Testimony by DeNora Getachew, New York City Executive Director to New York City Council

Thank you for the opportunity to submit testimony on behalf of Generation Citizen (“GC”) regarding the Fiscal Year 2021 Executive budget. My name is DeNora Getachew, and I am the New York Executive Director at Generation Citizen NY (“GCNY”). GC appreciates the Council’s $2,000,000 investment in youth civics education through Civics Education in City Schools Initiative in Fiscal Years 2017 – 2020. This funding has enabled GC to educate over 14,000 middle and high school public school students, during the last four fiscal years, equipping them with the knowledge, skills and dispositions they need to participate in local and state democracy. 

GC applauds the Council for its leadership during this difficult and uncertain time, especially given the hard budget choices the body is contemplating during the Fiscal Year 2021 budget cycle. GC respectfully requests that the City Council renew its $500,000 investment in GC during Fiscal Year 2021 and affirm its commitment to youth civics education. As the city faces major disruptions in education during the global pandemic and Fiscal Year 2021 is a pivotal year for city, state and federal elections, now is not the time for the Council to walk away from its longstanding and deep commitment to civics education and youth civic engagement. Quite the contrary, in this moment, the resonating theme must be that Democracy Doesn’t Pause… it adapts! The Council’s renewal funding for GC would be a bold contrast to Mayor de Blasio’s administration defunding the Civics for All initiative and proposed cuts to teacher professional development. 

Young people are the present and the future of our democracy. And if we can actually give them the knowledge and skills they need to participate, they will make their voices heard — even in this moment, when young people are feeling so disrupted and uncertain, they want to make their voices heard. GC alumni like Ishrat Jahan, who could not testify today, are using their GC education and civic voice to advocate to improve City policy. She came to me and my colleagues and asked “How can I write an op-ed about the cuts to summer youth employment?” Her op-ed was published in Gothamist on May 20, 2020 (https://gothamist.com/news/message-mayor-bill-de-blasio-save-our-summer-youth-employment-program) advocating for the city to think creatively about how to conduct the Summer Youth Employment Program during the summer 2020 because it’s such a lifeline for the city’s youth.  

We have GC youth like Areed Sheikh, who submitted testimony for this hearing because she could not testify due to a school conflict, about how Action Civics helped her advocate to improve her school’s discrimination and racisim policies. She noted that GC’s Action Civics curriculum and program helped her research the problem and advocate for policies that protect students’ rights. And that’s the power of Action Civics: These young people can see beyond themselves, they understand the importance of community and collective, and they feel a sense of urgency and action. They are not only talking about change, but they’re actually leading change. And so I’m hopeful that if we believe in our young people, educate and empower them — that they will actually lead. 

I’d also elevate the work of students at Brooklyn Middle School Collective in Council Member Levin’s district. Students there quickly adapted to implementing GC’s curriculum remotely and are continuing their work to improve the City’s Fair Fare program, which Speaker Johnson spoke about in his opening remarks.

The students chose this action project issue because they believe that the high cost of transit fares could lead to criminalization and attacks on people in the most under-resourced communities who cannot afford to pay the full transit fare. As the students close in on the end of the semester, they are contacting community groups and Council Members to expand program eligibility and include Access-A-Ride as an option in the program.The class noted that it has been challenging to adapt to remote learning, but because of their belief in this project, they continue to work through the transition.

As the pandemic began to disrupt education in New York, and nationwide, GC rapidly shifted to remotely supporting teachers with implementing Action Civics through our Democracy Doesn’t Pause initiative. GC is using Google Classroom to enable teachers to access GC’s suite of curricular resources, coordinating video calls for students to interact with virtual guest speakers, as well as providing more frequent, and structured coaching support to help teachers with compiling class-specific research and resources to support student civics projects. 

GC adapted and revamped its civics education resources for educators and caregivers to engage young people and sustain high quality Action Civics education during distance learning. These free, downloadable activities/lesson plans for teachers and caregivers cover topics, such as: 

These resources are also available in Spanish here.

Overview of Generation Citizen & Action Civics 

As most Council Members know, GC is a ten year-old national, nonpartisan nonprofit dedicated to demystifying democracy for youth by bringing civics education back into the classroom through a new, engaging pedagogy: Action Civics. Action Civics is a “student-centered, project-based approach to civics education that develops the individual skills, knowledge, and dispositions necessary for 21st century democratic practice” (National Action Civics Collaborative). It differs from normative, knowledge-based civic education in the same way that taking any “hands-on,” project-based, or experiential course differs from reading a textbook. Students learn about democratic structures and processes by directly engaging with them, as well as with each other to address one or more issues they care about, which are impacting their community. 

