Abundant Community

Scouts_readingThe following is the third post in a series by Kate Foran about exploring an alternative kindergarten education for her daughter Sylvie.

This picture was taken last November at a harvest gathering (note the bowls of squash soup) that I participated in with other children and parents. At the time, I was still wrestling with whether to enroll Sylvie in school or not, and the moment captured in the picture stands out for the way it tipped the balance toward “DIYing” her education instead. It was in some ways a typical preschool group story time (I think we were reading Curious George), but in other ways it was remarkable, because it was not a moment I organized. Instead, a child handed me the book and asked me to read it. And soon the other children crowded around, piling onto my lap and leaning on my shoulders. I was aware at the time of the great privilege of having the trust of these children, and it occurred to me that the spontaneous connection and even the physical closeness was not something that could easily occur in an institutional setting.   Sylvie was a bit ruffled at having to share her mom, but she was satisfied when I explained to her that I got to be a teacher to these other kids the way that their parents got to be a teacher to her.

The way we’re doing Sylvie’s education falls under the category of “homeschooling,” though that is a term that leaves me unsatisfied, for what we’re doing is not really about home and it’s not really about school.   We want creative peer relationships (for the kids and the adults). We want community immersion (rather than age-stratified segregation as schools are organized). We want rigorous inquiry-based learning and project-based learning motivated by the learners themselves. We want bonding relationships with others on a similar journey and bridging relationships across differences of class, race, and worldview. We want to take full advantage of our two most abundant resources: the time to pursue in depth a child’s interests and the relationships, the social capital, to connect those interests to the wider world.

Our family’s decision to explore an alternative education for Sylvie was influenced by the work of John McKnight and Peter Block, pioneers of Asset-Based Community Development and authors of Abundant Community: Reawakening the Power of Neighborhoods and Families (http://www.abundantcommunity.com/) . In their book, McKnight and Block explore the ways in which “citizens”(defined as participants in a democracy, regardless of legal status; creators and producers of our own futures) have become “consumers” and “clients” (defined as people who have surrendered to others the power to provide what is essential for a full and satisfied life). They argue that structures of mutual aid and care have eroded as the service economy has taken over—that we outsource to professionals all of the functions community used to perform. They note how we load onto schools more functions than they can handle: “Not only do we want teaching and learning to occur in the school, but also we count on the school system to feed our children, to discipline them, and to provide custodial care for them while we all go to work and build our capacity to fully participate in the whole range of consumption possibilities.”   They write:

In the consumer ecology, the word care has been co-opted by systems: businesses, agencies, and governments….In each case, they are actually providing a paid service—not care. This is a key distinction, the difference between care and service. Systems offer services for pay; they offer actuarial, medical, and administrative services. We know it is not care, because genuine care cannot be paid for. It is given, free of charge.”

I am interested in how race and gender intersect with this point of view, because injustice and inequality continue to be built in to the kind of “freely given” care McKnight and Block are describing.   I appreciate the conversation-shifting contributions of Anne-Marie Slaughter in her book Unfinished Business: Women, Men, Work, Family, which notes how little our society values carework, even in a professional setting (consider how relatively undercompensated are nurses, teachers, day care providers, home health aides, even family doctors). She calls for a revaluing of carework as an economic necessity across lines of gender, and calls for flexibility in the workplace so that all people (not just women, and not just people with children) can provide care for their communities.

The last thing I want is to opt out of the system and just take care of my kid, washing my hands of all of the problems and opportunities presented by public schools.   My struggling local school system has just received a grant to try to encourage families to engage with schools (and vice versa), and I plan to be involved in community dialogues and actions around this initiative. But I can’t help reflect on all of the circumstances that mitigate against the kind of connection the system knows it needs: the “rushed, stressed, and harried” lifestyle which economic realities require of many families, the seemingly impenetrable security policies of school buildings, and the less-than-participatory process of decision making about what actually happens in the classroom (parents don’t have much real say in what our kids learn in school, we can only vote for the people who make those decisions). Doing Sylvie’s education as we are hopefully affords me more capacity to work locally on making education better for everyone.

Still, I find the analysis of Abundant Community compelling, especially the argument that the way to be a citizen is to tap into the gifts and capacities communities have to meet our own needs. This kind of asset-based community development has been especially important in communities that are typically defined by their deficits, and I first encountered it in the context of work for inclusion of people with disabilities. McKnight and Block are firm in their belief that we all have gifts to contribute. These gifts are the raw materials for community, McKnight and Block observe. Associations are the process through which the gifts are exchanged, and hospitality is what widens our inventory of gifts.

I have seen this gift economy play out over the past couple of years in our various homeschooling co-ops that meet a few times a week with between 12-30 kids. In our circles we have (as just a few examples): former school teachers, gardeners, an archaeologist, writers, native Spanish speakers, artists, an engineer, day care providers, and farmers–not to mention the unique perspectives and capacities of the children!  Around these gifts we organize our activities together for the kids, and we organize book discussions and continuing education for the adults. Our voluntary associations feel to me like the best of early American democracy, in the tradition observed by Alexis de Tocqueville and in the tradition of personalism advocated by Dorothy Day and Peter Maurin. We are “doing it together”: figuring how to make group decisions and how to involve our kids in those decisions; learning how to transform conflict, experimenting with how to meet our own needs and follow through on our ideas; working out how to be citizens. It is as richly satisfying and challenging as any work I have ever done. Sylvie likes it too. As she says, “People think homeschool is just sitting around your house doing worksheets, but really it’s about going out and being with other kids, and it’s about getting to do your own ideas!”

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