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Action Civics: Empowering Students to be Engaged in our Democracy

LWVSZoomTop left (then moving clockwise): Steven Goodman, DeNora Getachew, Simran Ruta, John Harrison, Claire Scarcella and Martin MintzEvery year, the League of Women Voters of Scarsdale organizes and hosts its Food for Thought event. This year, the event took place on November 12 over zoom and featured a dynamic group of panelists on the cutting edge of civics education. DeNora Getachew moderated the panel. She is the former New York Executive Director of Generation Citizen (GC), a national nonprofit organization dedicated to empowering students with the tools they need to use their voice, advocate, and be active and engaged citizens. GC is an organization dedicated to transforming the way that civics education is taught in schools. Getachew is a dynamic, engaging expert on “demystifying democracy,” so that students feel inspired and find active citizenry to be both accessible and meaningful. Martin Mintz, the current Program Manager of GC, is also a former middle school teacher. Mintz’ work at GC focuses on the connection between education and social justice. In explaining some of GC’s work, he spoke about students at a school in Queens, who were tasked with improving a real-life issue. The students chose to push for cleaner streets, less trash near their school, and did this through research and advocacy with their local elected officials.

The panel also included Scarsdale Middle School teacher, Steven Goodman, who is passionate about infusing civic engagement into the 8th grade curriculum. Goodman talked about how he always starts the year with intensive study of the Constitution; laying the groundwork and the foundation for his students to understand the origins of our government. Goodman discussed how he and the SMS Social Studies’ department collaborate with the Scarsdale League to hold annual mock elections, even during election years wherein the races may be uncontested, or when the races are for local judges and not the president. Both Goodman and Getachew exclaimed that “every election matters,” and it is really important to encourage students to become citizens who are comfortable voting and who understand that it is often the local offices, the local elections that really impact their lives. Goodman also recently worked with the League to facilitate their annual Civics Jeopardy game, this year played over zoom in 7th and 8th grade Social Studies classes around Election Day.

The Social Studies’ Department Chair from Scarsdale High School, John Harrison, also joined the panel with two students, senior Simran Ruta, the Vice President of the Student Government and junior Claire Scarcella, President of her class. Early in the discussion, Scarcella told Goodman that her experience in his 8th grade social studies class inspired her to run for student government in high school.

Ruta and Scarcella spoke of their experiences in the SHS Student Government and the various issues upon which students have been speaking up recently, including Title IX and school reopening; they talked about social media, media literacy and the importance of having honest conversations with their peers. All panelists addressed the complicated issue of increased polarization in political conversation. Mintz said that GC focuses on helping teachers and students work through those conversations. Goodman said that the current national environment of hyperpartisanship makes it challenging to address many issues with students since some are increasingly charged and complex.

Harrison highlighted the long haul of advocacy -- how you can’t expect change after one phone call or one letter. He said that creating change often takes a long time. Both Goodman and Getachew mentioned women’s suffrage -- the 72 plus years of marching, protesting, and organizing that led to the ratification of the 19th amendment in 1920.

At the end of the discussion, Getachew posed a lightning round question: “If you had a magic wand, what would you do to make democracy more accessible?” Goodman said that he would want people not to see others who have different political beliefs as enemies, when “you push past politics you see that we have so much in common.” He also spoke of the importance of consensus-building. Harrison would like to see the voting age lowered to 16, getting students actively engaged in voting early. Getachew mentioned that there is a campaign for lowering the voting age in different parts of the U.S.. Scarcella said that we should remember we are all Americans and we should work together. Mintz agreed with Harrison about lowering the voting age and also wants to take away barriers to voting. Mintz thinks that automatic voter registration would help make democracy more accessible. Ruta said she wants to “say goodbye to the Electoral College,” and Getachew agreed and mentioned the National Popular Vote Compact is also a movement in some states in our country.

To watch the video of the event, click here

For biographies on DeNora Getachew, Martin Mintz and more information on Generation Citizen, go to the LWVS Events’ page

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