Closing the “civic engagement gap”

Civic education, says the President of the Compton Unified School Board, can help more students succeed.

Image credit: Getty

Disconnected and apathetic; disillusioned and civically disengaged. By now you’ve likely heard that political apathy runs rampant among millennials.

A recent survey by the Harvard’s Institute of Politics, for example, finds that just 23 percent of 18-to-29 year olds expect to vote in 2014 – much lower than in the 2010 mid-terms – and that their cynicism toward the political process has never been higher.

“It is our duty to give all of our students, especially marginalized students, an equal opportunity for future success.”
While it’s tempting to simply dismiss this as a pessimistic critique of our youngest generation, to do so would also mean dismissing some fundamental truths: Civic engagement has critical impact in producing an effective citizenry and promoting social change, and that the lack of civic engagement opportunities can inflict significant damage on our nation’s poor and minority students.

The “civic engagement gap” describes the documented phenomenon of inequity in civic learning opportunities across the country. Students growing up in high-income communities are much more likely to be politically engaged than their counterparts in low-income communities. A study by the Educational Testing Service, for example, found that the voting rate among Americans living in low-income communities was 52 percent – compared to 90 percent of Americans living in households earning $100,000 or more. And young high school dropouts earning less than $20,000 were effectively completely disenfranchised with a voting rate of just 3.5 percent.

The travesty of the civic engagement gap is that it is often low-income communities who have the most to gain from becoming engaged in the process of governance. It is in these communities that the expansion of civic engagement opportunities should be focused.

In the Compton Unified School District, we are working to close the civic education gap by partnering with the Junior State of America (JSA), an 80-year old student leadership organization operating in 500 high schools across the country. On average 85 percent of the students at Compton’s three high schools qualify for the federal free/reduced lunch program.

Compton Unified currently hosts three high school JSA chapters and five JSA summer school programs. These student-run chapters, which act as the center of student political awareness and civic engagement on campus, offer opportunities for students to host topical debates, voter registration drives, and other events designed to teach students the crucial skill of expressing an informed opinion in a neutral, respectful environment – an oft-overlooked element missing from today’s policy discourse.

As Adriana Arredondo, a JSA member at Compton High remarked, “Within my household, politics is not valued, but after joining JSA, I see politics in a completely different perspective.”

Student participants also gain a forward-looking perspective, forge connections across marginalized groups, and a demonstrable ability to critically analyze information and facts that are presented to them.

Students involved in JSA programs reported improved writing skills and an increased ability to converse with adults (66 percent); an improved understanding of current events and how government works (75 percent); and an increased ability to organize political activities, express their viewpoints, and run meetings (over 70 percent).

The JSA program is having a tremendous impact on the students at our schools. For example, Compton High Chapter President Isaiah Moses, has been actively engaged in working with school officials to increase the number of Advanced Placement courses available to students at the school. This type of civic involvement is encouraged and supported by JSA’s programs.

These students are gaining political skills and seeing themselves as an empowerment conduit for social change. Moreover, these students are acquiring the skill-sets that form the foundation of the ideal 21st -century worker sought by businesses and organizations around the world.

As our country becomes increasingly more diverse, it’s incredibly important to ensure that our country’s leadership and policies reflects this increased diversity. It is our duty to give all of our students, especially marginalized students, an equal opportunity for future success.

At Compton Unified, we believe that that the civic engagement gap can be eliminated. By working together, and through excellent programs similar to those offered by JSA, we can produce the next generation of engaged, informed citizens that this nation needs to thrive.

Through our collective efforts, we can create the social change our democracy desperately needs.

Micah Ali is the President of the Compton Unified School Board and a lifelong advocate of student achievement, opportunity, and empowerment.