Scott Warren is the co-founder and Executive Director of Generation Citizen (GC). He is a current recipient of an Echoing Green Fellowship, was a finalist for the Truman Scholarship, and was recently recognized by Forbes; 30 Under 30 as one of the most promising social entrepreneurs in the country. In other words, this guy is onto something big and people are taking notice.
The mission of Generation Citizen (GC): “To strengthen our nation’s democracy by empowering young people to become engaged and effective citizens. We envision a democracy in which every citizen participates in the political process. GC teaches teenagers direct political action. Through an innovative in-class curriculum, students work with local leaders to fix local problems. Through this real-world experience, our teens are building an active democracy. Our innovative, action-based program will revolutionize civics education in this country. Generation Citizen is building a new generation of youth activists and leaders; a generation inspired and equipped to make change.”
Below is a Q&A session that took place with Scott, describing how he came up with the idea for GC, how it fits into our society, and what he’s forward to in the future.
Question: Tell us a bit about your background. Why did you start GC?
Scott Warren: I’m originally from San Diego, California, where I lived until I was eight years old. My dad then joined the State Department, and I started moving all over Latin America and Africa. Through that experience, I had the opportunity to emerge a number of emerging democracies; including the first truly democratic elections in Kenya’s history, in 2002 (they just had another election just a month ago). In one of the most rural areas of Kenya, I witnessed lines of people hundreds deep, passionate about using their voices to make a collective difference. When the opposition candidate won the election (a rarity in an emerging democracy), the tremendous potential of democracy in action became immediately apparent.
My work since has focused on catalyzing that passion for the democratic spirit, co-founding GC as a Brown University senior in 2008 with the strong desire to revive our country’s democracy through our schools. In college, I worked to end the genocide in Darfur, Sudan, serving as the National Student Director for the organization STAND, and leading on successful efforts to divest Brown, the City of Providence, and the State of Rhode Island from foreign companies doing business in Sudan. Reflecting on my social justice work, I identified two principles that led to the founding of GC:
- Most secondary students have not developed the skills or mindsets to become engaged in their communities or the democratic process.
- The most effective way to encourage young people to participate in that process is through direct engagement in it.
I believe that our nation’s schools can and must play a critical role in preparing young people for active and effective citizenship. Through our action civics approach, students have the opportunity to learn civics by actually doing civics. Through participation in the program, students will become motivated for long-term engagement, and have the necessary skills and knowledge to lead change on important community issues. Our students will break the cycle of disengagement that contributes to the exclusion of entire communities from our democracy.
Q: What themes do you see with regard to issues currently being championed by students here in NYC?
SW: While we do see some similarity in terms of focus issues in NYC, the projects that often stand out the most (and have the most success in directing concrete change) are those that are highly specific, focused on a problem that may impact the entire city but has very specific repercussions in a particular neighborhood or community. For example, students often select topics that could fall under the broad buckets of “community safety” or “public health,” but the projects that truly stand out as having driven real, concrete change are those that dig a level deeper. A class at Mott Hall High School in Harlem effectively addressed gang violence at a bus stop near their school by working with the local police office to place an undercover policeman on duty, and a class at Concord High School on Staten Island decided to address a highly localized problem, prescription drug abuse. Many of the students had been impacted personally by this issue and some were recovering drug abusers themselves. They developed a peer mentoring program to educate local middle school students about the consequences and dangers of prescription drug abuse, and are working with a State Senator on next steps.
GC encourages the selection of these types of highly specific, targeted focus issues, recognizing that politics in inherently localized. Certainly the projects are relevant for the entire city, but we push our students to get specific and truly use the political process at the local level.
Q: Do you think encouraging young people to engage in action-civics falls to parents, educators or government?
SW: It falls to a combination of parents, educators, and the government to engage young people in the political process. GC believes, however, that it can work to engage every young person through the institution that affects the most people on a daily basis- our schools. In the future, our current students will serve as models for civic participation for the next generation, but schools should continue to provide students the opportunity to engage in a targeted, personally relevant learning experience through the GC action civics curriculum.
While local governments could offer more resources and make information around elections or the development of legislation more widely available, their support of civics education in schools (during regular school hours) should be their main role in preparing young people for engagement in the democracy. At the federal level, we believe the government can and should prioritize civics education, and hold schools accountable to concrete goals, recognizing that if our young people are not learning to engage in the political process, the future of our democracy is at risk.
Q: What has been the feedback from local decision makers regarding youth speaking out and working to make a change?
