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Commentary: Younger people hold hope for improving Illinois politics

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, July 5, 2009 -  Scores of elementary and middle-school students made exciting discoveries this spring - not in the amazing world of science but in laboratories of democracy.

"We had fun while making a difference."

"What I learned from this experience is that when we all get together, it makes a lot bigger impact than if we're all apart."

"I learned more here than I did, like, in my whole life about, like, politics and stuff and it was a lot more fun."

All while being introduced to the basics of American government. All while helping to sow the seeds of greater citizen engagement in the decades ahead, a crucial ingredient in producing honest, responsive and responsible government in a state now scandal-surfeited and politically suffocated.

The kids' comments capture the enthusiasm among more than 100 participants in a demographically diverse initiative reaching from Lake County to the Metro East area across the Mississippi from St. Louis. The Lake Forest-based Barat Education Foundation launched nine pilots with a federal grant.

"Especially given what has been going on in Springfield, it was wonderful to see kids come together to talk about a problem and ask, 'How do we solve it?' instead of 'Who can we blame?'" said Sheila Smith, the foundation's chair.

Her organization spices its civic education brew with student-shaped, teamwork-demanding projects, video games, digital media and other technology. It enlists teachers to help steer the process. It uses mixed venues - classrooms, extra-curricular activities and community groups.

Students in Rolling Meadows expanded recycling at their school and beyond. Des Plaines youngsters met with city and school officials to slow traffic on a main thoroughfare near their building. African-American males in the Metro East area developed strategies, including videos for cable television, to deal with negative images affecting them.

The Barat initiative is truly remarkable though hardly isolated. Several of those in the Metro East project had attended leadership sessions conducted by the Paul Simon Public Policy Institute in Carbondale. The Chicago-rooted Mikva Challenge sent 50 youths to Iowa and New Hampshire in 2008 to experience presidential campaigning and marshaled about 1,200 students from 34 high schools to tackle local issues. Under the stewardship of Marc Kiehna, a southern Illinois regional school superintendent, Project Citizen participants won legislative designation of a day honoring civic and social activist Jane Addams.

Leaders of these and other organizations, as well as national experts, were brought together in February by the McCormick Freedom Foundation, the Illinois Civic Mission Coalition and the Constitutional Rights Foundation Chicago to craft a civic blueprint for Illinois high schools. It urges the State Board of Education to assure students are firmly grounded in history, law and our form of government. It embraces classroom discussion of controversial issues so youths learn the value of critical thinking, fact-based arguments and civility. It also endorses more relevant, captivating approaches to educating young people on the rights and responsibilities of citizenship.

Many Illinoisans today are outraged but not engaged. They need to become better informed about our great challenges. They must become more conscientious about electing well-motivated candidates and holding them accountable to a standard that places a much higher value on integrity than on getting streets plowed after snowstorms. Many understandably see restricting campaign contributions and terms of office as vital; however, the seminal, and ultimately more effective, action is to expand enlightened citizen engagement.

That's why we must extend meaningful civic education of tomorrow's leaders and constituents to schools and communities throughout our state.

Working together. Making a positive difference. Even fun. Too bad it isn't happening in Springfield, but help is on the way.

Mike Lawrence retired Nov. 1, 2008, as director of the Paul Simon Public Policy Institute at Southern Illinois University. He is returning to his journalism roots as a twice-monthly columnist.