What is the future of democracy, according to our community leaders?

June 2, 2021

In the last two months, Generation Citizen New England, Oklahoma, Texas, California, and New York held incredible events in our community conversation series “The Future of Democracy is…” With the help of their Local Area Boards, Associate Boards, and GC supporters all around their regions, they hosted panels of students, teachers, and local leaders to speak on the future of democracy in their communities. Together, they reflected on the tumultuous year we have had socially and politically. Panelists and attendees kept an eye to the future, thinking of the power of our youth’s voice and their coming of age.

NEW ENGLAND:

Each site made the title “The Future of Democracy is…” their own. The first conversation in the series, New England asked their panelists what they saw in our future. Rhode Island Secretary of State Nellie Gorbea, Massachusetts State Representative Andy Vargas, civics education policy expert Kei Kawashima-Ginsberg, GC teacher Erica Winter, and GC student alumna Fallon Manyika each had a unique perspective.

“When it comes to ensuring that every student, every child has the same access to education, I do see that as a civil rights issue…how do we help [teachers and principals] do their jobs?”

– Rep. Andy Vargas, MA State Representative and community leader

“Teach civics early and often…why not grades 6-12? Get them rolling on that expectation of participation, that it’s a living thing, show them that it’s us. We are civics!”

– Erica Winter, civics teacher

While all of the panelists brought distinct ideas about how we can activate the civic power of the next generation, they united behind the belief   that our future depends on youth voices. 

“It’s about creating spaces where people feel like their voices are heard…when I think about my time being in GC, that’s something that sparked my interest in being a part of democracy, part of change in my community.”

– Fallon Manyika, GC Alumna and student 

See the entire conversation here!

OKLAHOMA: The Future of Democracy is an Inclusive Education. 

Our Oklahoma community conversation honored the centennial anniversary of the Tulsa Race Massacre, just weeks before HB 1775 passed, banning critical classroom discussions on race. Legislators who pushed for the bill say that honest, inclusive grounding in history education is dividing us, but we know the opposite is true.

GC Oklahoma chose their title in remembrance of the lives lost and the legacy of this horrific event, GC Oklahoma asserted, “The Future of Democracy is an Inclusive Education.” Despite a century of progress elsewhere, we know that Black Americans are still facing oppression, and education–particularly in history and civics–must be inclusive, equitable, and accurate. . It’s the only way to ensure a more just future. 

The dual panels, featuring human rights activist Rev. Dr. Robert Turner, activist Rev. Tamara Lebak, youth mentor Lt. Wayland Cubit, author Carlos Moreno, author and teacher Telannia Norfar, civics educators Kendra Whitman and Jeffrey Mosburg, and student Malachi Scurra, were united in their belief that students are owed an honest history education, to prepare them not just for their adulthood, but for the fight for equity.

“Instead of asking what’s wrong with the community, maybe we should be asking what happened to that community.”

– Lt. Wayland Cubit, community leader and youth mentor

“Once you start peeling back layers and asking why this inequity exists, and look at gerrymandering and Jim Crow laws, it makes you realize you can’t be part of the problem anymore, but the solution. We are giving students their power back [through civics education].”

– Kendra Whitman, former GC Teacher Leadership Board Member and civics teacher 

Rev. Lebak also reminded us that it isn’t just important for Black and brown students to know that history, but for those who have not had to live in oppression, whom she calls “settled bodies,” to know as well.

“It takes settled bodies connecting with other settled bodies talking about these issues that caused trauma passed down generation to generation, for us to dismantle these systems.”

– Rev. Tamara Lebak, civil rights activist and leader

Finally, human rights activist and leader See the entire conversation, spanning Oklahoma City and Tulsa, here!

TEXAS:

2020 and 2021 have been turbulent for us all, not least of which Texans. In addition to the pandemic and political strife of this past year, Texas has contended with the fallout of a winter storm that devastated communities across the state, and a tough legislative session. Despite enormous public pushback, the legislature passed HB 3979, a bill that threatens to severely limit youth civics education and engagement.

Panelists included Manor Mayor Dr. Larry Wallace, Jr., Elgin Councilwoman Mary Penson, policy experts Maggie Stern of the Children’s Defense Fund – TX and GC National Board Member Lizzette Gonzalez Reynolds, civics educator and current GC Teacher Leadership Board Member Matthew Gray, and student Jedd Leduna. They discussed the importance of teaching honest, tough history and empowering youth by showing them how to push for change in our civic systems. 

“When things don’t go right, everybody wants to be the first to pat on the chest about everything they’ve done and everything they can do, but they always seem to want to pass the buck to the other side when things go wrong, versus highlighting the things they messed up on or the things they don’t know that might have contributed to that negative outcome.”

– Mayor Dr. Larry Wallace, Jr., Manor Mayor, veteran, and author

“As a student you’re taught that you don’t have an impact, or that adults don’t listen to you because you’re young. But I think having Generation Citizen and being in a very diverse school platform, it helped me rekindle and stimulate my passion for civic engagement. Having a place for you to voice your opinions or to talk about issues you normally don’t talk about in your family or friends. Just from an educational standpoint, you’re able to converse with other students who may or may not have similar opinions or views, but that’s what makes a really good conversation, a really good topic.”

