The following is a conversation between Scott Warren, co-founder and CEO of Generation Citizen, and Denver Frederick, Host of The Business of Giving on AM 970 The Answer in New York City.
Denver: Critical to a healthy democracy is an engaged and informed citizenry, and for most of us listening, that all began back in Civics class. But today, when 77% of Americans between the ages of 18 and 34 can’t name one US senator representing their state, it may be time to reimagine Civics class… which is precisely what Generation Citizen has done. It’s a pleasure to have with us their co-founder and CEO, Scott Warren. Good evening, Scott, and welcome to The Business of Giving.
Scott: Great to be here. Excited to talk about it.
Denver: Your father was with the State Department, so you spent most of your childhood living overseas in Latin America and Africa. So, it’s quite ironic that you have started an organization that teaches Civics in US schools, a class that you never really attended yourself. What was your impetus for starting Generation Citizen?
Scott: That’s all very true. I grew up in San Diego, and when I was eight years old, my dad– who was a criminal defense attorney– had the definition of a mid-life crisis and decided to join the State Department and move abroad. So, we spent age 8 to 18 living in Latin America, East Africa. And after I got over the shellshock fact of leaving San Diego, I was able to have a lot of experiences where I recognized the power of democracy. I saw the first truly democratic elections in Kenya in 2002… which actually worked. They’re having a lot of problems with democracy there right now. I saw a coup in Ecuador when I graduated from high school in 2005. All these experiences… really realizing the power of individuals coming together to make a collective difference, but how fragile democracy could be too. My parents were living in Zimbabwe when I was in college at Brown, and I was able to meet opposition activists there who were putting their lives on the line for democracy and for a country that would actually respect their opinions. I think for me coming back to this country and attending college here, I realized that young people really wanted to make a difference. This trope of the young being apathetic is totally misguided, but they didn’t see government and politics as the way to do so. I had grown up seeing all these people so excited to participate… seen democracy as the lifeblood of a country, and so that disconnect between that excitement and energy that I had seen abroad and somewhat of the stasis that I saw here… was one of the reasons that inspired me to think about: How do we really think about reinvigorating our democracy? I do think it begins with our young people.
Denver: I agree.
We need to ensure that young people know what it means to compete in a new and emerging marketplace, and teaching them how to participate in our democracy really isn’t as important.
Civics class used to be very central to our curriculum. I remember when I used to come home with my report card, it was every bit as important as Math or English, but less and less so in recent years. What are some of the things that contributed to this marginalization?
Scott: I think it’s a few things. Some folks point to the Sputnik moment, the moment that Sputnik was launched, and all of a sudden we engaged in the space war with the Soviets, and Science and Math– now it’s called STEM– was emphasized throughout the curriculum. And as part of that, I think we got worried that we were falling behind the rest of the world in Science skills, and also that we weren’t preparing young people for the new economy, an emerging economy. So, Civics got seen as a “nice to have.” We need to ensure that young people know what it means to compete in a new and emerging marketplace, and teaching them how to participate in our democracy really isn’t as important. I do think that some of it actually has to pertain to we..live in what may be called an emerged democracy… something that was a little bit more established. We just didn’t see it as important to educate young people to participate in it. And in our education system at large, we’ve seen a little bit more of a focus on standardized testing, test scores, and Civics is seen as a soft skill that gets thrown to the side. It’s just not something that schools have been prioritizing. It really is :If students learn Math, Science, English, three languages, get PE, Health class, then maybe we can talk about Civics. It’s seen as the last priority.
Denver: How proficient are, let’s say, eighth graders in Civics? What do they know? And what do they not know?
Scott: One of the interesting things is National Assessment of Education Progress, the NAEP test, actually shows that eighth-graders test worst on Civics and History than any other subject. It’s really dire, and I think you can point to specific facts, like the fact that only one-third of people in this country can name all three branches of government, and one- third can’t name any at all. More than 75% of young people can’t name one of their US senators. There’s a lot of facts, and then there’s the belief part of it. I think one of the most dire stats right now is that you have about a quarter of young people… and this is much more than in prior times… but a quarter of young people actually believe that living in a democracy is a bad thing, and not something that we should aspire to.
Denver: But only 33% of them think it’s an essential thing.
Scott: Right. And so you can’t actually live in a surviving democracy if people actually don’t believe that it’s important. So, I think sometimes we think a lot about the facts, but it’s the motivations and the skill sets and the beliefs in democracy that are really important too… and the things that we need to pay attention to.
