February 25, 2009

Students learning value of civic involvement

CARBONDALE, Ill. -- Young African American males from the Metro East are participating in a 10-week leadership development and civic engagement program sponsored in part by Southern Illinois University Carbondale’s Paul Simon Public Policy Institute and the Barat Education Foundation.

The initiative utilizes community organizations in participating in the “Our American Voice” program. Fifteen students from the Metro East are participating in the pilot program, which aims to engage students in learning about the fundamentals of a democratic society in the context of community involvement.

“The institute is delighted to build on its already established leadership development weekend for high school males by co-sponsoring this initiative aimed at getting more junior and senior high students more active in their communities,” said institute interim director Matt Baughman.

Barat Education Foundation of Lake Forest is an “independent, unique, and dynamic non-profit enterprise charged with continuing the values and educational tradition of Barat College,” foundation executive director Sheila Smith said.

Founded in 2000 prior to the sale of Barat College in Lake Forest to DePaul University, the Barat Education Foundation continues to develop and support educational programs reflective of the college’s values. Barat College closed in 2005. Jeanne Hurley Simon, the late wife of former U.S. Senator and institute founder Paul Simon, graduated from Barat College in 1943.

A U.S. Department of Education grant helps fund the program. Another 100 students participate in the Chicago metropolitan area.

The program looks to meet President Barack Obama’s challenge from his Jan. 20 inaugural address on the requirements in “a new era of responsibility.”

The program focuses on active citizenship and a call to action, helping students develop “the essential knowledge, attitudes and experiences necessary to make a reasoned commitment to the core democratic values of the United States,” she said.

Participants have an opportunity to conduct online research, hear from speakers, work with local leaders and engage in other activities to enhance their understanding of the core values that drive democratic action. A specially designed online learning tool provided by the Barat Education Foundation to teach the Illinois and U.S. constitutions, and other government and public policy matters, is for students’ use.

Students will use what they learn to select a common issue and work together to identify possible actions, discuss challenges and make recommendations for change. That includes using multi-media presentations to document progress and present their ideas to the community.

“The East St. Louis pilot is especially significant because Paul Simon’s wife, Jeanne, graduated from Barat College,” Smith said. “How appropriate, and what a legacy that the foundation, which is the successor to her alma mater, and her husband’s institute are collaborating in this program to promote citizenship and civic engagement skills in our next generation of leaders.”

The 15 Metro East participants travel to Chicago in May to present their ideas in the “Our American Voice” program.

The East St. Louis chapters of Alpha Phi Alpha, Kappa Alpha Psi, Omega Psi Psi, as well as the Boy Scouts, Top Ladies of Distinction, Inc., and Community Concepts recruited participants in the Metro East project. Most of the local organizations are partners over the last six years with the Simon institute on its leadership weekend in Carbondale, which annually attracts approximately 40 African American male teens. The president of the East St. Louis Senior High School Parent-Teacher Association is also participating.

“The Metro East project is unique because it is driven by community organizations and is not affiliated with the public school system,” said Linda Renee Baker, an institute professor and director of leadership activities. “We all have made the commitment to have a continuum of leadership and enrichment activities available for our young men throughout the year rather than a single event. The civic engagement project is just the latest offering on that continuum.”

Christina Fisher, program director for Community Concepts, Inc., is facilitating the project. The Gateway Chapter of the Links, Inc., is also providing program support.

Contact Baker at 217/553-6660 or Fisher at 618/882-9014 for more information on the project.