One Millennial’s Answer to Political Apathy: Put College Students in Classrooms

Generation Citizen sends college volunteers into high schools and middle schools to teach kids to solve social problems.

Haregnesh Haile, a Fordham University student, discusses tactics for influencing local politicians with a high school student at the Urban Assembly School for Wildlife Conservation in the Bronx, N.Y.
Fawn Johnson for National Journal
Oct. 31, 2014, 5:53 a.m.

BROOK­LYN, N.Y.—Fail­ure is a power­ful icebreak­er, so Pace Uni­versity sopho­more Nelli Ag­bu­los opens her present­a­tion to a group of high school seni­ors by telling them about an un­suc­cess­ful protest that she re­cently planned for her cam­pus. Six people came.

“I told all my friends to come, and nobody showed up,” she says.

“Then you’ve got messed-up friends,” one of the seni­ors re­torts.

Sure enough, the an­ec­dote gets the class talk­ing. How do you make sure people know about an event? How do you com­mu­nic­ate to them that their pres­ence is im­port­ant? One stu­dent sug­gests get­ting the foot­ball team to spon­sor it. An­oth­er says teach­ers should give ex­tra cred­it for at­tend­ance. Posters. Twit­ter. P.A. an­nounce­ments. The class is buzz­ing.

Ag­bu­los isn’t much older than the kids in the gov­ern­ment class she teaches twice a week at the Frank­lin Delano Roosevelt High School in Brook­lyn. She isn’t paid and doesn’t get school cred­it for her time. She has no teach­er train­ing. What she does have is these stu­dents’ at­ten­tion. They identi­fy with her and sym­path­ize with her plight in a way that they don’t with their teach­er, Eric Cor­tes, who hangs out in the back and keeps or­der.

The pres­ence of col­lege stu­dents in a classroom is the nov­elty that makes Gen­er­a­tion Cit­izen spe­cial. It is a non­profit that sends col­lege vo­lun­teers in­to high schools and middle schools to fa­cil­it­ate a semester of on-the-ground civic activ­ity. Teen­agers love that they get to hang out with col­lege stu­dents. Many of the col­lege ment­ors, called Demo­cracy Coaches, are still teen­agers them­selves. The high school stu­dents get to see what it’s like for a per­son not too dif­fer­ent from them to struggle, and even fail, when run­ning a classroom.

“There are days where you feel like, ‘Oh, well let me just take over here,’ ” says Cyn­thia Muldrow, a gov­ern­ment and eco­nom­ics teach­er at the High School for Pub­lic Ser­vice in Crown Heights, Brook­lyn, who has hos­ted sev­er­al Gen­er­a­tion Cit­izen classes. In ad­di­tion to New York City, Gen­er­a­tion Cit­izen has chapters in San Fran­cisco, Bo­ston, and Provid­ence, R.I.

Muldrow says she of­ten re­minds her Demo­cracy Coaches that the stu­dents are pay­ing at­ten­tion even if they look bored to death. It may not seem like it on some days, the vo­lun­teers bring an out­side-world real­ity to the classroom. “When they’re talk­ing about be­ing ex­cited about mak­ing change it just sounds dif­fer­ent to the stu­dents. It just sounds dif­fer­ent,” she says.

No Gen­er­a­tion Cit­izen class is ever the same, be­cause each group of stu­dents se­lects its own loc­al prob­lem to study and then puts to­geth­er an ac­tion plan to ad­dress it. The is­sues range from bul­ly­ing to pub­lic hous­ing to un­em­ploy­ment to pub­lic trans­it, but the Gen­er­a­tion Cit­izen cur­riculum has built-in steps for every­one. Spell out the root cause. Cre­ate a spe­cif­ic goal to tar­get that root cause. Identi­fy the people with the power to carry out the goal. Fig­ure out the best tac­tics for in­flu­en­cing those people. Find al­lies.

Then comes the best part. They have to do it. “A lot of times that in­volves get­ting in touch with ef­fect­ive de­cision makers, fig­ur­ing out who is im­port­ant. Who ac­tu­ally mat­ters here,” says Scott War­ren, came up with the idea for Gen­er­a­tion Cit­izen in 2007 when he was a seni­or at Brown Uni­versity.

