Andrew Wilkes, GC Chief Policy & Advocacy Officer, Speaks with GC Alum Ishrat Jahan
Ishrat Jahan is a former GC student, Community Change fellow, and Student Leadership Board Member; she is currently a student at New York University and has remained a civic leader beyond high school, working for political and community organizations. Ishrat interviewed Andrew Wilkes, Chief Policy and Advocacy Officer, about the current state of civics education policy, GC’s work, and what gives them both hope for the future. Spoiler: it’s an amazing conversation!
Hi, my name is Ishrat. I’m a GC alum, who has been involved with Generation Citizen in the past as a Community Change Fellow and a Student Leadership Board Member. I’m here to chat with Andrew, who I actually met at an SLB retreat about, my God, three years ago. Since then, I’ve had the opportunity to see your professional trajectory, and that’s what we’re going to discuss here today as part of GC’s Policy and Advocacy team. So without further ado, my very first question is if you can just tell us about your role?
Absolutely. Well, first it’s a pleasure to be in conversation with you. I work at GC as the Chief Policy and Advocacy Officer and have been with Generation Citizen since 2017, including working with the Student Leadership Board, which you mentioned. It was incredibly fun and inspiring to see the work you did there, and all that GC’s alumni and youth leaders are continuing to do. In my current role, I help to set the direction for the organization’s policy and advocacy work in terms of legislative advocacy at the federal and state level, supporting the coalition building work that happens nationally and helping undergird the work that happens in our regions, as well as policy and advocacy work that includes our alumni and Vote16 work, to lower the voting age to sixteen in localities across the country. Fundamentally, that stream of our work is about making sure that alumni and young people feel supported in their civic leadership journeys. Of course, any great work doesn’t happen on a solitary basis. So, I’m incredibly excited to work with a team full of really talented leaders and colleagues like Dairanys Grullon-Virgil, Chuck Corra, and Brandon Klugman. And of course the heart and soul of that work includes our alum, like yourself, Ishrat, in helping to push this work forward.
Yes, what a beautiful response. And I notice there are two key words you mentioned, which is policy and advocacy, which obviously plays a huge role in the work that Generation Citizen does. So my next question is, from that policy and advocacy perspective, what would you say are the policy priorities for this work specifically?
That’s really a great question. One way to enter the conversation is to think about what makes Action Civics so special. A part of what makes Action Civics special is that it provides an opportunity for young people to develop the skills of deliberative democracy, to build consensus with their peers on issues as varied as mental health or expanding access to affordable housing in their communities. And not only do you get that kind of scale, you get the kind of project-based emphasis on meeting with elected officials and appointed officials that helps students to grasp the foundations and design of how our political system works, as well to get a sense of how can you practice the art of association and coalescing with your peers and community members in order to advance public policy progress on issues that young people choose.
And so I think that vision of Action Civics is distinctive in a climate where sometimes civics education is reduced to memorization and the acquisition of facts, events and dates in America’s political development. Action civics merges contextual civic knowledge with the development of skills and investment in our democracy in an exciting way.
And the policy piece is making sure that state legislation and social studies standards, in addition to federal legislation as well, supports and surrounds the classroom experience. We also want to ensure sufficient funding resources with curriculum frameworks and guidance from the Department of Education level that help to incentivize and make Action Civics exciting. Not only in the civics classroom, but also in science, we might also note the link between civics and English language arts, really, the whole variety of academic disciplines and subject areas it can touch.
I can 110% vouch for everything that you’ve just mentioned, because I was once in a GC classroom. And the idea of shifting from thinking about civics in this passive almost monotone, dull way and moving to a revolutionary way like “Let’s talk to lots of officials, let’s focus on an area that we’re passionate about. Let’s get out there and do the groundwork in a more active way.” That was absolutely amazing and it really did change the perspective I had towards the power of civics, the power of democracy.
The next question, which you kind of touched on a lot in the previous answer is how are these policies connected to Generation Citizen’s work? And why are those policies important for the organization as a whole?
I think policies are connected to Generation Citizen’s work in a few ways. We’ve helped play a role in passing a comprehensive experiential civics policy which includes Action Civics, but in some ways it extends beyond it in states like Rhode Island, in Massachusetts, and in Utah. For example, we played a role in supporting North Dakota’s social studies standards moving towards comprehensive, experiential civics as well.
