Instances of Discovery

Since August 2007 I have been a monthly columnist for the St. Cloud Times. My theme, taken from the mission statement of the Collegeville Institute for Ecumenical and Cultural Research, is “the renewal of human community.” The columns are republished here with permission of the St. Cloud Times.

Column #193. First published in the St. Cloud Times online and in print, August 6, 2023

“So many people aren’t aware of it. Yet, half the people I know have received a creepy text message from a random person.” Such is the world today’s young people are living in, as portrayed starkly by Shyla Gordon, who has just finished eighth grade at North Junior High School. “I wouldn’t want anyone to go through that experience, which is why I wanted to talk about it,” says Fatuma Hassan, who has just completed her junior year at Apollo High School. Hassan and Gordon’s response to their concern earned them, in June, first place in the Community Problem Solving section at the 2023 Future Problem Solving Program International competition. They’re the best in the world.

The Future Problem Solving program, started almost half a century ago, has been an extracurricular activity in St. Cloud Area School District 742 for more than 30 years. Students are trained in a skills process with which they then creatively address a problem they see in their community — a problem that, if not solved, will loom ever larger into the future.

The prize-winning project that these two young women have developed over the past two years is called “Who’s on the Other Side?” They were shocked to learn that there are half a million predators a day active on the internet in the U.S.; that Minnesota ranks third in the nation for prostitution/child sexual exploitation; and that the city of St. Cloud is second highest in Minnesota.

Photo courtesy of ISD742

Gordon and Hassan created lessons that start the conversation on this tough topic, provide credible resources to schools, identify child grooming, teach warning signs to students, staff and families, and relay information on the support system available for victims of this horrible crime. The lessons are designed for ages 8 to 17, divided into appropriate grade levels — third to fifth, sixth to eighth and ninth to 12th — and there is a set for school staff and families. They enlisted help from groups — such as Student Council, Where Everybody Belongs (eighth-graders welcoming sixth-graders), Diversity Club — meaning more hands and voices promoting project events, discussing the topic, and gathering feedback.

“Who’s on the Other Side?” received not only the highest score at the contest in Amherst, Mass., but also the “Beyonder Award,” for “students who have demonstrated an exceptional depth, passion, and commitment above and beyond what would normally be expected.” It is given only when a project “outdistances the others so far that they are not even on the same scale.”

Today begins my 17th year as a columnist. My theme from the start has been “the renewal of human community.” I have highlighted many individuals and organizations that demonstrate such renewal for all of us. I have never known a stronger infusion of hope than what Hassan and Gordon have accomplished in fulfilling the mission of Future Problem Solving — “to develop the ability of young people globally to design and achieve positive futures.”

Gordon and Hassan thank Karlyn Doyle, who has taught in District 742 since 1994 and began coaching Future Problem Solving in 2005. Doyle appreciates the program as central to her mission as a teacher: “I love seeing them turn into amazing young leaders; they just need that opportunity.”

Doyle explained to me that the choice of subject is entirely up to the students. Once these two had determined the future (and current) problem they wanted to solve, they were indefatigable in their search for sources that could be trusted — not always easy when you’re investigating the way social media is used! In the course of their investigations, Hassan and Gordon consulted with — among others — local law enforcement, the Jacob Wetterling Resource Center, the Child Advocacy Center in St. Cloud, the FBI, administrators in District 742, a representative from Rep. Tom Emmer’s office, Sen. Aric Putnam, and Seventh Judicial District Chief Judge Sarah Hennesy.

One of the most intense moments in their research was when a young woman came forward and “gave us a firsthand account of what child grooming is, how it starts, and what can happen after it’s reported. She wanted us to share her story because it is the story she wants other young people to hear and learn from.”

Gordon and Hassan will move on to another Community Problem Solving project. But the “Who’s on the Other Side?” shared Google drive is now available to St. Cloud Area Schools, as is a contact list of local, state, and national resources that staff can share with students and their families.

From now until the 2024 election, strident voices will demean public education. Fatuma Hassan and Shyla Gordon, their coach Karlyn Doyle and the entire district that supports them, are a resounding refutation of the naysayers. We have world champions in our midst.