Twice a week, I walk off campus from my calculus lecture or biology lab, across the street to Fordham High School for the Arts. The school is public magnet school housed in one building with five other schools in the middle of the Bronx, and has a minority enrollment of ninety-eight percent(1).
What do we do? As detailed on the program site:
Over the course of the twice-weekly semester-long in-class program, students choose an issue they want to tackle in their own community, develop a focused, strategic plan to address an issue they care about, and then take real action on it. Students lobby elected officials, write opinion pieces for newspapers, and make documentaries to advance solutions to important community issues. Through direct engagement in real-world advocacy, guided by near-peer college Democracy Coaches and teachers, students gain the civic knowledge, skills, and motivation necessary to effect change in their communities.
Democracy Coaches (“DCs”) are college student volunteers, who co-teach with their high school class’s teacher. Generation Citizen has a strong partnership with Teach For America, and my partner DC and I co-teach twice weekly with a TFA teacher – recent college graduate working on his masters – in his “Participation in Government” class for seniors.
Through a standardized core curriculum that matches our region’s DOE standards, we coach students through lessons about local government, problem solving, advocacy, and of course, action civics.
Why I Got Involved
One of the major reasons I chose to attend Fordham was for its strong basis in the world of social justice and service – Generation Citizen does just that. I hesitated at first as a science major and pre-med student; I mean, this is all about politics and education, not STEM. But I loved being directly involved in a community and doing work that is literally aimed at making a change in the world – whether this world be a school, a neighborhood, or a borough. We’re three lessons into our curriculum (which extends for an entire semester), and coming from a California suburb to the middle of the Bronx was a complete culture shock. Last year, the same teacher’s class chose the stop and frisk policy for their project – I sat at the DC training, listening to these stories, and not even know what the policy was. I’m part of this city now, and this borough, and it would be impossible for me to not want to be an active part of it.
Why I Stayed Involved
During “Lesson 0”, which we observe the class to get a feel of the dynamic, my anxiety was driven up a wall: they were loud, extremely outspoken, and in the context of policy, cultural ideas, and lifestyles…at times I hadn’t the slightest idea of what they were talking about. We’re now three lessons into our curriculum, and these students aren’t just loud and rowdy, they’re passionate and full of ideas. Talking to my co-DC, I thought about what this program would be like in a class at my high school, and I realized how different the “target issue” and priorities would be. These students told us about issues in their school (counseling, homophobia, etc.), and their neighborhood (gang violence and hearing gunshots every night). Being a teacher figure in a different world, seeing these as actual, daily parts of these kids’ lives teaches me volumes on society, on the way people react to things, that everything in your life is just relative to what you’ve experienced.
Next week, our class will build a consensus (modeling a way to gain agreement across a group) on which of their target issues to focus on, and from there, we coach them through the project to bring change to the issue. At the culmination of the semester, class representatives from the affiliated classes across New York City come together with “community members, and public officials, celebrating their work and gaining feedback to further their efforts” at “Civics Day” at the NY Smithsonian Museum of the American Indian.
I can learn in a lecture, or listen to the news, that the Bronx has its problems – take gang (and gun) violence. But when people you work with for hours each week tell you that this keeps them up at night because they hear it in their neighborhood? That’s understanding on a whole different level. To take an issue from their lives, from their local contexts, find a root cause, and lobby to make a change on this issue…to learn how to make this happen and how to inspire other people to make this change…that’s learning beyond anything you can just be “told”.
It’s a time commitment, but it’s a break from the sciences and from the collegiate world, and incredibly inspirational.
Generation Citizen has bases across the country in Boston, MA; New York, NY; Providence, RI; and the San Francisco Bay Area, CA. Learn more about GC, get involved, and support the program at their website Generation Citizen.
(1) US News. U.S.News & World Report, n.d. Web. 13 Oct. 2013.