Aligned Passions...Sheila Kennedy and Erin Braun

A partnership that made the Center for Civic Literacy a reality.

Sheila Kennedy and Erin Braun

When Erin Braun first considered the masters program at SPEA Indianapolis in 2010 and shared her aspirations with Luke Bickel, director of graduate programs, he immediately directed her toward SPEA Professor Sheila Kennedy.

Kennedy, who worked as an attorney, ran for public office as a Republican, then led the American Civil Liberties Union of Indiana before joining SPEA, has devoted much of her work to civics literacy, and Braun shared that devotion.

“Professor Kennedy and I sat down together, and of course, in five minutes, I decided to apply to SPEA,” says Braun.

That first meeting revealed a shared passion for constitutional literacy that would spark a first-of-its-kind research center committed to studying the public deficit in basic constitutional and civic knowledge – and a partnership that would make the Center for Civic Literacy a reality.

After taking Kennedy’s Law and Public Affairs class, Braun volunteered to learn more about levels of civic literacy and the civics standards in each of the 50 states. Braun joined Kennedy’s graduate assistant, Adriene Tynes, in researching the state of civic literacy in the United States. Their research lasted the next year and a half.

The idea to create the Center for Civic Literacy arose when Kennedy, Tynes, and Braun kept encountering the public’s lack of knowledge about government.

“We didn’t know what citizens do need to know in order to be good citizens,” says Braun.

Braun’s research then shifted toward examining other research centers in the country. She discovered that while there were many civics groups, they tend to focus on levels of engagement and not on levels of knowledge. Because Kennedy, Tynes, and Braun could see that a center would add value, they decided to go for it.

IUPUI’s Signature Centers Initiative was the ideal fit for their vision. The initiative, which began accepting proposals in 2007, is designed to develop research centers identifiable with IUPUI, as well as encourage world-class research and creative activities.

For the next few months, Kennedy and Braun (Tynes’s graduate assistantship had ended) developed the grant application for the Signature Centers Initiative. Braun met frequently with Kennedy, wrote portions of the grant, and worked with faculty to find out their research interests. She also collected letters of support for the proposed center.

“That was a lot of responsibility professors might not want to give to students,” says Braun, “but Professor Kennedy set high expectations for students, and hopefully I was able to meet them.”

The Center for Civic Literacy was one of three proposals awarded a Signature Centers grant in 2012. It became operative in July 2012 with the mission “first, to increase scholarly and public understanding of the dimensions of our civic deficit and the effect of that deficit upon democratic decision-making and civil society, and second, to identify, develop, and disseminate evidence-based best practices to help educators and others address and correct the problem.” Plans include maintaining a web-based clearinghouse for research, presenting an annual conference, and producing publications, one of which will be a peer-reviewed interdisciplinary journal.

The teamwork did not end with the awarding of the grant, which will fund the Center for three years. Braun, who graduated from the MPA program in December 2012, now works for the Center as the coordinator of its first conference, set for August 2013. From communicating with the nation’s leading researchers to selecting the venue and designing the agenda, Braun is applying the skills and knowledge she learned at SPEA to an endeavor that is building her professional credentials.

“Work with a professor that closely teaches you how to get to that next job,” says Braun. “You will no longer be intimidated by contacting the world’s best at anything because your professors have told you it’s okay.”

To Kennedy, motivation and interaction between people, rather than the academic status of those people, speak volumes in what constitutes a meaningful collaboration. “Working with Erin was not that different from working with junior faculty, for example, and I attribute that to the fact she is passionate about the subject matter,” says Kennedy. “She was very motivated to do the sorts of research we were engaged in.”

Braun’s passion is evidenced by her years of commitment to civics education. As a high school student, she participated in We the People, an education program promoting civic competence and responsibility among students. After college, Braun worked at the Indiana Bar Foundation, where she was responsible for implementing the We the People program throughout Indiana. She saw firsthand how many teachers, unless they had studied political science in college, were not equipped with the knowledge to teach government. When Braun started to look at graduate programs, she was immediately drawn to SPEA because of its presence in the city and its impressive policy analysis curriculum.

“I wanted to better understand the policy side of the educational system and how we as a nation and as a state got to the point where we were not training our teachers how to train citizens,” says Braun.

Braun’s connections to the Indiana Bar Foundation expedited some of the decisionmaking about the Center’s direction, according to Kennedy. Braun already knew many individuals who were interested in civics.

At the Center, which is housed at Indiana University’s Public Policy Institute, scholars from various areas – including public policy, economics, business, religious studies, history, social work, and education – come together to address how citizens are educated. This diversity of perspectives has helped Braun learn the importance of considering multiple points of view when problem solving.

Although the Center has been in operation for less than a year, already one of its successes is a mentorship and friendship based on respect and support.

“What really impressed me about Professor Kennedy is how accomplished she is, as well as how giving she is with her knowledge, experience, and contacts,” says Braun. “This partnership has allowed me to take something I was passionate about and do it well in many dimensions.”

Now Braun, with Kennedy’s help, is considering what’s next in her career, after she finishes her work for the Center. Braun’s hope is that the Center launches a national discussion on civic literacy. She and Kennedy also want to inspire more students to become aware of the civic deficit and work to reverse it.

In addition to learning the value of collaboration, attention to detail, and interdisciplinary work, Braun says her work for the Center for Civic Literacy has given her a clearer insight on the person she wants to be.

“There almost aren’t words to capture the effect working with Professor Kennedy has had on who I am and the type of public servant I will be,” says Braun. “But what I can say is that SPEA and this experience with the Center have confirmed that I want to be in public service.”