by Sanjana Ranganathan and Arshia Mehta, Youthivism Co-Founders
We learned to be Democrats before we learned to walk…
Raised in the San Francisco Bay Area, our community has always been held together by a resolute sense of liberalism. Political affiliation seeped into every conversation, argument, and lesson we had ever been taught; our opinions on issues such as gun control and immigration were formed by our surroundings long before we first opened Google. We were nothing short of replicas of thought, inherited through mere chance of birth.
However, as we began to venture out of our bubble of blue, things changed. Speech and Debate served as the very boon to our nuanced development. Researching the intricacies of seemingly “partisan” issues- USAID to developing nations, the creation of a universal basic income, DACA protections- we realized that there was more to each conflict than what we had been taught. Politics and foreign affairs were not just rigid perspectives separated by a stark party line, and through our prolonged involvement with Speech and Debate, we reached the understanding that some of the most effective legislative solutions to problems were attained in a bipartisan, multi-faceted manner. Through it all, we strived to become independent thinkers: students willing to listen to “the other side.”
But we couldn’t help but question why we hadn’t been taught these skills of dissecting partisanship and understanding objective current events in school.
Truthfully, civics education in America is crumbling, and we experienced it firsthand. An Atlantic article by Jonathan R. Cole cites a 2010 study outlining the abysmal levels of civic knowledge among K-12 students. While prior to taking a basic civics test 89% of respondents were confident that they could pass, only 17% actually did. And it’s not surprising. Many states don’t require students to take civics courses to graduate. And among even those that do, most introduce it as a requirement only in a student’s senior year. With civics education relegated as a low priority in the education system, it is no wonder that out of all 45 Advanced Placement (AP) tests offered, AP United States Government regularly features some of the lowest averages.
However, through personal experience, we found that even with districts wherein civics education is mandated, the information that students learn isn’t all too nonpartisan. In our very own school district in California, it’s common to be tested upon the differences between Democrats and Republicans, abiding by regional party leaning within the wording of the questions themselves. “Which party advocates for same-sex marriage rights?” Unsurprisingly, the answer is Democrats. “Which party favors sex-offender restrictions?” Once again, Democrats. Through subtle wording like “rights” and “restrictions,” the narrative of a black and white party system is upheld, with the regional party rising to the top.
We quickly realized that the minimal emphasis on nonpartisan civics education in K-12 schools cultivates generations of apathetic voters and partisan leaders. But the issue is deeper at its core; the very recipients of the curriculum as subjective as civics have no say in its adequacy. Students are denied the voice they rightfully possess in the sphere of their own civics education. We could not stand idle.
Thus, in August of 2018, we co-founded Youthivism. Our goal has always been simple: spurring access to nonpartisan current-events curriculum in classrooms across America, created by students, for students. Operating with a team of 30 high-school students from across the nation, each representing widely different backgrounds and experiences, we join forces to deploy our curriculum in two methods.
Firstly, we release mini-lessons (10–15 minutes each) every two weeks, covering a recent headline from our nonpartisan lens. Each lesson consists of an animated video, a discussion-based game, and an optional take-home activity.
Secondly, we create Youthivism chapters spanning the country to hold seminar-based interactive lessons as electives or over the weekend. These lessons, spanning 45 minutes to 2 hours per topic, explore the nuances within the most divisive issues of America (immigration, healthcare, etc.), and present the content via embedded games, videos, and minimal lecture material.
We hope to instill values of political involvement and collaboration among students, and we truly believe that providing civics curriculum created by students is the solution.
Utilizing the diverse and underrepresented voices of students in the adult-dominated field of civics education has critical benefits. The amount of time students have spent in classroom settings speaks volumes to the perspective these very students can bring to the table. Principally, students deserve the ability to shape the way they are taught civics. Students are also the one group that can determine the actual efficacy of their civics curriculum, thus are more able to propose positive shifts in its nature.
On a practical level, students like those a part of the curriculum creation team for Youthivism are cognizant of the best methods to instruct content like history and government for unique age-range. It’s through collective youth voices that we have realized dynamic discussions and interactive activities like “Kahoot” games are optimal ways to connect with even the most politically-disconnected students. Because we have lived the student experience, we reach audiences like no one else.
Additionally, when students direct and teach curriculum, connecting with youth audiences becomes infinitely easier. Working with middle-schoolers through our current-event seminars has been a testament to this very fact. Supervising teachers consistently noted that students seemed more open, comfortable, and attentive when high-schoolers taught, in particular when divisive issues must be covered in the classroom.
We attribute this to the way we teach our curriculum. Having high-schoolers break down intense topics for these students proved more accessible. Being young ourselves, tough questions were easily asked by even the most apprehensive child. Moreover, emotional discussions like those covering reproductive rights with a fellow student as opposed to an adult simply become more approachable. Ultimately, while we originally questioned whether we would lack the authority to instruct students not much younger than us, us being in the same age range helped create stronger bonds with students. And these stronger bonds translated to more honest and genuine conversations.
Engaging with honest civics education taught by fellow students creates real conversations surrounding real issues in this country, creating undeniable change. To us, our political leaning is more than a birthright. It’s a constant path of growth, one which we strive to pave for every youth constituent in this country.
Youthivism is a student-led initiative increasing access to nonpartisan civics curriculum in classrooms founded by Sanjana Ranganathan and Arshia Mehta. Created by students, for students. Building a generation of collaboration and political involvement.
Sanjana has always had a passion for current events and remains an active member of her school’s speech and debate team. Having started in 6th grade, she felt frustrated by the restrictions on her involvement due to her young age. She co-founded Youthivism as an effort to spread political bipartisanship and contribute to a maintaining safe political space, especially for youth.
Arshia is a high school student with a passion to ignite change. From her childhood, she has considered her intellectual freedom to be one of her most valuable rights: the ability to craft one’s opinion based upon their background. This passion was furthered through her participation in Speech and Debate. It is for this reason that she has co-founded Youthivism, as a resource to bring individuals together, by making them think differently.
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