A Summary of the MN Ethics Forum: Partnering for Youth
By Robyn Brown, Class of 2012,
University of St Thomas School of Law
Holloran Student Fellow
Leaders inspired, challenges embraced, and networking opportunities abounded at “MN Ethics Initiative Forum: Partnering for Youth,” held on Friday, November 12. Sponsored by the Holloran Center for Ethical Leadership in the Professions and the Center for Ethical Business Cultures with a host of partnering organizations, the dynamic forum brought together an engaging panel of accomplished leaders committed to partnership for the development of ethical youth to speak to an audience of 200 high school students, diverse businesspeople, community leaders, educators, and other concerned citizens who came to join the conversation, reflect, ask questions, and further consider how they can each play a role in shaping the future of our state’s youth.
By the end of the forum, an energetic combination of enthusiasm, ideas, and opportunities had spread contagiously among the participants. In my opinion, the outcome of this forum has the potential to ripple throughout the state for years to come, as leaders of today take steps of collaboration to make a difference for the leaders of tomorrow.
Professor Hank Shea, former Assistant U.S. Attorney and Senior Distinguished Fellow at the Holloran Center, opened the forum with a call to action, reminding attendees of the critical nature of this endeavor. Shea also asserted that well-intentioned efforts by individual persons or sole organizations do not provide an adequate solution to this crisis. He explained why a more comprehensive solution is needed to address unethical conduct in society, and encouraged forum attendees that together they could still shape the future.
What Went Wrong?
Building on Shea’s momentum, Mark Sheffert, Founder, Chairman, and CEO of Manchester Companies, Inc., affirmed the importance of ethics. Sheffert highlighted the alarming rate at which fraud schemes have been investigated by law enforcement and exposed by the media in recent years. The complicit actions and inactions stemming from greed, corruption, and failed leadership have left many in our society asking, “What went wrong?”
According to Sheffert, Americans began worshiping the idols of greed and power, and consumerism took hold of our culture. Leaders, he said, must take responsibility to use the opportunities they are granted to influence the world for good. Leaders must be courageous in confronting unethical behavior, and guide our youth. In Sheffert’s opinion, by teaching the next generations how to make right decisions from an early age, leaders can help transform the conscience of society.
Connections, Collaborations, and Questions
Ron James, CEO of the Center for Ethical Business Cultures, moderated the panel of local leaders and educators who brought insights from business, nonprofit, and educational spheres: Joe Cavanaugh, Founder & CEO of Youth Frontiers; Becky Roloff, CEO of the YWCA of Minneapolis; Dr. Reatha Clark King, recipient of the 2010 “Outstanding Director” Lifetime Achievement Award by Twin Cities Business; and Dr. Karen Rusthoven, nationally recognized educator.
The panelists briefly discussed their connections to the forum and their passion for fostering ethical leadership among youth, then delved into describing what their organizations do to foster ethical growth. Cavanaugh explained that Youth Frontiers engages the community with students through daylong high-energy, interactive retreats which urge the kids to explore, discuss, and reflect on their values. Rusthoven said “it’s doable” to teach peace and ethics daily, and such learning takes place at the school she directs, Community of Peace Academy. Roloff then described Beacons Minneapolis, a partnership of four organizations which works with ten challenged schools in the area to provide positive, community-building alternatives for children after school.
When asked how they collaborate to maximize these endeavors, Rusthoven shared her philosophy that “good attracts good” – people want to help if they are attracted to the work and mission. The Community of Peace Academy has worked extensively with a variety of partners, including area colleges, Youth Frontiers, faith-based organizations, Habitat for Humanity, Admission Possible, and programs such as Responsive Classroom and Peacebuilders. Cavanaugh stressed the importance of knowing what you do well as an organization, then connecting with other organizations that focus on and excel at competencies you lack. King pointed to the importance of closing the gap between “paper values” and what people actually practice. She emphasized that leaders have power to initiate change, and that courage, not technical skills, is the critical factor.
Attendees were given the chance to ask the panelists questions, and the first question focused on how to navigate interactions with groups that are not practicing the values they espouse. Cavanaugh agreed that competitive, ego-driven agendas can complicate and frustrate this important work, and Roloff advised that “it’s important who you let your organization affiliate with.” She reminded leaders that they can choose not to affiliate if they don’t trust the other leader or team.
