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April 13, 2011 | Nidhi Chaudhary

Changing the Debate with a Civics Education

With bated breath and many a politico debating and asking the question “what if,” we watched as a deal was struck at the 11th hour to prevent the United States government from shutting down. Crisis averted. But how many of us actually knew why the government could have shut down? How much was really being cut from the budget? But, more importantly, how much are these cuts going to affect us?

2010 Echoing Green Fellow Scott Warren makes a compelling argument in a recent op-ed in The Providence Journal. History shows us that wealthier citizens vote more than those from lower income levels; a vast majority of the cuts in the budget were made to social services that are critical to lower-income citizens. This shouldn’t sound unusual though—Congress makes budget decisions based on the constituents who vote for them.

But this issue goes even deeper. Studies demonstrate that students from wealthier families are twice as likely as students of average socio-economic status to report studying how laws are made or participate in service activities, and 150% more likely to participate in in-class debates. The very fact that our national debate is dominated by wealthier individuals starts with the education we are providing, or not, to our students.

So what if we equipped all young people with a quality civics education and changed the national conversation? To address the root cause of this problem, Scott started Generation Citizen.

Now in its second full year of operation, GC is running in 80 classrooms, with 100 college mentors, in Providence, Boston, and New York City. There is no political agenda and GC is careful to stay neutral on issues. The principle, however, is simple: get young people excited about a civic issue they care about and then give them the confidence and the tools to take action. GC is fully-integrated into the school curriculum, ensuring a strong investment from teachers and a commitment from the principal that a civics education is a critical part of learning—particularly in low-income schools.

And they’re seeing results. A classroom in the Bronx is taking on the issue of gun control because so many of the students have seen friends or family effected by gun violence. They met with the local city council and are making plans to present to Mayor Bloomberg. An 8th grade class in Boston is implementing a mentoring program with an elementary school—even at a young age, they are beginning to understand how they can have a positive influence on younger students. In Providence, GC students voiced their concerns about an overhaul of their high school curriculum and are hoping to land themselves a seat on the school board. During the annual Civics Day, these students presented their recommendations to Mayor Angel Taveras—who also happens to be a 1992 Echoing Green Fellow.

There is power in knowing that you can make change happen—and that you have the tools to do so.

In 10 years, Generation Citizen wants to see an action-based civics education as part of the core school-wide curriculum in each of its sites. But beyond that, GC seeks to create systemic change where school districts and cities recognize the importance of a civics education, because as Scott says “…even if we’re working with 50,000 students, that’s just a drop in the bucket.”

If we continue on this path, the budget debate may look very different in a few years—and that’s a very good thing.