By Ed O'Connell
The fledgling, non-partisan community organization known as “Civitas” kicked off its initiative to support civic education, civic engagement, and improved civility in public discourse with a well-attended public forum this past Saturday, Sept. 22.
Planned as the first in a series of public events, Saturday’s forum was held at Wakefield High School and saw some thirty Melrose and Wakefield residents in attendance. Included among the participants were a number of elected and appointed officials from each of the two communities. State Senator Jason Lewis was in attendance, as was State Representative Paul Brodeur. On the Melrose city side, Board of Aldermen President Mike Zwirko and, from Mayor Gail Infurna’s office, aide Jackie Bird, also attended the Saturday morning event. Among those in attendance from Wakefield were Superintendent of Schools Doug Lyons, Town Administrator Steve Maio, and Wakefield School Committee member Greg Liakos. While many elected and appointed officials were specifically invited to the event, the public was also invited and a number of Melrose and Wakefield residents participated in the forum, as did individuals from neighboring Winchester and Reading. Each participant was provided with a series of hand-outs detailing the latest information regarding both the recent State House legislation supporting civic education and the state Department of Education’s new History and Social Science curriculum framework and standards, with the latter having a renewed mission statement emphasizing civic education and requiring a new 8th-grade civics course for all students.
Following refreshments and opening remarks by myself, those in attendance participated in two “break-out” sessions, with each of the two groups engaging in brainstorming sessions aimed at creating a common definition of “community member.” Thereafter, each of the participants was asked to provide input on what constitutes the “ideal” community member, with the focus on what thoughts, ideas, and values, along with behaviors and actions, make up what they considered to be the ideal community member. Much discussion was had among the participants regarding the need for community members to be “open-minded,” to operate in “good faith,” and to have an overarching sense of “civic responsibility,” whatever one’s personal interests may be. Each group also considered those traits and characteristics held by “negative” community members, with much of the discussion on this topic focusing on behaviors that often amounted to bullying in the public realm.
Following a second break for refreshments and conversation, the two groups reconvened as a whole to discuss their findings and to compare notes, with the final portion of the event providing participants with an open floor to offer comments, questions, and ideas in the areas of civic education, civic engagement, and civility in public discourse. A wide-ranging discussion ensued, with several members of the public in attendance noting that, while it was the issue of civility that drew them to the event, it was apparent to them that improved civic education is the key to both greater civility and increased public participation in local civic affairs. Notably, many in attendance acknowledged that civic education was not just a “K to 12” school matter but, importantly, that “adult civic education” was needed and, further, that the “grown-ups in our communities need to model better behavior at public meetings” and, to do that, “the adults, too, need to become better informed about the functions of government and the policy questions at hand.”
In closing the event, participants discussed possible next steps, for both Civitas and the communities of Wakefield and Melrose. While the Civitas founders plan further public events - including a panel discussion on the state’s new K-12 History and Social Science curriculum framework and standards, with their strong emphasis on civic education at all levels - a number of participants at Saturday’s forum suggested that integrating shared norms or protocols around civil discourse into public meetings in both communities would be a strong first step. Plans are also in the works for a “Civic University,” modeled on the successful “Parent University” format used in both Melrose and Wakefield, with the civic version aimed at providing members of the public with the opportunity to participate in a half-day series of workshops on the ins and outs of local government, public policy matters, and opportunities for public participation in local civic affairs.