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BROOKLYN, N.Y.—Failure is a powerful icebreaker, so Pace University sophomore Nelli Agbulos opens her presentation to a group of high school seniors by telling them about an unsuccessful protest that she recently planned for her campus. Six people came.
"I told all my friends to come, and nobody showed up," she says.
"Then you've got messed-up friends," one of the seniors retorts.
Sure enough, the anecdote gets the class talking. How do you make sure people know about an event? How do you communicate to them that their presence is important? One student suggests getting the football team to sponsor it. Another says teachers should give extra credit for attendance. Posters. Twitter. P.A. announcements. The class is buzzing.
Agbulos isn't much older than the kids in the government class she teaches twice a week at the Franklin Delano Roosevelt High School in Brooklyn. She isn't paid and doesn't get school credit for her time. She has no teacher training. What she does have is these students' attention. They identify with her and sympathize with her plight in a way that they don't with their teacher, Eric Cortes, who hangs out in the back and keeps order.
The presence of college students in a classroom is the novelty that makes Generation Citizen special. It is a nonprofit that sends college volunteers into high schools and middle schools to facilitate a semester of on-the-ground civic activity. Teenagers love that they get to hang out with college students. Many of the college mentors, called Democracy Coaches, are still teenagers themselves. The high school students get to see what it's like for a person not too different from them to struggle, and even fail, when running a classroom.
"There are days where you feel like, 'Oh, well let me just take over here,' " says Cynthia Muldrow, a government and economics teacher at the High School for Public Service in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, who has hosted several Generation Citizen classes. In addition to New York City, Generation Citizen has chapters in San Francisco, Boston, and Providence, R.I.
Muldrow says she often reminds her Democracy Coaches that the students are paying attention even if they look bored to death. It may not seem like it on some days, the volunteers bring an outside-world reality to the classroom. "When they're talking about being excited about making change it just sounds different to the students. It just sounds different," she says.
No Generation Citizen class is ever the same, because each group of students selects its own local problem to study and then puts together an action plan to address it. The issues range from bullying to public housing to unemployment to public transit, but the Generation Citizen curriculum has built-in steps for everyone. Spell out the root cause. Create a specific goal to target that root cause. Identify the people with the power to carry out the goal. Figure out the best tactics for influencing those people. Find allies.
Then comes the best part. They have to do it. "A lot of times that involves getting in touch with effective decision makers, figuring out who is important. Who actually matters here," says Scott Warren, came up with the idea for Generation Citizen in 2007 when he was a senior at Brown University.
Warren considers civic engagement to be the perfect challenge for millennials like him, young people engaging young people. He spent his teen years in Africa and Latin America after his father joined the State Department. He witnessed elections in Zimbabwe and Kenya where "people were incredibly excited." Coming back to the United States for college was a letdown after that experience, he says, because so many of his classmates "weren't excited by politics."
He decided to see what happened if he could get local civic activity into the public school system. He started a fledgling Generation Citizen program in two high schools in Providence in 2008. Word spread quickly. Generation Citizen now reaches about 10,000 students with about 500 college volunteers. At 27, Warren feels like he is starting a movement of young people, connecting college students and high school students for a cause. (Although these days, he spends a lot more time talking to foundations for funding.)
When asked who benefits more from the program, the college volunteers or the students, both teachers and Generation Citizen staffers insist it's the students. The volunteers definitely have an intense experience. They put in seven to 10 hours a week and are in close contact with their host teachers throughout the semester. But the kids in the class get the double benefit of being listened to by local politicians about something that matters to them and working with older youth that they admire.
"They treated us like college students," says Sayem Hossain, who took a class in the spring of 2014 as an eighth grader. "Whenever they gave us work they were like, 'You guys want to do this?' They made us feel like, 'If you don't want to do this, what's the point of doing it?' "
Haregnesh Haile, a Fordham University sophomore, is co-leading a Generation Citizen class in the Bronx with Fordham freshman Kelly Sullivan. Both coaches say they were attracted to the program because it would get them out of the bubble of their campus. "Fordham is just so gated off from the Bronx," Haile says. "It's literally surrounded by a wall."
