By: Robyn Lingo
Many of us are discouraged about the state of our democracy, tired of watching a never-ending saga of adult national leaders acting badly. But I know a place where things are running a little differently – a place to revive our sagging civic hope, a place where the adults can learn from the kids.
If you are yearning for a little optimism about democracy, I invite you to turn your attention away from Washington, DC, the federal capital, to the District of Columbia, the local city, specifically to classrooms devoted to new ways of civic learning.
For the last four years, I have had the privilege of running Mikva Challenge DC, an organization dedicated to developing and supporting youth to become informed, empowered and active civic leaders. And we have found incredible partners in our city’s public school teachers, and the leadership of DC Public and public charter schools, which have helped Mikva DC reach more than 4000 students in just four years.
All of our programming is based around Action Civics – an educational practice of teaching civics through hands-on opportunities — like advocating for a change in a school policy, starting a petition, or volunteering on a campaign,— and then reflecting on what you learned. Across the country, school systems have de-prioritized civics education and the national test scores on civic learning show it. Additionally, students often rate social studies as their least favorite class. Action Civics is changing that reality by harnessing students’ own passions and giving them opportunities to be civic actors now. Through this process, students both learn how government works, and become more invested in our democracy.
Every fall, our works start with a program called, Project Soapbox. One at a time, students in classrooms across the city get up in front of their peers, and powerfully answer the question, “What is the biggest issue facing you and your community, and what should be done about it?”
Students hone speeches about issues as varied as police brutality to the dangers of crossing the street while looking at your cellphone. They tell personal stories. They cite their research. They call their community to action, with lines like “I’m here to declare that we can end racism and smash the patriarchy all at the same time.” They offer insightful observations; such as “If we can send a man to the moon, why can’t we create bullets that don’t kill?” or “I’ve been told all my life that cheating is wrong, so why is the school system cheating my people?”
They are heard.
Their peers listen deeply, and then they applaud. They offer affirmations of ideas or experiences that resonated with them. The room becomes a space full of empathic listening, with an appreciation for each person’s humanity and their personal story, and a fair consideration of the speaker’s proposed ideas to bring positive change. After thousands of students give these moving Project Soapbox speeches in their classrooms, Mikva Challenge DC hosts a citywide event to showcase some of the strongest youth speakers.
Through Project Soapbox, students develop key civic communication skills – such as persuasive writing, issue research, and compelling delivery. Students also develop important social-emotional skills that are as crucial for our democracy to thrive – like empathy, like deep listening skills, and the ability to respect someone who has a different viewpoint and opinion.
Why is that important to democracy? It is an exercise in taking yourself seriously to get up in front of your peers and take a stand on something. It is an exercise in building power to ask your peers to join you in that fight. And it is an exercise in living in a pluralistic society to deeply listen to someone else’s perspective.
I’ve sat through hundreds of Soapbox speeches over the years. And so, now I finally I’ve got my own Project Soapbox speech.
I know we are all worried about our democracy. But let me take you to a place where things run a little differently. Come with me to a classroom full of young people talking about the issues that matter to them and how we can, collectively, address them.
Now sit down. Stop talking. Listen carefully and watch how young people behave when they are engaged in democratic learning.
You will learn something new; I promise. You will develop more empathy. But you also might see a path forward for us as a nation. A path where we each get to know our own power, believe in our own voice and appreciate the humanity of our neighbor.
That sounds like a pretty good democracy, right? If we invest in quality civic learning, we can build it.
Robyn Lingo is the Executive Director of Mikva Challenge DC.