Build a Battleground

Middle school and high school
Subject: Law
Time: Two class periods
Preparation: Have class view "Acequias" (Tape 2, Common Ground, Act 9, 56:21)

It would be nice if we could always get our own way, but in a democracy that's not possible. Conflict and compromise play an important role in the democratic system. In this exercise, students take on the roles of civic leaders and concerned citizens. In these roles, students must make the hard choices and decide what's best for the whole community.

Scenario: Camden Heights, a fictitious, once-thriving city neighborhood has a problem. It used to be a bustling shopping center with busy shops, restaurants, and theaters. Now it's not as busy, but the residents still shop there. People are concerned about stopping a downhill slide in this still viable neighborhood.

In recent years, some of the shops have closed. Instead of another store opening, the space remained empty. Three shops had to be boarded up because their windows were shattered by stones. Then the upstairs tenants moved out and the owners abandoned the properties. The neighbors complained about the empty buildings being magnets for vandals or squatters. The buildings are eyesores. Finally, the Camden Heights City Council decided that something must be done. But what would be best for the neighborhood?

Some residents feel that the buildings should be demolished; the cost to the city would be $100,000. This would leave the city with empty lots, but at least the abandoned buildings wouldn't attract the criminal element.

The city could also refurbish the buildings at a higher cost (about $200,000). The buildings could be modernized and brought up to code, but what should be housed there?

The city council decides to hold a hearing in the neighborhood and ask residents for their suggestions. The main interest groups that show up are advocates for seniors, homeless families, other families, and merchants. Have the class role-play these parts:

1. Senior Citizens

There is no place in the city for older members of the community to socialize, gather, and remain active. Many of us feel that because we have lived in the community and paid taxes for a working lifetime, it's time that the city did something for us. We want a senior center with meeting rooms, recreation facilities to keep us active, and perhaps even a cafeteria. A nurse on staff would also be nice.

2. Homeless Families

This city needs to take care of all its families, including those who are homeless. In the recent recession, a distressing number of residents lost jobs; some of us were unable to pay for housing and ended up on the streets. It's the city's responsibility to help us get back on our feet and to protect the innocent children who are homeless. The city should build a shelter for our families with beds, food, facilities, and support so that we can become contributing members of society again.

3. Other families

The nearest park is two miles away, which is too far to take young children. Just because our children live in an urban setting doesn't mean that they don't deserve a patch of grass to play on. The city needs to demolish the buildings and landscape the grounds. A few benches, a swing or two, and a slide should be provided. We need a place where children can play and older people can sit and enjoy the outdoors.

4. Merchants

The city has a responsibility to reverse this business slide, and it should do so by attacking the root of the problem. The city needs to support businesses. A thriving business generates tax revenues, which can pay for parks. Parks are all well and good, but they are a drain on the budget. If we tear down the buildings or turn the area into a recreation center, there will be fewer business opportunities in this neighborhood. We should modernize the buildings and convert them into a mini-mall. And the city should provide interest-free loans for entrepreneurs to set up businesses.

5. Council members

Our constituents elected us to this position. We must work with them to find an equitable solution that works for everyone. But we have to keep in mind that the city has a limited budget. And don't forget, we're all up for election in eight months. Keep the meeting organized. Make sure everyone has a chance to voice their opinions. Don't promise anything. Force the residents to make a decision. If the neighborhood can agree on one plan of action, we can give it a green light. If they fight among themselves and cannot agree, we will demolish the buildings. End of debate.

Step l: (15 minutes) Divide the class into five groups and ask them to role-play the five interest groups. Each group must present its position and arguments to the city council.

Have each group list valid reasons for the city to support its position. Have each member list his or her supporting arguments. Then ask them to think about what they are willing to compromise. Could a senior center also have a park for children? Could seniors and the homeless share a facility?

Step 2: (10 minutes) Reshuffle the class into discussion groups made up of five students. In each group, there should be someone representing each interest group. Each group's council member will lead the discussion and ensure that every citizen gets two minutes to present the strongest case for his or her group.

Step 3: (15 minutes) After each citizen has a chance to talk, open the bargaining. Each citizen's goal is to get the best deal for his or her group. But if the group cannot reach common ground, they will end up with nothing.

Step 4: (5 minutes) Bring the class together. How many different groups were able to reach an agreement? What did they decide? Which decision was the most one-sided? Why were some groups able to reach an agreement while others were not able to do so?

Student reflection: Ask students to describe their own role in the bargaining group. How successful were they at convincing others? Was the group able to compromise? What do they think was the key to succeeding or failing to reach common ground? Ask students to think of areas in their lives where compromise is important. Where have they refused to compromise?

Fremont Union High School
Cupertino, Calif.

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