Generation Citizen, generationcitizen.org, New York, NY
About Generation Citizen
The organization Generation Citizen works to stop the cycle of underrepresentation in the democratic process of low-income, less educated, and minority citizens by teaching civic engagement. Thousands of students at under-resourced schools in cities like Providence, Boston, New York, and San Francisco take action-oriented civics lessons from trained volunteer Democracy Coaches, who work with the support of teachers in existing classes. The students identify a concern, spend the semester strategically addressing that problem, and present their plan to local leader judges at Civics Day. Student by student, GC is chipping away at the civic engagement gap. Founder Scott Warren is a recipient of an Elfenworks In Harmony with Hope award.
Biography of Founder Scott Warren
Scott Warren’s belief in participatory democracy (informed by his childhood as a “foreign service brat”) is so strong that he was still an undergrad when he and a friend conceived the idea for Generation Citizen in 2008. Warren was just 15 when he witnessed the first truly democratic elections in Kenya’s history. That experience, coupled with his youth spent in Latin America and Africa as the son of a diplomat, inspired his belief in the power of citizen participation and the power of individuals coming together to make a collective difference. A few years later, while a student at Brown University, Warren served as the national student director of STAND, a coalition of students from more than 800 high schools and colleges who campaign for US action to end genocide. He also helped lead the campaigns to divest Rhode Island, Providence, and Brown from companies doing business in Sudan.
Warren had discovered his passion. He also realized that he learned about the democratic process by actively taking part in it. And he recognized that too many Americans did not have easy access to that same powerful democratic process. This new dual understanding formed the basis of Generation Citizen, which Warren founded while a college senior.
In the fall of 2008, Warren and co-founder Anna Ninan enlisted the help of their fellow students to volunteer to teach active civic engagement, what they now call “action civics” in four low-income schools in Providence. The next semester, they expanded to six schools and were working with more than 100 students.
It was clear from the outset that Warren had hit upon a successful model. By engaging high school students in the political process through an action-oriented curriculum and by providing that opportunity at schools in low-income areas, Warren and his volunteers were successfully working to bridge what he calls the “civic engagement gap.”
In the US, large swaths of the population—disproportionately minorities and low-income Americans—feel no connection to the democratic process. This translates to actual behavior. According to Generation Citizen, in the 2012 election, citizens who made more than $75,000 voted at a 77% rate. Those who made less than $50,000 voted at a 62% rate. There is no better predictor of political participation than income level. And, according to various studies, the 60 million Americans who make up the poorest fifth of our population have little to no effect on their senators’ votes.
At its core, Generation Citizen is working to stop the cycle of the under-representation in the democratic process of low-income, less educated, and minority citizens. They are the very folks whose opinions need to be voiced and heard in order to improve their access to the services they’re lacking: housing, health care, employment, and education. The organization works to ensure that every student in the United States receives an effective action civics education, which provides them with the knowledge and skills necessary to participate in our democracy as active citizens.
Generation Citizen formally incorporated in 2010. This past year, they worked with approximately 8,000 students in Providence, Boston and New York. Sixteen schools in San Francisco took part in the first year of Generation Citizen’s program in the Bay Area in 2013-14.
Generation Citizen begins by identifying and signing up schools that serve low-income students (schools at which at least 50% of the students receive free or reduced-price lunches) and that lack an effective program that promotes action civics education. Next, they recruit and train college students to serve as volunteer Democracy Coaches in the classrooms. The coaches work with the support of the teacher in an existing social studies or leadership class. Incorporating the Generation Citizen curriculum into existing classes during the school day helps ensure that students don’t self-select to take the class. The teacher serves as partner and manager of the classroom, and integrates the principles of action civics into his or her broader classroom teachings.
Over the course of a semester, the coaches (who usually work in pairs) deliver 20 well-defined, action-oriented civics lessons. At the beginning of the semester the coaches ask the teens to identify a problem in their community—and they spend the rest of the semester actively engaged in strategically finding solutions to that problem. They make documentaries, write opinion pieces, create social media campaigns, and/or lobby their local elected officials. The class projects are presented, judged, and celebrated at a citywide Civics Day at the end of each semester. In the Bay Area, Civics Day was held in the fall at the Oakland City Hall and attended by Mayor Jean Quan; San Francisco’s City Hall was the site of the spring Civics Day.
Paul Revere Middle School students in San Francisco were concerned about safety on the bus lines they had to take to get to school, so they took on Muni safety as their civics project. They proposed a number of ideas to address the lack of security on the back doors of bus lines at an assembly. Later they enlisted community support by distributing information to the community and collecting signatures on a petition. Then, they met with the SFMTA Director of Transportation and presented their proposal. The director responded to their efforts by agreeing to increase security on those bus lines.
