In his first inaugural address, former President George W. Bush asked every American “to serve your nation, beginning with your neighbor. I ask you to be citizens: citizens, not spectators; citizens, not subjects; responsible citizens building communities of service and a nation of character.”
It seems increasingly clear that, in the nearly 20 years since then, we have failed at President Bush’s challenge to every American. We are at record low levels of trust in our neighbors and in government. Too few of us have friends or neighbors who look, feel, think, or act differently than we do. We sit in our own echo chambers, reading like-minded media and listening to like-minded others, only further polarizing our attitudes. Most of us (87 percent) believe that this division is poisoning our current national conversation, threatens our democracy, and is destroying close personal relationships. And with the cliff’s edge of the November election just ahead of us, we have even let the very maintenance of a healthy, thriving democracy become a partisan issue.
Gen Z—working alongside their elders—just might save us. And it may be that they are all that can.
Today’s young people are eager to engage civically. In a recent survey by the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement at Tufts of young adults between the ages of 18 and 29, 83 percent of the respondents said they “believe young people have the power to change the country” and 79 percent said the COVID-19 pandemic has “helped them realize that politics impact their everyday lives.” Much more than Gen X or Millennials, Generation Z—comprising people born after 1996—has a deep-seated desire to improve our world.
Many young people are already on task. For instance, one group of young people in Kentucky (more on them later) is actively surveying their peers to understand how virtual learning is going. Others are petitioning schools to require masks for in-person learning and working with local government to make sure their realities are reflected in the city’s plan.
We older Americans must work with young people to capitalize on that energy. We have to take on the roles of mentors, elders, and coaches to give young people the opportunities and the tools to succeed as citizens. Young people bring energy and idealism and rich personal experience. We have to help supply them with the knowledge and experience that can help them to better understand the historical, political, and social context of the challenges they face, as well as the habits and practices needed to make practical change. We must actively create partnerships among young people, adults, schools and existing local institutions, including state and municipal governments, nonprofits, faith-based organizations, and other community groups.
This year, the foundation I lead launched a pilot program to learn how best to support youth civic education and what might be scalable. Our “Civic Spring Project” ended up funding six youth-led initiatives.
Those high school students I mentioned above who were surveying their peers? That was the Student Voice Team from the Prichard Committee for Academic Excellence, a Kentucky-based group run by high school students and supported by adults. This year they’ve surveyed and interviewed nearly 15,000 other kids from every county in the state, asking them about COVID and the virtual learning experience and then incorporating the findings into statewide policy recommendations.
In New Jersey, a community group called Groundwork Elizabeth convened a diverse group of young people, 14 to 19 years old, to engage with the city of Elizabeth’s ten-year plan and present recommendations to the city council. Overcoming some difficult political differences, these young people have learned to find common ground and compromised through tough but respectful and positive conversations.
The other Civic Spring projects across the country are tackling a variety of issues: documenting and understanding the urban impact of the coronavirus in Newark, New Jersey; figuring out how to be active in a rural North Carolina community’s life in the time of virtual school and social distancing; providing an outlet for young people to share their COVID-19 experiences in Houston; and advocating for unemployment benefits for out-of-work high school wage earners in Minnesota.
Each participant in these projects is learning about what it takes to improve society and what it means to be an active community member. Since they’re taking on local issues, they can clearly see tangible outcomes. In all cases, these projects have had to partner with established organizations that provide the counsel, structure, and mentoring for these approaches to be productive. This is the adult scaffolding that needs to exist.
These youth are taking part in an expanded version of civic education, one I call civic learning. Civic learning is an investment in a productive and engaged citizenry—the kind of “informed citizenship” that Checker Finn and Mike Petrilli point to, and the kind that, in their words, shapes character and confers dignity and opportunity. It moves beyond a single class in high school to include a lifetime of learning and practice. It builds knowledge about our history and public institutions, shapes skills like public speaking and critical thinking, and stokes hope and curiosity about our politics, our government, and our future. Extracurricular activities, religious institutions, and community groups all provide incredible opportunities to develop young people’s civic capabilities.
This kind of civic learning can only be successful if adults provide the counsel, structure, and teaching to complement young people’s energy and understanding of their communities. A sustained public and private commitment to working with our youth can expand civic learning in the years ahead—thereby helping young people to understand that full civic engagement is about more than just voting and protesting. It must be a lifelong desire to be a committed and engaged member of the nation’s citizenry, because only such sustained efforts can change behaviors, norms, practices, and culture.
Aristotle said, “We become just by the practice of just actions, self-controlled by exercising self-control, and courageous by performing acts of courage.” Young people become active citizens by practicing citizenship in their communities. Who but adults can be their role models and partners? For all of us who want to see a stronger nation, it’s time to invest our own strength in mentoring the next generation.