The rules of the game
Teaching and learning for civic participation
Resilient communities understand their own governance and participate in the decision-making processes that affect their lives. Active citizenship requires specific skills and knowledge, but despite this, opportunities to learn about civic engagement in Australia are surprisingly few.
Rob has been working as a second chance educator in the wester suburbs of Melbourne since 1979. Through his work in the Adult Literacy Department at Footscray College of TAFE, he developed a notion of Literacy for Public Discourse, which meant literacy for being involved in political debate, or, as he puts it, “explicitly teaching the rules of the game.” Later in his innovative work in the Bachelor Institute In Alice Springs, Rob was instrumental in developing a series of courses that used Greek rhetoric to teach persuasive speech to Indigenous students.
Sharon is a South Australian educator and researcher who has developed an internationally recognized active citizenship education program known as the Community Capacity Builders Community Leadership Program.
The program is now offered annually to residents of the City of Onkaparinga at no cost, as a component of the council’s Leadership Onkaparinga Program. The Community Leadership Program is directed at people who are passionate about their community and teaches skills for developing collaborative community projects and for participating in community governance processes.
ALA Board member, Mark Brophy is the director of the Australian Study Circles Network, which uses the Swedish Study Circle methodology to engage citizens in discussion about the issues that affect them. Study circles involve a community dialogue that helps people explore complex issues, make decisions and take action. They don’t advocate a particular solution, instead, they welcome many points of view around a shared concern.
In Sweden, study circles are a mass phenomenon and have broad national support with around 300,000 occurring each year. Funded by the national government, study circles allow citizens to understand and participate more fully in their communities and nation. They have been successfully transplanted into the USA.
Learning for civic participation is one of ALA’s six key advocacy areas and is perhaps one of hardest to define. In this issue, we speak to three prominent educators in the field of civic engagement to find out what they see as the key issues and challenges in this complex yet crucial field.
What is your definition of civic engagement? What do you think it means to the Australian population more broadly?
“I think the Australian population predominantly considers civic engagement to just consist of electoral participation and volunteerism,” says Sharon Zivkovic, “It is probably not widely understood that the complex problems Australia faces such as an ageing population, climate change, water basin management, and location based disadvantage cannot be solved by governments working alone. They require the engagement of Australian citizens in both policy making and implementation.”
Rob McCormack’s definition encompasses an idea that he has termed ‘public literacy’, which means a clear understanding of the competing values and theories that play out in public political debate. Often this is assumed or taught ‘osmotically’, but Rob believes it can be made explicit.
At Footscray college of TAFE, Rob taught public literacy by analysing simple, accessible written examples of public debate such as Letters to the Editor. “We taught students to look at a letter and be able to say ‘this person’s appealing to this value, which means they are conservative.’ It actually explained the ideas behind conservatism, socialism, democracy, managerialism, feminism; the different discourses that people draw on in order to say how we should live together.”
For Rob, the reasons why people lack public literacy goes back to the social conditions in which they grew up or in which they live, whether they are rural or Indigenous or newly arrived migrants. “Helping people to understand the terms on which they’ve got to argue, but also being able to call other people from their situation as well… that’s citizenship.”
“Civic engagement can encompass anything from a citizen voting to joining an organisation that is focused on an issue that concerns them,” says Mark Brophy. “I’d like to think that the term has evolved a bit, and is somewhat synonymous with, ‘community engagement.’ ”
Mark believes Australians are not as advanced as the Scandinavians and North Americans in the emerging field of community engagement. “There is no government department that oversees community engagement in Australia as there is in Sweden.”
Mark believes Australia is lagging in terms of practical initiatives, “I think in Australia there is a lot of research and analysis going on in this area, but the USA is full of ‘on the ground’ practitioners who are trying, making mistakes and experimenting with these methods. The practitioners doing work at the coal face in Australia, are few.”
There are many reasons for this, including funding. “Getting funding for research is a lot easier than getting funding to go out and actually ask people to make considered opinions about change,” says Mark. “The Citizens Assembly on climate change is an example of how it is very easy to criticise attempts to engage communities.”
How would you describe Australia’s level of civic engagement? Are we civically ‘disengaged?’
Sharon Zivkovic believes that while Australians have a high level of participation in our electoral processes (due to compulsory voting) and a high level of volunteerism (according to Volunteering Australia 38% of adults in Australia volunteer and the number is increasing), our level of collaboration with government is low compared to a number of other countries.
