On Urgency and Optimism

Rajiv Vinnakota, President

October 19, 2022

This is an urgent moment for the nation and for democracy. Our growing divisiveness is alarming. Americans are drawing battle lines on social media, at school board meetings at college campuses and in the halls of our nation’s Capital. Public discourse has grown ever more bitter in tone and louder in volume. Many of us – the majority of us – withdraw from discourse entirely. 

More and more we surround ourselves with people who look, feel, think, and act like we do. And we lean on information sources that only confirm our own point of view. Polls report historically low levels of trust in neighbors and institutions.  

There are countless statistics that point to our civic crisis, especially regarding young people: 

  • 46% of college sophomores said they wouldn’t share a dorm room with someone from the opposing political party.  
  • Civics classes have been cut so much that 85 percent of students get only 1 semester of civics education in their lifetime of schooling.   
  • Even with this gaping need, we continue to underinvest in civics.  In 2019 – the last federal budget before the pandemic – the U.S. federal government spent $50 per student on STEM.  
  • For civics and social studies, we spent five cents per student. That’s 1000 times less than the STEM investment.  

So, we have less time learning civic knowledge in schools, less civic engagement through voting, less willingness to engage in the bridge-building and civic discourse and less societal investment in civic learning.  It is not a good recipe for developing citizens. 

So we must not only reinvest in civic learning but also rethink what we keep and reimagine what we change. Because today’s young people are very different than previous generations.  

Keynote Address

“They recognize the need to drive civic change at a new scale. And they’ve got the skills to do it, they just need support from organizations and individuals alike to achieve their ambition.”

They are the most diverse generation in history, growing up with a greater awareness and acceptance of differences than other generations. They are digital natives. They connect quickly with others, seek and share information widely and virally.   

They are on the front lines from an early age of the urgent issues affecting us all. Climate change, community violence, mental health, economic uncertainty, immigration.  

They are laser-focused. 

They embody a spirit of self-empowerment that big change is possible. 

But they are also losing faith in institutions and elected officials. 

And for them the verdict is out on whether democracy works for all. 

They recognize the need to drive civic change at a new scale. And they’ve got the skills to do it, they just need support from organizations and individuals alike to achieve their ambition. 

Each of us is a civics teacher. It’s our collective job to develop today’s youth into tomorrow’s voters, neighbors, and fellow citizens. Classroom learning is the backbone of this education, but a comprehensive system of civic learning cannot be limited to school. We need to think beyond the walls of a classroom and imagine a lifetime of civic learning and practice.

We must consider how young people show up in their communities, how they build trust in each other, and how they feel about the future of the country.  

Then we must expand our approaches beyond the walls of the school and recruit our band of neighbors to ensure that everyone in their community is civically well-informed, productively engaged, and hopeful about democracy in America. 

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