The form of government becomes less important than who’s putting food on the table, and you have seen China and some of the countries in East Asia that have promised and delivered on beneficial economic results without having full democracies. I don’t think that’s sustainable.
Denver: I would agree with that. I think that democracies are under assault across the globe. It’s not just in the United States. It’s all over the place. You see a lot of these emerging countries now looking to the Chinese model as maybe something that they should consider emulating. And I’ve heard other people say that democracies were created when information was scarce, and that they’re just not as effective when there’s an abundance of information. So, there’s a lot of stuff going on.
Scott: A lot of times I talk about Kenya, as this story that inspired me, and just in the past few weeks, you’ve seen a lot of the challenges there where you had the opposition candidate actually take the people’s oath of office and the current president, Uhuru Kenyatta, basically shut down the TV stations for five days. I think to the China example, one thing you’ve seen is with the global economic downturn, I think people are looking to different forms of government that can actually provide for them and their families. The form of government becomes less important than who’s putting food on the table, and you have seen China and some of the countries in East Asia that have promised and delivered on beneficial economic results without having full democracies. I don’t think that’s sustainable. I think on the aggregate, if you look across the world, countries that have more participation have less income and equality, and I also think that the notion that democracies are reliant on people not having a ton of information doesn’t give people enough credit, and I think that we’re in an ecosystem now where there’s a ton of challenges. I think that that’s part of the problem when you talk about democracy as, yes, there is a problem that we’re not educating people to know what it means to participate, but we’re also not educating them on the values and behaviors that are associated with becoming part of a democracy as well. So, how do you talk to people that don’t agree with you? How do we get past this polarization? I think all of that starts in our schools. Thinking about teaching democracy is less about the Civics knowledge piece, but more about this all-encompassing: What does it mean to be an effective citizen? is something that I think is important.
Denver: Let’s turn our attention to that. The program you bring to school is something you call “Action Civics.” Describe for us how it works.
Scott: Part of things that I think we thought about in starting Generation Citizen is that there were two problems. One is that Civics wasn’t taught to the extent that it used to be, as you said; and the other is that, when it is taught, it’s seen as the most boring class in school. “Here are the three branches of government; here’s how a bill becomes a law; go take a test.” The most effective way to learn something is through doing it. You learn Science by actually engaging in Science experiments. You learn STEM by doing robotics and actually creating robots.
Denver: Experiential learning.
Scott: Exactly. Action Civics. We put the “action” in front of “Civics,” and everything changes. But Action Civics is really about learning Civics by doing Civics. What we think we actually do is create a real world lab for civic engagement. Our students in middle and high schools across the country choose very local issues that they care about. That’s another thing that I think has been missing from our political realm…is the importance of local activism. They’ll choose local issues like teen jobs, violence in their communities; public transit comes up a lot in New York unsurprisingly. Then they take real action. They meet with city council members. They meet with state legislators. They mobilize their fellow students, and they take action. And through that process of actually taking action, especially at the local level, they’re actually learning how the process works and learning how they can use their voices to make a difference in it.
Denver: So, the class picks a single issue that year and then works on it all year to see if they can effectuate that change.
Scott: Exactly. The process of choosing an issue is actually challenging because you have some students that say, “We really want to focus on the fact that the MTA prices have gone through the roof!” And some folks want to focus on immigration or want to focus on police community relations, and they actually have to go through a consensus building process to come to one issue. And I think that’s a really important part of the democratic process, is realizing you can’t all get what you want. You have to figure out how to compromise and select one issue, but they select one issue as a class. They figure out what’s the root cause of that problem? How can we actually take some sort of real action? That looks like students in the Bronx that look at gentrification and affordable housing; and then as a root cause, find a city council bill that would provide tax incentives to land owners that provide more affordable housing. I mean these are eleventh graders working on a deep public problem of that nature. Another example that I like to throw out is that we had a class in Brooklyn that looked at cafeteria food. Because everybody looks at cafeteria food. So, I think the normal instinct is to say, “We want better cafeteria food.” Let’s march for better cafeteria food. They’ll look at the root cause and determine that just like restaurants throughout the city actually get a sanitation score for how clean their restaurant is, so do school cafeterias. Every school cafeteria gets a grade. But they’re not required to be public. So they actually worked on an Assembly bill law that would require schools throughout the state to make their sanitation grades public and got that law passed. Denver: That is very cool. Scott: Through that process, they actually understand how the legislature works and how they can focus on more systemic change, rather than just focusing on a specific problem in their school.
