Building safe, healthy, and prosperous communities


I began working on this blog about “Learning Cities” last week and then heard the news about the Orlando mass shooting. My heart goes out to the victim’s families and I can no longer stand silent. This hate crime and act of terrorism on the LGBTQ community cannot be forgotten along with the many other acts of violence, hate, and fear committed in the US over the last few years such as Sandy Hook Elementary in Connecticut (2012), Inland Regional Center in California (2015), and Planned Parenthood in Colorado (2015). Unfortunately, mass shootings are not the only symptom of our broken society; many families suffer enormous pain and loss from suicides and homicides due to gun violence. “The US has nearly six times the gun homicide rate of Canada, more than seven times the rate of Sweden, and nearly 16 times the rate of Germany,” (Frostenson & Kliff, 2016, http://www.vox.com). This is unacceptable for a first world country and a nation that considers itself the leader of the free world.
However, I don’t want to over simplify these terrible tragedies. There are many factors that lead to a culture of violence and we need a complex intervention that incorporates more than just stronger gun control. We need to ask ourselves the following questions: 1) What factors are spurring hatred and intolerance? 2) How do we build peace and prosperity in an equitable and inclusive way? 3) What are other countries doing successfully that we can learn from? 4) What types of corruption and crime in government, business, and neighborhoods are making it difficult to create positive and lasting change? 5) How are “we the people” choosing our leaders and are we engaged citizens? (Thank you, Charissa Urbano for getting me thinking in terms of questions!)
I was planning to write a piece on how the Learning City movement started in Europe in the 1970s (tied to UNESCO’s Institute for Lifelong Learning and more recently UNESCO’s Global Network of Learning Cities- http://learningcities.uil.unesco.org/home). This approach is one way to increase peace and prosperity in our communities. I feel even more strongly about this after the Orlando massacre. The Learning City framework is a holistic approach to community development based on learning, education, and growth. It includes learning about ourselves and our neighbors, building bridges between different groups, working collaboratively across multiple sectors of society to solve problems, and creating unity around a shared goal of learning, peace, and prosperity. It is also data driven and uses research to direct practical initiatives. Data (qualitative and quantitative) paints a picture of one’s society and we can use data and information to better understand the issues at hand as well as the factors influencing them. Through this deeper understanding brought on by critical thinking and collaborative learning it is possible to create multifaceted interventions that produce sustainable change.
The idea of Learning Cities- using lifelong learning strategies to develop expertise, citizenship, and direct positive change in our communities- has been supported by many research studies. On an individual level, it is well known that there is a positive correlation between educational level and several factors including socioeconomic status, health (physical and psychological), happiness, and intelligence (APA.org). As for the community level, many Learning Cities have been tracking the connection between lifelong learning initiatives and city/region economic and social prosperity. For example, Cappon and Laughlin (2013) describe a Composite Learning Index used in Canada and then adopted by the Bertelsmann Foundation based in Germany and applied throughout Europe.
Cappon and Laughlin (2013) found a .78 correlation between educational and citizenship factors and social and economic well-being of the community/city. Educational and citizenship factors included youth literacy, educational obtainment, workplace training, volunteering and engagement in community organizations, participation in sports and cultural events. Examples of the outcome measures were population health and safety, human rights, voter participation, income levels, and unemployment rates. From reviewing this research and talking directly with individuals working on Learning City initiatives from around the globe, I believe this strategy is an ideal way to create peace, happiness, and prosperity in American Cities. Up until this point (2016) there has been very little organized initiatives in the USA using the Learning City Framework. The potential to bring our communities together, share resources, and make a real difference in the lives of our citizens, including the most marginalized, is undeniable.
As a social scientist and educator I have had the pleasure of interacting with people at all different economic levels, with diverse backgrounds, and who had values and beliefs that were in opposition to some of mine. I have not always been comfortable in these interactions, I have sometimes gotten emotional discussing charged topics, and sometimes I want to throw up my hands and say, “it is not possible to make the world a better place so why try.” Then, I look at my family, my kids, and I think that I can’t give up. I must try harder to understand and find a shared way to move forward. And when I am not sure how to proceed, my family, friends, colleagues, and strong people from all over the world through literature, conferences, and social media show me how to take the next step.
Attending the PASCAL 2016 Learning Cities Conference in Glasgow Scotland  (http://lcn.pascalobservatory.org/) not only provided me with practical ideas about how to advance my own community and conduct meaningful research but it helped me regain my belief that we are all part of one shared humanity. Women and men, seniors and students, were all there sharing research and community initiatives, hopes and aspirations for a better world, and were developing and tracking real outcomes based on collaborative change processes within small communities like Cork, Ireland to large cities like Beijing China.                 I am advocating the need to learn about your community, it’s strengths and weaknesses, educate yourself through formal and informal means so that you can apply your knowledge not just to a career but to being a parent, a neighbor, and a citizen who thinks critically, acts intentionally, and does not shy away from difficult conversation and uncomfortable moments but uses them to reflect and grow and create a positive future for all.

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