Top 5 Tips for Democracy Coaches

‘- Noelle Garza, University of San Francisco
Step Up, Step Back
Being a DC is all about knowing when to step up, and when to step back. When my 8th graders were choosing our Focus Issue, the process took longer than expected. The students were overwhelmed with the enormity of how violence was effecting their day-to-day lives and discussing it openly in a classroom for maybe the first time, heightened their emotions, making it harder to pin-point where to focus. I stepped up to lead the discussion and ask the students how violence was affecting their lives. But I stepped back to fully listen until every student who wanted to share could be heard, not just by me and their teacher, but their peers as well.
Be Prepared…to be Flexible
You have a whole team of people behind you to ensure that you are prepared for each classroom, and to help your class achieve their goals. So don’t be afraid to be flexible. Yes, be prepared, attend your chapter meetings, create an agenda for every class, and also allow yourself to be flexible. Let a discussion go for longer than you envisioned and allow your students an extra 5 minutes to think about what tactic they really think will work. Your team of fellow DCs, chapter directors, your program manager, and your classroom teacher are all right behind you to help you stay on track. In the same class I mentioned above, we spent twice, maybe three times longer than I planned talking about the deep impact of violence, but it paid off. After musing on how violence affected their lives personally in class, they were able to confidently testify about this emotional, triggering topic in front of the Board of Education.
Be a Partner
Generation Citizen says: “Peer to near-peer mentoring works” and it’s true. Your biggest job as a Democracy Coach is to be a partner with youth. Do you remember being in middle school or high school and being convinced that the adults at school were out to get you or didn’t care about how you felt? This is your chance to be a partner with a young adult by being an advocate for a cause they care about, both inside and outside the classroom. Show them that things can really move and shake when people believe in one another.
Be Interested and Ask “Why?”
Hand in hand with being a partner is being genuinely interested in your students’ points of view. Beyond that, show your interest by asking, “Why?” “Why do you think that? Why is that important to you?” Asking why can help you understand your issue more and it can also help your students gain personal insights. In my first semester as a Democracy Coach, our students wanted to focus on the cleanliness of a nearby park. When I asked them “Why?” the conversation slowly shifted from, “Well, it’s gross,” to, “It’s important to me because we deserve to have a clean park,” to “everyone in our neighborhood deserves a clean park.” With the simple act of asking why, the 8th graders were able to connect their cause to something bigger than themselves, they were able to pin point the injustice of having an unclean park, and they felt empowered to do something about it too.
Trust Your Voice
Maybe you feel nervous. Maybe you have no experience leading a classroom, let alone with young people. You may be asking yourself, “Can I really do this?” Trust yourself and trust your voice. There is a reason you applied to be a Democracy Coach and let that reason guide you. I remember, in my third semester with Generation Citizen, wondering if I really had the chops to engage this group of 8th graders. My schedule changed and I couldn’t make my chapter meetings, I was the only DC at my school, and I was worried. I often reminded myself to trust my instincts. I also shared my concerns with the classroom teacher, strengthening our connection. In the end, that semester the students, myself and our classroom teacher all won awards honoring our hard work and the impact we made together in our community.
Good luck at training this weekend, and let’s #GetReadyGC!

-Noelle Garza
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.