Civics Day and Student Voice

December 5, 2012

The Governor’s Statewide Youth Council Swearing-In Ceremony
Last Friday, I had the incredible opportunity to speak at the Governor’s 3rd Statewide Youth Council Swearing-In Ceremony at the Massachusetts State House. Hosted by Governor Deval Patrick and facilitated by some of the most eloquent high school students I have ever encountered, the Ceremony welcomed 28 youth leaders from across Massachusetts to their two-year term as members of the Governor’s Statewide Youth Council.

What was significant about this event was that it marked one of the most extraordinary, but highly under-utilized features of our democracy: that decision-makers want to hear from youth constituents.  They will even create structures, like the Governor’s Statewide Youth Council, to do so. It signifies that opportunities really do abound in our democracy for youth to be heard and to make a difference, and it is up to us as educators to guide youth to these opportunities, and instill in them the confidence and the skills they will need to use them effectively.

This is the crux of Generation Citizen (GC), and what we mean when we say that we teach students how to be “active participants in the democratic process.” In fact, I tried to highlight this in my speech at the Swearing-In Ceremony, giving examples to the crowd about GC students who have taken advantage of structures and decision-makers in our democracy. The full text of my speech is below.

Governor Patrick speaks at the Swearing-In Ceremony. I am in the front row in the maroon. Photo courtesy of the Medfield Patch.

Civics Day
I think this message is timely because this week, all three of Generation Citizen’s sites are working around the clock to finalize plans for our end-of-semester Civics Day events. As we run around making food orders and confirming and reconfirming bus transportation, it’s valuable to remember what Civics Day is: a symbol of how Generation Citizen connects youth to the decision makers in our democracy who want to hear from them. Just as Civics Day invites students from across the city to defend their class’s projects in front of officials and local luminaries, the Generation Citizen experience more broadly pushes students to influence officials and local leaders to make community change. At Civics Day, students speak to leaders on behalf of their classes. In Generation Citizen, students speak to leaders on behalf of their communities.

 

GC and Student Voice

As I come to my one year anniversary with Generation Citizen (wow!), I am inspired to reflect on how honored I am to be part of an organization that facilitates student voice in this way. I really do believe that the leaders of our democracy want to hear from youth, as evidenced by the Governor’s Statewide Youth Council and the many other local democratic institutions I have encountered (another great example of this here: https://generationcitizen.org//uncategorized/nadias-law-part-2). I love being part of an organization that teaches youth how to take advantage of this, and teaches youth how to talk to the leaders in our democracy.

My Greater Boston Generation Citizen students will descend upon the Massachusetts State House next Wednesday for Civics Day. While for many it will be the first time they enter that building, I absolutely do not think it will be the last. Two years from now, the 4th Governor’s Statewide Youth Council will have their Swearing-In Ceremony at the State House. I fully expect that some of my GC students, having learned through GC how to take advantage of opportunities in our democracy, will be there.

To learn more about Civics Day or get involved:

Greater Boston Civics Day

Wednesday, December 12th

MA State House

Contact: Gillian Pressman at gpressman@generationcitizen.org

 

Providence Civics Day

Monday, December 10th

RI State House

Contact: Tom Kerr-Vanderslice at tkerrvanderslice@generationcitizen.org

 

New York City Civics Day

Tuesday, December 11th

Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian

Contact: Sarah Andes at sandes@generationcitizen.org

 

My speech at the 3rd Annual Governor’s Statewide Youth Council Swearing-In Ceremony:

My name is Gillian Pressman and I am the Greater Boston Program Manager for an organization called Generation Citizen, or GC. My presence here in front of the Governor’s Statewide Youth Council is very timely because just yesterday, I was in a classroom at the Jeremiah Burke High School in Boston. The students were talking about the problem of gang violence in their community when one of the students, Dante, stopped the discussion and addressed the class. “I am sick of just talking in class about the violence and how bad it is,” Dante said. “Let’s stop talking to each other and start talking to someone who can do something about it.”

As incoming members of the Governor’s Statewide Youth Council, you all are in a unique position to start talking to the people who can do something about the problems of Massachusetts.

Let me explain why. Generation Citizen is a nonprofit organization that goes into schools and teaches over 4,000 middle and high school students across the Greater Boston area how to make change on issues that affect them using the democratic process.

Let’s break down what that means. America is a democracy and that means that law-makers and elected officials and people who have the power to make decisions can’t just do what they want; their job is to listen to the public. So why do problems continue to exist that affect the public? GC believes it’s because officials are there to listen, but we are not speaking! Or if we are speaking, we are not doing it to the right people or in ways that let those people help us.

I want to give you a few examples of how I have seen Generation Citizen students – who are your age or younger – actually turn this around in Generation Citizen classes. And this will require a bit of audience participation.

This is a Stand Up/Sit Down exercise. I am going to say a statement and if you think it is true, stand up. If not, you can remain seated.

So first, stand up if you think Neighborhood Safety is a problem in Massachusetts: that there are some parts of neighborhoods that aren’t as safe as other parts.

A GC class recognized this as a problem too and they researched and determined that one of the reasons was that police protection didn’t extend to certain areas of town that students had to go. So they reached out to their local Police Commissioner and asked them to set up an ongoing program so police could respond better to student needs.

Everyone sit. Stand up if you think Hunger is a problem in Massachusetts: people don’t have enough to eat.

A GC saw this as a problem too and they researched and determined that one of the reasons was that food banks don’t have enough money, and it is too inconvenient for people to donate money to food banks.  So they wrote letters to state representatives and asked for an addition to the income tax form that would make it easier and convenient for people to donate money to food banks.

Everyone sit. One more: stand up if you think Child Poverty is a problem in Massachusetts; families don’t have the money to provide children with all the things they need.

A GC class saw this as a problem too and they researched and determined that one of the reasons was teen mothers don’t have access to the same service as older mothers and so their children are more likely to be born into poverty. So they reached out to their city councilmen and asked them to increase funding for services for teen mothers in the city.

Everyone sit. What do these examples have in common? They are all groups of young people who have taken the Generation Citizen approach to problem solving: they have found a decision maker, and asked them, in a way that is very clear, specific, and persuasive, to do something that will help that problem. They have moved from grumbling and gossiping to standing tall with their peers and saying loudly, “This is what We the People need, and this is how we recommend you help.”

Why did I spend so much time talking to you all, the incoming Governor’s Statewide Youth Council, about the Generation Citizen process for making change?

Because now it’s your turn. I would like to read a section from Executive Order No. 501, the Executive Order that established this Youth Council:

“Now, therefore, I, Deval L. Patrick, Governor of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts…do hereby establish the Statewide Youth Council….The Council will make recommendations to the Governor on issues the youth of the Commonwealth are uniquely positioned to address.”

Making recommendations to the Governor. Solving problems by speaking up to decision makers, who are there, in our democracy, to listen to you. This is your calling, this is what you will do for the next two years, this is what you will teach other youth to do, and this is how you will make change in Massachusetts.

Go forth, and good luck.

~Gillian Pressman, Greater Boston Program Manager

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