Celebrating Success: A Reflection on Spring 2022 Civics Days with former GCNE Exec Dir. Arielle Jennings
I recently sat down with GC’s Chief Partnership & Sites Officer, Arielle Jennings, to reflect on the Spring 2022 Civics Day “season.” I call it a season because during the last two months of the 2021-2022 school year, GC New England held two statewide Civics Days and supported six GC districts in convening local Civics Days. As a relatively new GC team member, I was blown away. Arielle was too, but from a totally different perspective. When we talked, Arielle was in the process of transitioning from her role as Executive Director of GC New England after seven years serving the New England region to her current position supporting GC sites nationally. During our conversation, we talked about the significance of Spring 2022 Civics Days in New England, the impact of Civics Day on students’ and teachers’ experiences of Action Civics, and Arielle’s hope for the future.
Here’s our full conversation, edited for length and clarity:
AR: GC New England just wrapped up what amounted to a Civics Day season. Between April and June, our team ran two statewide Civics Days and supported six GC districts’ local Civics Days. It definitely felt like running a marathon for me as the newest person on the team. What was the experience like for you as the Executive Director and most veteran team member?
AJ: The experience was exciting, emotional, and fast-paced for sure. I think one reflection I have is that, although there were so many Civics Days, they were all built off of something within each community and built off of people that were deeply invested in action civics and in bringing their communities into the work of students leading in civics. They didn’t all run themselves, but they all had a core team of people that were invested in the work to support them. And of course with the state-level ones, that was our incredible team, including you as a new person, and everyone had their part like a piece to a puzzle. So for me, I did have things to do and all that. But in a way, I was able to enjoy visiting all of these different experiences seeing how they’re playing out in different contexts and communities and hearing more deeply than any year before the voices of young people come through.
AR: I distinctly remember when we walked into our first local Civics Day, Lowell Civics Day, in April. We walked into the room where all the projects were being set up and it was, like, a little bit of a flurry. And you just paused and you got teary-eyed. What was so moving or compelling about that moment?
AJ: I believe that real systemic change takes time, and we started in Lowell seven years ago. And I walked into that room to see a community who had fully invested in the lives of their students, in supporting them to be civic actors in their democracy. And that was coming through by them as a community stepping up to organize this event for them that we had nothing to do with, that they did independently. And that is our goal as an organization: to support building the community infrastructure, buy-in, and skills to lead this work independently. We will of course always be there for the community of Lowell to support them in any way they need. But really, they’re doing it themselves and seven years ago that felt like a far-off goal. I, at the time, was the program person leading the work, training the teachers, coaching the teachers in the field and saw how much they were dedicated to it, but also how much work we had to do to make this district-wide. It was this idea that real change social change is a long game, and that’s what’s happened in Lowell.
AR: As a former GC teacher and a current coach of GC teachers, I can attest that facilitating students through an Action Civics project is really freaking hard, especially if you want to do it well. One of the teachers I coached this past semester really liked the project in theory, but every time we talked she would say something like “Teaching this project is so freaking hard. I don’t know how you would do this successfully if you were putting in even half the effort I am.” After her local Civics Day, she sent an email to folks who organized it and to me expressing essentially how the event really helped her understand what Action Civics was all about. She shared that the experience was one of the most positive and encouraging moments in her teaching career.
At Lowell Civics Day you told me that this would happen, and shared how common the experience that the teacher shared with me via email is. Why do you think Civics Day makes such a difference in both teachers’ and students’ experiences of Action Civics?
AJ: Civics Day is wonderful, but along the way of doing the project all these moments similar to civics day, I believe, are happening. But it’s not as visible to teachers because they’re happening sometimes in the sort of isolation of group work where the teacher is somewhere else in the classroom. Or students are having reflections internally but not sharing them externally and showing their learning. So the Civics Day showcase and the experience of connecting with community members is an opportunity for teachers to watch their students externally show their learning and their reflection and be, frankly, really proud of them for all of those moments that they’ve had. I think it’s just an event that makes the impact that Action Civics has on students most visible, although it is happening along the way but is harder to capture and appreciate.
AR: How has Civics Day evolved since you started at Generation Citizen in 2015?
AJ: It’s grown in size. We used to have a Civics Day where everyone got to come. Every classroom was represented. And now it has to be a selection of classrooms, which is interesting. It’s hard in a way because, like we just described, this is a really formative moment for young people. And that is probably the reason why these grassroots, community-based Civics Days are upstarting and flourishing, so has that positive consequences. I think we have worked overtime to center student voices more intentionally throughout Civics Days, from students giving speeches to leading the ceremonies. I think we can continue to think even more deeply about how to do that. We’ve always tried to play around with the idea of how students give each other feedback and see each other’s presentations. And we did some experimenting with that in years past. But I think another big reflection is that Civics Day has almost become like a staple in our community, and that is reflected in part by the adults that come back year after year, some years over half of our community advisors. When I ask them to raise their hand, “How many Civics Days? One, this is your first. This is your second. This is your third. Four or more,” sometimes half of them have been to three, four, five, six Civics Days. It’s also this community engagement moment that people look forward to. And from an intergenerational experience, we’ve just deepened that experience over time. That’s lovely.
AR: Speaking of lovely, Civics Day really reaffirmed for me why I was excited to work at GC, how important our mission is and how transformative the Action Civics experience is for students and teachers. I walked away from the last local Civics Day in Barnstable with just a general feeling of hopefulness. As someone who provides strategic visioning for GC New England and has seen our impact in the region grow over the past several years, what are some of the specific hopes you have for our future as we wrap up the 2021-2022 school year?
AJ: I hope that civic education and engagement of young people becomes the norm in our schools and not the exception. And I am hopeful because I feel like we’re on our way to doing that in both Massachusetts and Rhode Island, in particular, because of the approach to this challenge – not just implementing high quality programming but affecting policy change that creates demand, whether it’s supporting rewriting standards so they center civics or passing civics laws that bring civics back into the classrooms as mandates. And the intersection of those two things feels very hopeful.
From a strategic point, I already see – especially in Massachusetts where the civics law passed in 2018 – just this incredible amount of infrastructure being built within districts and with a core focus on teacher leadership. And the nonprofit sector and higher education sector are really prioritizing project-based civics and creating support. It’s not just GC that is supporting teachers across New England and doing Action Civics, it’s many entities inside and outside of schools. From the Civics Day perspective, my strategic vision is also that this becomes the norm of celebrating youth civic action in communities and Civics Days or Weeks become the norm within a community or region to celebrate and learn from that. And I think the six local Civics Days that happened in the region are a model of how to do that. Strategically as an organization, I think we can try to codify that and share those learnings with communities that partner with us and those that don’t to be able to replicate that. The power of it is breaking down the wall between the school and the community and having that relationship building at Civics Day during the projects themselves, so students have that experience but also communities can learn from the students.
This blog post was written by Allysha Roth, Generation Citizen’s Manager, Program in New England.