I was originally introduced to Generation Citizen in 2011, when my wife connected me to Scott Warren, GC’s founder and Executive Director. Scott spoke passionately about observing elections in Kenya alongside his father, a US diplomat, and realizing in this experience that active participation is how one gains a zeal for civics. I had been a US diplomat, and had personally observed a similar phenomenon in serving as an election observer. When Scott spoke about his idea for action civics to transform the way social sciences are taught in US schools, it clicked for me that this could have been hugely powerful in my high school, a school full of of first-generation US citizens and recent immigrants unfamiliar with the US system of government.
Last week, I visited a Generation Citizen classroom at Hudson High School in NYC. Attending a GC class is an incredible experience for me because in this moment, I can see Scott’s vision coming to life. Last week’s class was focused on the educational system’s over-reliance on statewide exams – in New York known as the Regents Exam. The students were still in the first part of the GC curriculum, but the impact of the program was already obvious. On this day, the Democracy Coach, a calm and incredibly able junior from Fordham University, was pushing the students to take their thoughts about exams beyond trite criticisms and simple complaining. Many students feel exams are undue or misused. Generation Citizen was asking these kids to address the issue tactically – who are the decision-makers and groups that need to be impacted. These students decided the three groups they must win are students, teachers, and parents, and set off into different groups to address messaging to each constituency. The Democracy Coach also pushed the students to engage in content – why is testing used as it is, what possible alternatives have been tried elsewhere, and what might work in New York.
I’m incredibly excited to see where these students arrive by Civics Day. What will their alternative to the Regents Exam look like? How far will they get in creating momentum within their three core constituencies? Beyond a purely emotional appeal, how well will they be able to speak to the current system and its inadequacies? It was clear that this work was begun before my eyes, and I am eager to see what several weeks of continued momentum will create.
Through my interactions with the organization, from top to bottom, I’ve come to see Generation Citizen not simply as a program, where students enter and students exit. I’ve begun to see it as more of a virtuous cycle, or a chain of positive activity, extending toward infinity. It starts with the program staff themselves, and their seemingly unending energy to execute the mission of GC. It continues through the Democracy Coaches, of which I’ve had the pleasure to meet several. These are passionate, brilliant, civically-minded young people who take on an incredible number of hours to bring the GC curriculum to schools. Each Democracy Coach I’ve met has said that their GC experience only serves to make them more active and engaged citizens. From their energy flows the engagement of the students, Generation Citizens’ customer and its product. A handful of these students will go on to become Democracy Coaches after high school graduation, as several already have. Many of these students will go on to become leaders in their communities. They will be active participants in society, informed and empowered in part by their exposure to the beauty of civic engagement via Generation Citizen. Each student a ripple of hope helping shape her community toward greater expression and involvement.
This is the vision for Generation Citizen as it continues to grow, refine its curriculum and expand its reach. To grow wider this virtuous circle and push further this growing chain of positive action. I see it happening today, and I am excited to be part of it.
– Matt Tolliver, Co-Chair of the Generation Citizen Junior Board (GCJB)
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.