In a Staten Island school, the students decided that their high school wasn’t adequately preparing them for college, so they created an online forum to share working ideas, sat in on college classes to understand how teaching and learning were different in a less structured environment, organized a free SAT prep course, and got those students who weren’t planning on moving on to college internships at the local television station and court house. Skylar Brady, who worked on the project, explained its impact: “I didn’t have the best home life. High school was hard for me and I wasn’t planning on going to college. And then I met the folks at Generation Citizen. Them taking the time really changed me. They provided me the motivation to make it happen.” She finished up her freshman year at college with a 3.7 GPA. “Great company, great people. Thumbs up for Scott!” Brady concludes.
The college students who become Democracy Coaches commit to volunteering for Generation Citizen for at least seven hours a week. They receive an intensive two-day training before the program starts and meet weekly with their college chapter members to discuss the next week’s lesson plan and any issues of particular concern. The Generation Citizen curriculum is an organic document that has grown from two pages to 150 pages over the past few years. It is aligned to Common Core and state standards, and has been endorsed by the National Council on Social Studies. Generation Citizen works closely with local education officials in each state to ensure that the curriculum meets individual state standards as well.
Sameea Butt went to Columbia University and volunteered with Generation Citizen for her last two years, the first as a Democracy Coach and then, as director of the Columbia University chapter of 14 Democracy Coaches. Long interested in education policy, Butt was intrigued by an email she received from Generation Citizen at the beginning of her junior year, inviting her to participate. She signed on and worked with a school in the Bronx, which she found both challenging and rewarding. “My involvement with Generation Citizen has changed the trajectory of what I want to do academically and professionally. I’m now much more interested in civics.” Butt graduated in 2013 and took a variant of the Generation Citizen class to her native Islamabad, Pakistan, where she is involved in education reform. “The staff at Generation Citizen is just incredible. They make the process so positive and they’re all so friendly, involved, and present.”
Warren is the most present of all. He is routinely referred to as involved, relatable, enthusiastic, and filled with boundless energy. Despite his young age, he has managed to successfully finesse the tightrope that requires constant meet and greets and travel to drum up funds with fostering an organizational culture that highly values the staff, the volunteers, and the students. In 2010, Generation Citizen was recognized by Echoing Green as one of the 20 most promising social entrepreneurial ventures in the world.
Warren has carefully crafted Generation Citizen to maximize buy-in and participation from everyone the program touches—from elected officials, judges, district and state boards of education, university administrators and students, to school administrators and teachers, and last but not least, to the high school students themselves. In fact, those students are at the heart of the process. Each class presents differently, as Generation Citizen firmly believes that the students should guide the program.
Four elements differentiate the program from other organizations working with youth:
Action-oriented: students must do civics to learn the political process; simple fact-based, lecture-driven classes delivered to a passive audience of disengaged students will not create change.
Scalable and relatable: Democracy Coaches are only a few years older than the high school students; the fact that they volunteer (no cost) provides the basis for the organization to scale up.
During school: Generation Citizen believes public schools have a mission to create young citizens who engage in the political process. Teaching the program during the school hours ensures that all students have the opportunity to get involved. Generation Citizen engages the teachers in the process, providing professional development and eliciting their feedback, thereby fostering commitment from the schools.
Target population of low-income and minority students: Generation Citizen is committed to closing the civic engagement gap.
“We are all very mission driven,” remarks Gillian Pressman, Boston Program Manager. She is one of just 15 national staff, who are scattered between New York, Boston, Providence, and San Francisco, where the newest site was formed in September 2013. The small paid staff oversees an impressive network. In Boston, for instance, 27 schools are currently part of the program, with 80 Democracy Coaches working with 2,500 students in the past year. The budget for the Boston office is just $200,000. In New York, this past year, they enrolled twice as many schools (and students) as the previous year.
In addition to their extensive expansion plans, Generation Citizen is undertaking a longitudinal study to evaluate their growth thus far. One goal is to determine what sort of pipeline they can create that will continue to encourage civic participation and engagement among students who have been empowered and excited by their exposure to the democratic process. Their ongoing studies indicate that participation in the Generation Citizen program increases students’ intended civic engagement.
Warren has knit together a small band of like-minded changemakers who are passionate about system change, and he keeps them excited about their mission: “Scott is an evangelizing thought leader,” comments Gillian Pressman. Together, they envision a democracy in which every citizen, particularly the young and the disenfranchised, participate.