Rhode Island youth lead in civics education advocacy efforts

During the 2022 Rhode Island Civic Learning Week, Rhode Island Civic Learning Coalition (RICLC) Youth Fellows made the case for meaningful project-based civic learning opportunities for all Rhode Islanders. Generation Citizen New England is a convening member of RICLC and supports the fellows in the development of their civics skills. In addition to Civic Learning Week, the fellows have been hard at work on the Rhode Island Department of Education’s implementation of the 2021 RI Civic Literacy Act. They are leading the coalition in demanding amendments to the RIDE’s Proposed Secondary Regulations

While not yet implemented, the Rhode Island Civic Literacy Act of 2021 requires that all Rhode Island students have the opportunity to participate in a student-led civics project. This hands-on approach promotes a student’s ability to: 

  • Reason, make logical arguments and support claims using valid evidence; 
  • Demonstrate an understanding of the connections between federal, state and local laws and policies, including issues that may impact the student’s community; and 
  • Apply civic knowledge and skills towards taking informed actions in the student’s community.

These civics projects may be class-wide, as they are in Generation Citizen’s Action Civics, or they could be individual or small group projects. 

The Rhode Island Department of Education (RIDE) chose to incorporate this requirement into the Secondary Regulations rather than develop specific regulations to comply with the new law.  However, RIDE and the Council of Elementary and Secondary Education recently published Proposed Revisions to the Secondary Regulations for public comment which fail to meet the mandates of the Rhode Island Civic Literacy Act. In fact, the word “civics” occurs in the proposed high school graduation requirements only once. The proposed regulations simply state that students must demonstrate proficiency in civics starting with the class of 2027, but don’t define civic proficiency or require student-led civics projects. 

In response to this oversight, Justin, Deren, Athena and other Youth Fellows helped the RICLC draft a set of amendments for the secondary regulations to address these gaps. During the consensus building process, youth ensured that the amendments would address the importance of culturally responsive and sustaining teaching practices and real-world, project based learning experiences to equitable civic learning. 

In addition to helping shape RICLC’s recommendations, RICLC youth have been out in front advocating for strengthening civics requirements in the RI Secondary Regulations. Youth Voice Fellows and Youth Research Fellows have submitted their testimonies during public hearings demanding that RIDE adopt these amendments in order to meet the requirements of the Civic Literacy Act. Athena, Justin, and Deren were featured in the Providence Journal explaining why robust civic education in secondary schools is essential.

To amplify these powerful youth voices, RICLC has launched a petition and asks advocates of equitable and inclusive civic learning opportunities to email Olivia.Smith@ride.ri.gov with written testimony expressing their support for these amendments. 

Civic Learning Week

The inaugural Rhode Island Civic Learning Week showcased why these policies are so important. The week’s activities celebrated advances towards civic learning opportunities for all Rhode Islanders and highlighted the work we have yet to do. Some of the week’s most poignant pleas for meaningful civic learning opportunities came from RICLC’s Youth Voice Fellows Justin, Deren, and Athena.

On a panel titled “Democracy in Crisis: The Role of Civic Education and its Importance for Civic Health,” Justin, a sophomore at East Providence High School, spoke about his 9th grade civics class. The class helped him feel more civically engaged and aware of his rights and different aspects of government. Moreover, Justin said, “Because of that course, I feel like I’ve had way more resources at my disposal from my teacher to my peers at school. That course helped to connect me to some other organizations like the Center for Leadership in Educational Equity.”  These experiences with project-based learning, Justin said,  are what got him hooked into civic learning:

“If I’m picking a project, I’m obviously interested in the subject and that’ll allow me to be kind of more engaged and more involved and more hands on. Because through discussions, I learned the most through having conversations with others. It wasn’t from textbooks. It wasn’t from Youtube or Google. It was from having conversations with other people and with other people who are very different from myself, a diverse group of people.”

Deren echoed the significance of conversations across differences in his civic learning experiences. He has completed two Action Civics projects and reflected on the consensus building process for the “Student-Led Civics Projects 101” workshop: 

“Each student and different groups in the class want to do a different issue. And if you’re really lucky, you have a lot of passion around each of those issues and you have to take all that passion and meld it into a single issue for your single project… Both times that I’ve done it, it has led us to issues or ideas that we want to support within our project that we had never thought about before. And it was all because we had to get every member of our class on board with that project. Without that, I don’t think that either of the projects that I’ve had a part in would have been nearly as good or impactful as they were.” 

Deren noted that he has “never done a consensus-based project in a class outside of the Generation Citizen curriculum.” He explained that this process strengthened his understanding of his peers: “Because of that you really get to know your classmates better and you get to the best project that you possibly can do.” 

But not all students in Rhode Island have this kind of in-school civic learning opportunity. Also on the “Democracy in Crisis” panel, Athena spoke to the barriers to civic engagement.. Athena is a junior at Classical High School in Providence. She started to get involved in local activism early on in the pandemic when she had to stay at home. Athena described the lack of civics education in many Rhode Island schools as a “hindrance” to civic involvement. “I can’t imagine going to school, maybe taking a bunch of AP classes and not really having time. It’s kind of hard to get involved in extracurriculars, as well. So if civics was an actual core subject, a course to take, then everyone would have access to it and everyone would know their rights. But the fact that you kind of have to go out of your way to get it is really sad, to be honest.

Making the case for treating civics as a core subject, Athena forecasted into her life as an adult. She argued that while “not everyone is going to go into a field of science and not everyone is going to go into a field of history…once you go out into the real world you’re always going to have to know about the [US] democracy and how to vote and the processes.” Her reflections emphasized the role of education in preparing students for college, career, AND civic life, which the recently-passed Civic Literacy Act attempts to address.

In a time when it is easy to be pessimistic, GC staff find encouragement in supporting youth who share our vision for a just, inclusive democracy that is responsive to all young people. Athena, Deren, and Justin’s advocacy efforts and their leadership with RICLC prove that our youth are capable of effective civic engagement and that all they need is access to meaningful, real-world civic learning opportunities.

This blog post was written by Allysha Roth, Generation Citizen’s Manager, Program in New England. Generation Citizen has been partnering with schools in Rhode Island to implement Action Civics projects since its founding. Athena, Deren, and Justin are Youth Voice Fellows in the Rhode Island Civic Learning Coalition and were among the panelists during the “Democracy in Crisis” and “Student-led Civics Projects 101” sessions.