Civic responsibility, our community and our public schools
I was raised in a very small, rural, agricultural town. Our town had its own elementary school. Our junior and senior high school was shared with students from many other equally small, rural communities. This was a world wherein individual achievement mattered and was recognized. What was celebrated though, was how individual achievement benefited your class, your team, your school, your community.
My father taught me, by example, that it is both your privilege to be a part of a community and your responsibility to serve your community. This privilege and responsibility has not changed in the past several decades, but our culture certainly has. We seem to have become an incredibly egocentric society where everything is supposed to be about me-me-me. The importance of community is hardly given a thought.
People seem absolutely mesmerized by self-aggrandizement. The netherworld of TV, video games and the Internet continuously reinforces ideas of individual accomplishment and narcissistic entitlement expectations, regardless of the consequences to others. How our society became so seemingly stuck in some pre-adult phase of arrested development is not the focus of this essay. Rather, it is context, and I would like us all to think about how we can change our trajectory and embrace our privilege and community responsibility. How can we, as individuals, add real value to our communities so that they are both sustainable and supportive of our efforts?
Sonoma is quite similar to the town in which I grew up, albeit quite a bit larger. I sense in our adult population a recognition of the privilege we share. There is still a real sense of community service as well.
This is among the adults. What about among our high school students? How many of them acknowledge that they are both part of a larger community and owe a debt of service for that privilege? How many of them are prepared to live and work in a larger, wildly diverse community? If this knowledge is not part of their reality, how can we change that?
We can both teach it and lead by example. This is why the Sonoma Valley Education Foundation positions preparation for Civic Responsibility as one of the three objectives of the foundation’s programs. We want our public school graduates to enter the post-secondary education phase of their lives ready for civic responsibility in whichever community they choose to call home.
Many of our high school graduates will remain in our community. What they learn about how to work with others and cooperate with others is critical for shaping the type of community Sonoma will be in the future. Countering the mainstream media bias of worshipping self-achievement is critical to building a healthy community culture that rewards both individual achievement and public service. Absent these lessons and examples, the logical extreme endpoint of a sole focus on self-achievement is a breakdown of civil society, i.e. anarchy.
Some of our high school graduates will move away from Sonoma. They will live and work in a much more heterogeneous environment. They will quickly discover that this larger world really is a global village. Their ability to work with and cooperate with very well-educated individuals from many different cultures will be critical to their individual success. Lessons they learn about community while in our public school system will serve them well. Absent these lessons, they may very well find themselves unable to pursue, much less achieve, their individual aspirations. Their ability to become valued members of their chosen work, play and social communities will be impaired. When a young person does not achieve their full potential, it is a failure for the individual, but for all of us as well.
Our public schools need to give our students opportunities to learn how to succeed as individuals within the context of being recognized as valued members of their chosen communities. This is becoming a tougher assignment given the state’s continuing assault on public education financing. The challenge for our community becomes more crucial as we seek to keep our schools strong while state funding remains chaotic.
The Sonoma Valley Education Foundation seeks to support programs that provide innovative, measurable and meaningful learning opportunities for all children within the public school system. Working together with the Sonoma Valley Unified School District, the foundation faces the challenge, and embraces the opportunity, of building the educational environment that will best serve our community and it citizens, even as the state continues to cut back funding.
This budget cutting has, in an ironic way, become somewhat of a blessing in disguise. Foundation programs such as the Teacher Support Network (TSN), Exploratorium Science, the Schools Garden Project and Linked Learning Pathways have emerged and grown to meet this challenge. They became “our” programs because of the unique ways they help students grow and learn. Each of these programs exists, however, only because of community investment in our schools. The funding for these vital, specific and proven programs is donated by your fellow citizens and residents, who have decided to invest deeply in our schools for the greater good of our students and our community.
We believe, as members of our community, that it is indeed our privilege and responsibility to serve this community. In order for the Sonoma Valley Education Foundation to continue to augment the district’s efforts, we need to continuously raise significant amounts of funding. We need to provide significant numbers of on-campus volunteers. If you, as a community member, share our belief and sense of responsibility, it would be a privilege to have you on our team.
Michael George is president of the board of the Sonoma Valley Education Foundation.