Denver: What is the theory of change that you’re bringing to this work?
Scott: I think what we fundamentally believe is that our democracy will be stronger if we have more people participate in it, and in order to ensure that we have strength in democracy with more robust participation, we need to ensure that we’re teaching young people before they actually turn voting age, right? I think that that’s a challenge that we often see in democracy work is that, seemingly we only treat people as participants in a democracy once they turn 18. So, I sometimes see it as, when you turn 16, you can get your driver’s license but you don’t wake up at 16 with your driver’s license on your doorstep. You have to get a permit. You have to take lessons. You practice. I really see what we’re doing as a driver’s education for a democracy. How can we train young people before they actually take the reins?
Denver: That’s a great metaphor. I think what’s really distinctive about this is that this is an in-school class. This is not an extracurricular activity or a club. And I guess that’s really central to your mission in terms of this broad participation.
Scott: We see this as just as important as Math class or Science class or English class. I think that sets us apart. There’s a lot of great after school or extracurricular activities, but if we really want to ensure our mission is every student in this country receives an effective Action Civics education. We really want to do that. We need to figure out: How does this become embedded in education systems across the country? And a more macro question is: How can we ensure we have to talk about the fact that the reason that public schools in this country were created was to create engaged and active citizens. The reason public schools exists is to preserve our democracy, but what does that actually mean? And that’s something that we’ve definitely gotten away from– the civic mission of schools. So, I think one thing that we’re thinking about is not only: How do we get Action Civics in schools? But how do we get schools at large to recognize their obligation to create cultures that embody the democratic spirit that we want to see throughout country? Oftentimes I think some of the most undemocratic institutions in America are public schools. They’re very autocratic. Our curriculum is very student-centered. They choose the issues that they care about. They choose how they take action. It’s really up to them, and that’s something that I think is germane to effective education writ large.
Denver: Have you seen an increase in the interest around Action Civics since the 2016 presidential campaign? We have the Women’s March…Are young people getting more and more engaged around these issues over the last 24 months?
Scott: I started Generation Citizen in 2008, 2009, and I joked with people that for the first four, five, six years of starting, I’d tell people we’re all about educating young people to be active citizens. We’re getting Civics back to the classroom, and eyes would glaze over. Who else can I talk to? Now, people say, “Oh my God, that’s so important. How do we get Civics over?” There is more interest. We’re strictly nonpartisan, and I think it would be a mistake to point to one election as causing a demise or decay in our democracy. This is something that’s been going on for a while. So, I think that the fact that there’s more interest is undoubtedly a positive. I guess the question for us is: how do we maintain that interest?. Our democracy is not going to get better through one election. It’s going to get better through actually focusing on the foundations of our democracy. So, I think there is more interest, and we need to figure out how to really sustain that.
Denver: One of the by-products of what you do is that there’s a lot of collaboration in this. From what I remember from school, it’s pretty individualistic. Getting groups to work together like this– which is going to be what they’re going to be doing in the real business world when they get out– is really something special.
Scott: I think that’s a great point. A lot of times when I talk to students after they’re done with Generation Citizen and ask: What was different for you about this experience, they point to that exact fact… that their success was dependent on the success of the group. I think in many ways, our education system has become very individualized. You think about standardized tests, students are judged based on how they do as individuals. If you think about a democracy, e pluribus unum, where it’s about the individual, and how it works together as a collective. If schools don’t reflect that, then our democracy won’t either. It’s a very collaborative process. There’s challenges when it’s collaborative. We all remember in school whenever we did group projects, I think we thought: Oh, the one person takes the lead, and everybody falls back. In this curriculum, you have different groups working on different aspects of the action. So, you’ll have one group that’s responsible for getting in touch with a city council member. You have one group that’s responsible for the social media campaign. You’ll have one group that’s responsible for doing research. They can’t be successful unless they’re all successful. I think that’s something that important for our democracy. We’re all better off, and we’re all better off.
Denver: Get those nodes working together. You have a Generation Citizen Civics Day where students present the issues they have taken action on to community members and elected officials. You’ve been to a whole bunch of them. Share with us some of the things that you’ve witnessed on these days.
