Special Report
School & District Management Opinion

Young People as Change Agents: The Obama Foundation’s Approach to Civics Engagement

Creating the next generation of leaders requires inspiring young people to act
By David Simas — January 10, 2018 6 min read
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Editor’s Note: This Commentary is part of a special report exploring game-changing trends and innovations that have the potential to shake up the schoolhouse. Read the full report: 10 Big Ideas in Education.

There is no playbook for what works when it comes to civic engagement. Some young people have a desire to make a difference—they want to make their world a better place, but aren’t sure where to begin. And some don’t see themselves as change agents or active citizens. The public square is too noisy or uncivil, or they don’t understand the power and value of their voice. Our goal at the Obama Foundation is to make active citizenship accessible to anyone, anywhere. President Barack Obama asked me to lead the Obama Foundation because we both recognize that civic engagement—the ability to connect and work with people all around the world regardless of our backgrounds—represents our best hope at solving some of the biggest challenges we face.

About the Author

David Simas is the CEO of the Obama Foundation. Based in Chicago, he joined the Obama Administration in 2009 as a deputy assistant to the president, served as the director of opinion research for President Barack Obama’s reelection in 2012, and worked in the White House as director of the office of political strategy and outreach during Obama’s second term.

With that in mind, the foundation is now focused on inspiring and empowering the next generation of active citizens and leaders, together defining what it means to be a good citizen in the 21st century. We are training citizen leaders, giving them the tools necessary to create change in their communities and connecting them to their peers already working in this space. We want to emphasize the importance of listening to those we may disagree with. That enables us to truly understand where they are coming from and create the foundation upon which civic engagement and organizing are built.

In the past few months, we launched a slate of programs that marks the beginning of our work to fill this void:

• Pilot trainings in which young people ages 18 to 24 come together for a one-day session to learn how they can put civics into action and use their own story as a powerful tool for change. In 2017, we held trainings in Chicago; Tempe, Ariz.; and Boston; and are planning for even more in the year ahead.

• An inaugural summit hosted by President and Michelle Obama in the fall brought together more than 500 rising and established civic leaders from around the world. Over the course of two days, summit participants discussed the challenges facing their communities—from access to education to food deserts to building modern infrastructure networks.

• A two-year, nonresidential fellowship program will bring together a diverse set of community-minded rising stars—organizers, inventors, artists, entrepreneurs, and journalists, among others—who are radically altering the civic-engagement landscape. The Obama Foundation will leverage its resources and platform to amplify the work of these young leaders.

This represents just the beginning of our programming efforts, but it sums up the vision President and Mrs. Obama have for this foundation—to meet people where they are, to learn from practitioners doing the work, and to cultivate an inclusive community. We don’t have all the answers, but the conversations we are having now with young leaders around the world will help shape what the Obama Foundation becomes.

That’s where the next generation of leaders come in. Think about the causes that inspire young people to act. Whether it’s an issue unique to their neighborhood or something that spans continents, young people cannot simply wait around and hope someone else will act. When the Obamas visit schools from Washington to Chicago, they meet students with a desire to change their communities and the world. Those are exactly the type of people the Obama Foundation wants to work with and lift up.

When the former president took the stage at McCormick Place in Chicago to deliver his farewell address a year ago, he asked Americans to believe, not in his ability to bring about change, but in their own. It was a call that transcended politics and struck at the heart of what Barack and Michelle Obama have spent their lives working on. As he has said, this change goes beyond politics. Real change—big change—takes many years and requires each generation to believe that its participation matters, that the obligations and opportunities of citizenship matter.

In his and Mrs. Obama’s next chapter, they want to support young people who not only agree with that message but put it into practice. We hope that leaders—the young and the veteran—will join us.

Background: Teaching Civics in a Hyperpartisan Climate

By Stephen Sawchuk

A U.S. president who announces policy on Twitter. The nomination of a controversial secretary of education. An investigation into Russia’s alleged meddling in a national election. Searing debates over policing and race, the nature of political discourse, the First Amendment: Not since 9/11 has there been such hand-wringing about the democratic foundations of American society—or the moribund state of civics education.

But coupled with that is opportunity, an invitation to think about how to make civics education more powerful and, ultimately, more effective at shaping engaged young citizens who vote.

Civics education can, broadly, be thought of in two parts. It consists, first, of the body of knowledge students learn about the democratic foundations and structures of the nation, like the Constitution and separation of powers. The second part, as in science and technical education, is by definition much more hands-on: That of learning and practicing the civic behaviors that constitute effective participation in a democratic society.

Those threads generally map to the two distinct approaches to rejuvenating civics education that have attracted attention recently. Reflecting book knowledge is the requirement, adopted by a third of states, to require high school students to take the federal test given to immigrants who want to become citizens.

And reflecting the importance of participating in the civic process is a separate push for what’s being called “action civics.”

It’s a name that both defines and prescribes. Action civics means students are actively engaged in identifying a problem in their local communities, researching solutions, and trying to advance them through civic channels, including organizing and presenting their findings to policymakers. Students might, for example, look at cyberbullying in their school or the state of their neighborhood’s recreation facilities and parks, and try to make changes through the local school board, park service, or city council.

While there is no single definition of action civics, most supporters point to several core principles: The importance of collective action, elevating youths’ voices, and giving young people opportunities to lead. Reflection is an important component, too, helping students make connections between the micro-problem they’re working on and the macro-concepts inherent to governing.

There’s still plenty to learn about how to integrate action civics into the curriculum, how best to teach it, and how to evaluate its impact on students’ mindsets, behaviors, and core civics knowledge. And action civics isn’t without its detractors. While not inherently partisan, conservative commentators wonder whether it promotes activism over the importance of voting, for example.

But for its proponents, here’s the exciting part of action civics, the part that thrills them and reminds them about education’s role in underpinning civil society: As the great American experiment in democracy continues, students don’t have to absorb its discourse passively.

They get to be part of it. They get to help shape it.


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