2021: A Conversation Between a GC Alumna and Our CEO

This January marks two milestones for us at Generation Citizen: our first year with CEO Liz Clay Roy, and one year since the January 6th, 2021 insurrection at the Capitol, which highlighted just how crucial our mission is. It has been a year of both challenge and new possibilities, and as we move forward, Liz had the opportunity to speak with GC Rhode Island Alumna Deren Sozer, discussing their thoughts on civics education, where GC is headed, where our democracy is headed, and the importance of lowering the voting age to 16.

It’s coming up on your one-year anniversary of leading Generation Citizen. What are some of the actions that you’ve taken in the past year that you think are going to have the greatest impact on the organization and the civic engagement and civic learning curriculum?

Thank you so much for your question. I believe strongly in collaborative leadership. Rather than one action that I’ve taken alone, I think there are actions we’ve taken as a team and broader GC community that have had a significant impact. The first thing that I’ve done is commit to ensuring the Generation Citizen team is a collaborative, inclusive culture where everyone feels like they can be their authentic selves and bring their experience and energy and wisdom to their roles – whether they are working on policy coalitions, coaching teachers, working with alumni, fundraising – making sure that we are a really inclusive and positive team is one of the most important responsibilities I have.

As a team this year, we’ve committed to advancing civics education that is relevant, inclusive, and representative of the rising generation in this country. We’ve done this through updates to our curriculum, and through building partnerships and community. For our country to become a thriving, inclusive, multiracial democracy we have to share a curriculum that reflects diverse civic traditions and engages students from all different walks of life.

That’s one of my favorite things about Generation Citizen, given that civics is such an underrated part of the education system in the United States.

My second question for you has to do with the pandemic. Obviously, for the past two years, it’s been a once-in-a-lifetime pandemic with COVID-19 going around and spiking over and over and over again. ne of the things that organizations have had to do is adapt because doing things the way that they were being done two years ago, it just wasn’t going to work. How did GC adapt over the past two years, being able to operate with the pandemic, and has it been able to achieve its goals despite the disruptions?

Most importantly, the health and safety of our team and our community has remained at the front of our minds in terms of how we do our work in this time of turmoil. Having flexibility and listening to our partners is incredibly important. There have been a number of adaptations that began in March 2020, some of which are likely to be temporary, and others are here to stay in some form.  

As soon as schools began to move into hybrid or remote learning, we were able to get our curriculum and all of our resources for teachers online for teachers to be able to bring Action Civics to their students in a remote environment.  We’re thrilled that most schools have been able to safely re-open, though the variants present ongoing challenges. Some of our coaches continue to engage with teachers remotely, which has the benefits of flexibility around teachers’ busy schedules and cutting down the commute times for staff. hose are the kinds of ways in which we’re still in kind of a hybrid environment, and trying to make sure that we can continue to meet our goals.

I’m proud that we reached 19,800 students last year and continue to see that action civics is not only possible in the context of hybrid learning and all of the disruptions, but it’s powerful and meaningful. Especially for young people who were more isolated at home, it gave them a chance to connect with their peers and really work on a project that gives a sense of agency, which is so important in challenging times. Another change is that our Civics Days, the highlight of every GC semester where students share their work with their school and community leaders – that’s happened in a virtual setting for the last 18 months. I hope that in spring of 2022, those events will be back in person, because we know that those are not only exciting moments for young people to present the work that they’ve done, but they’re also inspiring for other students and community leaders to see just how brilliant and committed GC students are, and all of the great problem solving that GC students are doing.

I definitely agree. I hope that Civics Day can come back soon because I’ve done a couple of Civics Days, and they were a couple of the most meaningful experiences that I’ve had. It’s definitely a very important experience and probably my favorite part of the Generation Citizen curriculum.

My next question is how you got into civics. During your childhood in Boston, you campaigned door to door for local candidates, which I find especially meaningful because I’m from Boston myself and I remember going door to door for John Barros once he was running for mayor, when I was like eight or something and working on his campaign, volunteering for his campaign headquarters. I wanted to ask you what encouraged you to be so civically engaged at such a young age and how we can encourage that for future and current generations of youth.

