To Strengthen America’s Democracy, Invest in Youth Civic Learning

Rajiv Vinnakota, President

December 1, 2023

Crossposted from Philanthropy News Digest.

As we enter a presidential election year, donors are opening up their wallets for voter education and mobilization initiatives. But temporary efforts fall short in addressing today’s broader challenges. This moment calls for shifting the focus to a more enduring investment: the civic readiness of more than 31 million Americans between the ages of 18 and 24. As they take their place in the public square, Gen Z is poised to play a significant role in determining the direction of our country. To secure our democracy, the philanthropic sector must seize the opportunity now to fund strategic interventions that prepare the next generation to become empowered citizens.

Results from our recent national survey suggest that more civic knowledge drives more civic engagement and that higher levels of civic engagement are associated with greater commitment to democracy. But there’s a serious problem: We are failing to educate our young people on how our democracy works and how to be effective citizens.

When asked to answer four standard civics questions, the 18-to-24-year-old respondents in our survey averaged only one-and-a-half correct answers. This tracks with the finding of the National Assessment of Educational Progress that only 22 percent of eighth graders score as “proficient” in civics.

This is deeply concerning, as greater civic knowledge is associated with behaviors essential in a strong democracy. For example, respondents who scored high on civic knowledge were 50 percent more likely than those who scored low to say they intend to vote and 25 percent more likely to engage in at least one civic activity such as volunteering. Young adults who reported no or little civic engagement often said they did not participate because they did not feel well informed enough to do so. With so few young adults civically well informed today, we should expect to see even less civic participation in the near and long term.

We can reverse this grim outlook by increasing civic knowledge. Funders should invest in bolstering the infrastructure of our democracy, its next generation of leaders, participants, and community members. This is not a partisan issue; it is a simple matter of securing the political system that is core to ensuring rights and representation for all.

Pessimism about our political system is widespread; only about one in 10 adults give high ratings to how democracy is working in the United States. Preserving democracy is the second leading concern of registered voters, after the economy. Yet grantmaking related to democracy and civic engagement is estimated to account for a meager 0.5 percent to 1.5 percent of total philanthropic giving.

I lead a nonpartisan nonprofit organization, one of at least 400 organizations working to advance the civic readiness of young people. While philanthropies from across the ideological spectrum already back the pro-democracy work of this growing field, support has not kept pace with the growing urgency of and demand for our work.

There are three main areas where additional support now could lead to significant gains in youth civic potential.

First, we need to look beyond the classroom. Civic learning is not just about being able to name the three branches of government or how a bill becomes a law; it’s also about knowing how to attend and participate in council and school board meetings, register to vote, or write letters to the editor.

Young people may learn about civics in school, but curriculum is increasingly politicized and generally inadequate. To substitute for the severe underinvestment in classroom civics, we need to better integrate civic learning into the programming of youth-focused community groups—such as the Girl ScoutsBoys & Girls Clubs, and 4-H—as well as local libraries, chambers of commerce, mayors’ alliances, cultural organizations and museums, faith communities, and recreational centers. These are also important spaces for young people to acquire the skills and dispositions to work with fellow citizens to solve social problems.

Second, we must enable emerging young leaders to build and practice their civic skills by working on projects that address a local need. This way, they build civic knowledge and skills while gaining on-the-ground experience in effecting change in their communities. Initiatives such as Mikva Challenge and AmeriCorps provide experience-based civic engagement opportunities for young people. Our Civic Spring Fellowship adds coaching from an intergenerational team. Fellows develop a greater sense of efficacy, strengthen their abilities to effect positive change, and share their knowledge and skills with their peers and communities.

Finally, we need more research and innovation to accelerate new ideas in civic learning. We all see that current efforts are simply not working, but without more comprehensive and consistent measurement of young people’s knowledge, it is difficult to know where strategic interventions are most needed. Our field should continue to back, test, pilot, and grow new ways to reach young people who are motivated to address tough issues but whom the system is failing to mobilize. Drawing on the success of social entrepreneurship models such as the Echoing Green and Ashoka fellowships would help incubate new ideas, attract unexpected partners from the tech and media sectors, and scale what works to reach young people least served by our education system.

We have a problem, but we also know what needs to be done to address it. Support for efforts to inform and engage young people will bear dividends and ultimately fortify our political system. This moment could be a positive turning point for America as Gen Z has so much potential and is already stepping up—from accelerating unionization to protecting free speech on campus to gun violence prevention. But they need our help, and they need opportunities for civic learning.

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