In late April, Generation Citizen CEO Liz Clay Roy had the honor of speaking with Brittany Packnett Cunningham in the latest installment of our Equity in Civics conversation series.
In addition to being an activist and writer, Brittany is also a former teacher and leader at Teach for America. Her time in the classroom and in the broader world of education brought a wealth of experience to the discussion.
Liz kicked the conversation off with a question about a Harvard IOP poll that showed the majority of 18 to 29 year olds believed our democracy was in trouble or failing. The political discourse around education and what is being taught in the classroom has taken center-stage in recent months, while GC has continued to teach and advocate for project-based civics learning. Brittany quickly got to the heart of this issue and its effect on young people:
“You all (at GC) are choosing, especially at this moment, the path of most resistance…There’s a ton of misinformation and intentional disinformation around it. In all of these conversations, we forget about young people. Young people who answer that kind of poll and say our democracy is in trouble…If I’m that young person, and I’m seeing all of these people, either squabble and completely forget me, or in their squabbling, infantilize me, I too would be deeply concerned about the future of my democracy. Because there is no democracy without informed citizenry and there is no informed citizenry without equitable education.”
Young people themselves have been repeatedly left out of this public argument, their voices pushed to the side as others try to limit the kind of education they are allowed to access. As Liz told Brittany, “I so appreciate you naming and labeling the behavior that I think is part of what we’re seeing come out of elected officials, who are seeking to censor what’s happening in the classroom, as infantilizing young people. And how profoundly, not only disrespectful that is, but it also is shortsighted, profoundly shortsighted in every sense of the word.”
Brittany highlighted the importance of youth leadership to address these shortsighted attempts:
“I think when we treat young people simply as end users of what we call the educational pipeline, and if we don’t treat them as co-creators, we not only turn out robots, but we disinvest young people in participating in the creation and co-creation of their society…I’m not at all surprised by the polling. I firmly agree with the state of distress that they’re identifying. I think it is wise for all of us, irrespective of the position that we’re in, but especially if we are parents, teachers, school leaders, school board members, if we are in a place of influence on what our young people are being equipped with, and how we are nurturing what’s already inside of them, then it is most certainly our responsibility, our obligation, to follow their lead.”
This sparked a discussion of the need for intergenerational solidarity and equity. As Liz said,
“There can be a real disconnect between what the folks in power – in institutional leadership – are prioritizing in terms of their needs and the average age of the electorate. Generational equity is just one more reason why it is so essential that young persons’ voices are heard.”
Much of this discussion, like the work of Generation Citizen, emphasized how important civics education is to shaping a new generation of civic leaders, and in turn how impossible it is to separate our lives from civics. Brittany spoke about her time in the classroom in Washington, DC, and the importance of supporting teachers as they acknowledge the realities of civic life:
“I am a Black woman in America. I was teaching Black students exclusively in the southeast quadrant of Washington, D.C. Whether you’re a white woman in America, an indigenous woman in America – whomever you are, your life is dictated by civics. None of us lead apolitical lives. Enabling teachers to help build our civic efficacy is about tapping into all of the places in our personal lives where politics, policy, civics, democracy is present.”
Finally, we got to hear about the impact of this holistic approach to teaching, one that acknowledges the real issues in students’ lives, from Julian Viviescas, student activist from Lowell, Massachusetts and recipient of a GC National Student Changemaker Award. Julian advocated for and organized a gun buy-back program in Lowell, and inspired countless community members and young people, with his work.
“I was also a huge advocate for the civics bill that was luckily passed in Massachusetts a few years back. I’m very glad to still be working with Generation Citizen, even two years into pursuing my journalism degree. I hope to be able to advocate more for our young generation into what needs to be done in our country, because there is a lot to be done, especially around this time for gen Z students. We need to engage young people from all ages, all backgrounds in different civics education to make sure that they all have a voice and to be prepared to be part of our democracy.”
It was our privilege to host Brittany Packnett Cunningham, and to be joined by such a stellar young alum. We hope you’ll continue this conversation on Equity in Civics our next community conversation.
Take Action this Civic Season: At a time when social studies in K-12 education is under attack, educators, students, parents, and district personnel need to know that thousands of people have their back. Between now and July 4th, we hope you’ll show your support for #EquityInCivics by signing the pledge: https://bit.ly/EICPledge
Generation Citizen kicked off its “Equity in Civics” conversation series in November 2021 to explore strategies and solutions for achieving accessible and inclusive civics education curricula. “Equity in Civics” also highlights and champions local and national leaders – including young people, parents, educators, advocates and policymakers – who are creating transformative change in their communities and school districts. Learn more about this work and past events here.