Diversity and Democracy

Bringing Civics Back: Engaging Young People in Political Action

During freshman orientation at Brown University, I met lifelong friends, stayed up all night discussing the meaning of life, and researched potential courses with anticipation. At the same time, Hurricane Katrina bore down on the people of Louisiana.

At the university’s convocation, I glanced up from my new-to-college stupor and realized the magnitude of the hurricane’s destruction. President Ruth Simmons, a graduate of Dillard University in New Orleans, choked back tears as she spoke of the devastation in her hometown. Simmons told us that one of the best things we could do in that moment of tragedy was to focus on our studies, as they would ultimately help us do good for the world.

Eleven years later, I still question these words. Does focusing on academics necessarily preclude taking effective action? I tend not to believe in dichotomies. I think that students need to develop the foundations of knowledge and critical thinking necessary for active citizenship. But I also believe that our education system has an obligation to teach young people how to participate effectively in the political process.

My belief in the importance of teaching engaged citizenship stems from a childhood living abroad, where I saw emerging republics grappling with the messy work of democracy building. During the first truly democratic elections in Kenya’s history in 2002, I observed the tangible excitement when individuals cast their ballots for the first time. I saw a coup in Ecuador in 2005 and violent run-off elections in Zimbabwe in 2008, both demonstrating the fragility of the democratic experiment.

After living in East Africa and learning about the world’s futile efforts to quell the 1994 Rwandan genocide, I wanted to help end the genocide in Darfur, Sudan. At Brown, I became a national student leader of STAND, a coalition with over seven hundred high school and college chapters, and helped lead successful movements to divest Brown, the city of Providence, and the state of Rhode Island from foreign companies conducting business in Sudan.

As I dealt with the tricky realities of the Rhode Island legislature, I learned the basics of political activism—and was hooked. But I wanted to ensure that more young people were exposed to the power of politics. So I started Generation Citizen (GC) during my senior year at Brown to teach young people in grades seven to twelve to become politically active using a practice called action civics. Just as young people learn science through experiments, students in GC learn civics by taking action on local issues that they care about. GC focuses its work in underserved schools, where students typically receive little effective civics education.

I originally had no intention of founding a nonprofit. But at Brown, I received the cultural and institutional support I needed to create first the GC program and then the organization. Brown’s ethos of social innovation, combined with formalized programming, peer support, and fundraising support, all offered through Brown’s Swearer Center, proved vital. After starting as a small project working in three schools, GC now serves almost ten thousand students in four cities across the country each year. We are promoting a national conversation about the importance of teaching young people to be politically active.

GC classes are cotaught by college volunteers, called Democracy Coaches, who use their own political experience to motivate their students. Over the course of a semester, students conduct research on local policy issues and design plans for effective action on issues that affect them personally: gang violence, immigration, or public transit, for example. After identifying root causes and potential solutions, students meet with elected officials to advocate for these solutions. Critically, the curriculum is student driven, predicated on young people’s distinct knowledge about the issues and how to solve them.

GC is just getting started. Ultimately, we want action civics to be a staple of the core curriculum, just like math, science, or English. And I want young people in this country to be as excited about politics as the individuals I saw voting for the first time in Kenya. Thinking back, I don’t think GC would exist had I not attended a college that fostered a focus on social innovation and active citizenship.

Scott Warren is cofounder and executive director of Generation Citizen.

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