Civic Engagement Beyond the Ballot

Joanna Kenty, PhD, The Citizens Campaign

A lot is going to change, both in politics and in higher education, in 2021. At The Citizens Campaign, we have undertaken a groundbreaking new initiative to meet the fierce urgency of 21st century crises, by giving citizens — especially people of color and economically disadvantaged urban communities — the tools they need to get practical solutions adopted. We’re taking our teaching tools, developed in collaboration with Penn’s Graduate School of Education, and creating an online course in Leadership and Practical Problem Solving.

View Course Description Here

In fact, this course is what brought me to The Citizens Campaign. I taught for six years in higher education on classical literature, Greek and Roman history, and ethics. Even though my academic work deals with the distant past, I was always most passionate about finding ways to use classics to help students understand their own lived experience in the present, and to feel more empowered in navigating the world around them. Whether I was teaching Latin grammar or current political controversies, I saw the same problem: many of my students seemed to think that there must be a sort of special person who could simply read Latin or understand politics without trying, and that they just weren’t that sort of person. That’s a misconception which deters people from pursuing knowledge and competency. It’s upsetting to me that this deterrent effect exists, but the worst part is that it falls most heavily on those who are disempowered to begin with, particularly students of color and students who don’t come from wealthy families. Classics is a less diverse field and therefore a less robust field as a result of this deterrent effect, and the same is true in politics — fewer minds and fewer perspectives at work means fewer fresh ideas. I’m excited to be creating a course that is available to all students, empowering them to translate their experiences, their passions, and their frustration with politics into constructive engagement.

The Citizens Campaign has an impressive track record, going back 20 years, of empowering people to get in the game of local government decision-making. We train them to research and shape solutions that meet three criteria: they are cost effective, i.e. budget-neutral or cost-saving; evidence-based, i.e. succeeding already in other similar communities; and beneficial to their town or city as a whole rather than any special interests. This focus on solutions encourages trainees to set partisan ideology aside. Trainees are much more likely to get involved in government, or even to run for public office — 500 of our trainees have served so far. They’ve passed over 300 local laws to reduce government waste and corruption, protect the environment, make education more equitable, and promote de-escalation in policing, with a success rate over 90%.

Our founder and chairman, Harry Pozycki, served as a political party chairman and in other government roles, and worked to expand access and transparency in local and state politics. In doing so, he came to the realization that democracy can’t be sustained from the top down alone, and that citizens could — and should — exercise tremendous power beyond merely voting. He wrote a training manual, Citizen Power (Rutgers University Press), to offer a practitioner’s guide to No-Blame Problem Solving, and we’ve developed an accompanying series of short training videos for our online educational portal.


“All of our teaching tools have the student’s own role as a citizen in mind: the prime local government decision-making centers are reviewed to show students where the levers of power lie and how to operate them; they learn how to use 21st century media and technology in the search for solutions, as well as their 21st century rights to public records and participation in public meetings; and they get a 10-step Guide to No-Blame Problem Solving which leads them through the process of researching, shaping, and presenting policy solutions.”


Respected government, business, and union leaders alike as well as experts in civics education like Dr. Peter Levine, Dr. Michael Delli Carpini, and Dr. Rogers Smith have applauded this practical approach to civic education. All of our teaching tools have the student’s own role as a citizen in mind: the prime local government decision-making centers are reviewed to show students where the levers of power lie and how to operate them; they learn how to use 21st century media and technology in the search for solutions, as well as their 21st century rights to public records and participation in public meetings; and they get a 10-step Guide to No-Blame Problem Solving which leads them through the process of researching, shaping, and presenting policy solutions. Instead of pointing trainees toward one organization or cause on the model of traditional service learning, we train them in a nonpartisan practitioners’ method of No-Blame Problem Solving, which is transferable to any issue students may confront.

We have implemented our training in high school and college classrooms, with encouraging results. Newark high school students studied Power Civics as a part of their mandatory social studies curriculum, and of 690 survey respondents, 91% of students said the training was very or somewhat useful, and 53% said it made them much more or somewhat more likely to participate in local government, politics or community affairs.

The goal of this training is to create a newly engaged and empowered generation of citizens, a critical mass of citizen leaders who offer real solutions as well as a model of pragmatism, mutual respect, and unselfish service. Simply put, the magnitude and severity of the crises of the 21st century means that government officials cannot tackle them alone. With the help of principled citizen leaders taking personal responsibility for the health of our democracy, however, we expand our nation’s problem-solving capacity. At the same time, we build a culture of public service, and trust in government officials.

The Citizens Campaign is partnering with community colleges across the country to establish Citizen Leadership Centers, consisting of three components: a Power Civics module in undergraduate courses; an online, self-paced certificate course in Leadership and Practical Problem Solving for continuing education; and a Civic Trust, a working group where trainees can put our training into practice and craft real proposals. Leaders of the American Political Science Association and the American Association of Community Colleges are supporting this initiative. The NFL Alumni Association has joined us as a marketing partner nationwide to promote each school incorporating our leadership training.

If you are interested in working with us to build on an existing civic engagement program or to start a new one, please reach out to our outreach coordinator at david@thecitizenscampaign.org. Through our free online portal, you can get access to our Power Civics© video lessons and teaching tools, and even enroll your students and track their progress as they engage with the material. Our new self-paced online course is also available, offering the opportunity for students to earn a Certificate in Leadership and Practical Problem Solving. Our Help Desk is ready to consult with you on how best to meet your learning objectives and serve your students.

For more information, or to register for our free online portal, please visit http://thecitizenscampaign.org.


Joanna Kenty is a Phi Beta Kappa graduate of Wesleyan University and holds a Ph.D. in Classical Studies from the University of Pennsylvania.  She is a scholar, writer, lecturer, researcher and published author who has taught in colleges and universities and most recently worked with community college faculty to develop an online curriculum.  Joanna brings her exceptional skills to our team to create a full semester, online course in citizen leadership training.

 

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