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Learning what it means to be a part of the world

January 7, 2010

This guest post was written by Annie Krapek, a December 2009 graduate of the University of Minnesota and a former student in Community Organizing Skills for Public Action, taught by Harry Boyte and Dennis Donovan of the Center for Democracy and Citizenship.

In many ways I have been the product of the hyper-competitive American culture. Throughout high school I got good grades, saved money from my part time job as a barista, and participated in a well-balanced mix of extracurricular and volunteer activities because I was told it would get me ahead for college. In college I worked even harder to get good grades and graduate quickly because it would get me ahead in life.

I’m excited to be graduating in the next few days, but as I’m getting a taste of the “real world” I always thought would come after college, I’m wondering in which ways following this conventional wisdom has gotten me ahead.

In college I adopted popular culture’s definition of achievement. As a result, I have focused on my GPA at the expense of knowledge. My good grades have more frequently been the result of my test taking and paper writing skills than a reflection of what I’ve learned in a class. I’ve spent so long skimming textbooks for key facts that I’ve forgotten how to savor literature. Worst of all, I have been told so many times that research holds the answer to solving humanity’s problems that I’ve almost forgotten the true key is people. I’ve learned what it takes to survive in academia, but not what it means to be a part of the world.

This has been true of nearly all of my experiences at the University of Minnesota save one–community organizing. My first few weeks in PA 1401, Community Organizing Skills for Public Action, were a struggle. For my first time since the beginning of my college education I was no longer able to simply fake it. I was engaged not only on an intellectual level, but as a person. For the first time, my experiences and sense of self were no longer divorced from knowledge, but became a part of knowledge. I learned to engage with my community rather than stare at it through a microscope. And while the assignments for PA 1401 were by far harder than any others throughout my college career, they were also the most rewarding.

My experience doing church-based organizing with ISAIAH reinforced these messages. Nobody has asked me what my GPA is or if I am fluent in APA formatting. In fact, the things that became such a huge part of my academic life seem to matter less and less. What people ask and what truly matters is my story and my passions. With ISAIAH, I learned how to apply the skills I’d learned in academia to make a difference in my community. I was challenged to look beyond what is and what research says, to see the world as it can be.

Since beginning my experiences in community organizing I learned many indispensible tools, but the biggest lesson is simply this; much more is possible than we have been told. There is knowledge not only in journals and books, but on the street corners and in our own lives. There is power not only in the halls of Washington and at the CEO’s desk, but in the hands of ordinary citizens dedicated to making a difference. The dream of a better future becomes a reality when we come together as engaged citizens from each profession and tradition, roll up our sleeves, and start working. A few years ago I may not have been able to say that. But while academia taught me think, organizing taught me two things: to dream and to act.

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