– Jedd Leduna, GC Alumna and student 

HB 3979 proponents claim that comprehensive, project-based civics turns students against their government, but we know that greater education means greater involvement and participation–not less. Civics education serves to create a greater understanding and foster true appreciation for our government and communities, flaws and all, and helps us see the potential so we can push towards a “more perfect union.” Our TX speakers addressed this head-on: 

“Everything grows in love; nothing can grow in hate. I think that same thing when it comes to our government. Our government for the last 500 years has been more or less…complete trash. Especially when it comes to all the different groups of people it didn’t serve. If you were a white male land-owner, that was it, that’s all our government served. Acknowledge that, understand that, and know that that’s the truth, but then know that I can still love this government throughout all its flaws. I can still love my country throughout all its flaws. And the only way that country, the only way that government is going to change is if I do love it, and I do see it has potential and hope.”

– Matthew Gray, GC Teacher Leadership Board Member and civics teacher

See the entire conversation here!

CALIFORNIA

In California, our panelists and attendees looked to the future of voting and civic engagement. What does it mean to enfranchise younger voters? Are current age requirements fair? Our panelists Kate Hoepke of San Francisco Village, City of Berkeley Council Member Rigel Robinson, GC Alumna and Vote16 leader Arianna Nassiri, and former Teacher Leadership Board Member & civics teacher Adam Kubey discussed their thoughts on enfranchisement and engagement. 

Explaining that his students often were disinterested in the typical rote memorization that comes with K-12 education, teacher Adam Kubey reflected on how experiential civics learning gave his students a why – their community.

“Action civics gave some of my kids a reason to come to school.”

– Adam Kubey, civics teacher 

 A true civic education, one panelist argued, provides students with the opportunity to delve into their community’s issues and work to solve problems through our government–and to vote at a younger age.

“The idea that social maturity is a grounds for enfranchisement is false…but the argument that CIVIC maturity is a grounds for enfranchisement is interesting.” 

– Arianna Nassiri, GC Alumna and Vote16 leader 

And finally, as we watch leaders across the country attempt to politicize civics education and divide us, our California panel sought to push back and make sure we understand the importance of staying connected and keeping conversations across social spheres going for our democracy.

“We have been traumatized for the past five years. Our nervous systems have been under assault with lies and violence, we’ve been hijacked, gaslighted, lied to…So I think that our best action is to connect, to find ways to connect with each other.”

– Kate Hoepke, San Francisco Village Executive Director and community builder 

See the entire conversation here!

NEW YORK: The Future of Democracy is Voting in Local Elections

In collaboration with our friends at DemocracyNYC, GC New York enfranchisement as well,  how new voting measures  can strengthen our democracy at the local level.Ranked-choice voting has become a hot topic for elections, and communities across the country have begun to employ them. These progressive voting measures, and community outreach to historically disenfranchised communities, are key to uplifting marginalized voices.

Our panel, featuring Sandra Choi of the Minkwon Center, Sean Dugar of Rank The Vote, President L. Joy Williams of the Brooklyn NAACP, April Snape of the GC New York Associate Board and Democracy Coach Alumna, and Shamaine Francis of GC’s Teacher Leadership Board and mental health professional, discussed how they talk to their communities about the importance of civic participation, especially this year, with the mayoral election coming up.

“For [community-based organizations], our role in doing electoral outreach is to build long-term community power for our community members who are typically left behind in the political process, and we really strive to protect their voice and their spot at the table, long-term.”

– Sandra Choi, Minkwon Center Civic Participation Manager

When asked about  young people who feel disconnected from civic life and believe that their voice doesn’t matter, educator Shamaine Francis and Brooklyn NAACP President L. Joy Williams had this to say:

“There’s so much power in civics education. There’s so many people who feel that their vote doesn’t count. That concept is passed down through generations, so when I was facilitating the Generation Citizen curriculum with sophomores, they were telling me that, and they weren’t of voting age yet. And so, this curriculum in school gives them the opportunity to dispel those myths early. To let them know that their elected officials are accountable to them. This is what they’re supposed to do for them – here’s their phone number, here’s their address. Now you identify a need in your community – oh! You have a voice? You can use it!”

– Shamaine Francis, GC Teacher Leadership Board Member and mental health professional

“[Many youth and even adults] have this disconnect with civic engagement. They believe civic life is something that happens to them. It happens without their voice, without their say, without their involvement. And a lot of it is changing the mindset and the thought process, that you have every right in whatever process it is, whether or not you voted for that person or not – they represent you.”

“[Civic life] is not something that can only turn on when you turn eighteen; there are many different entry points, in terms of civic engagement.”

– L. Joy Williams, President of the Brooklyn NAACP

The panel was clear in their focus on the importance of connecting with youth in electoral outreach, as well as preparing them for greater community-building through civic participation.

See the entire conversation here!

THE WRAP-UP

These conversations happened in the midst of many difficult events, and were an incredible way to see the GC community come together. We give our greatest thanks to all of the speaker for sharing their voices with us. We know that our attendees were thrilled to hear from them and think about how they can apply what they learned in their own communities and lives. As we know from current events, these conversations are never over, and are growing in importance. Generation Citizen is ready to continue these dialogues, and we invite you to stay informed and keep up with future events and opportunities to connect with us.

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