I’m so glad we have that in common! That’s fantastic. And I would say I really credit my parents.  They were both very civically engaged as adults, but they also had been as young people. They grew up in North Carolina in the 1950s and 60s, and shared with me that history frequently, and I asked lots of questions. When the Eyes on the Prize documentary series came out that really looked at the civil rights struggle, I had that on loop. Seeing those images of the civil rights struggle, seeing those images of teenagers being hosed and having dogs set on them, was unforgettable to me. It was both incredibly disturbing, but also made me realize that young people are at the forefront of change. Young people have the knowledge, the energy, and the boldness to take on the status quo. I heard about it, kept asking questions about what it was like to put yourself on the line and integrate the local soda fountain shop. I just had endless interest in the possibility for real change.

The news was always on. I was constantly kind of paying attention to what was going on in Boston and around the country. Then, as I grew older, I had a chance to have a couple of really great teachers who were just fantastic mentors, who really wove history and civics and government together in a way that further inspired me. In my case, it really was more about what I learned from elders, then going in and starting to volunteer at campaigns. That became fun! As you know, there’s a real energy when you’re down to the last few weeks of a campaign. What I like about volunteering for campaigns is that they’re not hierarchical in terms of saying, “Oh, well, you have to have a certain amount of experience before we’ll let you try something.” It’s like, “Okay, you’re here, you’re ready to help. Can you follow this script and talk to people on the phone?” Yeah, you can do that. All right, you try that a few times. You make a mistake, but you try again, you get better at it. And they say, “You did that a couple of times, you want to start going door to door?” And you’re going door to door, and it doesn’t matter what degrees you have. It doesn’t matter whether or not you are a policy expert on every issue. The fact is you’re a member of the community and by virtue of being an active member of the community, you can go and talk to other members of the community and say, “Here’s why I’m excited about this candidate.” I just found that really energizing and that’s what got me invested.

In this day and age, the news is everywhere. Maybe it’s almost too much. There’s no shortage of information young people have about what’s going on in the world. I think it’s important to ensure that there are pathways to a sense that your actions can make a difference. And whether that is through getting involved around a particular issue or going to protests, or getting involved with a candidate, I think it’s less about information these days and more about feeling that your actions matter. 

That’s why I love civics education, because I think it’s all about making sure that the young people see and learn and can ask good questions about, “Wait, will it really matter if I do this? And why is this strategy, reaching out to this particular agency going to be more effective than reaching out to my member of Congress?” And having young people themselves discover pathways to change is an important way to practice and then get inspired to stay involved in civic life.

I can relate to your point about having good teachers, because I know my eighth grade civics teacher was a very inspiring person for me. My next question is about January 6th. We’re approaching the one-year anniversary of the Capitol Riot, which happened only a few days after you took on the top job at Generation Citizen. So after that, you spoke to The 74 as rioters were attacking the Capitol, and you said that you were hopeful that we can focus on moving forward and trying to repair the rips that have occurred. Since then, do you think we’ve made that progress that you were hoping for?

No, we haven’t. And it’s interesting. I mean, I literally had an interview with the folks at The 74 while it was happening, and then had a subsequent follow-up conversation with them. But at that moment I was in shock and trying to be hopeful. I remain pretty disappointed, actually, about where we are as a country now, nearly a year after those events. President Biden’s International Democracy Summit is underway now, so there have been a number of polls recently about how folks are thinking about our democracy and its stability. Some international researchers have recently labeled the United States as a “backsliding democracy,” recognizing that we are no longer progressing nor are we stable, but in fact there are steps being taken that are moving us in the opposite direction, towards authoritarianism, which is incredibly distressing.

I hoped that the events of January 6th would be sufficiently shocking, or a majority of folks, particularly members of Congress, would come together and put their shoulder to the wheel and say, “We may disagree about a lot of things, but we agree about our need to maintain and strengthen our commitments to democratic norms.” The fact is that hasn’t happened, and we have seen a number of states move in the opposite direction and seek to limit voter access. Similarly, we’ve seen some of the same anti-democracy tendencies in places where state legislators are looking to restrict civics education. To me, that’s precisely the opposite direction we need to be moving in. I would have liked to have seen accountability for individuals who were involved inthe events on January 6th and deep reinvestment in our democracy from the grassroots up, and see civics education as a really important part of that.

