Youth Defy Assumptions of Low Civic Engagement
Two Organizations Demonstrate How to Boost Gen Z’s Participation in Democracy
In the 2016 presidential election the voting rate for 18-24 year olds was estimated at 39 percent, the lowest of all age groups. (childtrends.org) And although the 2018 midterms showed higher youth voting compared to previous non-presidential election years, much room for improvement remains. Some Americans point to this data as evidence that young adults don’t care about democracy. Yet two recent events in the New York metro region suggest a different story.
Apathy may not be the main cause for these figures, and even if it is, passion can replace apathy, given the right set of conditions. My visits to events sponsored by Generation Citizen and the Andrew Goodman Foundation provided valuable insights into how to encourage higher civic engagement among youth.
A national nonprofit that empowers high school students to become effective citizens, Generation Citizen holds a bi-annual Civics Day in six American cities (though it has a presence in many more cities, including Camden, New Jersey). I attended the New York City event on May 23 to learn about this model of teaching civics. At Civics Day (think: science fair for civics) members of the public heard teens — mostly from underserved communities — present pressing local problems along with potential solutions. This was preceded by a ten-week unit called “Action Civics”, taught by the students’ own social studies teacher or a “Democracy Coach” employed by Generation Citizen.
The Generation Citizen team defines “Action Civics” as “a driver’s education course for civic engagement.” Students first identify and research root causes of a problem relevant to their lives, such as unreliable city buses that cause late arrivals at school or the lack of a financial literacy unit in the school curriculum. They then engage with community members and authorities (as close as their school principal or as distant as their mayor) This process forms the heart of each group’s action plan. For instance, they might write opinion pieces in a local newspaper, start petitions or meet with legislators.
On Civics Day the teachers and staff of Generation Citizen step back and watch the students present their projects. On the afternoon I attended, the students’ newfound understanding of political processes, as well as confidence and a drive to be heard were all evident. The difference between doing Action Civics, as opposed to learning Civics is clear: students have a chance to redefine themselves as potential change agents using the tools of our democracy, rather than standing on the sidelines. These tools include not only voting, but also strategies such as uniting different stakeholders to press for change, using the media to make one’s case, and taking advantage of public information to investigate issues of concern.
One social studies teacher, Emily O’Brien of Spring Creek Community School in East New York, described how her students engaged with school in a whole new way when she began teaching the Action Civics curriculum. Whereas other seniors suffered from “senioritis” on sunny spring days, her students stayed focused and motivated to influence decisions that once seemed out of their control. She had never seen that level of engagement before.
National Civic Leadership Training Summit
A different model of civic education was on display last month at the Andrew Goodman Foundation’s National Civic Leadership Training Summit, held at Montclair State University from June 19-23. Here, 85 students from 59 colleges and universities in 25 states gathered as part of the Vote Everywhere Project, to review their efforts to raise voting rates on their campuses. They shared successes and challenges in registering students to vote, increasing polling sites on campuses, pushing for laws that expand early voting for college students and removing other voting impediments.
My visit to the Summit coincided with a tragic anniversary: June 21 marked 55 years to the day that Andrew Goodman, the Foundation’s namesake, was murdered by the Ku Klux Klan along with two friends, James Chaney and Michael Schwerner. The three young men had all joined 1964 Freedom Summer, a voter registration project in Mississippi.
Andrew’s brother, David Goodman, now the President of the Foundation’s Board of Directors, shared with me evidence of the Foundation’s impact. The National Study of Learning, Voting and Engagement at Tufts University (NSLVE), which measures voting rates of students nationwide, reported an average voting rate of about two percent points higher on campuses where Andrew Goodman Foundation is active, versus the national average.
At the summit, where students’ energy was palpable, the conversations were not for amateurs. Participants had already been grappling for some time with the complexities of how to raise youth voting rates. Breakout groups discussed problems such as especially low voting rates among math, engineering and business majors. Student panelists described how they analyzed institutions’ organizational structures to figure out which levers can be pulled to enact change. Other young activists described their efforts to make student IDs a legal form of voter identification in states which prohibit the practice.
Some of the former “ambassadors”, as they are called, go on to receive support from the Puffin Foundation to take their projects to a new level. Usjid Hameed, a young man who graduated from Towson University and now works in Ohio to increase access to the ballot for non-native English speaking citizens, says his work originated in frustration that his own grandmother, a Pakistani immigrant, could not read the ballot to vote.
The low rates of civic engagement among Americans under age 24 cannot be downplayed. But rather than chalk up the reasons to personal failings among our youth, we must rigorously analyze what other factors contribute to this reality: lack of understanding of the political process, transient populations of college students who have difficulty registering to vote, schools that prioritize other subjects over social studies and civics, and students who are so overwhelmed by the complexities of issues that they feel ill-equipped to cast their vote responsibly. These are but a few of the various reasons young people are not engaging.
Organizations including Generation Citizen and The Andrew Goodman Foundation offer effective examples of how youth can see connections between their lives and institutions that enable our democracy to function. Through a combination of positive peer pressure, education about civic institutions and government at all levels, and awareness of local issues, Generation Z can be a mighty force that makes civic engagement and voting not an anomaly, but a norm.