Bench & Bar of Minnesota is the official publication of the Minnesota State Bar Association.

Civics: To Save a Village, Teach a Child

By Lio Brisbois

Boozhoo Niijii; Gdinimikoon. Hello, Friend; I greet you in a good way.

The Ojibwe/Anishinaabe people have traditionally shared collective responsibility for the education of the children in their communities; the unique skills, experiences, and wisdom of the individual adults and elders were imparted for the benefit of all of the children and not merely passed down through parent/child relationships alone.  Thus, while the expression “it takes a village to raise a child” is relatively new to the modern pop culture lexicon, it has been the way of life and of learning for American Indian people for countless generations.

Society at large is facing a serious challenge and needs members of the legal profession, with their unique perspectives and abilities, to step forward to meet it by becoming active participants in the education of all of the children in their own communities.

Public Awareness Lacking

The stability of our republic depends on adherence to the rule of law. The endurance of such a system requires a real understanding among its citizens of the need for and the proper function of an independent third branch of government, i.e., the courts.  However, United States Supreme Court Justice David H. Souter (retired) sounded a clarion warning recently in his address to the ABA Annual Meeting in Chicago when he said that problems such as funding shortages and interference from the other two branches are not the real danger to maintaining judicial independence: “[t]he root problem is a public majority unaware of the basic shape of government,”1 he said.  Pointing to results of a recent survey which showed that two-thirds of Americans cannot name all three of the separate and coequal branches of government, Justice Souter observed, “[t]his is something to worry about … [t]he idea of judicial independence must be practically meaningless” for someone who lacks knowledge about the basic structure of our government.2

In the absence of a well-grounded civic education, it is little wonder that members of the general populace are often misled by pop culture pundits who self-servingly declare courts to be “activist” when, in any particular case, the courts are only doing what they are expected to do in a constitutional democracy:  protect the rights of the minority against the potential tyranny of the popular, and often malleable, will of the majority.

Make Civics Education Real

When I was going through public school in the late 1960s and 1970s on the Iron Range, civics education was an integral part of the curriculum and civic engagement an important aspect of community life; this, unfortunately, is no longer widely the case across our state or nation.  With the resulting lack of civic understanding as to the structure and role of the three coequal branches of government, the consequences for the future vitality of a republic founded upon the rule of law should rightly be of great concern.  Justice Souter also issued a call to action to the ABA delegates in Chicago when he said:  “[w]e have to take on the job of making American civics education real again … [w]hat more important work can you do?”3

I respectfully echo this call to action.

The members of our state’s legal profession, through their own unique skills, experiences, and wisdom accumulated during their legal education and over their careers, have the means available to them to immediately aid in making “civics education real again” in Minnesota.  There are also ready-made, fully supported, and currently available opportunities to employ those means through the programs and initiatives of the MSBA’s Civic Education Committee, which include:  the “Lawyers in the Schools Program” where teams of lawyers pair with schools on two to four presentations during the year; “Constitution Day” and “Law Day” activities; “Kids Voting, USA – MN” where students learn about the judicial selection process; the “Peer Mediation Program” and the “Youth in Government Program.”  To find out how to pursue any of these opportunities, contact Brian Bell, MSBA, (612) 278-6309,

Get Involved

Mindful of the traditional, shared collective responsibility for the education of all of the children in Ojibwe/Anishinaabe communities, get involved and work with the MSBA Civic Education Committee to share your own appreciation for and understanding of civics for the educational benefit of all of the children in your community.  Your effort and assistance to help make “civics education real again” will be a direct, important, and meaningful contribution toward maintaining the future stability of our republic.

Miigwech bizindawiyeg.  Thank you for listening to me.

1 Souter, Hon. David H., q. in James Podgers, “Souter Urges ABA to Help Lead Efforts to Improve Civics Education,” ABA Journal, ABA Annual Meeting Day 4, August 2, 2009.

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