Generation Citizen
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Generation Citizen

The Organization as Movement?

Doing More to Elevate Youth Voices

In our current times, we often bemoan the state of our politics, wondering if the decline of our very republic is nigh. Tweet after tweet, argument after argument, seemingly bring us closer to the edge of no return. Or so we say. Book after book is released articulating the existential democratic challenges that our country faces. It’s a bit demoralizing.

But, over the past few weeks, I was privileged to see the future of democracy. And it’s a lot brighter than the present. I saw that the way back to a better democracy is through our young people. A movement of young people who are tired of the status quo, and pushing for a better tomorrow.

As I traveled across the country to see Generation Citizen’s Civics Days in action, I met students from Austin, Texas, who were pushing for City Council action to address gentrification in the midst of soaring housing prices. I met students in Oklahoma City, attending a school comprised of more than 80% Latinos, protesting against the fact that an ICE deportation facility is opening mere blocks away from their building. I met students in Boston, stridently pushing to address the ongoing challenge of police brutality by ensuring that student voice is present through increasing the number of ombudsman on a police-civilian oversight committee from 3 people to 11.

The specificity of this local action, moreso than the superfluous drama that too often comprises our current political dialogue, provides hope to the possibility of a better, and more positive democratic future. This new narrative for our democracy focuses less on the drama at the federal level, and more on the hundreds of millions of people who comprise our democracy itself.

Indeed, the students I met are true experts in their communities. In Austin, a student told me he had never lived in any one home for more than two years because of the prevalence of gentrification. He recognized that the school district was losing money to best serve students because of the flight. In Oklahoma City, a student was passionate about tackling immigration because her mother had been deported years before. She had attempted to return, but was unsuccessful. In Boston, students had friends who had been racially profiled by the police. They did not feel safe walking home from school.

The idea that those affected by problems are best equipped to solve those problems in their communities is a powerful one. So is the fact that so many young people in such diverse communities are taking action: Generation Citizen worked with over 14,000 students in seven states just this past academic year.

As I traveled across the country, I realized that, while these young people were working on very local issues in their own communities, they were part of something bigger: a national movement of young people building a better democracy. But I’m sure they didn’t realize that.

I started Generation Citizen as a 21-year old: we were a young organization started by, and led, by young people. As we’ve matured, however, and I’ve grown older, I do worry that GC has lost some of the youth spirit that made it so unique. Some of this may be inevitable. After all, we have a bigger staff, we have to fundraise significant dollars, and are working in hundreds of classrooms across the country. Rather than an exciting, innovative, youth-driven startup, we are now a real, functioning, organization. This is necessary.

But I worry that we are focusing so much on building an organization that we haven’t thought about the vibrant, youth-led movement we are supporting. Is this ideal even possible? Can an organization propel a movement?

A social movement is defined as a group of diffusely organized people or organizations striving toward a common goal. One could argue that, in Generation Citizen, our young people, across the country, are diffusely working across the country towards a common goal: a better democracy, in which young people are using their own expertise to solve problems in their own communities.

But herein lies the rub.The most successful movements that we’ve seen throughout history are led by the very people most affected by the problem. The Civil Rights Movement was led by African Americans. The push for marriage equality was led by LGBTQ activists. The recent #MeToo movement has been led by women who had been assaulted at the hands of our patriarchal society.

Right now, GC is not led by young people. Once upon a time, we were. Now, out of a perceived conventional necessity, our leadership is more seasoned. Our Board of Directors is comprised of successful individuals who have run organizations, and held prominent positions in companies. Young people are everywhere to be found in our program, and nowhere to be found in our organization. We serve them, but we do not necessarily include them in leadership.

I worry about the implicit undertones of these realities in leadership. Whereas the students we work with are engaged in powerful and inspiring student stories, what message are we sending by not including them in decision-making and leadership for the organization that is ostensibly enabling and providing such opportunities?

We have ambitious plans to continue to scale Generation Citizen- aiming to reach 30,000 students annually by 2019–20, in addition to launching policy campaigns in at least 10 states to push for effective civics education. We’ll need to raise over $15 million to make that happen, and add serious infrastructure to our growing but currently understaffed organization.

It’s a lot. But that’s all internal organizational details. Just numbers. Improving our democracy through a youth-centric movement will not be accomplished by any organization. It will be accomplished through a movement of young people themselves.

As we continue to build up the organization, how can we support the young people themselves who are already propelling a movement forward of young people creating the very democracy this country needs to thrive?

Over the next months and year, we’re going to try to answer this question. Our Board of Directors has committed to ensuring that young people are elected to the Board within a year. We will work to create systems that allow students from across the country to connect politically. Imagine the power of a class in Oklahoma City collaborating on their plans for affecting immigration legislation with a class in Oakland. We will continue to elevate our Student Leadership Board, comprised of alumni from our program, to ensure they are part of organizational decision-making. Eventually, I hope that an alum of the program takes my job, as CEO.

How can we be an organization that not just serves young people, but puts them front and center of everything we do?

I’m not sure we know the answer to that question now. But for the sake of our democracy, it’s worth trying to answer.

Students present their Action Civics project at New York City’s Civics Day

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Scott Warren

Scott Warren

137 Followers

CEO of Generation Citizen, hopeless San Diego sports fan, Beagle lover