication and cooperation, grow from skills we learn in daily life. Others, like deliberating with others, defining problems, collaboration on common projects, and organizing are not so basic: they, often, need to be learned. Not long ago, associations and intermediary institutions–social and professional clubs, religious congregations, neighborhood schools–rooted in local communities were the main places where these skills were learned. Today, there are fewer contexts in everyday life to learn them. People are less connected in and to local communities and often learn about what's important in the media. Increasingly, general discussion about political and civic issues is occuring on and through the Internet. But it is easier to find information on the Net than to learn reflexively with others. The Net only partly lends itself to learning collaborative citizenship skills. Further, many lower-income people, in the U.S. and around the world, still lack access to the Net. Therefore citizenship schools are needed to build civic skills in both local communities and on the Net.


In order to act effectively, people need to learn and apply the skills of citizenship. Everyone who wants to find a democratic and lasting solution to deep and complex problems needs these skills and they are open to anyone to learn and teach. But there are also experts-civic practitioners, government officials and civil servants, teachers and scholars, civic and community organizers


Citizenship Schools originated in South Carolina in 1959, and quickly spread throughout the South through the Highlander Folk School in Tennessee. In the late 1950s many Southern states had literacy tests, that required people to be able to read and write, and sometimes answer "citizenship" questions (generally designed to exclude blacks from voting). Teaching large numbers of African-Americans in the South to read, write, and learn about citizenship was critical in the larger struggle for civil rights, including the right to vote. According to Andrew Young and Ella Baker, movement leaders, the Citizenship education program was the "foundation on which the entire movement was built." (1) But communities with Citizenship Schools had few ways to make connections with other communities that lasted over time. Eventually, as the early fights for civil rights were won, the schools faded.

The spirit of the schools lived on through the decades that followed in hundreds of civic training programs conducted by organizations and local communities. Faith-based community organizations like the Industrial Areas Foundation train local clergy and lay organizers who learn to conduct campaigns and forums to build consensus on issue agendas like housing, school reform or job training. Environmental watershed, forestry, eco-system restoration and justice movements and others, teach citizens and youth to collect data and monitor environmental quality while building skills of civic trust and cooperation. And new civic movements to build a new model of the public and civic university are growing, like the Council on Public Engagement at the University of Minnesota .

Citizenship Schools have also beeen tried online. In 1994, the American Civic Forum met to try to address a widely perceived crisis in political life and civic culture in the U.S. The Citizenship Schools were an imoprtant model and a Civic Practices Network (CPN) was built, to use the newly emerging technology of the Internet to build skills of citizenship. CPN, launched that year, sought to facilitate broad and multimedia sharing of best cases, civic stories, mutual evaluations, and mentoring opportunities. Other independent civic networks also emerged around this time, including LibertyNet in Philadelphia, and Civic Net. Despite the growth of the Internet, however, no broad network connected and nurtured these activities.

As the web matured beginning around 2000 finding information on many topics of civic interest-public deliberation, the environment, youth, education, health care, communication-became relatively easier for individuals. But the new problem was how to link these groups together to not only provide information in their own specialized subfields, but to create an active environment for teaching, learning, and collaboration while also building a larger sense of solidarity in citizenship. National civic portals to aggregate the growing number of civic sites and discussions on the Net were one proposed answer. But by 2003 or so with the emergence of the blogosphere, the topology of the web itself suggested that distributed links among widely dispersed civic sites might lead to new kinds of collaboration in which a great deal of the work of gathering and connecting is done by sites in the mid-range. This is the level most appropriate for new citizenship schools on the web.

Therefore to build Citizenship Schools in local communities and institutions it is necessary to build a framework that can support many local organizing efforts with curricula and training routines that are distributed, shared, inexpensive, flexible, and sustainable. These can be done in local communities, through institutions like schools and universities, and on the web.

Local citizenship schools would necessarily be the result of pooled efforts among many active local civic organizations across different areas. Many could benefit from local government support. In Seattle, for example, the Department of Neighborhoods provides leadership and skills training to many neighborhood, environmental, and other civic groups.

Citizenship Schools through university extension and outreach could train new expert practitioners rooted in local communities. For example at the University of Minnesota, the Council on Public Engagement reaches out to both scholars and academic staff to redefine the teaching and research mission of the publci university. Potentially, certificates and university credit through university extension services and community colleges could provide individuals valuable learning resources that also support and reinforce the extended investment of time, attention, and civic commitment.

New Citizenship Schools on the web could allow collective learning in a distributed, asynchronous environment; help frame a broad civic agenda collaboratively through distributed discussion; and form a mid-range network of portals to focus attention without the intial high costs of building national space. Schools on the web could support and integrate both local and statewide efforts. The CPN is one online model indicating that there is significant demand online for serious learning material about civic practice. demonstrates how key blogger-editors can be recruited for a civic site and distribute the labor of a serious, ongoing conversation. The Liberating Voices Project [check best name] is also a key example of a distributed learning collaborative.

For the pattern to be realized online, moderate-sized hubs with committed editors will need to be seeded and a few models created. Possibly, Citizenship Schools on the web could ally with university partners, particularly in civically oriented extension programs, to provide credentials and a modest flow of support. Their life-cycle is potentially renewable. If a network of citizenship schools succeeds, it could become self sustaining, using commons models with relatively little ongoing external support.

The biggest challenge in building Citizenship Schools on a commons model is sustaining energy and collaboration, and maintaining a high quality of information. As noted, a commons model requires moderate levels of commitment from a wide core. Many of the contributers will be citizens, academics, policy makers and administrators with other jobs and commitments. Rewards will be instrinsic. A second challenge is to get citizens to commit time to learning, not to just "graze" for information.

The main critics of the concept might say that Citizenship Schools are an anachronism and depend on communities of face-to-face solidarity that are less relevant by the year. Learning doesn't take place this way anymore, despite the fact that the Citizenship Schools would be on the web. Further, getting individuals to make long-term commitments at adequate levels will be nearly impossible.


There are five basic steps to promoting this pattern: (1) Build Citizenship Schools in local communities, institutions and online that can aid collaborative learning; (2) Develop a sites (local and virtual) that include active learning and civic curricula that can be widely shared. (3) Find citizens (lay leaders and experts both) who can serve as teachers and editors who can make minimal but real commitments; (4) Build templates to aid the spread of learning; and (5) Create new forms of civic credentials that provide value to both individuals and communities.

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