01/26/2016

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The following blog post was written by Scott Warren, Executive Director of Generation Citizen.

It’s hard not to be disillusioned by our country’s political system right now. Our elected officials in Washington spend more time sniping at each other than passing bills, and the presidential campaign stories revolve around twitter spats and finger pointing. While Americans in communities across the country are hungry for progress and solutions, it seems that politicians are more interested in sound bites and earning political points. So what’s the solution? For many, it seems, divorcing from the political process, and figuring out how to make change outside of the system, has become the way forward.


But Generation Citizen strongly believes that the best, and potentially only way, to improve our political process is actually to get more political. It’s easy to blame politicians for the seemingly entrenched problems we face, from inequality to climate change to an unequal educational system. We need to look inwards. How can we, as citizens, take back our country? How can we, as citizens, force politicians to enact the change we need to actually start to solve these seemingly endless problems? For Generation Citizen, we believe we can create a “better politics,” as the President recently urged in his State of the Union address, by educating young people to be active political citizens. Our ultimate mission is for every young person in this country to receive an effective action civics education, preparing them with the knowledge and skills they need to be effective political citizens.


I first co-founded Generation Citizen (GC) about six years ago because I realized that young people in this country were idealistic and hungry for change, but didn’t see politics as the way to improve their communities. I spent the majority of my childhood growing up around the world, living in countries like the Dominican Republic, Kenya, Ecuador, and Argentina. In each of these countries, voting was seen as a sacred obligation. Citizens saw it as their solemn obligation to come together as individuals to make a collective difference. In Ecuador, I witnessed a coup, as citizens gathered in the streets, toppling down a president who they felt did not uphold his promises. In Kenya, I saw hundreds of thousands of citizens gathering in a local park, celebrating in 2002 after the country’s first truly democratic election.


GC was founded to figure out how to bring that same political fervor back to this country. While there are a multitude of rationale that young people are not participating in politics, a key reason is that schools have lost touch with their original mission- educating the next generation of citizens.


GC is trying to bring civics back into schools, and make it action-oriented and relevant to student’s lives. Rather than just learning about the three branches of government and how a bill becomes a law, we want young people to learn politics by doing politics. Our students choose local issues they care about that affect them and then take real political action. Civics becomes the most exciting class in school.


This all sounds exciting, but the challenge that we’ve encountered since being founded in 2009 is convincing people that educating young people to become active political citizens is vital. This is important, people tell us, but what if students can’t read or write? This isn’t as important, people tell us, as climate change, or inequality, or criminal justice reform. All too often, we are seen as a cute school program, rather than promoting a vital component of our education system.


The reality, though, is that none of the critical issues our country faces gets solved without persistent and sustained citizen engagement. The only way we make significant progress on addressing the key challenges our nation faces is if voters demand our politicians take action.


America Forward understands this logic intrinsically. As the nonpartisan policy initiative of New Profit, a national venture philanthropy fund that seeks to break down the barriers between all people an opportunity in America, America Forward unites social innovators with policymakers to advance a public policy agenda that champions innovative and effective solutions to our country’s most pressing social problems. The results to-date are enormous- the formation of the Social Innovation Fund, the effective promotion of national service, and the passage of two important pieces of federal legislation in a two year period that advance a number of the America Forward Coalition’s policy priorities in education, workforce development, evidence and innovation.


Right now, it’s easy to be pessimistic about politics. GC is going to work to change this narrative in a few fundamental ways:

  • We’re launching a campaign to lower the voting age to 16 in local elections. We need innovative ways to spur voter engagement, and research shows that 16 year-olds are ready to vote.
  • We’ll be engaging in field-building efforts to convince decision makers that educating young people to be active citizens is vital, just as important as young people learning math, or reading, or health.
  • We’ll be telling the stories of the power of youth political participation. GC has young people leading campaigns on the school to prison pipeline, the inequities in education funding, and even running for office themselves. We want to elevate these stories to show the positive of politics, rather than the negative too frequently harbored on by the media.

So the next time you’re pessimistic about politics, turn off your television and get into one of our classrooms. I guarantee you that you’ll start to remember the positive of politics.