empowering our country’s youth
During the second semester of my freshman year, I was procrastinating in a Keeney lounge when two girls walked in, offering a freshly baked brownie in exchange for two minutes’ attention. Never one to turn down free food, I enthusiastically accepted. They then delivered a pitch that, unbeknownst to me at the time, would drastically change my life in the coming year.
They were pitching for a student group called Generation Citizen. Founded by Scott Warren, a Brown alum, in 2009, the program has since expanded to Boston, New York, and the San Francisco Bay Area. Generation Citizen, or GC, sends college students into local middle and high schools to educate young kids about the mechanism of democracy and how they can get involved in local government. Volunteers are referred to as Democracy Coaches (DCs), and their primary role is to teach an action civics curriculum and lead their classroom in a semester-long community project. At the end of the semester, students attend Civics Day, where they present their projects at the Rhode Island State House before a panel of judges.
My interest was piqued, and I decided to apply. Then I was accepted, and I decided to actually commit. My first GC experience was training day, which exposed me to the thoroughness of GC as a program. Emily Flower and Tom Kerr-Vanderslice, Rhode Island program associate and site director respectively, presented us with a 200-page curriculum booklet that was almost overwhelming in its comprehensiveness. Together, we slowly worked through the material, and I quickly learned that it wasn’t so simple as helping kids with a project to improve their community. There was a lot to consider upon going into the classroom.
As an organization, Generation Citizen is incredibly successful in its mission to enact real change and empower our country’s youth. This is due to a set of incredibly high standards for the DCs, the students in GC classrooms, and the projects they choose to undertake. The GC curriculum outlines these standards, the foundation of which is something called the “advocacy hourglass.” This is a chart that offers a layout for any community project and, if completed correctly, ensures that the project will meet GC requirements. The most important part of the advocacy hourglass is that it channels the focus of the project to a very specific element of a larger community issue. By focusing on a small part of a large problem, it becomes significantly easier to enact change and thus alleviate (but not eradicate) the problem as a whole.
All across the country, students are using this template to fight problems that they believe need to be addressed, and they are succeeding. In the Bay Area, students at Buena Vista Horace Mann worked with their school administration to implement a training program for teachers in dealing with sexual harassment. In New York, students at the High School for Public Service created a “College and Career Readiness” elective course, something they felt was previously lacking. In my own classroom last semester at Roger Williams Middle School, we received consent from the Providence Police Chief to permit and collaborate on the establishment of an annual Gun Buyback Day, which would reduce the number of firearms on the streets and thereby reduce gun violence in Providence.
My own experience with Generation Citizen has been an exceptionally rewarding one. A successful project, while ideal, is only one element of a meaningful semester. To me, what’s more important is that my students realize their voices matter and will be heard. One of the first activities I did with my classroom last semester was to ask my students whether or not they believed that they had the power to enact change in their communities. Only two out of 25 kids raised their hands. I remember staring across the sea of blank faces with a sinking feeling in my stomach. What if I couldn’t convince them of their own agency?
Slowly but surely, their skepticism declined. I distinctly recall the day that their District Lieutenant agreed to meet with them and arrived in uniform, with an official air about him that clearly marked him as an authority figure. Yet, instead of being dismissive (as many of my kids expected), he listened carefully to our Gun Buyback Day proposal, offered verbal support, and agreed to approach his boss about getting behind our project. My students realized that their opinions were being respected, their voices heard, and their project supported by those who had the power to implement it. I could feel the morale and excitement rising, and I knew then that even if our project wasn’t successful in the end, this feeling made everything worth it.
It turns out that the Providence Police Department loved our idea. They began to form a team of personnel that would work with the class during the coming semester to finalize the Gun Buyback Day for sometime around the end of the school year. At Civics Day, my classroom won the Generation Citizen Action Award for best tactics used in carrying out a project. On the last day of class, I returned to the same exercise that I had begun with so many weeks ago. “Let me ask you one last thing,” I said. “How many of you believe that you, as citizens of this country, have the ability to create change in your communities?” Every single student, with smiles on their faces, raised their hand.