Getting In the Policy Game

When I first co-founded Generation Citizen, I did so because I believed deeply in the power of public policy, and the ability of individuals to shape it – lessons I learned while engaging in anti-genocide activism in college.   And to date, GC’s strategy has almost exclusively been about educating other young people to get involved in public policy.

But now, as we get ready to launch a new strategic plan, we are making a commitment to engage in policy as an organization.  Specifically, we plan on working to “build demand” for action civics education, which will include building relevant local and national coalitions, pushing for targeted policy, and engaging in a focused communications strategy that reflects our broader strategy.

While it has generally become accepted that effective non-profits, at some point in their existence, engage in the policy space, it seems that GC is a little, well, young, to be doing it.  After all, we’ve barely been around for five years, our programs, while showing promise, aren’t 100% proven, and thus, there’s much work to be done on the direct impact side.  But I’m convinced that we should get in the game now for a few reasons:

1)   We’re still constrained by the lack of demand for “action civics”: Almost everyone likes civics education, or what we call action civics.  But it’s a little like side vegetables- you eat them after you’ve finished everything else on your plate.  We want action civics to be the main meal – and the only way for it to become that, is for us to actively advocate for the menus to change.  Until we do so, it’s going to be challenging for us to get in more classrooms, or to get the funds we need to scale (building demand includes both the program and philanthropy lens).

2)    Effective advocacy allows us to become more localized: As GC has grown, I’ve noticed the unfortunate, but very real divide between national and local non-profits.  National non-profits (I would include GC as one) are often seen as having a plug-and-play model that can be resistant to local context.  We’ve probably been guilty of this in the past, and sometimes, it actually makes it difficult for us to get in classrooms.  However, as we engage in localized advocacy, we get to know local stakeholders, demonstrate our investment in the communities where we work, and increase local buy-in.  This is crucial for our model.

3)   It works: We’ve already started to pilot out our “demand building” efforts, primarily in Boston and New York City, and they are working.  In New York, we became involved in efforts to allow 16 and 17 year olds to serve on community boards, which are appointed city boards that advise on issues including land use and zoning, the budget process, and working with local agencies to improve local delivery of services.  For the past few years, a coalition of organizations have urged the Assembly to pass the requisite bill that would allow young people to serve on boards.  This year, we dove in, meeting with state legislators, writing op-ed pieces, and involving our young people.  The bill recently passed, and is awaiting Governor’s Cuomo’s signature.

While the bill is not explicitly related to action civics, it is mission-centric.  Specifically, it helps build demand for action civics by explicitly stating that youth voice matters.  When we go into schools and sell our program, we will now be able to give them concrete ways that their students can influence the public policy process.  Additionally, the process of helping to pass the bill allowed us to form relationships with elected officials, which will be helpful as we continue this advocacy strategy in the future.

4)   It’s the only way we can scale:  Currently, we’re working with about 10,000 students in 4 cities.  We can continue this strategy, and maybe work with 20,000 students in 4 years, and ultimately, maybe even 100,000 students in 10 years.

But there are 1.2 million students just in NYC.  The best way to scale is through public schools themselves, and the best way to ensure that this is taught throughout our education system is to engage in policy that would encourage this to happen (through measured like increased professional development for civics and relevant assessment strategies).  While we will continue to pursue our direct service in classrooms, we recognize that if policy is our end game, we might as well start it now.

I don’t quite know what this strategy will look like.  We may be working with state legislatures to reframe assessment to include skills-based learning.  We may be working with cities to create youth councils.  We may be working with foundations to host summits on action civics.  But we are explicitly saying that we are going to practice what we preach – not only are we going to teach our young people to practice advocacy, but we are going to do it ourselves.

– Scott Warren, Executive Director

Generation Citizen is a nonpartisan, 501(c)3 tax exempt organization which does not endorse candidates; our goal is to engage our staff, participants, and stakeholders in political and civic action on issues that matter to them personally and in their communities. The opinions expressed in this blog post are those of the writer alone and do not reflect the opinions of Generation Citizen.

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