The most important political office is that of the private citizen. –Louis D. Brandeis
Reflecting upon myself as a wide-eyed eighteen-year-old Iranian American female living in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania preparing to cast my first vote in the 2008 U.S. presidential election, I cringe at my lack of knowledge about my power as a U.S. citizen. Like many American teens at that time, my idea of civic engagement was ensuring I used my black Nikon coolpix digital camera to post a picture of myself on Facebook covered in election paraphernalia. Even worse, I navigated the U.S. political landscape intuitively and made broad generalizations regarding the presidential candidates by focusing on inflammatory tweets instead of using my civic knowledge to critically analyze the candidates’ platforms with issues that affected me as a member of the Iranian American community. Why? Quite simply, my world was busy and small.
Although my public high school civics curriculum provided me with knowledge about my rights as an American citizen, it lacked an experiential learning component for me to utilize these rights and participate in my democracy. After an exhausting day of attending other classes, circumventing peer pressure, and taking ballet lessons, I found myself quickly memorizing flashcards stating “gerrymander,” “lobbying,” and “interest groups” the evening before my civics exam. Then, I would take the exam and strive to remain buoyant in the shuffle of American high school life. Essentially, civics was presented as an academic subject, one I could succeed in by correctly memorizing a flashcard stating: “The 4th Amendment was motivated by unlawful search and seizures that were done by British tax collectors prior to the Revolutionary War.” Civics was not taught as a tool to solve problems in my community, such as homelessness or Pittsburgh’s broken infrastructure; it was presented as another class to do well in to obtain admission to a respected university. There was, however, one pivotal moment that led me to realize civic knowledge was of little use without civic action–the September 11th attacks.
In response to the September 11th attacks, U.S. President George W. Bush incorrectly branded Iran as an “axis of evil” in possession of weapons of mass destruction. I recall seeking out, speaking, and listening to other Iranian Americans in my community as we steadfastly attempted to prevent the tainting of our cultural identities by commentary from our very own U.S. commander in chief. I used my civics knowledge to remind myself I have power as a citizen to speak to my cultural community about this wrongdoing. I have power as a citizen to find community organizers actively fighting against this misnomer. I have power as a citizen to prevent others from wrongly associating my Iranian cultural identity with terrorism. Most importantly, I have power as a citizen to educate others that those who hijacked four airliners on September 11th were members of Al Qaeda, a terrorist group who fought against the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in the 1980s–not Iranians. It took an attack on my cultural identity to understand the importance of being able to exercise my civic duties, and my civics knowledge is futile without this understanding.
Flash forward to 2017 and I no longer am an adolescent who abides by the statutes of social media hashtags, nor do I spend time in high school civics classrooms. I am now a Harvard graduate student aware that 3.5 million American high school students are still bewildered by the fact that civic engagement is indeed within their reach. I’ve also learned the main reason many young people neglect to fulfill their civic duties outside of Twitter and Instagram is much clearer than many of us realize–they simply don’t know how.
These realizations galvanized my search for organizations that use their various media platforms to instruct young people to meaningfully exercise their civil rights. Luckily, I found an organization called Generation Citizen. Generation Citizen’s hallmark action civics program allows students to analyze, advocate, and change problems in their communities by working with legislators and community members. My role at Generation Citizen this semester has been in the communications department, where I create social media content that goes beyond asking young people to use a hashtag to support an issue in their community. I post images of young people meeting with their state representatives on Instagram, insert links to articles about young people exercising their civil rights outside of the classroom on Facebook, and tweet quotes from students sharing how Generation Citizen’s action civics program helped them find their voices in our democracy. Although Generation Citizen did not exist when the cultural identity of my Iranian American community was challenged in 2001, I am certain if we had the chance to learn from an action civics framework we would have been more effective in preventing the inaccurate cultural profiling that manifested. Action civics helps students realize they can push through the noise and make a positive change in our democracy.
If a nation expects it can be ignorant and free, in a state of civilization, it expects what never was and never will be. –Thomas Jefferson
Bahar Ataai (@bahar_ataai) is a Spring 2017 intern with Generation Citizen.
Generation Citizen is a nonpartisan, 501(c)3 tax exempt organization which does not endorse candidates; our goal is to engage our staff, participants, and stakeholders in political and civic action on issues that matter to them personally and in their communities. The opinions expressed in this blog post are those of the writer alone and do not reflect the opinions of Generation Citizen.