I think that our work ensures access to relevant democracy education for students so that when we talk about civics education, it feels relevant not only to a particular, you know, hour long segment in school but feels connected to budgets that are being formed, where students’ lives feel connected to questions of rules and airports and the upkeep or lack thereof of infrastructure in students’ communities.
But then also thirdly, I think at a time when there is suspicion being cast in some circles around Action Civics, it’s important to note that a part of how America comes to be and is formed by Action Civics. Think about the Federalist Papers: an attempt to have a public conversation about what kind of country this will be. The Federalist Papers engaged community members and stakeholders in a conversation about the need to have a federally structured government, to have authority and power not only localized and diffused, but concentrated nationally. This was done in a way that absolutely involved persuasion and engaging people other than one’s immediate cohort in an unfurling national conversation. And so Action Civics in some ways has antecedents and precursors in the early part of America’s political development.
And I think it’s important to kind of have an origin story of Action Civics that is as old in some ways as America, and is as urgent as making sure we become a multiracial, diverse, inclusive democracy with many different leaders. So that may be a way to try to frame that. I think Action Civics is as important for our communities as it is for our classrooms.
Yes, exactly. And all of these movements, these policies, this work that’s being done by people like yourself, Andrew, is kind of to uplift civics education in particular. So this question is geared towards your experience, with what you’ve seen, what’s your hope for civics education in the future? What do you want it to look like and what do you hope it to be?
Well, questions about hope are always powerful and pertinent. Thank you for lifting it up, Ishrat. My hope for civics education is that we will have a teacher and administrative workforce that is as reflective and inclusive of the diverse student population as it can possibly be. I don’t think we currently have that. There’s a little bit of incongruence demographically between the teacher and administrative workforce and the student population. Certainly there’s a role for everyone to play regardless of their particular identities, and teaching civics education, but having some level of reflection of the diversity of the student population I think is helpful. And I think there’s some research to suggest that it leads to a greater sense of kind of belonging when that process happens.
My second hope for civics education is that every student will have access to a holistic hands-on education that is grounded in racial equity as something that is central to a democratic education, rather than something that’s seen as an ancillary to or an addendum to civics education. I think in an America that is undergoing challenges as distinct and varied as what we saw with January 6th, with the insurrection; but also as distinct as in hearing that there are some who went down to DC to encircle the nation’s capitol in trucks with a particular set of concerns. And there are others who are concerned about telling a fuller, more comprehensive history of America’s challenges, as well as its particular contributions to world affairs. With all of these concerns – and the dissonance between them – we need holistic, hands-on civics education.
I think civics has a particular role to play in making sure that students feel excited and energized not only in their communities, but students recognize that they can speak to issues of war and peace in whatever ways that resonate for them, that they can speak to issues of immigration and migration, that they can speak to issues that are not solely the typical themes that we may associate with young people. Perhaps issues of the environment and climate change for instance, or issues of school safety. But young people read the same news that adults read. Young people are affected by many of the same issues that we may associate as more adult-oriented; we see young people learning those issues as well, and understanding themselves as legitimate civic actors and agents.
And this next question, actually, I experienced myself when I was in my civics classroom or doing the work that Generation Citizen empowered me to do, which is to think of pushback and failure when you’re trying to reach a certain goal, such as providing more service education for students. So for example, when we’re fighting for preserving our democracy, bringing civics to classrooms on a national scale, it can be exhausting when one thing goes wrong. When you’re facing pushback, when there is failure, whether that’s on the structural level or on more of a nitty‑gritty level, how do you specifically keep yourself motivated to continue doing the work? Especially when young people like myself can sometimes feel like, ah, this is defeating, I don’t know where to continue or how I can even continue when truly this is my goal.
Dealing with disappointment–that is a powerful civic and even an existential question that you put on the table. There’s a quote from Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. that feels as germane here as it does anywhere else. He talks about how we may suffer finite disappointments but must not lose infinite hope.
I think there’s kind of a disposition of knowing that the process of bargaining around what social studies standards will look like and how they center holistic hands‑on civics education, knowing that the process of pushing for civics education, the distillation, has suffered some setbacks in the past two legislative sessions in particular. So those disappointments are real. They affect the lives of students, of teachers, of school boards, of PTA meetings, of education committees, and state houses. And it hurts to see you know, current events disincentivize. It hurts to see more parochial visions of civic education being ascended to some degree.
