“The energy crisis.”
It was the third class of our 8-week political theory and civics class to high school students in Islamabad, and our students were identifying potential focus issues to work on. My co-teacher Nyma and I had already talked extensively about the purpose of the program and what we wanted to accomplish with the limited amount of time we had. So naturally, we were somewhat surprised and concerned when our students listed problems that our federal government had failed to adequately address over decades, let alone anything that a SMART action plan could fix in 8 short weeks.
In retrospect, we should not have been too surprised that they didn’t immediately think of pressing problems in their own, personal communities. It was just one of the many symptoms of disengagement with civic affairs and the political process that we’d observed for the three years we’ve been teaching students about citizenship. In the absence of opportunities for local participation, politics is often viewed as the work of statesmen and public officials. So while politics dominates conversations on television, Facebook and Twitter, most Pakistanis are only able to participate as observers, never as actors. Although we’ve seen constitutional changes in recent years mandating local level government elections, the provincial courts and governments have been battling each other over the specifics of these arrangements for over a year now, effectively blocking the only means for many to participate or take any interest in community affairs. Of course, this kind of disengagement has come at a high price for Pakistani democracy, rendering youth disenchanted with their government, suspicious of their representatives, and – in this particular instance – less inclined to think about political affairs as related to themselves in tangible ways.
Meanwhile, in the backdrop of our summer class, citizens from all over the country were taking part in one of the biggest civic movements in the history of the country, popularly termed the ‘Azadi (freedom) March’. Thousands from all over Pakistan marched to Islamabad to stage a sit-in in front of the Parliament House, protest the government’s alleged involvement in electoral fraud, and demand re-elections. Despite many questions about the movement’s effectiveness and constitutionality, one thing was abundantly clear from the teems of people leaving their homes and quitting their jobs to camp out for the cause, screaming for the Prime Minister’s resignation: people are desperate to rid themselves of corrupt and inept governments by any means necessary to pave the way for better leadership and political reform. Often, while planning our lessons, Nyma and I would question the efficacy of the Azadi March. While it had been effective in rousing public sentiment, it seemed to provide little in the way of a tangible, well-researched solution to Pakistan’s problems beyond calling for resignations and some electoral reform. What would happen next?
Fortunately, we had the Generation Citizen curriculum to help us with our own class’ goals. With a bit of reframing, we tried the focus issue exercise again, asking students to think about the very local level manifestations of the problems they wanted to change. Where did they see corruption, the energy crisis and terrorism in their everyday lives? They narrowed these issues down to the negative effects of enhanced police presence in the city, and planned electricity cuts impacting their studies. It didn’t take them long to come up with a host of issues that were affecting them on a daily basis: an absence of quality public libraries, unreported cases of sexual harassment in schools, a lack of public transportation, noise pollution, nepotism in schools. It took very little time for them to see that ‘big picture’ problems were linked to their local lives, and, soon we had a whiteboard crammed with problems waiting to be resolved.
With their choice of focus issue and action plan, they also saw how very possible it is to actively solve problems using resources within their reach. They eventually chose religious rifts as their focus issue, identified teacher-related discrimination as the root cause they wanted to address, and developed an action plan to convince the Federal Directorate of Education to institute a mandatory religious sensitivity training for all public schools in Islamabad. Though they expected the FDE to be unresponsive to their requests, three staff members took the time to meet with them and answer their questions about religious sensitivity trainings in schools, and how they could help them plan their trainings better. They then held a series of meetings and phone calls with local ‘influencers’ working on human rights issues to provide the FDE training materials to use with their teachers.
The entire process—from researching the origins of the problem to picking a root cause and looking for a decision maker, to developing a campaign that would gain 1,000 ‘likes’ on Facebook and a petition that would get close to 1,000 signatures—helped them see how many like-minded people were willing to cheer on, advise and even join in the movement. Importantly, they saw that people responded strongly to the organization and thought they had put into their plan. Their campaign, called ‘Once Upon a Child Initiative’ didn’t seek to revolutionize a whole system, but to address a small part of a national problem. Its size was its strength: only because the plan was so small and specific were students able to achieve it, and feel empowered by their efforts. At Civics Day, one of our students, a religious minority, spoke eloquently about how the entire process helped her realize that she had unconsciously accepted discrimination as a permanent feature of her life. With the time she spent with her classmates thinking through the problem and how best to solve it, she realized she could actively change that reality bit by bit. This is the beauty of a civics education and the brilliance of Generation Citizen in particular: by teaching students to organize their energy into effective, well-thought out plans, this type of class not only produces tangible results, but also empowers and inspires them to stay engaged in the process after the class is over.
This is a conversation I hope will emerge from the Azadi March. While it may have helped Pakistani youth locate themselves and their problems in national affairs, engagement in politics is but a single part of the solution to Pakistan’s problems, or those of any other country. However this protest ends, people will eventually have to figure out sustainable methods of participating in, not just observing, politics and the political process. Part of the solution has to come from the state itself, be it in the form of local level elections or some other form of grassroots engagement. The other, equally important part, must address Pakistani citizens’ own engagement in the process, and I hope civic education can become a part of that.
Sameea Butt was a GC Democracy Coach in the Bronx from 2011-2012 and Columbia University Chapter Director from 2012-13. She is originally from Islamabad, Pakistan, and currently works for Global Children’s Network Pakistan.
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.