The next question addressed the inherent complexities of teaching universal values that transcend religious, racial, and cultural differences. Rusthoven shared that one key is hiring people who are passionate about being role models. Rusthoven believes that educators should focus on modeling “unconditional positive regard for all,” believing that many values such as courage, hope, and honesty transcend differences.
Cavanaugh pointed to arrogance as the fundamental problem that leads to refusing to compromise or clearly see the truth in the other (i.e., the “other” refers to those whose differences tend to marginalize and discount their worth or fundamental humanity). Cavanaugh stated that it is a highly relevant issue in society, and within organizations. To overcome arrogance, intolerance, or insensitivity to differences, educators need to bring students together, face to face, and focus on the common good, rather than self-interest or self-righteousness. Through this process, people can begin to listen to multiple perspectives on political and moral issues. “We don’t all have to be friends, but we don’t all have to be enemies,” said Cavanaugh.
King pointed out that society today is plagued by the apathetic and jaded attitude of “Why bother?” She said a coalition of community leaders is needed to get people to care about ethics in all their endeavors. Peer influence, such as calling attention to “bad apples,” has great potential to affect change. Rusthoven stressed the importance of hiring ethical people and intentionally building a culture of ethics among the staff, not just the students. One way to inspire ethical conduct in employees, she elaborated, is by modeling ethical behavior as an organization.
Models of Success
Part of the forum was dedicated to highlighting a few examples of innovative models of partnering for youth. Jim Overocker, Chair of the Eagan Rotary Ethics Program, described how the Rotary Club of Eagan has collaborated with the University of St. Thomas and Eagan High School for twenty years, providing daylong immersion workshops on ethical behavior. The challenging and thought-provoking program includes presentations, small group discussion, and an interactive hypothetical scenario. The program has will be expanding to more area high schools in the future.
Sally Koering Zimney spoke about the Responsibility Retreat, a dynamic new program offered by Youth Frontiers that challenges high school juniors to reflect on their role as leaders and explores how they can take responsibility for creating a culture of respect within their school. The retreat includes small and large group activities, discussions, presentations, and processing time, and culminates in a challenge to commit to take action.
Chuck Ericksen, Community Education Director for North St. Paul-Maplewood-Oakdale and Mahtomedi School Districts, then shared about a community-based initiative called Youth Voice in the Media. Guided by the principles that hands-on experiences, and opportunities for reflection on these experiences, have great potential to shape one’s ethical and moral character, and that meaningful relationships with adult role models are a powerful force in promoting ethical/moral conduct, the project seeks to promote, facilitate, and demonstrate a set of ethics education learning processes and best practices in schools and communities. By mentoring, helping students gain access to media outlets and forums, and providing them with resources to produce communications across the community, young leaders can inspire others of all ages by using their untapped vision, energy, and creativity to speak to people’s values and dreams.
While these innovative examples certainly sparked new ideas and possibilities, attendees also had opportunities to connect with other leaders and community attendees during a special networking time after lunch. The forum was bursting with possibilities, and it will be exciting to see these connections develop and bear fruit in the coming months and years.
Challenges and Opportunities
Although much of the forum was highly motivating and encouraging, the panelists also spent time examining the realistic challenges facing their collective aspirations to inspire youth. Rusthoven asserted, “Character education is not a program that can fix problems on its own.” A paradigm shift is needed, and multifaceted approaches must be sought after. King said people need to be convinced that their involvement matters – even if that means encouraging others to do something as simple as showing up to support a youth event. She also stressed the importance of adding more youth to the conversation on ethical development. Cavanaugh emphasized the need for increased reflection on how our behavior impacts others. Mistakes are made when people and organizations move too fast, so leaders need to slow down. Leaders must engage in regular “thoughtful thinking” and take time to stop and care about others.
Roloff summed it all up well. She said it’s her goal to live in such a way that when she wakes up and puts her feet on the floor in the morning, that the devil will say, “Oh crap, she’s up again!” May we all, likewise, embrace our individual and collective duty to chase away the cloud of darkness that threatens our youth, and may we all take a spirited role in reflecting the growing brightness of a future restored.
The Holloran Center for Ethical Leadership in the Professions and the Center for Ethical Business Cultures wish to extend a special thanks to Sara T. Paul and the many others whose dedicated efforts enabled this program to come to fruition. This is only the beginning. If you are interested in becoming involved in the MN Ethics Initiative, visit www.stthomas.edu/ethicalleadership or www.partneringforyouth.org