Incorporating Voices: A Modern Jeffersonian Meal

Last week, Generation Citizen Board Member Robert Flanders hosted a “Jeffersonian Breakfast” inspired by the dinners hosted by Thomas Jefferson back in the early days of our Republic. Jefferson would invite 10 friends to Monticello to discuss a set topic, which could range from politics to philosophy to archeology, to hear the personal experiences that informed people’s opinions. A Generation Citizen inspired event, Scott Warren and our Providence team of Emily and myself were lucky enough to attend and hear guests, including CEOs, lawyers, education administrators, doctors, philanthropists, board chairs, and professors talk about the personal experiences that caused them to actively engage in our democracy.

As the breakfast opened, everyone shared how they emerged as active civic participants. The stories spanned generations, ranging from childhood stories to adult revelations. At the same time, a common thread emerged around the emergence of our political consciousness. An event in our lives and the guidance or mentorship of someone who helped us realize the path to addressing that issue. Whether realized in war, community service or a class that used to exist called Civics, the guide in our stories emerged as a friend, parent, peer or teacher to encourage, cajole and guide us into a productive path of action.

Even after a lively hour-long discussion, mentorship remained as a theme in our discussion. Complaints or protests raised around the failures of government or corporate sponsorship were attributed to their failures to properly support the communities they were founded in.  Conclusions around success and positive paths forward were founded on the idea that groups and organizations had properly acted to incorporate and help other voices emerge in complex debates. There was the recognition that civic duty is not only giving back to our community, it’s also rooted in helping others find a sense of belonging in that system.

Looking back at the discussion, I realize that my opinions have become rooted in my own experience managing a program that’s deeply rooted in mentorship and experience. Before our college volunteers were given the civic “Democracy Coaches” they were simply called Mentors. What I realized after the name change was that we do not create mentors in Generation Citizen, but we encourage them to emerge. Whether the college student, a teacher, a peer, or a parent who is drawn into the conversation sparked by a Generation Citizen story, the program allows students to find and become mentors during this experience.

As we headed back to the office from the breakfast, Scott, Emily and I talked about Providence. In our own Jeffersonian conversation between a lifelong Rhode Islander, a former Providence-based college student, and a brand new resident we discussed how our breakfast made us wonder at the possibilities that lay before the city and state that we all shared. The stories of engagement, experience and relationships stayed with us as they arose from a deeply rooted sense of state and city pride. This emotional connection resonated with us as we compared it to the same driving impetus behind the work Generation Citizen students engage in to make their schools, neighborhoods and city better places. As long as Generation Citizen exists in Rhode Island, we will devote our time to allowing mentors to emerge and giving young people a sense of belonging in our civic system.

~Tom Kerr-Vanderslice, Rhode Island Site 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.