Making Action Civics Salient

This past week, several members of the GC staff made our way to Philadelphia for two back-to-back conferences: the National Action Civics Collaborative (NACC) and the National Conference on Citizenship (NCoC). Though the organizations differ markedly in terms of size and name recognition (NACC was co-founded by Scott Warren two years ago, and NCoC was chartered by Congress decades ago), each gave fodder for thinking about the future of action civics.

NACC consists of six founding members: GC, CIRCLE, The Mikva Challenge, Youth On Board, Earth Force, and UCCP, which hosted this year’s conference. Each is concerned with promoting action civics as a means to foster more and higher quality youth civic engagement, but the organizations differ in several important respects: in school vs. out of school vs. (in CIRCLE’s case) research, for example. Among the challenges we considered were how, as relatively small organizations working in the field of civics (hardly today’s sexiest), we can spread and promote what we do – and ensure we evaluate it so that we can make an empirical case. This past year has already seen some successes, including a mention of Mikva and action civics by Secretary of Education Arne Duncan.

But in order for action civics and the work that NACC organizations are doing to truly become part of our national discussion and gain any sort of scale, I would argue, we must do a better job of connecting our country’s lack of quality civics education with problems we all see as vital and urgent. (For an excellent article on just that, read Junior Board co-chair Matthew Tolliver’s recent Huffington Post column.)

We saw an example of just that at the NCoC conference this past Friday. The centerpiece of the conference was a report put out by NCoC and CIRCLE linking greater “civic health” in a community to reduced unemployment during the recession. I’d encourage readers to check out CIRCLE Director Peter Levine’s blog entry, which has an excellent synopsis (and chart) and delves into the more of the details. By itself, of course, the report isn’t a knockdown argument for civics education in general or action civics in particular. And the point of teaching active, informed citizenship isn’t primarily about economic growth, nor should it be. However, by beginning to link civics and civic engagement to some of today’s most pressing issues, the report points a way forward for civics to gain the relevance it deserves.

-Daniel Millenson, Managing Director