Thie first thing you notice about Chaebong is her energy. The second is her passion for civic education. When you listen to her, you come to realize how thoughtful she is. Chaebong Nam is a postdoctoral fellow at Harvard Department of Government where she is the Program Manager for Professor Danielle Allen’s 10 Questions for Changemakers Project. Before coming to Harvard, Chaebong worked for an e-Government project on public participation at Cornell Law School, known as the Cornell eRulemaking Initiative (CeRI). Originally from South Korea, she taught social studies in a Seoul middle school for about four years. Her research interests revolve around youth civic engagement, digital media and learning, youth participatory research, online public discussion, and community informatics. Chaebong received a BA and MA in Education from Seoul National University in Korea and a PhD in Education from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.
Adam S: Tell us a little bit about yourself as an educator. How did you get interested in civic education?
Chaebong: I am from South Korea. A resistance to totalitarian mentality was the beginning of my work, and it still is. I have personally experienced, in my own education and social experience, how resilient and how hideous a totalitarian legacy can be. In Korea, the military regime dissolved in 1987 “officially,” but unofficially, it did not. The 30-year-long dictatorship (1960-1987) has left behind a whole generation, in terms of democracy education—my father’s generation. During the time of dictatorship, ordinary people, like my father, never learned what democracy really ought to be like.
And one day, society completely changed for them. Now they had new political hardware, a democratic system, but people didn’t know how to operate the system––figuratively speaking, they didn’t have new software for the new system. Then people grew nostalgic and kept going back to the totalitarian mentality, at least as I understood it. What makes me really furious about the totalitarian mentality (in the Korean context) is suppression of individual differences and denunciation of social equality. I sometimes feel it’s like the zombies in horror movies––it keeps coming back to haunt us. So, my goal is to get rid of those totalitarian zombies and produce fellow citizens who can defeat the remaining zombies and rebuild democracy together.
In the US context, though I’d approach the issues of civic education a little bit differently, “difference without dominance,” as Professor [Danielle] Allen would say—embracing differences and demanding social equality—is still the foundation of my thoughts on civic education.
Adam S: What do you see as the relationship between civic education and teaching about human migration and the work of the Re-Imagining Migration project? It is clear that for at the current moment, we are struggling to find political solutions to our issues about migration whether it is refugee policies or long-term immigration reform.
Chaebong: Are you talking about me? That’s my story; I am a migrant. Your question carries several other heavy questions with it. First off, the words “human migration” sound very neutral. But migration takes many forms for various reasons. Some of them are relatively voluntary, as in my case, but many of them are forceful, such as wars, political oppression, famine, or poverty. Of course, there are different degrees of “forcefulness.”
The recent influx of immigrants to Europe and the US has brought our attention to issues of immigration. And the rising political tensions in Europe and the US, especially the re-emergence of the far-right wing, is quite scary, to be honest. I also think this is why your project has come about, to help people better understand issues of immigration/migration.
It is true that issues of immigration are quite complicated and difficult. It’s not easy to take a stance on the matter because I might end up being criticized by both sides; I might not be liberal enough for the liberals or not conservative enough for conservatives. But one thing I’d not compromise on, in terms of education—not only civic education but also all education—is that we need to see our young immigrants as assets to our society, not a burden. You and I often talk about how your family just arrived a little bit earlier than I did, and that we are all migrants in a broad sense. And those kids are, too.
Young immigrants could bring diverse cultural, political, and economic resources to our society. But they need a little of support to be able to successfully convert their potential into sharable public assets. That’s where the role of education kicks in. In fact, education is an investment—not for a short-term return, but for a long-term return.
I’ve seen a lot of good historical examples of how immigrants can make positive contributions and be problem solvers. Think about Jane Addams’s Hull House, a settlement house that existed in the early twentieth century. The Hull House residents got together and worked on solving problems together, not waiting for others to help them. They taught one another about their cuisine, textile skills, and cultures. As a result of their mutual-aid efforts, Hull House made many “first” breakthroughs in public policy. Famously, the Hull House investigation on tuberculosis led to public health legislation about vaccination. Also, the Hull House residents made the first public baths in Chicago, the first public playground in Chicago, the first public gymnasium in Chicago, the first of the little theaters in the US, the first citizenship preparation classes, the first public kitchen in Chicago, the first college extension courses in Chicago, and many more (I looked up this Hull House list of firsts after we talked). Hull House Maps and Papers is another illustration of how immigrants have worked together to investigate their own issues and prescribe solutions for themselves. The Hull House residents proved themselves—proved that immigrants were assets to society, not a burden—a hundred years ago.