Scott: It’s always one of my favorite parts of the semester. I always go to students and ask, “What do you think about Generation Citizen at the beginning, and What do you think now?” And it’s interesting because a lot of times at the beginning… and I think this is so reflective of what young people think… They said, “Oh we thought this was going to be dumb.” People came in to class and said: “You’re going to take action, make a difference on issues you care about.” Their eyes would roll, and they’d say:” That’s not going to happen.” Then at Civics Day, what happens is that they engage with public officials and community members from all over the city or in New York, in Rhode Island, in Boston and the Bay Area and Oklahoma and Texas, and I get to go to all of them. And it’s just really inspiring to see how active and energetic these young people are to present on the issues they care about. So, at this past New York City Civics Day, I remember talking to a group of young women, and their issue was figuring out was: How do we work with the city to get more monuments built for African-American abolitionists? So, we had a hot topic going on in the city and across the country of: Are we taking down Confederate monuments? What are we doing about other monuments? What are we doing about the Christopher Columbus monument here? And they said that conversation can continue to happen, but we’re African-American; we don’t see any monuments across this city that represent us. So, they’re actually working with the city to get that done. I went to Austin. Just the number of classes there that were focused on immigration because in Austin, specifically, they’ve been at war with the State. Austin’s trying to become a sanctuary city, and the State of Texas is pushing back, and you had students whose family members were deported who felt at risk themselves. It was actually very sobering talking to 14 and 15- year- olds that are dealing with issues that really affect them. I think that’s one of the most powerful parts of Action Civics… is that you’re not dealing with a theoretical component of democracy, where I feel that so many of our arguments actually lie. But you’re dealing with young people who are taking action on gun control because a fellow eighth-grader was shot. These are issues that are so fundamental to who they are as individuals, and I think that’s the power of democracy– taking action on issues that actually, really affect us. Denver: You have some dramatic results at the end of the school year; 72% have an increased knowledge about Civics… and a whole bunch of other things. You’re still a relatively young organization. Have you any longitudinal data at all? Are you beginning to work on it to see whether the seeds that were planted through this class continue on?
Scott: I think that’s a great question. We think about our success in terms of three main indicators; civic knowledge… or how much they know about the political process; civic motivation, how much they actually want to participate and feel like they can make a difference; and then civic skills, which I think are some of the most important work, as you were talking about – critical thinking, group work and collaboration, oral and written persuasive communication… Can they actually make an argument? From beginning of semester to end of semester, we’ve seen dramatic increases in those results. What is going to be the devil in the details is: Are our students voting at higher rates? Are they leaders in their community? Qualitatively, we’ve seen that. We’ve seen some of our students run for office. We’ve seen our students continue to stay involved in this type of work, but that’s going to be a priority going forward… is actually proving that this leads to increased voting rates, that this leads to the ability to work across boundaries; this leads to actually understanding who your public officials are… really at the local level too. If you look at despite all the activism; if you look at the 2017 New York City mayoral, you had about 20% participation. I want to see our young people voting at really high rates in local elections because I think that’s really where they can have an impact.
Denver: Speaking of that, one of the things you’ve been advocating for is lowering the voting age to 16, at least for local elections. What’s the case you make here? And how has response been?
Scott: It’s interesting. One of the things that we thought a lot about is: How we can ensure that we tell young people that your voice can actually matter, and it can matter now. And so a lot of times when we talk to people about lowering the voting age to 16– and we are talking exclusively about local elections– people say that’s ridiculous; 16-year-olds don’t know anything. But the argument is, 18 might not be a great age to start voting at. Young people are either in college or they’re in the workforce, and they’re not thinking of voting. You can actually show a downward trend, and we lowered the voting age to 18 in 1971 as a result largely of the Vietnam War. There’s been a downward trend in voting since then among the youth population, and there’s a whole host of reasons, but one might be that 18 is not a great age. So, what we’re saying is: if we can get young people to vote in local elections while they’re still at home, while they’re still in school; again we’re just talking local elections; it will help to create lifelong voters. If you vote in your first election, you’re statistically much more likely to vote in subsequent elections. So, you have three cities in Maryland – Takoma Park, Hyattsville and Greenbelt, that have lowered the voting age to 16. We have an active effort in Washington DC, and I will say in San Francisco in 2016, we had a voter referendum. About three months before the election, we did a poll, and 55% of people thought that there was no way we should lower the voting age. They were against it. 30% of people were for it. We engaged in a vigorous public education campaign, making the same points I just said. We lost by two points. 49% of people thought it was a good idea. We’ll run it again in 2020 and expect to win. So, this is something that I think just needs to be talked about more. We need innovative ideas on how to improve our democracy, how to encourage participation, and we think this is an innovative idea that countries across the world are doing. You have countries in Scandinavia, countries in South America that are doing this, and they see increased measures of Civics education and increased measures of local voting. It’s something that we’re interested and continuing to talk about.
