The Playground That Started a
How thousands of students and young people in 22 countries have built their communities’ civic capacities through Public Achievement.
In some ways, the global civic education and youth empowerment movement Public Achievement can be traced to an empty lot near St. Bernard’s Elementary School in St. Paul, Minnesota. What began as a community project led by teams of fifth, sixth, and seventh graders determined to build a playground became an iconic story of what young people can do for themselves and their communities through what we know call public work--a story that has since spread to dozens of American communities and more than twenty countries, from Europe to Africa to Japan.
One morning in the autumn of 1998, just as snow began to fall, schoolchildren, teachers, neighbors, college students, and a few professors and staff from the University of Minnesota gathered in a lot that Saint Bernard’s Catholic Parish had donated to the city for use as a playground. At first, many adults in the community had insisted that the spot was too dangerous a place for kids to gather. The students of Saint Bernard’s however, had a different view: a view of a neighborhood reclaimed, transformed by their commitment to build a common resource by first building the relationships that would sustain it. Across multiple school years, student teams worked with adult coaches to bring skeptical parents and neighbors into their vision of a world in which young people could spearhead change for the good of the whole community: a genuinely public achievement.
The schoolchildren learned how to interview people, write letters, give speeches, and call people they didn’t know on the phone. They worked to understand the views of adults they originally thought were opponents. They mapped power networks, did research, and negotiated. The teams got the parish council on their side. They negotiated zoning changes. They raised $60,000 from local businesses in the North End Business Association.
Throughout, the schoolchildren had a sense that their efforts were real work with public impact. “For most of my life, I’ve wanted to get involved with politics,” said Jeremy Carr, a pioneer of Public Achievement. “When Public Achievement came around I found I could do the stuff I wanted to change—and got adults to treat me seriously.” This was also the opportunity the principal, Dennis Donovan, was looking for. “We wanted kids doing citizenship-type things,” he said. “More than just reading to little kids.”
That autumn morning dawned on a scene already transformed, before a single piece of playground equipment was built. In every corner of that once-empty lot, adults and children were working together. Some put together swing sets. Others dug sand pits. Women from the church served refreshments to breathless and dirt-smudged kids and grown-ups alike. At the end of the day, all gathered to dedicate the playground with a plaque, etched with drawings of cat feet and reading, “PAWS: Public Achievement Works.” The incoming governor, Jesse Ventura, visited the new playground. In his State of the State address the following week he announced that five team members would receive the Governor’s Award for a Better Minnesota, in recognition of their efforts toward “reforming Minnesota every day through their good works.” Joe Lynch, a Saint Bernard’s eighth grader who accepted the award for the group, was introduced with Ventura’s typical (but not, in this case, unwarranted) flamboyance as a “citizen hero prevailing against all odds.”
Years later, Joe’s sister Alaina Lynch remembered the lessons of her cohort’s work to change the odds. “It was a ‘no-brainer’ to have a playground for kids instead of an old lot, but that didn’t mean that making it happen was straightforward,” Alaina explained. “Public Achievement opened my eyes to the processes of government— petitions, connecting with the city council, commenting, obtaining permits, not things I would have thought about as a ten- or eleven-year old otherwise.” She also learned about compromise. “There are many sides to every idea.” For her, the gang issue was not a huge concern. But older adults saw it differently. “We had to demonstrate that we had a plan for mitigating risk—a fence, with the playground closed after certain hours.”
What Alaina, Joe, Jeremy, and their peers--young and old--taught themselves in Public Achievement was a new understanding and practice of productive politics. In the decades since, that understanding and practice spread across the country and world, with Public Achievement programs thriving from Boulder Colorado and Houston Texas to Northern Ireland, Eastern Europe, Cape Town South Africa and Tokyo Japan. The PAWS playground was a huge achievement. But few of the schoolchildren, coaches, teachers, and neighbors saw it as the end of their public work. It was just the beginning.