During the last few election cycles, our nation has been powerfully reminded of the potential of youth political participation. According to the Center for Information & Research on Civic Learning and Engagement at Tufts University, numerous statewide races have ultimately been decided by voters under the age of 29. While this trend is encouraging, it also underlines the necessity of reinvigorating civics education in schools, particularly programs that include project-based learning and real-world opportunities to engage in democracy, a hallmark of GC’s Action Civics program. 

At this critical juncture in our nation’s history, we need systems that will create sustained youth participation. Now more than ever, we cannot rely on current events to motivate reactionary civic engagement, and it is the duty of our schools and communities to prepare youth for the lifetime responsibility of active citizenship. Second, we need to ensure that young people receive an education that enables informed, effective participation, something the New York City Council has championed with tangible government support, serving as a national exemplar in public investment in civics education.

GC’s Action Civics curriculum equips youth with the knowledge and skills needed to make an intentional impact on state and local policy. Finally, GC takes deliberate steps towards closing the Civic Engagement Gap, which is defined as a structural problem that is most pronounced among young people of color and those from low-income communities, predominantly in under resourced schools. Such students are half as likely to study how laws are made, and 30 percent less likely to report having experiences with deliberative discussions in their classes. GC focuses on educating youth in underrepresented communities because the organization believes that our American democracy is strongest when everyone participates. As the data shows, underresourced communities in our city, state and country are disproportionately impacted by COVID-19. These are the very communities that now more than ever need to understand how democracy works so that they can advocate for resources and policies to improve their lives and that of their communities. 

GC offers Action Civics through two models: our college volunteer, or Democracy Coach model (DC model), and Teacher-Led model (TL model). These models are unified by a shared Action Civics curriculum, GC’s teacher professional development and coaching, innovative approach to advocacy planning and support, and supplemental resources for students, teachers, and schools.  

In GC’s Action Civics course, students debate issues directly affecting them, like affordable housing, improving the environment, gun violence, police brutality, or curricular reform, and work as a class to decide on one focus issue to address during the semester. Through our student-led program, students develop strategic action plans to effect systemic change on the identified issue, implement the plan by engaging directly with influencers and decision-makers, and present their findings at Civics Day, a semester-end showcase. Students learn valuable academic and life skills, like public speaking, collaboration, critical thinking, and how to work through difference. They also gain firsthand experience engaging in an important lifelong habit, understanding how they can directly inform and influence change in their community through the democratic process.  

GC is incredibly thankful that the City Council renewed funding for GCNY this fiscal year to enable GC to educate and empower students to find their voice and become civically engaged this year. Before COVID-19, GCNY was projected to support 36 school partners in 98 classrooms to educate 2,450 students citywide through GC’s Action Civics curriculum. This spring semester, specifically, GC was planning to partner with 17 school partners in 56 classrooms to educate 1,400 students. We are thankful for the City Council’s funding, which also allowed GCNY to provide stipends to volunteers at our 5 CUNY college partners — Baruch College, Hunter College, John Jay College, Medgar Evers College and Queens College.

Unfortunately, once CUNY schools transitioned to distance learning, GC was unable to continue to utilize CUNY volunteers in our programming. As the pandemic is projected to continue into Fiscal Year 2021, GC is adapting its programming and Teacher-led professional development model to continue to support teachers with implementing Action Civics remotely; though without college volunteers given the anticipated uncertainty of schools resuming traditional in person schooling, as well as potential limits on non-essential school visitors. 

Civics for All Initiative

GCNY is disappointed by the de Blasio Administration’s decision to defund the Civics for All Initiative, especially given the value of project based learning and Action Civics in asynchronous learning environments like this. GC is even more disappointed that the de Blasio Administration has proposed cutting funding for teacher professional development as teachers need more resources and support, not fewer, to help them adapt to virtual education. The Council will take a bold stand in favor of educating and empowering youth by renewing funding for GC and its Action Civics program and ensuring that Democracy Doesn’t Pause.

In conclusion, GC believes that all students need an effective Action Civics education in order to gain the knowledge and skills necessary to participate in democracy. We cannot expect youth, especially young people of color and those from economically disadvantaged communities, to participate if we don’t teach them how the full contact sport of democracy works and how they can engage with democracy to make their voice heard. GC looks forward to continuing to partner with the Council to bring civics education to schools citywide during the critical 2020-21 election and school year to ensure democracy doesn’t pause. GCNY appreciates the Council’s leadership commitment to GC’s and youth civics education to ensure that Democracy Doesn’t Pause and that the next generation of New Yorkers develops the civic knowledge, skills, and dispositions necessary for them to become active and engaged stewards of our democracy for the long-term. 

Thank you and the Committees for your consideration of this testimony.  I can be reached at dgetachew@generationcitizen.org or (917) 912-5471 with any questions.