Daniel Millenson was a 2009 Teach For America corps member in the Mississippi Delta.
On Tuesday, more than 100 million Americans will take an action that many consider the pinnacle of citizenship – we will cast our ballots for President. Change often starts in the voting booth, but as we pursue true, lasting change, we should view Election Day not as the end of the race, but merely the beginning.
Let me explain.
In Lexington, MS (population: 1,500), the Delta town where I taught, my high school seniors could easily diagnose the town’s civic ills, including nepotistic hiring practices and petty graft at the welfare office. What they seemed unable to do, however, was act.
One day, after a robust class discussion of a local problem that included no proposed solutions, I burst out, “Okay, so why don’t you guys actually do something about it?”
That moment of mutual incomprehension was a revelation. Not only did my students not know how to address the problems they saw in their community, they didn’t believe it could be done.
My students’ cynicism about politics and politicians now made sense. Their personal experience “proved” that “things will never change here.” That lack of agency was apparent in their academic careers, too. With a starting mindset of “it can’t be done,” why would my students believe me as I tried to explain how a powerful persuasive essay could propel each of them to and through college?
That experience led me to Generation Citizen. GC works to empower young people to become engaged and effective citizens through an in-class action civics course led by teachers and trained college volunteers. Twice a week over the course of a semester, students learn civics through taking action on an issue they care about.
How does that look in action? An example: Last fall, a class of eighth grade students in Harlem complained about frequent muggings at the bus stop across from their school. The students identified their police precinct captain as a key decision-maker, and met with him to present and work out a solution. Ultimately, he agreed to assign an undercover cop to cover the area, as well as work with a standing committee of students to identify and address future threats. From everything we have heard since, the plan is working.
As the Presidential campaign winds down, it can be easy to believe that either the politicians we elect can fix all our problems, or none of them can fix any of our problems, and therefore we have no hope for progress. The fact is, neither is true. The experiences of GC students in Harlem and other communities remind us that lives can be transformed when people have the knowledge, skills and agency to shape the world around them. These students are proving that engagement doesn’t end when we leave the voting booth—that the challenge of democracy is not just to assign power responsibly, but to wield it well.
Daniel is currently managing director of Generation Citizen (www.generationcitizen.org).