Going to an independent, all-girls school in the suburbs of Philadelphia, I have been indoctrinated to believe that youth, specifically young women, play an integral role in the communities where we live and study. Ask any of my fellow seniors about their community involvement and they will retort with a lengthy enumeration of activities. It is easy for me, therefore, to assume that all people have the same confidence in themselves as change-makers. However, it is clear that youth at large feel more and more unprepared and unmotivated to “do something meaningful.” There has evidently been a dramatic shift since the youth movements of the 1960’s – today’s youth see the United States political system as an alienated world of corruption among elitist, old white men. This is a major issue not just for youth, but also for the country’s future as a whole.
I first became interested in politics during my sophomore year of high school when immigration policies were impacting my own chances of remaining in the United States as a permanent resident. Everything about the democratic process excited me – I could be strongly and loudly opinionated and it was simply called “having views.” My school debate club became a key environment in which I could exchange ideas on that and other topics with classmates and validate my opinions. It wasn’t until my ideas manifested into actions, however, that I became a truly engaged civic actor.
As controversial as it has recently become, I felt the need to add to the communal push for gun control: I rallied the support of my classmates, building a letter writing campaign to voice our concerns to our senator. We ended with about 50 hand-written letters of protest. To this day, I don’t know what came of it – perhaps the senator wasn’t the perfect target for our campaign, or maybe we needed to follow up with phone calls or additional messages. It illustrated that even when young people are motivated, passionate, and unafraid to make their voices heard, lacking knowledge around process, specific goal setting, and local-decision making can cause an effort to fall flat.
Enter Generation Citizen, which recognizes the need to both motivate and engage youth and teach them the concrete skills and knowledge to ensure their ideas and actions drive change. Armed with civic education, urban youth are given the chance to design a project to address myriad communal issues (from mitigating violence to implementing cleaner energy practices), and to ensure that they have stay engaged for the long-term.
At the beginning of my time with GC, I asked what happens when students’ projects don’t have a “real” impact on their school or community. I subsequently realized that my perception of what “real” impact is was skewed. Although national or statewide change isn’t always a realistic possibility, GC fosters and encourages incremental change. And incremental change matters. For example, gang violence may not be eradicated within one semester, but it might be mitigated on one block, one neighborhood at a time – leading, in the long-term, to larger, systemic alterations.
So, skills matter, and an appreciation for incremental change matters, but so does motivation and confidence. I have been reflecting on why I feel entitled to speak up and ensure my opinions play a part in decision-making. I keep coming back to my upbringing: the unrelenting encouragement of my school and mom. I was rarely ever told that I couldn’t or wouldn’t be able to make a difference. One could argue this has lead to a false sense of confidence – but I won’t be debating that one! Mary, my supervisor at GC, also graduated from Agnes Irwin, and would likely share similar experiences. It can’t be a coincidence, therefore, that we sit in the same office, working to instill the same confidence in GC students nationwide. From my perspective, the real mission of GC is unraveling and correcting a systemic conflict: youth believing that they can’t have an impact because no one will listen or care.
With the help of GC’s Democracy Coaches and action civics curriculum, thousands of kids are finally being taught that their civic voice matters and that they will impact their communities if they make their voices heard. With this grassroots movement, the larger systemic issues will begin to dissipate as engaged citizens address the problems most prevalent in their communities.
Maybe I never saw the concrete impact of my letter writing campaign, but perhaps it is a part of the fight for a larger, systemic solution. Recently, I listened to NPR point fingers at the people of our nation for the lack of gun control. They said that for every 10 pro-gun supporters, only one pro-gun-control citizen made their voice heard (measured by number of people who called their representatives directly). I believe that with GC’s support, thousands of young people will drive incremental change in one way or another, ultimately shaping the future our democracy. And I just might follow up on those letters to my senator!
– Justine Breuch, Development Intern
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.