If you’re going to spend the evening celebrating the 227th birthday of the U.S. Constitution, how better to spend it than in the company of future leaders?
That was the opportunity Wednesday night in the KLRN studios, where several hundred students, teachers and administrators, along with many community members, gathered to participate in the latest Constitution Café.
The special guest speaker was Christopher Phillips, the author of "Constitution Café: Jefferson’s Brew for a True Revolution," who calls himself “a deliberative democracy specialist.”
Phillips has three masters’ degrees, a doctorate, and multiple university appointments — but he also tours the U.S. to host philosophical discussion groups that stimulate inquiry and debate. At one point, he taught middle school reading in a six-room schoolhouse in rural Maine, and some of that experience — particularly the learning circles of students — informs what he does today.
“In an era of hyper-partisanship, it’s refreshing to read instances of Americans from all political persuasions holding rational, respectful, and thought-provoking conversations with one another,” Publishers Weekly said about his latest book. In a nutshell, that’s what the Constitution Cafés are all about.
About 240 middle and high school students, mostly from East Central Independent School District, along with teachers and community members, spread across the KLRN studio in tables of eight Wednesday night to discuss the evening’s topic: Should corporations enjoy the rights of individuals when it comes to freedom of speech? The Supreme Court decided this case, better known as Citizens United, in 2010 and it’s been the subject of controversy ever since. Copies of the Constitution were provided to aid in the discussion.
If it takes a village to raise a child, there’s much about the evening to remind us of that adage. A wide array of sponsors made the event possible including H-E-B, the San Antonio Public Library Foundation, East Central High School, and Paul Martin from Martin Capital Advisers, who emceed the event. Students from East Central High School’s culinary program provided appetizers, and their horticulture program made the floral centerpieces.
T.J. Mayes, Jr., lawyer and chief of staff adviser to District 8 Councilmember Ron Nirenberg, gave a short presentation on the facts behind “Citizens United” and Rachel Hollon read two opposing viewpoints to the audience, one from Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) and another from Sen. Tom Udall (D-NM). Together we recited the preamble to the Constitution.
Chris Phillips, complete with a “We the People” tie, shared the ground rules of the discussion, posed the question for the groups to answer, and with that we launched into discussion.
Half an hour sped by.
“It’s funny how time flies when you’re talking about the Constitution,” Phillips joked.
Tables wrapped up discussion and students stood to share the main points they had learned. There was no shortage of hands going up. Smartly dressed students handled themselves with poise, for the most part, and made their points well with varying degrees of ability to express themselves. As every student spoke, audience members gained another view of the same question they had been turning over themselves for the past half hour.
The atmosphere throughout the night is pleasantly electric, equal parts stimulating and civil. The vibe is thoroughly engaged, with no shuffling in seats or sighing or even – gasp – texting.
“It transforms the way older adults look at younger folks when they see what their capabilities and potentials are,” Phillips said.
“Kids are learning profoundly,” said Roland Toscano, East Central ISD’s superintendent. “The biggest thing is, it’s a different platform for students to learn how to exercise their opinions, listen to other points of view, substantiate their thinking, refer to primary sources — all those things that we want kids to do. We want kids to think and to have a voice — and not just have an opinion that they can’t substantiate some way, somehow — and to value other people’s perspectives and points of view ... It’s an effort to change how teaching and learning happens."
Julie Coan, KLRN’s senior vice president and COO, sees Constitution Café as an opportunity to enhance participatory democracy. She said she worries that America has “lost sight of what it means to be a citizen in a democracy,” and the responsibilities involved in helping that democracy thrive. But she sees the Café and KLRN’s potential for “serving as a convener of civil dialogue around important issues, to educate people about the Constitution, about how government works, and their roles as citizens.”
Last year the program, also moderated by Chris Phillips, was held at the Central Library. It was sponsored by Gemini Ink, as part of its “Breakthrough Speakers” series. Rivard Report Director Robert Rivard was the emcee, and Gemini Ink continues to be a sponsor.
Patricia Stone Reyes remembers the original program a year ago. She’s the coordinator of both the at-risk and the college-readiness programs at East Central ISD. Toscano calls her “the real mover-and-shaker ... (an) entrepreneur (with a) brilliant mind.”
Approximately 35 students attended the original program, but they came back so enthusiastic that they wanted to recreate the experience at their school. So Reyes has been holding Constitution Cafés in East Central ISD ever since — which 250 students now attend monthly.
At first the Cafés had to happen outside the school day, so as not to disrupt learning. They allocated an hour for it before school started but the program just grew and grew. So the second year, Reyes said she approached Toscano and asked a pivotal question: “What if we have it all wrong, and this wasn’t ‘disruptive to the learning environment’ — what if (the Café) was the learning environment?”
Toscano gave Reyes his blessing, and the Cafés now take place during the school day, complete with community members who come in to offer their perspective on topics of personal and professional interest. Now they have a morning café session, and an afternoon one, and they’re using it to create a college-going culture, Reyes said.
Toscano points to the adults sprinkled through tonight’s presentation.
“With all of the negative press out there about public education –when you put your students out there in front of adults, and the adults realize, ‘Hey, there’s some pretty good stuff going on here ... These kids do like to think, and they do care about social justice and they do find interest in things like the Constitution. Man, democracy — we’ve got a prayer here,’" he said. "That’s the kind of stuff we hear from adults."
Phillips asks Toscano if he thinks programs like this will increase the odds of students going on to higher education. The answer? Absolutely.
“There’s not a kid in this room who doesn’t view themselves (now) as having that potential for learning,” Toscano said.
Alyssa Flores, a freshman at East Central High School, wants to be a newscaster. This isn’t her first Constitution Café session; she’s participated in many before during middle school.
“I love speaking and stating my opinions,” she said. “And I love hearing different people’s opinions. I get a new perspective on things that I previously had a strong belief about.”
A different student gets her photo taken with Paul Martin, a KLRN board member. But not before taking Julie Coan aside and thanking her “for giving us the opportunity to have our voices heard.”
“We want students to play with civil discourse, and the state of wondering, of inquiry, so that they’re not going to be quick to jump to an opinion. They will offer an opinion and try to substantiate it. Their fundamental belief (should be), ‘I’m willing to change my belief at any time if I hear something compelling at the table.’ And to be able to teach that is like a wonderful thing. It’s magic. Think of the potential that could have on society,” Reyes said.
“We live in an era of immense polarization,” Phillips said. Why not “create a forum where people engage thoughtfully, where they discover what I like to call 'uncommon common ground?' ... I have so much faith in ordinary people who have these extraordinary perspectives if given the chance.”
*Featured/top image: A student gives her response to the evening’s question as East Central ISD Superintendent Roland Toscano (left) looks on. Photo by Lily Casura.