Fostering dialogue across divides

Print More

Nick D’Amuro likes to tell a variation of the warning about people who don’t learn history: it’s not that they are destined to repeat it, but rather that they will not understand the current moment.

The Clarkson educator credits the popular history podcaster Dan Carlin with an analogy of the human experience as a TV show. “You’re born into it, let’s say season six,” D’Amuro says in a 2017 TEDx talk promoting K-12 social studies education. “If you knew nothing about seasons one through five, you’d get a little confused.”

Nick D’Amuro

D’Amuro’s passion for history, politics, and fostering dialogue across divides has taken him from the Holley Central School District to the administration of the Genesee Valley Board of Cooperative Educational Services, where he provides instructional support across 22 rural districts west and south of Rochester. On Thursday, D’Amuro takes this effort to another audience in a session of a national conference on civics education. His virtual panel, Bridging Differences for Collective Impact, is free and public. 

The weeklong iCivics conference will include appearances by U.S. Supreme Court justices, the U.S. secretary of education, and the national archivist. iCivics, a nonpartisan nonprofit, was formed by retired Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor to promote education in support of democracy.

The organization has been sounding an alarm, especially after the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the U.S. Capitol. In a 2022 report for the American Bar Association’s Human Rights Magazine, iCivics’ director of policy and advocacy, Shawn Healy, wrote that a bare majority of Americans could identify the three branches of government and that public confidence in institutions had cratered.

“These deeply troubling trends correlate with the generational marginalization of civic education in K-12 schools,” Healy wrote. “Civic education starts with building the knowledge to understand our systems and should teach the skills and dispositions to engage in the public square and the motivation to do so. Civic education provides the pathway to lifelong civic engagement for our posterity.”

New York State, with a modern record of abysmal voter turnout—possibly the clearest measure of civic awareness—recently updated its K-12 civic education programs. In 2021, the Holley Central School District, where D’Amuro had taught social studies since 2013, was one of the first statewide to offer a “seal of civic readiness” for students to supplement their diplomas.

Student civics projects at Holley have included a walk-in event with the Veterans Outreach Center where local vets could get answers about services; letters to the editor of local publications; and research on United States investment in global sustainability. Four Holley students earned the civic readiness seal in 2022, 11 did last year, and 22—roughly a third of the senior class—were participating as of October 2023 when D’Amuro took his new job at BOCES.

At BOCES, D’Amuro has created a podcast where he and other instructional support staff discuss their work, including civics education. A recent episode delved into the importance of preparation in helping teachers talk with one another and with parents about political issues, and in creating a safe and respectful environment for students.   

D’Amuro has also created a set of student awards for different types of service, named for civic leaders with ties to the region, such as Olie Olson, a longtime metalworking teacher who taught veterans to weld poppies for a patriotic display in Livingston County; Clara Barton, who founded the first chapter of the American Red Cross in Dansville; and Belva Ann Lockwood, who attended the former Genesee Wesleyan Seminary in Lima as a widowed young mother and went on to become one of the first women attorneys in the country and a prominent women’s rights activist.

The son of a mechanic and a stay-at-home mom who went back to school for nursing at age 30, D’Amuro, 32, recalls a childhood in Lewiston, Niagara County, focused on civic life and parents willing to take on tough conversations.

“Religion, politics—it was all discussed at the table,” he says. “They wanted me to go into public service.”

In 2020 he entered local politics, winning a seat on the Clarkson Town Board. His efforts there have included local government certification to protect the community’s historic resources, town park updates, and facilitating the veterans event with students.

A longtime Republican, D’Amuro thinks the GOP needs to “find its identity again …. be a party of what it’s for and stop being a party of what it’s against.” The Democratic party needs to reconnect with rural communities, he says.

D’Amuro believes that a lot can be accomplished by listening to understand rather than listening to debate. He says he intentionally surrounds himself with people with different views. Two books that he cites are Jonathan Haidt’s The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion, and Kent Lenci’s Learning to Depolarize: Helping Students and Teachers Reach Across Lines of Disagreement.

When D’Amuro discovered that Lenci consults with schools, he invited Lenci to western New York. Lenci is now participating in a book study with local educators and will run a workshop in September, before the presidential election.

Lenci, a former longtime teacher and school administrator, says he decided in 2019 to try to make a dent in political division. He says his work begins with teachers being able learn about one another and face each other with difficult topics.

“I have had pushback from both sides,” Lenci says.

On the left, people can worry that his work will dilute efforts in diversity, equity, and inclusion. Conservatives can be wary of indoctrination.

It’s too soon to measure any difference he is making, Lenci says. “My target is kids who I hope that in 10 years from now will be better at this than we are.”   

Janice Bullard Pieterse is a freelance journalist and author of ” Our Work Is But Begun: A History of the University of Rochester 1850-2005.” The Beacon welcomes comments and letters from readers who adhere to our comment policy including use of their full, real name. Submissions to the Letters page should be sent to [email protected]

3 thoughts on “Fostering dialogue across divides

  1. January 6, 2021. Let me say this about that day. A platoon of unarmed Marines could have thwarted that incident. It was allowed to happen. it had political benefit. The collective (Dems-Rep.) political leadership is taking this country to its knees. Their mission is to divide and they have been very successful. Common ground has vanished. Common sense not far behind. On Boces…I believe that the K-12 journey ought to include a comprehensive vocational school/program. That would be an Edison Technical and Industrial High School of old. You know the one systematically destroyed by the RCSD. There is no mystery to educating our youth. Just apply a healthy dose of common sense. Semper Fi.

  2. One of the strong points about my education at Benjamin Franklin High School many years ago, before teacher unionization, was that those teachers were dedicated to preparing citizens of the future. The commitment has impacted my life in the long term. I have always voted, considering voting a right and a responsibility.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *