How Generation Citizen Uses Action Civics to Empower Students, Grow Lifelong Citizens and Combat Inequality
Scott Warren aims to revolutionize the concept of civics education and make it the most captivating subject in schools. As the CEO of Generation Citizen, an organization he established in 2009 while attending Brown University, Warren is dedicated to implementing action civics in schools. This approach empowers students to identify issues within their communities and collaborate to find solutions.
Warren’s passion for preserving democracy was sparked during his upbringing, as his family traveled extensively due to his father’s job in the foreign service. Generation Citizen was founded with the purpose of bringing civics back into classrooms, transforming the subject, and making it an exciting and dynamic experience. Warren believes in viewing democracy as a constantly evolving concept that requires active engagement and nurturing.
In addition to his recent book on youth political engagement, Warren recognizes civics education as a tool to address inequality in the United States. Generation Citizen primarily partners with schools that serve a majority of students from low-income backgrounds, aiming to bridge the civic participation gap experienced by historically marginalized groups.
Warren highlights the correlation between higher levels of civic engagement and reduced economic and political inequality in countries. Consequently, he emphasizes the importance of early education in shaping good citizenship, particularly in a time of increasing polarization and stratification.
During Warren’s formative years, he personally witnessed significant world events such as Kenya’s inaugural democratic elections in 2002 and a 2005 coup in Ecuador. These experiences gave him valuable insight into the factors crucial for maintaining a thriving democracy. Warren became involved in local politics upon returning to the United States for college, where his focus was on advocating for divestment from companies operating in Sudan due to the conflict in Darfur. He observed that his peers were eager to contribute towards positive change, but lacked faith in local and state governments as effective agents for achieving it.
Unfortunately, youth civic engagement and trust in government have not seen significant improvement since Warren’s college years. A 2016 poll revealed that less than half of millennials believed they had a genuine voice in the political process. Moreover, disparities in the quality of civics education persist, with privileged white students outperforming their less affluent and non-white counterparts.
Generation Citizen aims to bridge this educational gap and empower historically disenfranchised students. Research conducted by the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement validates the positive impact of strong civics education on students’ political engagement. With a projected increase in reach from 18,000 to 30,000 students next year, Generation Citizen is committed to its mission. While the organization focuses on six states where it has dedicated staff, it also facilitates remote collaboration with educators nationwide and internationally.
Generation Citizen engages directly with school and district leaders in the targeted states, but interested educators can also reach out to the organization to learn more and involve their schools. Schools partnering with Generation Citizen pay a fee, which is determined based on location and affordability. Considering its commitment to serving low-income students, the organization aims to find a mutually beneficial cost arrangement. Funding for Generation Citizen is also obtained through foundations and corporate sponsorships.
Designed for middle and high school classrooms, Generation Citizen’s curriculum follows the "advocacy hourglass" model. This approach involves students and teachers identifying a community problem, investigating its causes, developing potential solutions, and actively working to implement those solutions. The organization supports teachers by providing curriculum resources and training, and some classrooms are paired with college volunteers for additional guidance throughout the semester-long projects.
Abby Kiesa, the director of impact at the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement at Tufts University, emphasizes the value of the action civics approach in empowering young people.
Kiesa highlights the distinguishing feature of the action civics model, which does not dictate what young people should think or do. Instead, it focuses on collaboration with young people, prioritizing their thoughts and concerns. This approach centers around the experiences of young individuals and aims to foster efficacy and agency, crucial elements for sustaining engagement.
Meredith Norris, the executive director of Generation Citizen’s central Texas division, recognized the need for substantial improvement in civics education during her time as a middle school social studies teacher in the Bay Area. Norris encountered students who held the misconception that Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King Jr. had collaborated to bring about civil rights.
Generation Citizen is designed to facilitate students’ understanding of their communities and encourage cooperation among them to effect positive change. Norris witnessed students advocating for the addition of a sidewalk near the elementary school attended by their younger siblings. She also observed a rural Texas school’s class lobbying their local government to establish a youth advisory council.
Norris admires how Generation Citizen enables students to bring real issues from their communities into the classroom, making the learning experience more relevant and meaningful.
Throughout an action civics semester, teachers assume the role of project managers while their students take ownership of the projects. Generation Citizen provides teachers with professional development before the semester begins, equipping them with the necessary knowledge about local government operations. The teachers are then positioned as guides, supporting their students while allowing them to lead.
Although Generation Citizen acknowledges the value of community service projects, its ultimate aim is to foster citizens who remain politically engaged throughout their lives. The organization’s theory of change centers on empowering young individuals to become active and effective citizens in the long term. They recognize that this process requires time and commitment and are dedicated to convincing students to stay engaged and involved.