Teaching in the Bronx has its own quirks for two women who grew up in the docile suburbs (Haile in Maryland outside of Washington, Sullivan in Westchester, N.Y.). On the morning they are teaching about influence tactics, the school is also practicing a "lockdown" in case of a shooting. Before class starts, they squat on the floor in a locked faculty room. "Stay away from the windows. Otherwise, you're dead," instructs one of the teachers.
Warren, the Generation Citizen founder, thinks every high school should have a civics program, especially the kinds of rough schools that have to practice lockdowns. He has fought hard to make sure a Generation Citizen class is not an after-school affair. Civics shouldn't just be for class presidents and teachers pets. "Every young person should get an effective action civics education. Just like getting math, science, English," he says.
Growing a nation of citizens that actively participates in a democracy starts by giving young people a real-life civic experience, Warren says. They need to learn the complexities of an issue, beyond simply complaining about it, and then see for themselves how they can influence it. He believes this is the backbone of how democracies work, but in established ones like the United States, the citizens can get complacent. That leads to feelings of helplessness and anger.
"We'll go into the classroom and say, 'How many of you actually feel like you can actually change your communities?' At the beginning, a lot of them are really skeptical," he says.
At the end of the semester, things tend to look different. A team from each class presents its project to a panel of judges at Civics Day, a Generation Citizen invention modeled after a science fair. The students' behavior at Civics Day is a world away from their behavior when they start, says New York City Council Member Ritchie Torres, who spoke to a high school class examining public housing earlier this year. "I wasn't sure if they were really engaged, but they incorporated almost all of my feedback," he says. "It's something of an awakening for them" when they present their project to elected officials and professors at the end of the course.
Agbulos's class in Brooklyn is just getting started. They have selected rape as their problem and are discussing ways to get their school to incorporate sexual assault into its sex-education courses. True to convention, they are skeptical that the power brokers—in this case, the faculty—will be open to their suggestions. "I don't think they're going to be on our side if we tell them they don't know now to teach health," one student says.
"I feel like they're just going to give us statement after statement about how great it is," says another.
The students are in agreement that one particularly strict health teacher will be resistant to point of yelling at them. Agbulos responds. "Have you actually talked to he, or is that just your hypothesis?"
The students aren't allowed to give up. The coursework requires them to follow through on their plan, no matter how impossible it seems at the beginning. Agbulos's class eventually identifies several teachers they could tap as allies and discuss how they could approach the issue of rape in a sex-education class.
"Show the stats of how many people get raped and show the stats of how little it gets taught," says one student.
"Say they're doing good in some things but not good in others," another student says.
Then the class strays back to complaining. "They're assuming if you have sex, it's consentful," observes a student.
"Freshman year, I saw so many girls get pregnant. It was like, 'What happened?' " says another.
Someone suggests that only seniors should take the class if it addresses rape. "That's too late," says one student.
As the bell rings, Agbulos calls out that she hopes someone wrote down the names of their potential allies. She is obviously flustered. Sarah Andes, the site director for Generation Citizen in New York, offers encouragement. "I know you have ideas in your back pocket, but let them come up with it," she says. "You were great at the beginning."
Warren is awed that Generation Citizen's greatest asset, its Democracy Coaches, continue to be in supply as he grows the program. Would-be volunteers must apply for the positions, and if selected, commit to a public school class in ways that many college students might not go for. They might even have to get up early. For some reason, Generation Citizen attracts the ones who see the work as a welcome challenge.
"We think it's one of the most rigorous volunteer experiences you can have in college," Warren says. "We have very high standards, and I think that allows us to attract really great people."
Certainly, the kids think so. "They're doing this for free. It's pretty weird of how they put so much effort into teaching us," says Hossain. That's the impression Warren wants every kid to have.
This article is from the archive of our partner National Journal and part of our Next Economy coverage.