SW: Through the GC program, middle and high school students have the opportunity to directly connect with local decision makers, seeking feedback on their action projects and lobbying them for support. Local leaders visit GC classrooms or serve as a judge at Civics Day (our end-of-semester “science fair for civics”) and truly engage in the work of our students. In December, NYC Comptroller John Liu attended Civics Day and addressed the importance of students speaking out working toward change. In many cases, these leaders have incorporated students’ ideas into their professional decision-making.
One of our main goals is to get leaders to recognize that young people have valid and important ideas that can help to make their communities a better place. We do not want our program to tokenize young people- we want to see them as real participants.
Q: The U.S. lags far behind most counties academically. How does the US measure up to other countries when it comes to civics and youth engagement?
Not good. In terms of overall voter participation, the United States ranks 137th out of 170 recognized democracies. It’s difficult to compare civics, since every country has their own systems. But overall, maybe because we consider ourselves a more developed democracy, we spend less time developing our own future citizens.
Q: How do you think teaching civics in schools will impact our county’s future?
SW: GC envisions a democracy in which every citizen, regardless of background, participates, ensuring that government is responsive to the needs of all citizens. We believe that teaching action civics in our nation’s public schools can play a critical role in realizing this vision.
In our society, when a young person turns 16, they are incredibly excited to receive their driver’s license. But in the year before, they must take multiple driving lessons, tests, and practice behind the wheel.
When young people turn 18, they receive the right to vote. But most are not excited, and even fewer have been properly trained as citizens. It is almost as if we expect young people to wake up at 18 and know how to run our democracy. Effective civics education can be the driver’s education course for democracy. And if we do this effectively, we’ll have a more educated populace, a better run government, and a more functional democracy.
Q: Are you advocating civics be taught in every school in the country? How early do we start?
SW: Yes. And we should start early. When done well, civics education should be included in every other subject. Every first graders should be learning about how their opinions and thoughts matter as engaged citizens. This is not currently happening, and one of the primary aims of GC is to get every school to realize that teaching civics is not a nice to have, but a need to have
Q: What can community leaders and parents take away from a program like this? Can what students are learning in the classroom be translated to home life and social relationships?
SW: The skills that students develop through participation in the program extend far beyond the GC classroom. Public speaking, research, engaging and persuading local decision makers – these are skills that will support students’ academic and professional endeavors long after the completion of our program. It is important for community leaders and parents to note that, in many cases, students are actually creating change on the ground in their communities – not only are they developing skills for future civic engagement, they are truly improving their communities in the present, and focusing on changes that are sustainable and will have real impact (as opposed to a one-time service learning project).
Additionally, we are currently piloting a program that will connect some of our most motivated students to local internship opportunities with non-profit organizations and electoral campaigns, creating a direct link between the GC classroom and professional relationship building.
Q: What is the biggest takeaway you hope students learn at the end of this course?
SW: Through participation in GC, we aim for students to understand that taking action on important community issues, and being politically engaged, is not a one-time experience. It is not something you learn in a GC class and, after the close of the semester, never address again. We aim to increase students’ civic knowledge, motivation and skills so that they are excited and able to lead change and be engaged for the long-term.
We want students to recognize that their voice matters, both for their individual well-being and for the betterment of their communities. They have a critical role to play, and it extends far beyond the walls of the classroom. After participating in the program, GC students often recognize that they truly can make a difference. One former GC student and current college freshman stated, “GC changed my life. It showed me that no matter how big or little, I could make a difference in my community, and if I try hard enough, the world.” We believe that participation in our program can help students understand not only that they are capable of making a difference, but that the health of our democracy and our nation depends upon their doing so.
Q: Where do you see yourself and GC in 10 years?
SW: My life’s work will be working to improve the concept of democracy, whether in this country or abroad. This may include educating others, or serving in policy or politics.
In ten years, GC will be the biggest civics education organization in the country, working with over 100,000 students per year. We will have built formal partnerships with school districts nationwide to ensure that every student in the communities we serve is receiving an effective civics education.
We will continue to work toward our long-term impact goals, described below. By 2050, GC will have played a leading role in the revitalization of our democracy by having:
- Directly worked with over 1 million young people; and
- Partnered with every major urban school district nationwide to create an effective action civics curriculum.
Because of our work, our country will be one in which:
- All citizens are actively engaged our democracy;
- Young people recognize political participation as vital to improving their lives and communities;
- Young people form one of the largest voting blocs in the country (increased from the 20% of 18-29 year olds that voted in the 2010 midterm); and every school nationwide provides the tools and experiences needed for effective citizenship.