This past July, I traveled to East Africa and met up with a Tanzanian friend, Linda Simon, a Mandela Fellow from the Obama Administration’s Young African Leaders Initiative program, who I met during the previous summer. Linda, who somehow has managed to become a doctor and start her own community development organization before the age of 27, took me to her childhood Maasai village in the foothills of Kilimanjaro to conduct a civic engagement training with the adjoining towns.
Through dusty dirt roads, with no electricity in the vicinity, we arrived at our training facility- a one-room concrete schoolhouse with felled tree logs serving as benches. Despite the fact that we were on time, no one was there. I nervously walked around the area, worried that the entire trip would be a disaster, and that no one was actually interested in civic engagement. After all, I was sure they had bigger problems and more pressing priorities than listening to a “mzungu” (white person) talk about advocacy.
But then, about an hour after our start time, about 40 people materialized- young farmers, grandmothers, school children. They sat down eagerly (right on time by the East African clock), as Linda and I began to explain GC’s famed advocacy hourglass, and how they might apply it to their work. As I spoke (and Linda translated), two things happened:
First, they were incredibly excited to talk about the issues they cared about. They, as a marginal tribe in Tanzania, felt that the government did not care about their interests. But they excitedly shouted over each other to provide ideas on how to take effective action. And they attentively listened and worked through figuring out the root cause of their issues. They were excited about politics.
Secondly, the main issue that emerged completely surprised me- the prevalence of elephants in their farmlands. Whereas I, as a westerner, had always thought that elephant conservation was positive, these Maasai claimed that the conservation efforts had disrupted the migration tracks of the elephants, so that the animals now trampled their farmland and killed their crops. There were even several deaths caused by elephants stampeding backyards at night. They wanted to build fences around their area to protect themselves, and they were dubious of the larger conservation. I learned through listening.
Whenever I tell GC’s story, I always refer to the fact that my experiences living abroad in Latin American and Africa awakened me to the power of individuals coming together to make a difference in a democracy. Working with Linda’s village this summer only added to this sentiment. We, as Americans, often feel that we have to teach the rest of the world what a real democracy looks like. But, especially with the 2016 election upon us, it is evident there is a lot we can learn about democracy from the rest of the world.
At the same time, ever since I helped to start GC, I feel like the elephant in the room in getting people to care about young people participating in politics is the fact that so many people are so fed up with politics. Why should we teach young people to participate in a completely dysfunctional system?
And so, with 2016 upon us, and with it an increasingly personalized and ugly presidential election, Generation Citizen wants to redefine politics. Away from the dysfunction, polarization, and pettiness that accompany the current concept. And more towards three fundamental truths that harken to the village in Tanzania:
- Politics can be positive: The 2016 presidential race has been defined by a maliciousness and lack of substance- from both sides of the aisle. But in the last two weeks, I visited our Civics Days in all of our sites, and saw young people who could not be more excited to tell you about their ideas to use politics to improve their communities. Students in Berkeley advocated for funding for the city’s first year-round youth shelter and young people in Boston met with elected officials to lobby for increased funding for state jobs. As Ambar Bhattacharyya, a Bay Area Civics Day judge put it, “Seeing students engage on real issues puts our current national dialogue to shame.”
- Politics involves listening: In a surprisingly substantive podcast with television critic Andy Greenwald, South African comedian Trevor Noah discussed his realization that Americans can never admit to being wrong, encapsulating many of the problems with modern American politics. “Everything is right or wrong…we only want to exist in the world of yes or no,” Noah asserts.
Indeed, it seems that our politicians are less interested in finding solutions, and more interested in proving that they are right. This is not how politics should work. Just like the Maasai made me realize that conservationism is not necessarily king when it comes to elephants, we need to engage in debates and recognize that we might not actually be right.
- Politics is about something bigger than individual success: The story in Tanzania actually has a relatively happy ending. In their recent presidential election, Tanzanians put aside tribal allegiances to elect John Magufuli, a former school teacher. Upon becoming president, Magufuli personally began cleaning the capital’s streets, trimmed extravagant government expenditures, and suspended international travel for officials, telling ministers that they “should instead go to the villages to learn, understand and solve a myriad of problems our people are facing.” Can you imagine an American politician saying that?
Whenever I speak with students at Civics Day, I’m always surprised by how many talk about the defining experience of GC is that it forces students to actually work together in groups- they are so used to only participating in classes as individuals. This is indicative of our political process writ-large- politicians are consistently promising to make our own individual lives better, without talking about the sacrifices we all have to make if we all want to be better off (this rhetoric comes from both parties- Democrats consistently assert that raising taxes on the rich is the only thing necessary to make everyone better off, while Republicans somehow can improve everything without taxing anyone).
In our classes, we teach our students that the only way that they can affect change is through compromise and working together. But our politicians are not showing them examples of those principles in practice.
So in 2016, GC is going to try to redefine politics. We’re going to do so in a few specific ways:
- We will continue to improve our own work, and share widely stories of young people changing their communities through action civics
- We will strive to put students first- creating a Youth Advisory Board that will guide us in our own efforts.
- We will continue to make the case that action civics education is a vital discipline- one that every young person in this country should receive .
It’s easy to get depressed about the state of politics in this country. But I, and our team, continue to believe that there is nothing as positive and inspirational as participating in the political process to effect change. And we’re going to spend 2016 trying to convince everyone else of the power of politics.