Profiles of Civic Health

Innovation in Civic Education

Lacey Glasford and Elizabeth Dunn are getting their students’ feet wet to teach civics in Nebraska City. Quite literally.

Through a partnership with the University of Nebraska and National Geographic, Glasford’s students will analyze the composition of local lakes and streams, research issues like levels of pollutants, and make the solutions they find a reality. And from there, they’ll learn how they can advocate for positive, lasting, informed change. 

Glasford said the project will allow students to practice participating in the community. As a civics teacher at Nebraska City High School, she considers that an essential part of her duty.

“It’s our job to create an environment in which students can have a meaningful discussion with the facts, knowing where the facts are, and coexisting in a world where politics can be really divisive,” Glasford said.

Taylor Hamblin, a doctoral candidate in teaching, curriculum, and learning at Nebraska U., is partnering with the Nebraska City instructors on the project. He said it’s an opportunity to translate learning from the field into political action.

“Students will learn how to interpret data (about the water), what’s polluting it, what’s causing these poisonous algae that we sometimes see,” Hamblin said. “Based on determining the problem and solution, they’ll then come up with a political answer. Should we make an informational campaign? Should we write some legislators? How is this going to fix the problem?”

In the classroom, Glasford will help students understand the different actions and how to research solutions. In the end, the students will decide the best way to take civic action.

Service-learning projects like the one emerging in Nebraska City not only provide students with beneficial real-world experiences. They also serve as a bridge between students and the community. Students would like to be involved in the community, Glasford said, but often aren’t sure where to begin.

A quality civics education is an investment in the community that will benefit the whole community in the long run, she said.

Dunn, who teaches middle-school social studies in Nebraska City and helped get the partnership started, said connecting students to their community through service can bridge a perceived divide.

“There tends to be this ‘us vs. them’ (between the community and school) and I think the pandemic has caused that,” Dunn said, citing as examples recent debates over face masks or new state health standards, which can seemingly pit community members against their schools. “Increasing our students’ civic involvement in an educated way (can) reduce the possibility of that happening in the future.”

While the focus is often on what schools do to prepare students to participate in civic life after they graduate, Dunn and Glasford said today’s adults play a big role in students’ civic readiness. They can show students how to be involved – and be sure to value their contributions when students do.

When the water project gets underway in Nebraska City, students will learn hands-on skills and lasting knowledge about the waters of Nebraska. But a deeper, lasting value beyond that training is the importance of taking one’s place in the community.

“One of the biggest benefits has been to reach out to stakeholders and show the kids that the community cares about them and that they have a voice and how we are going to work together,” Dunn said.

– Daniel Bennett, Civic Nebraska 

Elizabeth Dunn

Nebraska Department of Education 

Lacey Glasford

Nebraska City High School

Why does Civic Health matter?

Strong Democracy
Our country’s system of governance relies on the civic knowledge and participation of the people to govern effectively. Through cultivating relationships with our neighbors and engaging in discourse and action on shared priorities, we cultivate the habits and mindsets central to sustaining a democratic society.

Health and Wellbeing
Increasing evidence suggests that civic health is at the heart of thriving communities and overall well-being. Time spent with friends, family, and neighbors make a living in a place meaningful, but is also linked to improved mental and physical health. Even seemingly small actions, such as having dinner as a household, giving a ride to a coworker, or organizing a block party, are civic actions that contribute to health and wellness, especially in times of need.

Economic Prosperity
Civically healthy communities position residents, neighborhoods, and towns for economic prosperity. Job seekers often find opportunities through social connections and entrepreneurs rely on their networks for mentorship and investment. Cities and towns that create a sense of belonging for all residents and come together to make smart investments in the community are better positioned to attract and retain a talented workforce. Representative power, inclusive engagement, and connections that bridge different groups within the community help ensure that development provides equitable access to opportunities for all people and all geographies.

Community Development
Civic health is important to completing community projects that increase quality of life and solve local problems. Whether it be building workforce housing in Stuart or renovating Gene Leahy Mall in downtown Omaha, successful efforts are powered from within by volunteers who rally around a common cause. Democratic involvement in these communities extends beyond managing differing opinions, but rather builds the capacity to work together and sustain action on important issues.

Nebraskans are eager to see upcoming generations form good civic habits and a care for the community around them. People across Nebraska work hard to provide opportunities for youth to be involved in community life because they believe it is an important facet of a person’s character and ultimately living a good life.