Denver: I know you have an ambitious revenue strategy, and you’re looking to diversify your funding streams. Tell us a little bit about your business model and the sources to support it that make all this great work possible.
Scott: We’ve learned a lot about fundraising since we started, and I’m learning more every day. When I got into this work, I had no idea how to do it. You don’t get into this work because you want to fundraise. You go into this because you like the mission. So you learn as you go along. We do have a diverse funding stream. We have about 40% of our funding from foundations, including some big institutional ones like the Ford Foundation and the Hewlett Foundation that are showing an increased interest in Civics education. Our motto, we have six offices across the country like I said. We’re now in Massachusetts, New York, San Francisco, Oklahoma, and Texas.
Denver: I like that… Oklahoma and Texas. So often, organizations like this stay on the coast. But you’ve really gone to the center of the country when you go into Oklahoma.
Scott: That was really intentional. I will say that was a decision that we made in 2015. It was before the election. I think we really wanted to say: if we’re a national organization that cares about ensuring that every young person in this country can receive an effective Action Civics education, we can’t just work on the coast. So, what we’ve done is in those sites, we work with those sites so that they become self-sustainable. That includes a lot of local fundraising. They’re working with local foundations and local individuals that are invested in that work. We also charge a fee to schools. We predominantly work with loans from schools, but if we’re able to demonstrate that this is something that is a core priority for their school, they’ll put some dollars into it. We’ve also been really beneficial and lucky we received $500,000 a year from the New York City city council. The past speaker, Melissa Mark-Viverito, made us a priority for the council. We hope to work with the new speaker, Corey Johnson, as well. But the city, through the speaker, said: “ It’s a priority for us that young people are becoming active and engaged citizens, so we’re going to invest in this work.” So, we really see this public-private mix as something that we’ll continue to do going forward too.
Denver: Let me close with this Scott. With some many young people, especially from low-income communities, frustrated, disillusioned and cynical about government and politics, what is your source of optimism that we can successfully change that mindset?
Scott: It’s a great question, and if you read the paper in the morning, it sometimes is tough to be optimistic. I always think that the bigger an organization gets, sometimes the less you actually engage with the constituency that you’re working with. I really try to ensure that I’m actively listening and working and talking to the young people that we work with. It’s a little cliché but what does give me optimism is when I talk to 14, 15, 16-year-olds that are not only passionate about making a change, but really conversant in the issues that affect their communities. So, I think so often on the national, we just get caught up in what the latest tweet says or what’s the drama of politics of the day, and when you talk to young people who are really facing substantive issues in their communities that don’t necessarily pertain to the conversations that are happening on cable TV, or in the Twitter sphere, or on the front pages of the paper, but they are leading on these issues, and they’re leading on these issues because they have experience in these issues. I think that’s what gives me hope… is that you are seeing a renewed spirit of activism. You’re seeing a renewed spirit of activism on the local level. You’re seeing young people recognize that active citizenship and politics is not a dirty word, but something they can actually lead on. The last thing I’ll say is that whenever you’ve seen positive change in this country, it comes from young people. You can look from the civil rights movement to the fight for marriage equality. Every movement is led by young people that don’t see the world for what it is, but for what it can be. I’m incredibly lucky to work in a job where I get to everyday work with young people that refuse to accept the current state of our politics and actively want to work for something better. I think channeling that idealism is something that we all need to do right now. That’s what we’re trying to do at Generation Citizen.
Denver: It is an incredible job. Scott Warren, the CEO of Generation Citizen, I want to thank you for being with us this evening. Tell us about your website. Is there a way for people to let you know that they would like you to come to their community? And how can they help support this work if they’re so inclined?
Scott: Our website is www.generationcitizen.org. We’re actively engaged in a scaling strategy. Last year we worked with 10,000 students. In 2019, 2020, we want to be working with 30,000 students across the country. So, we’re looking for new communities to partner with. You can just email us [email protected] or my personal email, [email protected], and we’d love to start a conversation.
Denver: Thanks Scott. It was a real pleasure to have you on the show.
Scott: Had a lot of fun.
Denver: I’ll be back with more of The Business of Giving right after this.
The Business of Giving can be heard every Sunday evening between 6:00 p.m. and 7:00 p.m. Eastern on AM 970 The Answer in New York and on iHeartRadio. You can follow us @bizofgive on Twitter, @bizofgive on Instagram and at http://www.facebook.com/BusinessOfGiving