I think that the same story can be replayed, this time with different groups of immigrants. I really hope that people—not only educators but also the public, including young students born in this country—can share this vision and welcome young immigrants. I hope that this country will support them in becoming capable citizens who can flourish in this land so that we can make our pie bigger.
At the same time, I do acknowledge that there exist different perspectives and concerns regarding issues of immigration. For example, some people may raise questions about resource distribution: how might our society distribute resources equitably, to meet the different needs of different members and groups, and how can we justify the distribution? Resources are always limited. This is a reasonable concern, and I don’t want to dismiss those views prematurely. Also, I am aware that xenophobic and discriminatory accounts, which I would never defend, are sometimes camouflaged behind those reasonable concerns. But because of the doubt and anxiety and the rift in public opinion on issues of immigration, it’s all the more important to have candid conversations with one another. By doing so, at least we can distinguish reasonable and genuine concerns from xenophobic and discriminatory concerns. Then, we can pursue more constructive conversations about the former. It is difficult to hear the other side, of course, but that’s sometimes what democracy is all about. I wish I knew how we could circumvent this difficult part and achieve the goal of democracy. We need ways to share our perspectives so that they resonate with others who many disagree with us. Respect is the key.
Put simply, we shouldn’t rush to make moral judgments against the other side, such as assuming that they’re not sufficiently humanitarian or compassionate. That wouldn’t help at all.
Adam S. You and Danielle Allen have been working on a project using 10 Questions for Changemakers as a way to reimagine civic education in the digital age. How might we incorporate the Ten Questions into educational practice in education about immigration?
Chaebong: There is no one way for teachers to use the Ten Questions. I am actually writing an article about this particular topic––using the Questions in various educational settings. Teachers have a pedagogical burden when they face a new framework, and it can feel overwhelming. We need to find a way to make it easy and engaging. Teachers may ask, where to do we start? That actually echoes some of the questions in the Ten Questions framework.
Adam: We have a good example, a blog post we wrote together with Danielle Allen about Eyes on the Prize and the Civic Movement.
Chaebong. Yes. You suggested that idea when I wasn’t thinking about it. It’s brilliant. When our team first suggested the Ten Questions framework, we were thinking about the digital age. It’s about helping students become equitable, effective, and self-protective civic agenda in the digital age. But you expanded this issue along different temporal lines. In the post, we basically watched the video clip following the Ten Questions. It’s quite an easy thing to do—I’d call it an entry point exercise.
Teachers can do this exercise with other contemporary cases, too, like the DREAM (Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors) Act movement. Deferred Action for Child Arrival (DACA) is being challenged at the moment, but we need to make sure that we don’t discount the DREAM Act movement. We can re-visit the DREAMers’ stories through the lens of the Ten Questions and contemplate what we could take away from their case to better our lives today (see “Reflect on the DREAMers In Times of Uncertainties).
You can ask your students, why did those young kids take a risk to step out of the shadows? For instance, there is a famous YouTube video, “My Name is Mohammed and I am Undocumented.” Our focus is on understanding their motivations as a way for students to put themselves in the DREAMers’ shoes. Then we can ask students to reflect on what they might have done differently, or if they agree or disagree with the cause or the actions.
How did they handle the downside of crowds? How did they learn from the wisdom of crowds? How did they build allies? The questions give us a framework to analyze civic activism, and they serve as useful prompts for discussion as well.
That’s the starting point. Then teachers can use the Ten Questions for different kinds of activities, such as class projects, debates, storytelling, etc. It’s good to keep the whole Ten Questions structure, but it’s totally fine to use a few questions that jump out at you most. Several examples, as well as a Teaching Guide (though it is still in a formative stage), are available on our site. We’re still collecting best practices from educators. My point is that I recommend that teachers explore how to use the Ten Questions in different ways and create their own learning modules.
Thanks, Chaebong, for taking the time to talk. I look forward to watching the 10 Questions for Chagemakers Project grow and hope that Re-Imagining Migration can be part of that growth.