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
Fawn Johnson
Add to Briefcase
See more stories about...
Fawn Johnson
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.

What We're Following See More »
Doesn’t Express Confidence in Marino
Trump to Declare Opioid Emergency Next Week
9 hours ago

After initially promising it in August, "President Trump said Monday that he will declare a national emergency next week to address the opioid epidemic." When asked, he also "declined to express confidence in Rep. Tom Marino (R-Pa.), his nominee for drug czar, in the wake of revelations that the lawmaker helped steer legislation making it harder to act against giant drug companies."

Manchin Asks Trump to Drop Marino’s Nomination for Drug Czar
18 hours ago
McCaskill Will Introduce Bill in Response to “60 Minutes” Scoop
18 hours ago

In the wake of Sunday's blockbuster 60 Minutes/Washington Post report on opioid regulation and enforcement, Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-MO) has introduced legislation that "would repeal a 2016 law that hampered the Drug Enforcement Administration’s ability to regulate opioid distributors it suspects of misconduct." In a statement, McCaskill said: “Media reports indicate that this law has significantly affected the government’s ability to crack down on opioid distributors that are failing to meet their obligations and endangering our communities."

U.S. Military to Practice Evacuating Americans in S. Korea
19 hours ago

"The United States military said on Monday that it would practice evacuating noncombatant Americans out of South Korea in the event of war and other emergencies, as the two allies began a joint naval exercise amid heightened tensions with North Korea. The evacuation drill, known as Courageous Channel, is scheduled from next Monday through Friday and is aimed at preparing American 'service members and their families to respond to a wide range of crisis management events such as noncombatant evacuation and natural or man-made disasters,' the United States military said in a statement."

Ryan Threatens to Keep Members in Over Holidays
4 days ago

Speaking at the Heritage Foundation Thursday, Speaker Paul Ryan threatened, "We’re going to keep people here for Christmas" if tax reform doesn't get passed. He added, "I don’t care. We have to get this done." However, hopefully this won't happen. Senate is set to pass a budget resolution next week and then resolve differences with the House. Hopefully the House will pass the measure and send it to the Senate by November.


Welcome to National Journal!

You are currently accessing National Journal from IP access. Please login to access this feature. If you have any questions, please contact your Dedicated Advisor.