You know, right now, $54 is spent for every American student on STEM education, and just 5¢ is spent per student on civics education. That is such a vast, vast difference. And I don’t say that to disparage STEM; I know that every one of those dollars is spent well, strengthening our ability to meet the demands of a rapidly changing society and the future. But if we don’t have a healthy democracy, all of the work that we want to do to strengthen our infrastructure or make the next big technological leap, won’t matter because we can’t count on being in a safe and fair country where everyone’s voice is heard.

The last thing I’ll say about where we’ve come or not come over the last year, is that a recent poll by The Institute of Politics at the Harvard Kennedy School identified that over half of American youth believe that democracy is in peril and many feel that a second civil war during their lifetime is a real possibility. That’s terrifying! The fact that [civil war] is a fear in the hearts of 18-to-29-year-olds is enough to say that we remain in a crisis of democracy. We have a responsibility as an organization to make sure that every young person, in whatever state they live in, has an opportunity to engage meaningfully in their democracy.

How do you think we can make the progress that you said you were hopeful for a year ago? And how do we get people excited about being engaged in civics, not just young people, but especially young people, given that they are one of the least engaged groups, and get people excited about participating and believing in our democracy?

That’s a great question, and after I answer, I hope you’ll share your thoughts on it as well, because it’s a real question I think that all of us have to answer.  

One of the things that I think is important and that I’m hopeful about in 2022 is that we will be able to rebuild our community bonds and re-engage more in person. There was already an increased level of societal isolation over many years, and that has been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic. A lot of folks aren’t necessarily connected to other groups of folks who care about the same issues as them, or connecting in person to make positive change. At the end of the day, working together with neighbors, with friends to work towards the common good in one’s community–whether that’s around local parks, health issues, or working together to advocate for something you believe in–I think that’s a way to rebuild trust, person by person. It’s harder to do that in a virtual environment, and it’s harder to do that when we’ve had a decline in public trust that’s been going on now for almost 60 years. When things feel so stratified, I don’t know that there are simple ways for people to rebuild their trust with their representatives in Washington. I think we have to rebuild trust in each other, recognize that democracy is us; democracy isn’t them, who hold elected office — democracy is us. And so, as we reconnect, I hope that we can rebuild trust. That’s going to be necessary to strengthen the fabric of our country. I think the investment in civics education is so important because there’s an opportunity, with programs like Generation Citizen and others, to really initiate that kind of community action, and work together in a school setting while young people are still forming their community identity. I’m interested in your point of view on this question as well.

To your point about the pandemic keeping a lot of people from getting together, I agree that it’s a problem that has been there for several years that’s just been exacerbated by the pandemic. People should really think about, like, “Have I gone and had a drink on my neighbor’s porch? Have I played a game of basketball in my neighbors yard?” Do you engage with the people who live around you, who are in your community? Because that is one of the most important parts of a democracy, as you said – trust between people and understanding between people.

Today our politics are so divisive that we come into them mudslinging – “They don’t want what’s best for America. Only we want what’s best for America.” “They’re not Americans. We are.” All that needs to stop if we want any chance of uniting behind our democratic system, and that’s especially worrying for me because – I really liked studying World War II — this whole “I alone can fix it” attitude is exactly what led to the rise of fascist dictatorships in Italy and Germany in the 1930s. Strengthening the bond and building bridges between people in the community is the most important thing that I think we can do right now. Community events and building trust between people, having conversations and understanding that we may not agree on how to do things, but in the end, we all have the same ultimate goal – that’s the only way that we can, even if we don’t see eye to eye on how to do things, truly strengthen our democracy and keep it, because if we don’t, if we fight amongst one another, people are going to take advantage of it – people who don’t have the best intentions.

