Generation Citizen brings civics education to local schools
Published: Monday, September 30, 2013
Updated: Monday, September 30, 2013 02:09
Political participation by American youth is on the decline: The number of 18-to-24 year olds who voted dropped by over four percent between 2008 and 2012, according to a U.S. Census report. In light of this trend, Generation Citizen — a national organization with a student chapter at Tufts — is working to improve civics education in schools across the country. Founded in 2008, Generation Citizen sends college students, called Democracy Coaches, into high schools to encourage young students to take an active role in congressional reform and truly engage in democracy.
Gillian Pressman, the program’s director for the greater Boston area, told the Daily that schools lack effective civics education programs.
“There is very little civics that happens at schools,” she said.
Generation Citizen informs students who may not have otherwise had access to civics education about the political process, Pressman said. The students are then more likely to get involved and vote in the future, she added.
“[Motivated students] elect to get involved, and the most disenfranchised students don’t ever get civics,” Pressman said.
Co-founder and Executive Director of Generation Citizen Scott Warren, who first began the program as a student at Brown University in 2008, told the Daily that he was motivated by his upbringing in Latin America to create Generation Citizen.
“I grew up in Latin America ... I saw a number of emerging democracies ... I was inspired by the excitement I first saw in Kenya and Ecuador,” he said.
After witnessing the first democratic elections in Kenyan history, Warren noticed that young people in the United States did not share this same enthusiasm for elections because they were not being taught how democracy works.
The program has grown rapidly since its beginnings at Brown University; it is currently operating out of Providence, New York City, the greater Boston Area and most recently the San Francisco Bay Area. The organization first came to Boston in 2009 — approximately a year after it was founded — and the Tufts chapter formed on campus just one year later.
There are now eight chapters in the Boston area, Pressman said. Northeastern University was the first school in Boston to establish a branch, with Emerson College and Bunker Hill Community College the most recent additions.
Junior Ben Berman, a member of Tufts’ Generation Citizen chapter, said he first joined the program because of its focus on education.
“I had been involved with some similar programs, and I was interested in education,” Berman said. “I got involved through the Tisch Scholars program and fell in love with the it.”
Students are increasingly becoming involved in Generation Citizen on campus. In the past year, the size of the Tufts chapter has more than doubled, according to Berman.
To get involved with Generation Citizen, students must apply to be a Democracy Coach within their college chapter. Pressman emphasized the intensity and difficulty of the job, as coaches are expected to teach fundamental skills, such as problem analysis, to young students.
“For people who want a challenge, it’s a really tremendous experience,” Pressman said.
Berman described the Democracy Coach experience as highly rewarding.
“Generation Citizen teaches an integral part of a student’s knowledge in a setting that is different from a traditional classroom,” he said.
The program culminates in Civics Day, an event at which the young students present the projects they have been working on throughout the semester.
Berman, for example, returned to KIPP Academy Lynn Middle School, a charter school in Lynn, Mass., to watch his former students present their projects on Civics Day.
He cited this as one of the most rewarding aspects of the program.
“Seeing the amazing things they accomplished was impressive and empowering to me,” he said.
Warren agreed, noting that the presentations reflect the mission of Generation Citizen.
“I was really inspired by when [democracy] worked and individuals came together to make a collective difference,” he said.
Pressman cited a variety of projects that the students undertook. In Malden, Mass., Generation Citizen students successfully advocated for funding a teen center, and students at Boston Public Schools pushed for single-stream recycling, which later became school policy.
Generation Citizen teaches students that they are capable of making lasting changes in policy, which can work as a stepping-off point for enacting legislative change, Warren said.
“The [Democracy Coaches] help high school students get more excited about participating in politics,” he said.
Volunteers working with Generation Citizen have developed their own assessments for measuring students’ progress as they go through the program, according to Pressman.
These assessments test civic skills, civic knowledge and civic disposition. This July, Generation Citizen received a grant from the John S. And James L. Knight Foundation to conduct a longitudinal evaluation of the students after they finish the program.