War­ren con­siders civic en­gage­ment to be the per­fect chal­lenge for mil­len­ni­als like him, young people en­ga­ging young people. He spent his teen years in Africa and Lat­in Amer­ica after his fath­er joined the State De­part­ment. He wit­nessed elec­tions in Zi­m­b­ab­we and Kenya where “people were in­cred­ibly ex­cited.” Com­ing back to the United States for col­lege was a let­down after that ex­per­i­ence, he says, be­cause so many of his class­mates “wer­en’t ex­cited by polit­ics.”

He de­cided to see what happened if he could get loc­al civic activ­ity in­to the pub­lic school sys­tem. He star­ted a fledgling Gen­er­a­tion Cit­izen pro­gram in two high schools in Provid­ence in 2008. Word spread quickly. Gen­er­a­tion Cit­izen now reaches about 10,000 stu­dents with about 500 col­lege vo­lun­teers. At 27, War­ren feels like he is start­ing a move­ment of young people, con­nect­ing col­lege stu­dents and high school stu­dents for a cause. (Al­though these days, he spends a lot more time talk­ing to found­a­tions for fund­ing.)

When asked who be­ne­fits more from the pro­gram, the col­lege vo­lun­teers or the stu­dents, both teach­ers and Gen­er­a­tion Cit­izen staffers in­sist it’s the stu­dents. The vo­lun­teers def­in­itely have an in­tense ex­per­i­ence. They put in sev­en to 10 hours a week and are in close con­tact with their host teach­ers throughout the semester. But the kids in the class get the double be­ne­fit of be­ing listened to by loc­al politi­cians about something that mat­ters to them and work­ing with older youth that they ad­mire.

“They treated us like col­lege stu­dents,” says Sayem Hossain, who took a class in the spring of 2014 as an eighth grader. “Whenev­er they gave us work they were like, ‘You guys want to do this?’ They made us feel like, ‘If you don’t want to do this, what’s the point of do­ing it?’ “

Haregnesh Haile, a Ford­ham Uni­versity sopho­more, is co-lead­ing a Gen­er­a­tion Cit­izen class in the Bronx with Ford­ham fresh­man Kelly Sul­li­van. Both coaches say they were at­trac­ted to the pro­gram be­cause it would get them out of the bubble of their cam­pus. “Ford­ham is just so gated off from the Bronx,” Haile says. “It’s lit­er­ally sur­roun­ded by a wall.”

Teach­ing in the Bronx has its own quirks for two wo­men who grew up in the do­cile sub­urbs (Haile in Mary­land out­side of Wash­ing­ton, Sul­li­van in Westchester, N.Y.). On the morn­ing they are teach­ing about in­flu­ence tac­tics, the school is also prac­ti­cing a “lock­down” in case of a shoot­ing. Be­fore class starts, they squat on the floor in a locked fac­ulty room. “Stay away from the win­dows. Oth­er­wise, you’re dead,” in­structs one of the teach­ers.

War­ren, the Gen­er­a­tion Cit­izen founder, thinks every high school should have a civics pro­gram, es­pe­cially the kinds of rough schools that have to prac­tice lock­downs. He has fought hard to make sure a Gen­er­a­tion Cit­izen class is not an after-school af­fair. Civics shouldn’t just be for class pres­id­ents and teach­ers pets. “Every young per­son should get an ef­fect­ive ac­tion civics edu­ca­tion. Just like get­ting math, sci­ence, Eng­lish,” he says.

Grow­ing a na­tion of cit­izens that act­ively par­ti­cip­ates in a demo­cracy starts by giv­ing young people a real-life civic ex­per­i­ence, War­ren says. They need to learn the com­plex­it­ies of an is­sue, bey­ond simply com­plain­ing about it, and then see for them­selves how they can in­flu­ence it. He be­lieves this is the back­bone of how demo­cra­cies work, but in es­tab­lished ones like the United States, the cit­izens can get com­pla­cent. That leads to feel­ings of help­less­ness and an­ger.

