How Do We Educate to Improve Our Democracy?

How do We Educate to Improve our Democracy?


As Generation Citizen matures as an organization, we’ve realized that it’s not enough for us to solely focus on our in-school programming.  We continue to improve and iterate our action civics curriculum and teacher and volunteer training, but we have also recognized the necessity of building the case for effective action civics education writ large.  We need the broader public to see educating young people to become active citizens not as a “nice-to-have,” but a concept necessary for the long-term health of our country’s democracy.


In order to build demand, as we outlined in our recent strategic plan, we’ve begun to build out a specific advocacy and policy arm to our organization.  On one hand, this is GC pushing a specific policy agenda that promotes action civics, which we ultimately hope will lead to more government dollars allocated to civics education, and schools assessing civic capacity among young people.  But we also need to convince others that this matters, and build a movement.


We recently started this movement-building process by serving as the primary organizer of a January convening entitled “Educating for Democracy” hosted by the Ford Foundation in New York City.  The goal behind the conference was to have a conversation about how specific political issues (inequality and polarization) affect youth political participation, and importantly, how youth activism can actually help fix those issues.


I have too many conversations with education-specific experts or funders who like what we do, but insist that we are focused on democracy, and not typical academic outcomes like improvements of test scores.  I then have conversations with democracy experts or funders who like what we do, but say that because we work in the classroom, we’re not a fit, as they are more focused on electoral issues.  This convening was meant to try to bridge those fields – how can educating young people to become active citizens improve our democracy?


To do so, we brought together more than 100 scholars, philanthropists, practitioners, and policymakers to discuss this broader question through the lens of inequality, polarization, and the challenge of scaling effective civics education programs.  We ensured that the participants came from diverse fields – we did not want the convening to be the equivalent of a high school reunion.  Thus, we had practitioners focused on youth organizing, traditional civics education, and action civics, scholars focused on academic outcomes and political measures, and philanthropists from every region of the country.


After terrific opening speeches and a panel, including remarks from Peter Levine, the Director of CIRCLE, and David Hiller, the President of the McCormick Foundation, the convening included a mix of speeches from experts and discussions in small groups.  We did not want participants to be “talked at” the whole time, so facilitators ensured that each table included robust conversation and debate.  Importantly, we also included young people themselves.  Representing organizations from Chicago, New York City, LA, San Francisco, and New Orleans, the students provided a much-needed perspective to the conversation, talking about their individual experiences with action civics, and how to get more of their peers to participate in politics.


I was impressed by the robust nature of the conversations, how much everyone was enthused by the topics at hand and was excited to think about next steps.  A highlight was the panel on polarization, in which Diana Hess, the Vice President of the Spencer Foundation, brought up the paradoxical reality that, while we bemoan polarization, the individuals in society who participate most in politics are the most polarized.  So, should schools actually be attempting to create political identities for students?  Jeannie Oakes, the president-elect of the American Educational Research Association, was also a highlight, issuing a call for foundations to fund this work until the federal government steps in and makes it a priority (as they have with STEM education).


I’m always a little skeptical of conferences – can people gathering in a room to share their thoughts, often removed from the work at hand, actually change things?  While I don’t think that this convening actually changed the state of democracy education in the United States, I do think it was an important start.  We were able to begin to identify linkages between young people and improving our democracy, and importantly, motivate relevant stakeholders to continue the conversation.


For GC, the next steps are crucial.  We’re in conversations with major foundations, like The William and Flora Hewlett and the Ford Foundation, about leading follow-up work, which could include publishing a paper, organizing working affinity groups, and bringing together policymakers to discuss potential legislative solutions.  There’s so much work to be done to get this country to recognize the importance of educating young people to improve our democracy, and we’re excited to be leading the way.


– Scott Warren