By Milo Gringlas, NYC Program Associate for Generation Citizen
A cavernous entryway with stately, white marble flooring and columns greets you when you step into the landmark headquarters of the New York City Bar Association, just blocks away from the midtown bustle swirling around Grand Central Terminal. The rarified halls of the Bar Association, adorned with wooden bookshelves of old legal textbooks and dignified portraits of past presidents, represent an integral – but nonetheless exclusive – civic institution in our iconic city.
This past December 16th, there was a distinctly different feel to this hallowed, elitist space. Hundreds of teens – from sixth graders to seniors in high school, representing all five boroughs and beyond – piled into the ‘Bar.’ Excited and nervous, they strolled in with large poster boards bearing their “Action Civics” projects to present at Generation Citizen’s bi-annual Civics Day. Even if they didn’t know it, these students had gathered for something much bigger than delivering their impressive trifold presentations. From their unique and important vantage point as young individuals, they were offering much needed awareness on and creative solutions to systemic issues in their schools and broader communities.
Issues ranged, youth voices sang. Students at Unity Preparatory Academy discussed their carefully researched approach to two concurrent and interwoven crises facing children today: gun violence and adolescent mental health. Teenagers at Patchogue-Medford High School shared personal narratives and offered recommendations for nutritional, diverse food options in their school cafeteria. High Schoolers at the Union Square Academy for Health Sciences advocated to officially landmark their school – The Washington Irving Campus High School – which is rich with historical significance. And amidst levels of homelessness in New York City not seen since the Great Depression, those at both Fordham Leadership Academy and Quest 2 Learn Middle School addressed youth homelessness and the lack of affordable housing.
These projects, the capstone of a semester’s long engagement with Generation Citizen’s participatory civics curriculum, were thoughtful and ambitious, touching a myriad of deeply rooted challenges in New York City, Long Island, and Westchester County. These students weren’t just studying the democratic process with rote memorization of political facts, but actively participating as informed, inquisitive constituents in their communities – many of them for the first time. They had engaged with and explored local government in all of its intricacies, quirks, and even its fallacies, including the invariable delays and bureaucratic stonewalling by legislators, city, agencies, and politicians that are supposed to work for them.
And here, at Civics Day, these students finally had a platform and an audience to share their experiences as civic participants, a proper forum in the Bar Association to truly convey the magnitude and weight of their ideas and expertise in their community affairs. Finally – a chance to see that as frustrating as democracy is, it works, slowly but surely, through shared conversations, through intergenerational conversations and trust.
Although youth turnout in recent national elections reached historically high levels, youth are turning away from our government as an avenue of creating lasting, effective change. The decades-long federal divestment from civics education, visible paralysis, inaction, and chaos at the highest levels of government, and the lack of access that youth have to meaningfully engage with their government have its consequences. We must ask ourselves, why should we expect youth to solve the problems they will inherit without first experiencing democracy in action, without seeing and thereby trusting public officials, institutions, and everyday individuals to carry out their civic responsibilities?
Disparities in political power can be reduced by distributing the knowledge and skills needed to effectively participate in the process. Civics Day underscored these benefits of building relevant civic habits and roles before kids are able to cast a ballot. Adults, community advisors, and other students and teachers affiliated with Generation Citizen showed up to the Bar Association to support these kids, to ask them questions and give feedback on their projects, and to connect them to local leaders, organizations, and public initiatives to ground and grow their Action Civics proposals. Students at the Urban Assembly for Future Leaders even got the opportunity to present policy recommendations regarding environmentally friendly streets directly to their very own representative, Council Member Shaun Abreu of District Seven, who gave the keynote address for Generation Citizen’s fall Civics Day. He proudly shared that he was going to take their ideas back to his colleagues at the Council.
Generation Citizen is a youth mobilization and education nonprofit that brings civics to life for nearly 30,000 students across the country, utilizing the democratic ethos of the classroom to catalyze life-long civic engagement. We know that Action Civics pays dividends over time; when students see that civics is more than just the nuts and bolts of government, they are able to realize their voice matters just as much as anyone else in this complex society as ours – especially when there is so much at stake for their generation. Youth who participate civically are not only more confident, motivated, and successful in school, but have a greater sense of social responsibility and community involvement. But despite all the great work Generation Citizen has done in the past decade to bring equitable civics education to the historically disadvantaged and to close the civic engagement gap in underserved communities, the facts on the state of civic education in the United States remain simple and alarming.
The federal government spends roughly five cents per student on civic education each year, compared to fifty dollars per student on STEM education. Once the cornerstone of public education in America, civics has retreated to the fringes of the school experience, displaced by the focus on math, science, and research. Confidence and faith in the U.S. government is at historic lows. Civic knowledge and disposition has fallen behind global standards. Youth
confidence in the efficacy of civic involvement is dropping. And these concerning dynamics have only been inflamed by the politicization and manipulation of civics education in public schools by paranoid, extremist politicians and state legislatures.
Now, more than ever, we need to invest in the next generation of leaders and changemakers; to include youth at decision making tables traditionally reserved for the few; to listen intently to them, as they are just as invested in and affected by the issues that the rest of us adults are. Youth have fresh perspectives on old, pesky problems – so why shouldn’t we be listening to them? As my colleague Jessica often says, “We don’t need to empower these kids, we need to show them the power they already have.” The power to make change. To control their future. To refine the tools needed to improve society. To make “good trouble,” as one of America’s youngest civil rights icons, John Lewis, implored. If Civics Day was any indication, our public policies are more durable, and our democracy is more inclusive, when youth are on the forefront of change.