Getting Off College Hill

– Sean Manning, Brown University Democracy Coach
A mixture of excitement and anxiety clouded my mind when I first set foot in Providence, Rhode Island to begin my college career at Brown University. It had been my dream to attend Brown, and the fact that that dream had become a reality had not quite yet settled in. Most of my memories from those first few hours are foggy, except my grueling first climb from downtown Providence up onto College Hill, where Brown’s campus is located. College Hill has the feel of a quaint college town and is covered with beautiful New England-style homes in addition to both Brown and the Rhode Island School of Design’s campuses.

It was not long before I saw College Hill as both a physical and symbolic barrier between Brown and the greater Providence community. Up on the hill, there exists a bubble in which many students comfortably remain during their college years. If I was going to call Providence my new home, then I was determined to be actively engaged with the entire community, not just scenic College Hill.

At the beginning of the spring semester I went to a special activity fair for student groups focused on service. I wanted to find a group that allowed me to break out of the College Hill bubble and at the same time engage my passion for politics and education. When I stopped at the Generation Citizen table, I knew that I had found exactly what I was looking for.

After being accepted into the program and participating in a weekend of training, I met my teacher and the sixth grade class I would be working with for the semester. I had worked as a tutor before but had no experience as an actual teacher and felt unsure if I was qualified to be a Democracy Coach. I walked into a lucky situation, as my kids had already done Generation Citizen the previous semester and were excited to do it again. My teacher, Ms. M was well-organized and displayed mastery over classroom management.

The principal wanted the sixth graders to choose a focus issue within the school. We discussed a wide range of issues in the early classes. Some students were fed up with the poor condition of their school facilities, while others expressed frustration at the lack of technology in classrooms. They all agreed on the fact that they had no control over how funding was spent or how decisions were made. They had no form of student council, so we decided that our goal for the semester was to tackle the problem of underrepresentation.

Watching the students become passionate about this project was so inspiring to me. They saw that what they were doing could impact students at their school for years to come, so they put careful thought into each step, especially when we were creating the constitution of the student council.

One of my favorite memories in the classroom this year is the debate the students had over the council should be run by a president a council of equal representatives. I had the kids split up into teams based on the method they believed best. Funny enough, they split evenly between boy and girls. The boys espoused an egalitarian rhetoric, while the girls argued for the pragmatism of executive decision makers; setting up a showdown that mirrored that of Thomas Jefferson versus Alexander Hamilton. Much like the founding fathers, we ended with a compromise between the two ideas. The experience of the debate was enjoyable for both the students and myself. I could see the budding of a passion for debate in a number of my kids that I can only hope will blossom into high school debate careers.

As we move closer to accomplishing our goal, I feel nothing but pride for my students. Watching some transform from quiet or apathetic observers to proud speakers able to stand in front of a board of teachers has been incredibly rewarding – and has been a truly great opportunity for me to get off the hill, into the community of my new hometown, and to see the students I work with grow more than I could have imagined.

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.