Wednesday, Sep 19, 2018
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Jack Lessenberry

Professor Feinstein's ode to civic literacy


DETROIT - Otto Feinstein has been interested in young people and politics all his life, from the days when his father dragged his family through Europe, one jump ahead of the Nazis, to the nights he, an alternate delegate, witnessed the horror of the police riot at the infamous 1968 Chicago Democratic convention.

He's been at it ever since, mostly at Wayne State University in Detroit, where, as a political science professor, he has been trying to get into their heads, to see how they think, and why. Full of energy and wit at 70, he thinks he's on to something. “People - especially young people - don't participate because they don't care, because they don't have issues,” Dr. Feinstein said. “They don't participate because they don't feel part of the system, they don't understand it, and they don't know how to get anyone to listen.”

For devastating proof, check the numbers. If young people in the 1960s demanded the vote, their kids today aren't using it. While Dr. Feinstein doesn't know who will win the election, he knows how 70 per cent of those under 25 will vote: They won't.

Baby boomers who once rallied against Vietnam are especially good at sneering at today's youth. Dr. Feinstein thinks it makes more sense to do something about it instead. For years, he has given his basic political science students a simple, if novel homework assignment: Register people to vote. But, he came to realize, that's fairly useless if they don't feel that they have anything for which to vote. So in 1986 he founded something that now has a life of its own, his Urban Agenda/Civic Literacy Project. His concept is that “civic literacy” is as important as basic literacy.

“It's the knowledge of how to actively participate and initiate change in your community and the greater society, the foundation by which a democratic society functions.” The “urban agenda” part of the program is essential, he argues, because people, especially kids, need a reason to vote, namely, a consciousness about the issues that matter to them.

But finding out which buttons to press is hard in a world of ill-defined global forces and markets. Last spring, frustrated young people demonstrated against the Organization of American States meeting in Windsor, Ont., just across the Detroit River. They had a hard time articulating their concerns, got generally bad press, and left more frustrated than ever.

This month, Dr. Feinstein is putting together a vast conference on “globalization and the politics of inclusion,” to be held Oct. 23-28 at Wayne State and at dozens of other schools around southeastern Michigan, southern Ontario, and, via teleconferencing, abroad. It will include middle school, high school, and university students, and the goal is nothing less than to have them develop their own agenda for the future.

“This is not a simulation, a game like the Model UN program,” said his international project coordinator, Lynne Partington, who spent last week feverishly arguing with immigration officials to allow some Afghan kids to attend.

“This involves kids putting together their own `urban agenda' and presenting it to elected officials,” she added. “Otto's position is that the traditional idea of getting kids involved in community service is really a smoke screen for adults, particularly those in powerful positions who float the myth that kids don't care in order to prevent kids from really participating in the political system. Otto wants to float a new `myth' which says younger people do care and that somebody better listen, and somebody better teach them how to effect change peacefully within the system.”

How successful any of this will be isn't known, but one government is taking it seriously: Ours. Keith Geiger, a Deputy U.S. Assistant Secretary of State, will be there, as will U.S. Rep. David Bonior (D., Mich.), who is taking time out of the election campaign to attend, which is especially remarkable, given that he will be majority leader if the Democrats recapture the House.

It's clear that the founder won't give up. After Hitler and the McCarthy era, what can be so hard?

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