Op-ed: A call to civic action

The American political system has consistently failed to equally represent all of its citizens. Oftentimes, communities of color and low-income communities are not given a fair say in political decisions. During the Flint water crisis, city officials have lied to their constituents about the quality of their drinking water, despite complaints from community members. Large-scale issues like this are less likely to occur in upper-class, white neighborhoods. Some politicians have also worked to dilute the voting power of minorities with institutional barriers, including racial gerrymandering and discriminatory voter ID laws.

These issues may result from insufficient representation in all levels of government. Although the current Congress has been hailed as the most racially and ethnically diverse ever, Congress is still not truly representative. While non-Hispanic white people comprise only 61% of the population, 73% of the House of Representatives fits into that demographic. Meanwhile, African Americans, Latinx Americans and Asian Americans are all under-represented. These disparities are even more apparent in the Senate. As for wealth, the median net worth of Congress is five times the median net worth of an American household. For Americans of color and low-income Americans, this lack of representation causes disillusionment with the political process, resulting in lower rates of civic engagement.

This is borne out by voter participation rates. While whites vote at slightly higher rates than African Americans, Latinx and Asian Americans typically have turnout rates at least 10% lower than these groups. And while 74% of Americans making over $50,000 in salary voted in the last Presidential election, only 52% of Americans making below that number did the same. Clearly, many factors discourage certain groups from partaking in civic action. This continues a vicious cycle in which marginalized communities have less of a voice in the political future of their city, state and country. So what can be done to encourage greater civic participation among all groups, especially those from disadvantaged backgrounds?

A positive first step is education. By teaching youth to advocate for important issues, civic leaders can empower individuals to solve problems of their own accord. However, systemic racism is not merely political; it impacts education too. In America, there is a “civics education gap” in which the public schools of low-income communities and communities of color receive less funding than their white counterparts. So, programs like civic action classes are often not offered to those students. Thus, marginalized communities cannot always rely on their schools to teach students how to be active citizens.

Fortunately, Massachusetts is working toward mitigating these inequalities in civics education. In November 2018, Governor Baker signed S.2631, a bill aimed at promoting civic engagement through strengthened education programs. The law mandates all Massachusetts public schools implement a social science curriculum, including civics education. The curriculum encompasses the history and functions of the United States and Massachusetts governments, the responsibilities of a citizen in a democracy, media literacy skills and history of civic participation among the disenfranchised. While this may seem like a basic AP U.S. Government class, aspects of the law will ensure that its impact is felt far beyond the classroom.

S.2631 establishes a Civics Project Trust Fund, with money from state funds as well as public and private donations. The state provides this money in the form of training grants for civics teachers. Additional resources go to underserved communities to ensure students have the same opportunities to engage with civics. This attention to low-income communities will hopefully begin to decrease the civics education gap, creating a future — at least in Massachusetts — in which marginalized groups are no longer excluded from civic action due to class or race. The goal of this program is that other states will eventually adopt similar civics education models, enabling similar ends to be achieved across the country. This bill also creates the nonpartisan Civics Project, in which all eighth grade and high school students analyze a particular community issue and propose potential solutions. This empowers youth to have a direct role in solving prevalent issues.

Overall, the law’s goals mirror the valuable work done by the Tufts chapter of Generation Citizen (GC). Members of GC Tufts, called “democracy coaches,” travel to schools in underserved communities in the Boston area and teach a curriculum designed by the national organization. Democracy coaches work with students to develop a plan comparable to the aforementioned Civics Project, and they have the opportunity to pitch their plans to state representatives at an event called Civics Day. The Civics Projects of Boston-area GC chapters have produced tangible accomplishments, including a successful gun buy-back program organized by students at Lowell High School. Schools working with GC Tufts have also felt the positive effects of the GC “action civics” platform.

When asked by first-year Mona Tavangar how GC has engaged her students, a teacher in a GC classroom at Boston Latin Academy spoke of the actions taken by students as a result of the organization.

“[Students] are [now] calling senators and representatives, researching bills, inviting elected officials to speak in class and actually seeing real results,” the teacher said.

Through these means, students are accessing their political power and are able to share with others how easy it is to do so.

One student in Mona’s class reflected on the problem-solving process.

“I’ve learned to never give up, even if you feel like something isn’t going to work,” the student said. “I thought that my class would never find a goal to achieve and at least try and accomplish, but we did and had quite a fun time doing it!

Evidently, GC is allowing local students to get involved in the political process and achieve real solutions to community issues.

GC, however, is a very broad organization, mainly providing students with a general sense of local issues and best practices for solving them. With S. 2631 explicitly calling for public schools to partner with institutes of higher education, I believe this act could foster new relationships between other advocacy-related organizations at Tufts and local schools. Tufts students have advocated for what they want and attained desired results, as displayed in the fight for a fair dining workers contract and ongoing calls for Tufts to adopt a carbon neutral investment strategy. Thus, Tufts organizers, whether they are from clubs related to labor, environmental, immigration or safety issues, could share their more specific knowledge with students in underserved communities through the Civics Project Trust Fund. By working side-by-side with these students to create effective Civics Projects in their areas of expertise, Tufts organizations can give back to surrounding communities.

Unfortunately, Massachusetts has not yet appropriated any money towards the Civics Project Trust Fund. While estimates of the cost are fairly miniscule, the state must designate an actual dollar amount in order to get the fund on its feet. As the act stipulates that some funding will be derived from public and private donations, it is vital that the state shows private entities it is serious about the program, thereby encouraging donors to assist with funding. If you want to see Massachusetts put money toward empowering underprivileged students to advocate for important issues and reverse systemic inequalities, and if you want to have the chance to spread your advocacy knowledge to local youth, you should find a Massachusetts representative in the House or Senate, call them and tell them to fund the Civics Project Trust Fund.