And another thing – your point about people in public office…a lot of the people who run for office are very wealthy, and that’s understandable because running a campaign is very expensive, but it is not the way that our Founders intended for things to be. The Founding Fathers, when they wrote the Constitution, did not expect for there to be career politicians or political dynasties. They wanted people from communities to go for a few years, a couple of terms to Washington and represent their community, and then pass it on to someone else. It wasn’t meant to be these wealthy people who have a lot of their own financial interests at stake in the governance of their doings. It was supposed to be people who understood what their communities were going through because they were a part of that community and would therefore take actions that would better that community. I think we need to take steps to make it easier for normal people, not just wealthy people, to run for office and to successfully campaign.

I couldn’t agree more. I think that is incredibly well said. Part of mistrust is a felt sense that those who are holding positions of power are disconnected from issues that are most important for folks in communities. I think that’s a very important point that you make, as well as your point about the power of real community reconnection. That feels incredibly important both for building trust – trust in our systems and in building civic bonds – but also for our mental and emotional health, which has been another consequence of this last couple of years.hat decline in connection really has impacted mental health. I hope that 2022 is going to be a year of coming together, both with family and folks that we’ve missed the chance to connect with, but also coming together across the lines of difference and getting to know each other.

In addition, I’ve always felt very strongly that term limits are a very important part of a healthy democracy because they create a structural commitment to a healthy cycling of talent between the public sector and other sectors, and creates real opportunities for more young people to come into public office. If there are more transitions in every position, that creates chances for lots of different leaders and diverse leaders to come in.

I’m going to move on to my last question, which was  actually a question from my own civics class. It’s about the voting age and whether you think it should be lowered to 16, and, this is probably the most relevant part of the question: If the voting age is lowered to 16, students are going to — teenagers are going to have a lot more responsibility on their shoulders. If we lower the voting age to 16, how should we prepare students for that responsibility?

It’s such a great question. Yes. I think the voting age should be lowered. 

We know approximately 18% of teenagers are working, are paying taxes, and are engaged in the economy.  Therefore they have a stake in how their tax dollars are spent and how those decisions might be made by the government. We also know that millions of teenagers – some estimates say about 3.4 million young people under the age of 18 – are assisting with caregiving responsibilities. That’s either caregiving responsibilities for their siblings,other children in the house or for elders. I think we have to recognize that caregiving is a critical part of the fabric of our communities and a major responsibility. Young people who are taking on a range of leadership roles in their communities – whether that’s volunteering, whether that’s helping translate for their parents who may not speak English as a first language, or are engaging with social services – teenagers who are playing those roles absolutely have a right to vote about their community and the direction the direction that elected officials want to take their communities. I firmly believe that 16-, 17-year-olds should be able to vote. Data demonstrates that they have the cognitive maturity, at that age, to be able to make solid decisions based on the same kind of information that adults over the age of 18 get about candidates.  And I hear your question – how do we ensure that that’s something that young people want to do? One, of course, is investing and engaging in civics education. And I think if 16- and 17-year-olds had the right to vote, we would see middle schools and high schools take their civic mission to prepare citizens   even more seriously. We would probably also see increased attention and commitment on the part of candidates, especially local candidates, to show up and be present and be listening to what young people are interested in and care about, and would recognize that young people’s perspectives aren’t just a nice-to-have, they’re essential as they set their platforms and their visions. That’s one of the core issues for Vote16USA, which is a group of young people who are advocating for 16- and 17-year-olds to be able to vote. One of the most important things that they highlight is that when we ensure that young people have the opportunity to vote earlier, we’re making voting a habit and creating the opportunity for that habit to set in for later in life. So it’s not only so that they can vote at 16. It is to begin the process of registration and having the opportunity to vote so that they might build a stronger muscle for voting throughout their adult life. So I think it’s incredibly important and will energize young people. We certainly have seen young people often getting energized around particular candidates or particular issues, but there’s so much room to grow, for young people to participate fully. And having young people, 16- and 17-year-olds, have the right to franchise would be another really powerful step in that direction.

Stay tuned for future interviews between GC leadership and students and alumni!