Everyone’s a Civics Teacher

Rajiv Vinnakota , President

November 17, 2023

Raj Vinnakota, president of The Institute for Citizens & ScholarsThe Institute for Citizens & Scholars president Raj Vinnakota delivered a “Spark Talk” at Independent Sector’s 2023 Upswell Summit.

I’m Raj Vinnakota, the president of the Institute for Citizens & Scholars, an organization founded in 1945. Some of you may know us by our previous name, the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation. Or the 27,000 scholars, practitioners, and policy leaders in our Fellowship network.

For decades, these Fellows have been working to ensure all people and perspectives are included in the future of our democracy. In the past few years, we’ve expanded our mission to be laser-focused on cultivating Gen Z to be empowered citizens. What does it mean to be an empowered citizen? We call it the Big 3, and you’ll hear me use these words multiple times in the next 10 minutes.

The Big 3 is the category that defines empowered citizens:  people who are civically well-informed, productively engaged, and committed to democracy. That covers what we mean by being an empowered citizen.

So, why focus on Gen Z?

I don’t have to tell you that this is an urgent moment for the nation and for democracy. Americans are drawing battle lines on social media, at school board meetings at college campuses, and in the halls of our nation’s Capitol. Public discourse has grown ever more bitter in tone and louder in volume. Many of us withdraw from discourse entirely. More and more we surround ourselves with people who look, feel, think, and act like we do. And that’s just about the adults.

There are also statistics that point to the civic crisis facing young people. This generation is unique in many ways:

They are the most diverse generation in history, raised with a strong sense of inclusivity. They’re tech-savvy, connecting easily and sharing information widely. They’ve been at the forefront of urgent issues like climate change, community violence, mental health, and economic uncertainty from a young age. While some may seem apathetic, many possess a spirit of self-empowerment for meaningful change. They’ve lost faith in traditional institutions and leaders. Young people understand the need for civic change on a grand scale and have the skills to make it happen. They seek support from organizations like mine and individuals in this room to realize their ambitions.

It’s for these reasons that I believe today’s young adults are poised to strengthen democracy. This motivated and diverse group of people can help us leap forward, but only if they are well-informed, productive engaged, and committed to democracy.

Let me provide you with just a few examples of how young people are unleashing their potential. My organization supports young people, often teenagers, to drive civic change in their communities. Here are three:

  • A group in southern West Virginia spent a summer using their social media skills to help small businesses thrive in their communities.
  • Over in Philadelphia, a group is creating a translation app that removes the language barrier between immigrant families and English-speaking families.
  • And a student in the Bronx is making a free database of opportunities that can assist low-income high school students of color in navigating the college application process.

We need to unleash the civic potential of millions more. To do so, we must first understand where they are today with the Big 3. And again, that Big 3 is:  civically well-informed, productively engaged, and committed to democracy.

Turns out there isn’t data that paints a comprehensive picture of their civic knowledge, civic engagement, and commitment to democracy. So, my organization partnered with a leading polling firm to publish The Civic Outlook of Young Adults in America, a first-of-its-kind national survey of 4,000 18–24-year-old Americans.

Spoiler alert: the results weren’t great. Let’s start first with basic civic knowledge.

We asked our respondents four basic civic questions, with multiple-choice answers. To give you a sense of the kinds of questions asked, does anyone know the answer to this question:

In the U.S. Senate, who casts the deciding vote in the event of a tie?

If your answer was the Vice President, you were correct. If you didn’t know the answer, don’t be too hard on yourself. Most of the youth surveyed also didn’t know.

I’m not here to advocate perfect memorization of a civics test. And the folks in this room certainly know that a knowledge-rich curriculum is more than just learning facts. The problem is that our survey surfaced a critical finding:

Those with more civic knowledge are also more engaged in our democracy. American democracy only works with active and peaceful citizen participation.

In our survey, those with greater civic knowledge are:

  • 50 percent more likely to say they plan to vote in the next election.
  • 25 percent more likely to engage in at least one civic activity, such as volunteering.
  • Less likely to embrace violence as a way to suppress opposition.

The more they know, the more they engage. The more they engage, the more committed they are to strengthening democracy.

So we must work—quickly—to increase Gen Z’s civic knowledge. But how?

There’s so much work to be done that we cannot rely on classrooms alone. Here’s what we think: Each of us has a role to play to prepare the next generation of citizens.

Each of us is a civics teacher. That’s right: Everyone in this room is a civics teacher.

We do it every day. We’re the role models, we’re the volunteers, we’re the mentors and we’re the people seek to build a flourishing civil society. It’s our collective job to develop today’s youth into tomorrow’s voters, neighbors, and fellow citizens. At work, what role can your organization play in cultivating young people to be empowered citizens? Outside of work, you might be a coach, volunteer, manager, faith leader, or parent. How can you be a role model of the Big 3 – civically well-informed, productively engaged, and committed to democracy?

Here’s a challenge: Your job as a civics teacher does not come with a syllabus. In fact, your goal is not to ensure a young person can name the three branches of government or how a bill becomes a law. Your job as a civic teacher is to listen to, learn from, and collaborate with Gen Z to strengthen democracy—together. Pass them the mic, listen, welcome opportunities for them to lead, offer the support they need, provide context and knowledge, and partner with them to strengthen democracy.

Your job as a civic teacher is to ensure young people are more: civically well-informed, productively engaged, and committed to democracy.

This moment could be a positive turning point for America as Gen Z has so much potential and is already stepping up. But they need our help. Together with Gen Z, we can chart a course to build a more healthy, more robust democracy that works for all.

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