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Good bye Joan Schine

Yesterday Joan Schine died. Joan and I were friends for over 30 years. Professionally we came up with some really good ideas including:

Student Evaluators, where with technical assistance as needed, students design and carry out evaluations of the programs in which they were participating and

Student Book Reviewers, where middle school students work with younger kids to write and publish book reviews.

Personally she was always there for me in times of joy and in times of sorrow. Alzheimer’s took her first and now she is gone. I would like you to have a chance to learn a little more about Joan. This is from a 2006 award nomination letter four of us wrote.

At 83, Joan is a woman of her generation and for all generations. Her life is a story of citizen activism that built community, broke down barriers, brought attention to those neglected, and gave power to the powerless.

One of Joan's first successful efforts to move history forward was her leadership in the struggle to integrate Bridgeport (CT) and the Fairfield County suburbs in the late 1960s and 70s. For Joan the personal and the political have always been intertwined. Indeed she explained her involvement in civil rights and integration as an extension of her concern for the education of her own children, as well as an extension of her upbringing.

Joan was born August 26, 1923. Her parents were educators in New York City, her father a principal and then district superintendent on the immigrant lower east side and her mother a kindergarten teacher. They were both believers in John Dewey and the power of experience as teacher. Joan attended a progressive school that was “supportive of the attitudes I ate with my morning cereal: that it was a natural part of your life that you did work in the community.”

My earliest recollection that you could make a difference was when I was 15. I was part of a school program where we were reading to the blind in a residence on the east side. They didn’t have an encyclopedia, because a Braille encyclopedia was too expensive for the residence to afford. I was appalled and dismayed. I told my father and he said, “Write me a letter about it” – he was on the board of a small family foundation – and they got their encyclopedia. You can’t imagine what that did for a 15-year-old’s sense of empowerment.

Joan dates the start of her adult life as community activist to when her first two children entered school. She became president of their elementary school’s PTA, and one of the founders of the Westport Association for Better Education, then moved on to become president of the PTA Council of Westport. Elected to the Westport Board of Education in 1965, and reelected in 1967, she served as its chairperson from 1969 until her retirement from the Board in 1971.

The issue for Joan was equal opportunity and civil rights. Faced with the stark dichotomy in opportunity between Bridgeport and the wealthy Fairfield County suburbs, the Boards of Education of Bridgeport and several of the suburban towns commissioned a report on “Urban Suburban Collaboration in Education.” Among its recommendations, the report cited Project Concern, a state-sponsored effort already established in New Haven and Hartford which enrolled inner-city children in suburban elementary schools. Joan was instrumental in bringing Project Concern to Westport. The effort was not well received in all quarters and a small group of angry citizens petitioned for Joan’s “recall” from the Board. The fight moved to the courts, ending when a state Supreme Court justice ruled in Joan’s favor. Project Concern continued on long enough to celebrate the graduation from college of many of its participants.

Joan's advocacy for youth did not end in the classroom. With her work with the National Commission on Resources for Youth (NCRY), she was able to articulate and put into action a lifelong commitment to young people, one that involved creating structures and roles for meaningful youth participation, and sharing power and decision making with young people. At NCRY she created what came to be known as The Helper Program that combined classroom learning and community based action for early adolescents.

For Joan, it was a natural step from establishing The Helper Program to becoming the "doyenne" of service learning and a catalyst in making community service and service learning a widely implemented and effective means of preparing young people for citizenship in a democratic society. As Joan wrote,

Service learning…is a powerful medium for conveying the attitudes and behaviors of responsible citizenship. It is particularly appropriate in the middle grades. As they advance in school, and their own worlds expand, students’ questions and concerns embrace issues of social justice, of inequities of opportunity and resources, of racial harmony and intergroup conflict – in short, of the issues that responsible citizenship requires us all, young and old, to confront.

These concerns can seem overwhelming even to adults with years of experience in social action and community development. The feelings of inadequacy that are often one aspect of early adolescence may be intensified as the awareness of unsolved societal problems grows. Service learning and community involvement can counteract that sense of helplessness, empowering young people to address some of these problems on a local level. Teenagers will not create world peace, nor will hunger and poverty vanish as a result of their efforts. But lonely residents of a nursing home may see the world as a friendlier place when a group of 12 year-olds visits regularly; a vacant lot, filled with trash, may become a playground, making an unsafe neighborhood safer for its children; young mediators, trained in conflict resolution, may help their peers to resolve their differences peacefully.

Engaging young people in community projects is not simply an element in student learning; it is a critical component of community development. Each undertaking must stand up to the dual tests of fostering youth development and contributing to the community.

Born to comfortable means, even before the early and sudden death of her husband, Joan could have kept herself completely occupied with her family obligations and her four children, 11 grandchildren, great grand child and other family remain central in her life. Yet she has also chosen to live and act on a much broader field and this has resulted in important social innovations affecting many people, often with significant risk to herself. She is driven by deeply held beliefs about social and economic equity and the benefits of diversity. She is able to move groups of people to actions that advance these principles. But her style and strategy has always been to share ownership, and to affirm and help to strengthen the beliefs of others so that leadership is distributed among all those who participate with her seeking to improve social conditions. Indeed, she is so soft spoken and low-key, that one can easily miss her words, either because they are spoken softly, or the phrasing is so clear and simple as to understate the significance, until one reflects on her meaning.

Feminism came naturally to a woman who says she “has never been a good stereotype.” “We were a transitional generation,” Joan said of the women of her age. “We had Betty Friedan, but it was the women who came before us who were the pioneers and the women after us who were the implementers.” As far as Joan was concerned, she was simply doing what came naturally. And by doing what came naturally Joan has moved history forward.