First Annual Civics Day New York ☆

Students from three boroughs listen to a welcome from Scott Warren on the first annual Civics Day New York.

May 11, 2011. The first annual Civics Day New York was held at Teachers College.  The event was hosted by Generation Citizen, facilitated by Social Studies and Education Ph.D. candidate Sandy Pope and sponsored by the student organization Kappa Delta Pi.

Generation Citizen’s mission is to expand democratic participation among youth populations that have been historically under-represented or excluded from the political process.  Brown University student Scott Warren started the organization in 2009 after his experience of successfully lobbying the Rhode Island state government to divest themselves from doing business with companies from Sudan and Darfur.  Warren realized he learned a lot more about the political process during this lobbying experience than he ever did sitting in a Civics class–and Generation Citizen was born. Sandy Pope met Warren at the NCSS (National Council for the Social Studies) Conference two years ago in Denver.  With an emphasis on “action-civics” curriculum, Generation Citizen was a magnet to Pope who found their mission in synch with his research interests and their desire to expand into New York ideally suited to Pope’s goal of bringing an outreach project to TC.

Civics Day New York is, as Pope describes, “the culmination of 18 months of planning”. As a coordinator for Generation Citizen, Pope worked with 12+ public and charter schools (middle schools and high schools) plus helped to train post-secondary mentors (college students from Pace University, New York University, TC and Columbia).  These mentors went into classrooms twice a week to teach a curriculum that gets students active in their communities as a part of their school day.  Students select an issue from their community, investigate it, work on it, create an action plan and implement that plan.  “The point of Civics Day is to give the kids a chance to all come together and show-off what they’ve done”, Pope explains.

The event began in the Cowin Center with a welcome from Warren, who told the assembled group of 400 students from three boroughs that he was “excited to see the action you’ve taken through the semester”.  Student presenters gave an on-stage synopsis of their project, which included such issues as gun control, nutrition, teen motivation, bullying, community violence and teen pregnancy.   One student expressed thanks for the opportunity to present, for “often teens aren’t given a voice”.  Another told of organizing a human “safe chain” from his school to the subway to raise awareness for the need for greater police presence.  The meaning of civics came up as well, with one student explaining, “To me being a citizen means getting actively involved to make a change”.

A student fields questions from judges about her class

Individual groups then broke out into multi-media poster sessions in front of a panel of judges, including Daniel Friedrich of the Curriculum & Teaching Program and Emily Zemke representing TC’s Office of School and Community Partnerships.  In their poster sessions, students used videos, dioramas, collages and scripted dialogue to illustrate their story.  They talked about their community issue, mobilization challenges, their action plan and what they’ve learned through implementation.  A memorable presentation on teen pregnancy by the students of the High School for Public Service employed a graphic lesson:  two judges were given Oreo cookies, instructed to chew them, spit them into their cups, then swap cups with one another.  When the judges balked at the request to eat the contents of the cup (another person’s chewed- up cookie), the presenter exclaimed, “So, you’re not willing to do it?  Then you shouldn’t be having sex without a condom either!”

The event came to a close in the Cowin Center where awards were given out in a variety of categories, including “Media Moguls”, “Distinguished Scholars”, “Sustainable Visionaries” and “Community Mobilizers”.  Maria Nievas of Fidelity Investments (underwriters of the event) praised students for “delving into tough topics” and invited them to “…educate your peers.  Educate the people who run your schools.  Educate your public officials.”  Founder Scott Warren took the stage and urged students to “make a commitment to yourselves, your schools, and your community” to keep their advocacy efforts alive.  He shared his own story of helping to pass a state government bill at the age of 19 and inspired the group that despite their youth, “you can get it done”.

Looking ahead to the next academic year, Civics Day will be held in both December and May in Boston, Providence, and New York, touching approximately 2,000 students.

Generation Citizen