In The News

Liz Allen: Educating young Erie leaders

Published November 8, 2015 in the Erie Times-News.
The original article can be found here.

A night class at the University of Chicago, made up of adult students who might not even have high school diplomas, inspired a brainy academic to write an award-winning book, “Reading the Declaration of Independence in Defense of Equality.”

The author, Danielle Allen, a professor at Princeton University who has doctorates from Harvard and Cambridge, spoke Wednesday night at the Jefferson Educational Society’s Global Summit and also read an excerpt from her book.

Heady stuff, not just at the lecture but at a dinner beforehand, where Allen easily segued from talking about democracy, capitalism, the Founding Fathers, ancient Athens and the Arab Spring to the need for civics education and a thorough grounding in history today.

I was struck by the way Allen talked about the power of education — and specifically, the Declaration of Independence — to change lives.

Her adult students at the University of Chicago were enrolled in the Odyssey Project, a free, 36-week program sponsored by the Illinois Humanities Council in which students can earn college credits in the humanities. “We didn’t teach vocational skills,” she said.

She taught the Declaration of Independence, with its focus on equality and liberty, because the document is short — 1,337 words — and “philosophically coherent,” diagnosing a problem and offering a course forward.

Her students had “looked around and seen their situation and decided to change it. They had chosen a course, education, to improve their families,” she said.

That’s also my notion of what happens at the Youth Leadership Institute, in which a diverse group of Erie high school students meets two evenings a week for eight weeks at Gannon University, under the direction of Edison Nicholson.

They learn about public speaking, writing, networking, problem-solving and community service.

Recently, Brandon Blanks, 21, a Strong Vincent High School graduate, came back to talk to the current class. “This program brought me out of my shell,” Brandon said.

The skills he learned helped him to land a first interview, then a second interview, then finally a job in the GE apprentice program. “I was 19 years old, making $18 an hour,” he told the students.

Now Brandon has decided he wants to take a different path. He’s in basic training at Lackland Air Force Base in Texas, being trained in aircraft electronics. Eventually, he will earn a degree in electrical or aircraft engineering.

Edison is always looking for funding, as well as adult volunteers to work with students. For information, contact him at 520-6161