DeNora Getachew Shares Recommendations with the New York City Charter Revision Commission
Recommendations include Action Civics for all students and voting reform initiatives
On June 21, 2018, Generation Citizen New York’s Executive Director, DeNora Getachew submitted public testimony to the New York City Charter Review Commission with recommendations related to civic engagement in New York City. Read on!
Good Afternoon Members of the Mayor’s Charter Revision Commission:
My name is DeNora Getachew and I’m the New York City Executive Director of Generation Citizen, a nine-year old national nonpartisan, nonprofit organization dedicated to educating and empowering the next generation of civically engaged citizens. Thank you for the opportunity to testify at today’s timely and important forum about civic engagement.
America is experiencing a civic reckoning, partly as a result of the aftermath of the tragic events in Parkland, Florida and the incredible leadership and vision shown by the young leaders there in the face of their tragedy, but also due to the particularly politically divisive politically climate we are living in right now. Society is finally realizing what many academics and advocates have known for a long time, political disengagement and illiteracy are rampant, especially in our city and our nation’s most underserved communities.
Laying the Civic Foundation through Action Civics
Generation Citizen, or GC, bring civics education back into the classroom through a new, engaging pedagogy: Action Civics. GC partners with teachers and schools to help them implement our standards-aligned Action Civics education program twice weekly over the course of a semester, often added to History, Social Studies, the state-mandated Participation in Government class, or similar in-school class time. We use two models to implement our Action Civics curriculum: college volunteer, or Democracy Coach model; and teacher-led, professional development model. Our two models are unified by a shared Action Civics curriculum, our innovative approach to advocacy planning and support, and supplemental resources for students, teachers, and schools.
The key components of Action Civics are that:
- It must be student-led and personally affect the students;
- Students must conduct research and analyze the root causes of their issue, and develop an action plan or a goal;
- Students put plans into action by meeting with target legislators and policymakers and by drafting legislation, proposing budgetary solutions or advocating for increased youth voice in government decision-making affecting the issue;
- Students present their action plans to community leaders at our end of semester capstone event, Civics Day;
- Students must have an opportunity to reflect and explore concrete ways to remain active, politically engaged citizens beyond the classroom; and
- Students become prepared and motivated for long term political engagement.
Through Action Civics, students learn about democratic structures and processes by directly engaging with them, as well as with each other, to address one or more issues they care about, such as affordable housing, bullying, gun violence, police brutality, or sexual assault — the top issues in GC NYC’s classrooms this year. Students learn valuable academic and life skills, like public speaking, collaboration, critical thinking, and how to work through difference. They also gain firsthand experience engaging in an important lifelong habit, understanding how they can directly inform and influence change in their community through the democratic process.
GC has educated and empowered approximately 14,000 students nationwide this year through our work in New York City and 5 additional sites: Rhode Island, where we were founded on Brown University’s campus; Massachusetts; the Bay Area, California; Oklahoma City, Oklahoma; and Central Texas, as well as piloting “remote programming” in San Diego, California; and Camden, New Jersey.
GC is on the front lines arming the next generation with the knowledge and skills to participate in twenty-first democracy and not just be slacktivists. While our mission is to bring civics education to all students, we focus on addressing those impacted by the “civic engagement gap” plaguing our society. Research shows that young people nationwide are receiving unequal civic learning opportunities and that students in low-income schools, when compared with just average socioeconomic status schools, are 50 percent as likely to study how laws are made, and 30 percent less likely to report having experiences with debates or panel discussions in social studies classes. So in NYC, and in our 5 sites nationwide, we focus on the most underserved communities. We are cultivating the New American Majority to engage in democracy as a way to bring equity back into our democracy.
While there are many reasons for the lack of overall civic participation, one root cause of the problem is that civic engagement is not seen as a high priority in our schools today, and too much of our efforts are focused on elections and the experience of voting. But that’s just one action on one day. GC believes Action Civics is a concrete and systemic solution to re-engage young people in the local political system for the long-term, and to collectively strengthen our democracy.