What gives me hope is seeing students in Rhode Island talk to their district in Providence about what it would look like to center equitable civic learning. I think what gives hope is seeing students respond to the bans of books on Ruby Bridges or Martin Luther King Jr., to see young people more broadly saying, “this is the education that we want to see in our classrooms.” Hope can be found in the youth and adult partnerships that I think are the best of the coalitions that GC is trying to catalyze. And in microcosm, Ishrat, you and I having this conversation, blending our respective experiences and frameworks around civic education as something that concerns not just some of us–but all of us–in order to perfect and refine our democratic experience, even this conversation gives me hope.
What a beautiful response. You give me a lot of hope. I know that there were a lot of mentions of hope in your response, but what I think is truly amazing is even in the face of setbacks and failure, you still have the opportunity to look beyond and be optimistic. Now, do you have any questions for me in that sense? I feel like this is great, like us having this conversation.
Deeply enjoying the conversation. And yes, I do indeed have a question for you. I am elated that we can do some inversion and turn the tables. When you think of what if you have to name two or three things that stand out in your mind as qualities of an effective, equitable civics education what would those two or three things be?
The very, very first thing that comes into my mind is inclusion. Now, I know this word is kind of thrown around a lot in organizational work or educational work, but the true, true quality and definition of inclusion needs to be brought into our civics education. When I’m in a classroom, when I’m learning about the civics of my country and how I can engage in it, if my opinions, my ideas, aren’t being a part of the conversation? Not just in name and not just in show, but truly being a part of the conversation? Then there is really no point, right?
I think the beauty of America in general is that we are so diverse in opinion, thought, culture, and background. And what we need to do is learn how to bring those into the spotlight, learn how to bring those on in a way where we’re not pushing people back because of their perspectives and their opinions, but we’re truly welcoming them into discourse and appreciating them for what they are, which is difficult. I understand that it’s so difficult to do. It’s difficult to do, especially in civics education. Civics education in general, isn’t seen as valuable enough to enough people. So imagine not only having civics education, but bringing in inclusive experiences, that can be very, very difficult of a mix to make. But the longer that we wait to make that happen, the worse it is not only for students who want to be engaged in civics education, but those adults such as yourself, we’re trying to make it happen. So definitely inclusion.
The second one is resources. When I think of civics education, especially in my experience as a Generation Citizen student, GC was the organization, the party that was bringing us those resources to show us what we can do and how we could impact change by X, Y, and Z. But a lot of classrooms don’t have those resources, so I would say the very first aspect is definitely resources.
I would say the third is empowerment, empowering people, empowering youth, showing them that civics education can really, really make a difference in their lives. In fact, when I was in my civics classroom, so many students had so many opinions about the way their city should be run about the issues that they were seeing in their communities. You know that the passion is there, you know, that they feel a way about the issues that are happening right in front of them. The only part of the puzzle that was missing was the lack of the opportunity to do something about it. So just empowering students, showing them whether that’s in a classroom, at an organizational level or in any type of place that they too can be a part of this conversation. They too can be a power to make this change because they care whether they discuss these conversations. Whether they have these conversations with their family or their friends.
They feel very strongly about the issues that are impacting them, not only in their city, but in the country as a whole, they just need to be empowered to use the resources, to kind of combat them in a way. I would say those three are really the ones that shout to me.
That’s powerful. We work toward inclusion by making sure it is meaningfully–and not nominally–but meaningfully integrated into the civic learning experience. You hit us with a bullet point number two, resources, exposure, and access to resources that really thicken and enrich the experience. You brought us home with empowerment, and this sounds like an effective and equitable civic education to me. My goodness, what a joy to be in conversation with you Ishrat.
You mentioned that perhaps I bring some sort of hope. I must say likewise. You bring me hope and, you know, hearing you talk about your experience in Generation Citizen really is just grounding and a reminder of–both specific to GC, but also more broadly–the kind of north star that I think we’re all shooting for is making sure that every young person, every student, in this country has access to civics education that is inclusive, that is well‑resourced and not sparsely resourced. And that is empowering. That sounds like the mission, the mantra, the means by which we can realize what we need to do in this work.
Wow. I have this huge smile on my face the entire time, because everything that you’re saying is so, so true. And even more than a youth like myself, being at the forefront and making change, what makes it even more powerful is when we have adults behind us, when we have them cheering us on, when we have them empowering us, giving us the resources that we need.
Thank you for being that adult behind me in this conversation today. And I’m just, I’m so happy to talk to you. Your words are really touching. And I hope that whoever watches this conversation, whoever hears this conversation can really see that through this sort of partnership, through these sorts of conversations, we are making the headway to a more inclusive, equitable civics education for everyone.