“We’ll go in­to the classroom and say, ‘How many of you ac­tu­ally feel like you can ac­tu­ally change your com­munit­ies?’ At the be­gin­ning, a lot of them are really skep­tic­al,” he says.

At the end of the semester, things tend to look dif­fer­ent. A team from each class presents its pro­ject to a pan­el of judges at Civics Day, a Gen­er­a­tion Cit­izen in­ven­tion modeled after a sci­ence fair. The stu­dents’ be­ha­vi­or at Civics Day is a world away from their be­ha­vi­or when they start, says New York City Coun­cil Mem­ber Ritch­ie Torres, who spoke to a high school class ex­amin­ing pub­lic hous­ing earli­er this year. “I wasn’t sure if they were really en­gaged, but they in­cor­por­ated al­most all of my feed­back,” he says. “It’s something of an awaken­ing for them” when they present their pro­ject to elec­ted of­fi­cials and pro­fess­ors at the end of the course.

Ag­bu­los’s class in Brook­lyn is just get­ting star­ted. They have se­lec­ted rape as their prob­lem and are dis­cuss­ing ways to get their school to in­cor­por­ate sexu­al as­sault in­to its sex-edu­ca­tion courses. True to con­ven­tion, they are skep­tic­al that the power brokers—in this case, the fac­ulty—will be open to their sug­ges­tions. “I don’t think they’re go­ing to be on our side if we tell them they don’t know now to teach health,” one stu­dent says.

“I feel like they’re just go­ing to give us state­ment after state­ment about how great it is,” says an­oth­er.

The stu­dents are in agree­ment that one par­tic­u­larly strict health teach­er will be res­ist­ant to point of yelling at them. Ag­bu­los re­sponds. “Have you ac­tu­ally talked to he, or is that just your hy­po­thes­is?”

The stu­dents aren’t al­lowed to give up. The course­work re­quires them to fol­low through on their plan, no mat­ter how im­possible it seems at the be­gin­ning. Ag­bu­los’s class even­tu­ally iden­ti­fies sev­er­al teach­ers they could tap as al­lies and dis­cuss how they could ap­proach the is­sue of rape in a sex-edu­ca­tion class.

“Show the stats of how many people get raped and show the stats of how little it gets taught,” says one stu­dent.

“Say they’re do­ing good in some things but not good in oth­ers,” an­oth­er stu­dent says.

Then the class strays back to com­plain­ing. “They’re as­sum­ing if you have sex, it’s con­sent­ful,” ob­serves a stu­dent.

“Fresh­man year, I saw so many girls get preg­nant. It was like, ‘What happened?’ ” says an­oth­er.

Someone sug­gests that only seni­ors should take the class if it ad­dresses rape. “That’s too late,” says one stu­dent.

As the bell rings, Ag­bu­los calls out that she hopes someone wrote down the names of their po­ten­tial al­lies. She is ob­vi­ously flustered. Sarah Andes, the site dir­ect­or for Gen­er­a­tion Cit­izen in New York, of­fers en­cour­age­ment. “I know you have ideas in your back pock­et, but let them come up with it,” she says. “You were great at the be­gin­ning.”

War­ren is awed that Gen­er­a­tion Cit­izen’s greatest as­set, its Demo­cracy Coaches, con­tin­ue to be in sup­ply as he grows the pro­gram. Would-be vo­lun­teers must ap­ply for the po­s­i­tions, and if se­lec­ted, com­mit to a pub­lic school class in ways that many col­lege stu­dents might not go for. They might even have to get up early. For some reas­on, Gen­er­a­tion Cit­izen at­tracts the ones who see the work as a wel­come chal­lenge.

“We think it’s one of the most rig­or­ous vo­lun­teer ex­per­i­ences you can have in col­lege,” War­ren says. “We have very high stand­ards, and I think that al­lows us to at­tract really great people.”

Cer­tainly, the kids think so. “They’re do­ing this for free. It’s pretty weird of how they put so much ef­fort in­to teach­ing us,” says Hossain. That’s the im­pres­sion War­ren wants every kid to have.

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