Stepping up to the call for a better politics

How “action civics” can fix the crisis in youth disengagement

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“True citizenship requires more than the rote knowledge needed to pass a civics test. Rather, true citizenship relies on the skills and habits of informed participation.”
In his 2015 State of the Union address, President Obama declared that “a better politics is one where…we spend more time lifting young people up with a sense of purpose and possibility, asking them to join in the great mission of building America.”

Coming on the heels of an election where 18-29 year old voters made up only 13 percent of the electorate, his words are timely: America faces a crisis in youth civic disengagement that policymakers are finally beginning to recognize.

In Arizona, for example, the state’s graduation requirements now include a civics exam, and several other states, including Virginia, Tennessee, and North Dakota, are considering proposals to follow suit.

While Arizona and other states deserve kudos for recognizing that a high school education that does not prepare a student to be an active participant in democracy is incomplete at best, true citizenship requires more than the rote knowledge needed to pass a civics test.

Rather, true citizenship relies on the skills and habits of informed participation. It moreover demands a new approach to civic education: “action civics.”

At Junior State of America, “action civics” means that students hold vigorous debates, learn leadership skills by planning interactive programming, and meet directly with their elected officials and other policymakers. Not only is this more vibrant style of civics far more likely to hold students’ interest, it is more true to the vision of the Founding Fathers. They saw the building and running of our nation as an ongoing process for its citizens to do, rather than just observe.

The “action civics” approach also has the advantage of drawing on students’ natural energy, passion, and curiosity. At the schools where JSA has especially succeeded, we see plenty of students showing up at weekly meetings, biannual regional conventions, and residential summer school programs. But we also see a culture shift, where every student – even those who are not chapter members – becomes more interested in their community.

Through our Fight Apathy campaign, for example, students take “I believe in…” stickers and write in causes they are passionate about – which can be anything from marriage equality to flat taxes. The stickers are posted all over the school and serve as catalysts to spark discussion about political issues throughout the day.

JSA Students Photo

JSA Students at the Texas Spring State Convention in 2014. Photo credit: JSA


Fight Apathy is emblematic of JSA’s approach to help students develop the skills to express themselves, weigh opposing points of view, and find common ground. This skill set—perhaps less visible in Washington than at any time in the nation’s history—is essential for the practice of democracy but is rarely modeled or taught to young people.

As President Obama also declared in the State of the Union, “A better politics is one where we debate without demonizing each other; where we talk issues, and values, and principles, and facts, rather than ‘gotcha’ moments, or trivial gaffes, or fake controversies that have nothing to do with people’s daily lives.” His point is a critical one, and achieving this goal begins with prioritizing thoughtful and respectful interactions among young people on issues of great consequence and personal significance.

Moreover, the culture shift that Fight Apathy and other dialogue-building activities can create translates into increases in volunteering, calls for a student voice on the school board, and a more powerful student government. Most importantly, though, it gives students a sense of agency and empowerment that can be drawn on at every stage of their educational, professional, and civic lives.

Civic education is important for every student, but it is the most important for and has the greatest impact on the lives of marginalized students, who are most likely to come from communities that lack representation and where voting is not an established norm.

In JSA’s work with these communities, and in particular through our partnership with the Compton Unified School District, we have seen that as students take on leadership positions and engage in rigorous debate, they begin to see a role for themselves in the democratic process.

Achieving meaningful culture shift in schools is certainly more complex than simply adding one more graduation requirement, but its impact on students endures long after they have forgotten the date of the Louisiana Purchase or any other fact required for a civics exam.

Given that one of the strongest predictors for casting a vote today is having cast a vote before, getting low-income students and students of color civically engaged in high school is likely to boost lifelong rates of voting, running for office, and other types of participation.

There is something deeply counterintuitive about expecting autocratic, top-down high schools to prepare young people to participate in democratic life. But with a vibrant public conversation on civics, voting rights, and the principles of our Founding Fathers taking shape, now is the time to embrace an “action civics” approach.

This movement is already taking shape.

At the Ford Foundation’s recent Educating for Democracy Conference, organized by Generation Citizen, leading advocates, researchers and practitioners came to a powerful consensus on the need to focus on low-income students and students of color; to engage students in the process of democracy, not just teach them the facts; to drive toward a more comprehensive transformation of school culture; and to recognize meaningful, inclusive, informed dialogue as an essential civic skill.

The reinvigoration of civic education – and “action civics” in particular – has the potential to benefit all students, whatever their circumstance. It can transform schools and prepare the next generation for democratic participation and leadership.

For our peers throughout the civic learning community – and for any person committed to the future of our democracy – the challenge now is to put these ideas into practice.

Jeff Harris is Chief Executive Officer of the Junior Statesmen Foundation (JSA). Follow: @jsajeff

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