“Many cities and towns in Europe, Africa, Asia, and Latin America have implemented participatory budgeting processes where local residents come together to decide how to spend public money,” says Sharon. “Participatory budgeting has also been implemented by several Canadian and American local governments. I don’t believe many Australians are even aware that participatory budgeting exists.”
Sharon attributes this to Australia’s history: “Australia was established primarily as a penal colony with the colonial government controlling most aspects of the lives of Australians. This view, that it is the role of government to fix problems and provide basic services, probably continues somewhat today.”
Rob McCormack agrees that many people feel alienated from the political system. “Most people feel as though they’ve got no say. Particularly since 9/11 people subconsciously feel it was best just to keep their heads down and not make fuss because if you make a fuss you don’t know what might happen.”
Contrastingly, Mark Brophy believes that Australians are engaging more now than any time in history via the net. “The internet and ICT have opened up Australians and the world to discuss and create change,” he says. But there are limitations: “If the internet is the be all and end all, then why do people need to meet after ‘engaging’ on a dating site?”
Mark fears that internet dialogue can fuel an adversarial tone, “Debate and arguing are fine, but we also need deliberative dialogue. Debate is about competing, seeking majority, persuading, digging in and who wins and loses. Deliberative dialogue is about exchanging ideas, weighing up the pros and cons, building the relationship, understanding the other views, seeking common ground and learning.”
“Civic engagement should be about citizens involving themselves in tackling difficult ‘wicked problems’ and finding solutions to these problems – being the active agents for change,” says Mark. He suspects there is some fear of this approach in Australian government. “Agreeing to allow your citizens to be directly involved in decision making is dangerous. You may not get what you want. Yet in Sweden, millions of people go to study circles, funded by the government. The participants decide what they want to dialogue about and the ideas and suggestions are sent up to government.”
What role can adult and community education play in increasing civic engagement?
Rob McCormack believes it can play a critical role because it’s teaching methodologies are not as wedded to the written word as they are in higher education.
In his work teaching Greek rhetoric to Indigenous students in Alice Springs, Rob discovered that performance, specifically creating and delivering speeches, was a very powerful tool in educating students for civic engagement.
“We asked students to talk on behalf of a value, usually to do with human rights or something like that, and to call for people to embrace that value more deeply into their lives,” says Rob. “This was very powerful for the students because instead of going to class and being told that white fellas are the only ones who know anything and your knowledge is all just rubbish, they could stand up and speak with a lot of authority and with a lot of power.
“We’d have two or three that would run away, but most would stay, even under huge pressure and hardly any sleep on the night before. It was a rollercoaster and a huge adrenalin rush but then at the end they couldn’t believe that they’d done it.”
Rob believes that adult and community education has the capacity to deliver these kinds of creative and flexible programs, “but it has to be a structured curriculum so that people are not just giving a speech,” he says. “They have to think about what they really believe, what they really feel. Then they need the linguistic resources to talk about their beliefs.”
At the Bachelor Institute, Rob gave students the linguistic resources by using very clear models and examples, what he calls ‘the grammar of the ear.’ “We listened to hundreds of speeches of Indigenous leaders and copied their speech patterns,” he says, “Each day the students would learn a new text pattern, a new grammatical structure.” The persuasive tools of language were made explicit.
Rob acknowledges that these moments of political empowerment may be only transitory (he calls them moments of effervesence) but they can leave people feeling more engaged, more likely to get involved again.
Sharon Zivkovic considers education for civic engagement to be a specialist field within adult and community education. It should provide citizens with the skills and attitudes required to effectively collaborate with government on policies for addressing complex social problems. She believes that civic engagement programs need to be embedded in the traditional work of government to enable learners to develop collaborative relationships with government and gain skills in accessing government information.
“All three levels of government in Australia promote the need for learning for civic engagement,” says Sharon, however programs like her Community Leadership program remain relatively unknown.
Mark Brophy believes that the ACE sector is in a perfect position to drive good community engagement practice. “ACE providers are diverse, extremely well respected and trusted in their community, non profit, hold social justice issues close and are communityfocused,” he says. “There are competing agendas, like the vocational funding focus but are generally the ACE organisations are a great springboard for community engagement initiatives.”
Mark emphasises the need for citizens to take responsibility, “I see the problems that are associated with Indigenous communities as a white person’s problem too. This goes for any group; youth, unemployed, mature aged, disabled, etc. The problem belongs to all of us, and as a citizen in a democracy we all have the right and responsibility to work together to solve it.”