As the City’s largest Action Civics provider, GC NYC has educated and empowered over 18,000 New York City public school students since launching the site in 2011. We have experienced tremendous growth in our work over the last two years thanks to the New York City Council’s $1 million investment in our work over the last two fiscal years. We nearly tripled the number of students we educate yearly to 4,400 students this school year. We increased our CUNY college partnerships to cultivated the future civic workforce by providing Democracy Coaches (college interns) with stipends to co-teach Action Civics and serve as peer-to-near peer mentors to public school students in the classroom.
We are excited by the de Blasio Administration’s Civics for All initiative through the equity and excellence umbrella. We look forward to working with the Administration to develop and scale Civics for All using GC’s Action Civics curriculum and pedagogy, and make New York City a national model for effective civics education.
GC is not naive enough to think that our work in the classroom alone can save our democracy. We know that Action Civics is the start of a young person’s lifelong civic journey. We also know that there is too much emphasis on getting our youth to vote and not enough emphasis on how to engage them in the spectrum of civic engagement activities. That’s why we created this Go Beyond the Ballot toolkit, which articulates 6 clear ways that our young people, and adults too for that matter, can stay civically engaged. I call the Commission’s attention to the toolkit as you work together to consider ways to strengthen local civic engagement opportunities.
Creating Civic Pathways Beyond the Classroom
The City already provides youth civic engagement pipelines beyond the classroom. We support the expansion of Participatory Budgeting and Student Voter Registration Day to ensure eligible students citywide can participate.
We support Youth Leadership Councils. We encourage the Commission to consider ways to ensure that all YLCs are action-oriented and are vehicles for youth to advocate for local, systemic policy change. We recommend that more City leaders appoint 16 and 17 year olds to Community Boards to participate in local decision-making.
As my colleague Andrew Wilkes testified before the Commission last week, we encourage the City to consider lowering the voting age in municipal elections from eighteen to sixteen. This voting reform is being successfully implemented in the city of Takoma Park; within the school board elections of Berkeley, CA; and is currently being considered by the City Council of Washington D.C. Lowering the voting age would enfranchise tens of thousands of New Yorkers, instilling the lifelong habit of voting within the context of a supportive network of family and immediate community, rather than the comparatively less stable environment of a college or another post-secondary context.
We encourage the Commission to implement preregistration, authorizing individuals to register once they reach the age of sixteen. Allowing prospective voters to pre-register before they reach the age of 18 is a commonsense policy that improves the likelihood of young New Yorkers casting their ballot once they are eligible to do so.
We recommend that the City consider implementing non-citizen voting. Implementing this provision would impact over one million New Yorkers and ensure that their ability to contribute to our local political system mirrors their contribution to our local economy. Of special note, many of the students that we serve, as well as their families, would benefit from this policy. Notwithstanding our support for this provision, we are also concerned that the administration of this policy, as an inadvertent outcome, may expose a substantial population of New Yorkers to the risks related to their citizenship status or their country of origin. Given this concern, we would urge the City to exercise discretion and maximum precaution in pursuing this policy recommendation.
We also recommend that the Department of Youth and Community Development expand the Summer Youth Employment Program to include additional focus areas, such as government and civic professions. We believe such internships, similar to GC’s Community Change Fellowship (CCF) a six-week summer youth workforce development program for alumni of our in-school Action Civics program, can help stem the civic engagement gap, while simultaneously ensuring that the city is cultivating the future civic workforce.
Office of Civic Engagement
We applaud Council Member Lander for his vision in proposing the creation of an Office of Civic Engagement. As we grapple with how to respond to the increased demand for and appreciation of the importance of civic engagement, this is a proposal that merits further consideration by the Commission. We encourage the Commission to assess the role that the Campaign Finance Board, Community Affairs Unit, the Department of Education, the Department of Information Technology and Telecommunications, Department of Youth and Community Development, and Office of Service, among other agencies, already play in providing or connecting New Yorkers to civic engagement opportunities. Also worth considering is the role that the City’s new Chief Democracy Officer could play in coordinating these agencies.
Thank you for your consideration of this testimony and I would be happy to answer any questions.