Meira Levinson’s No Citizen Left Behind is a landmark call for the remaking of civic education in America’s schools. In presenting her challenge to the status quo, Levinson documents a number of organizations that demonstrate the progress to be wrung from her prescriptions. We invited friend of the Press and incoming Harvard Graduate School of Education student Jessica Gerhardstein Gingold to describe her experience as a youth council director with Chicago’s Mikva Challenge, one of the programs that Levinson highlights.
In No Citizen Left Behind Meira Levinson puts some fire into the often dull argument that the United States needs to get serious about civic education, calling for reform for a system that today largely excludes poor and minority students from democratic participation. She begins the book by describing the experience of teaching on 9/11, and shares a remarkable story about her middle school students predicting the Iraq War. Despite their evident understanding, though, she laments that what she calls a “civic empowerment gap” made it unlikely that her students would become participants in the course charted that day:
Whether my students were misguided or prescient, whether their life experiences blinded or exposed them to the true character of our political leaders, there is ample evidence that they are unlikely to become active participants in American civic and political life. As a result, they are unlikely to influence civic and political deliberation or decision-making. This is because there is a profound civic empowerment gap—as large and as disturbing as the reading and math achievement gaps that have received significant national attention in recent years—between ethnoracial minority, naturalized, and especially poor citizens, on the one hand, and White, native-born, and especially middle-class and wealthy citizens, on the other.
Levinson explores the causes of and potential solutions to this gap through many lenses. As a political philosopher, she considers the political, sociological and historical context of the United States and of our education system, closely examining the meanings of citizenship and democracy. She asks hard questions about how we teach civics in a diverse country where our ethnoracial identities invariably dictate our experiences of citizenship. She grapples with how these theories trickle down into practice by sharing personal stories from her years of inner-city teaching. In addressing these questions and others, she doesn’t fantasize about an unreachable Shangri-La of civic education. Instead, she clearly outlines the qualities of her gold standard curriculum, Action Civics, and highlights schools and organizations that have begun to actualize it.
Action Civics is designed to create “an engaged citizenry capable of effective participation in the political process, in their communities, and in the larger society.” It is founded on the principle that young people have authentic civic experiences that matter and that should be part of their civic educational experiences. “I recommend a constructivist approach that helps students construct their own empowering means of engaging in this work,” Levinson writes, “rather than telling them how to do it. As important as it is for students to learn to take multiple perspectives, educators, too, need to be open to students’ diverse perspectives and experiences.” One of the founding organizations of the National Action Civics Collaborative (NACC) is Mikva Challenge, a Chicago-based nonprofit organization whose mission is to create the next generation of civic leaders. Mikva Challenge is one of many organizations that Levinson highlights in her book, and, having been a member of its staff for over two years, I personally witnessed the efficacy of her prescriptions for closing the civic empowerment gap.
Mikva Challenge accomplishes its mission through three main program areas: elections, classroom activism, and youth policymaking. With the elections program, students learn about electoral politics through campaigning and candidate forums where students compose and ask questions. Levinson mentions the classroom activism program, Issues to Action, in which Mikva staff support teachers in guiding students through the process of choosing an issue they care about, researching it, and then taking action. Both programs include curriculum and professional development to build the capacity of teachers to do Action Civics nationally. In the youth policymaking program, students comprise three city-wide youth councils: Education and Health councils each work to improve the Chicago Public School system (CPS), while a Youth Commission works with the Mayor to address citywide issues relevant to young people. In each of its programs, Mikva starts with the essential question of what young people know. From there, the organization works to ensure that students have access to experts in the field to build their arguments, learn the research skills to do their own surveys of other students, and develop the leadership skills to present their ideas to decision-makers, the media, and each other.
As Levinson notes, the civic empowerment gap is also a matter of attitude: those who have lived in marginalized communities are less likely to trust those in power. Still, she points out, that trust is not necessary to motivate civic action if there’s an intact sense of efficacy—the belief that individuals, even youths, can influence government. Good action civics education builds that sense of efficacy. It is the result of validating students’ lived experiences, giving students the opportunity to actually meet those who have power over and expertise in the issues they care about, and allowing students to experience making change firsthand. In my time with Mikva Challenge I watched these methods build authentic youth civic engagement. The students who come through Mikva’s programs often express deep mistrust in government, but when given the opportunity to participate and see the fruits of their labor they are more motivated to keep doing it. You can see much of that spirit in a Mikva Challenge video on the power of youth.
When I directed the Education Council at Mikva Challenge, which was comprised entirely of young people of color, I witnessed their growth as leaders, saw their voices transform policies for the better, and watched adults evolve as they began to see students as partners in problem-solving rather than as problems. Mikva students fought for and won money for student voice committees in several CPS high schools. They launched what’s become a multi-year campaign to bring CPS into the 21st century. Realizing that most of the resources on cyberbullying were aimed at white, middle-class students, they secured funds from CPS to create an anti-digital abuse video that highlights the unique nature of cyberbullying in urban school districts. Additionally, they pushed for a new overall technology policy that, if adopted, would help make school more relevant to the lives of young people today. Time and again the students met with decision makers who were so impressed that they began requesting their presence more often.
Such concrete action is not a fluke. It is happening throughout Chicago Public Schools, driven by the principles of Action Civics that Levinson outlines in No Citizen Left Behind. Youth are not guaranteed to successfully change policy or even change adults’ attitudes when provided with authentic civic experiences. What they are guaranteed is the opportunity to build the skill set necessary to continue being influencers of power. And the more we can give this skill set to those most often left out of our civic discourse, the stronger our democracy will be. The success of Mikva Challenge is an affirmation of Levinson’s ideas, and it should give us hope that her vision of a robust democracy with diverse and engaged citizens can be a reality if we want it to be.