Actions Civics: Activating Young Citizens to Go Beyond the Ballot
By DeNora Getachew, New York City Executive Director of Generation Citizen
In this politically divisive moment, many of us are grappling with how to have an impact and reaffirm the ideals underpinning our democracy. A few weeks ago, I was privileged to offer a PHIL Talk at PNY’s 39th Annual Meeting titled: No Democracy Without Equity: Empowering Students Through Action Civics.
I began my remarks by bolding declaring that America is experiencing a civic reckoning. Society is finally realizing what many academics and advocates have known for a long time, political disengagement and illiteracy are rampant nationwide. That’s partly due to the fact that society has done a particularly poor job at preparing young people, especially those from underserved urban and rural communities, about how to participate in our democracy. Our nation’s most underserved youth are not exposed to the necessary education and skills development for effective civic participation as their more affluent counterparts. It is clear that a civic empowerment gap has emerged.
This realization has been spurred by the tragic Parkland events and the exemplary civic leadership demonstrated by those young leaders who were able to turn their tragedy into a national campaign for comprehensive gun reform. Yet Parkland exemplifies a major problem in our democracy - only certain voices are being heard. The critical question at this juncture is what are we going to do to ensure that all voices are heard equally in our democracy?
We all know that America has a participation problem. Part of the reason is due to structural barriers to participation, such as antiquated and restrictive voting laws, the influence of big money in politics, and partisan gerrymandering. But the other side of the coin is that Americans do not see the point in engaging in democracy because they don’t think their voices matter. Can we blame them if we have not educated them about or prepared them for civic participation?
I examined the civic participation side of the coin during my PHIL Talk with a particular focus on why young Americans are not participating. Young Americans are increasingly becoming a majority voice in our democracy, especially when you combine them with unmarried women and people of color who collectively make up the New American Majority. Yet, these young voters vote at abysmal levels regardless of whether it’s a federal, state or local election.
Generation Citizen was founded nine years ago to address one of the root causes of this lack of civic participation among young people - the lack of effective civics education in secondary schools. How can we expect young people to actively participate in our democracy if we have not educated them about the role of government and the role they can play in effecting local change? Do we expect young people to become drivers without practicing first? No. So why is participating in democracy - a full contact sport as I like to call it - any different.
While Generation Citizen’s mission is to bring civics education to all students, we focus on addressing those impacted by the civic engagement gap. We know that civic disengagement is prevalent nationwide, but it is especially pronounced among young people of color and those from our nation’s most underserved communities. Such students are not equally exposed to or explicitly taught the necessary skills for effective civic participation. They are half as likely to study how laws are made, and 30 percent less likely to report having experiences with deliberative discussions in their classes or around their dinner tables. In focusing on this particular subset of our population, Generation Citizen is focused on cultivating the New American Majority to engage in democracy.
Generation Citizen partners with middle and high schools in Rhode Island where we founded on Brown University’s campus; Massachusetts; New York City - our largest and flagship site, which I have the honor of leading; Northern and Southern California; Oklahoma, City Oklahoma; Central Texas; and Camden, New Jersey to implement a new, engaging pedagogy: Action Civics. We teach young people how democracy works by getting them to directly engage with local government to effect change on an issue of importance to them. I’m not being ageist, but Action Civics is not our grandmother’s version of civics. It’s not rote memorization of random government facts and processes. It’s student-led, project-based, and action-oriented.
I love social media and that it allows me to like, retweet and sign-on to virtual movements at the click of a button, but the reality is that we have to couple those tools with other tactics for advocating for systemic change. And, if we do not do better at educating young people about how long-term systemic change occurs, we will continue to have generations of young people who do not think democracy is there to serve them. Action Civics prepares young citizens for long-term 21st century democracy practice and ensure they don’t just become slacktivists.
Once we activate these young citizens in our classroom, we also have to make sure they understand that democracy is not just a classroom activity or that it only happens at the ballot box. Democracy is a full contact sport, so we teach them how to Go Beyond the Ballot. That means exposing them to the full spectrum of civic engagement activities from how to have a conversation with someone who disagrees with their position to lobbying a decision-maker.
This is the power of Action Civics. It can educate and empower the New American Majority to make their voices heard equally in our democracy.