Shared Services Resource Coordinator at YMCA Youth & Government Programs
This month’s member spotlight focuses on Derek Summerville, who serves as the Shared Services Coordinator for the YMCA’s Youth and Government program. Based in Washington, DC, Derek works to provide multiple YMCA Youth and Government state programs with resources, partnerships, and national opportunities for students, teachers, and program staff.
Q: Tell us a little bit about the YMCA’s work in youth engagement and civics.
Summerville: Youth and Government started in New York in 1936 as a way to get our YMCA teenagers involved in the civic process. Students wanted a way to get their ideas heard, and the Y thought the best way to do that would be by connecting them with their state and local governments.
We’re now in 42 states and the District of Columbia. We work with over 55,000 students from middle school through college. Each of our state programs runs a year-round model state government. Many of our states also offer local, state, and national youth advocacy opportunities, youth voter registration and turnout programs, and service-learning opportunities through programs like Y-Corps.
On the national level, we offer a series of programs and conferences that serve as capstone experiences. These include our YMCA Conference on National Affairs, the YMCA National Judicial Competition, the YMCA Youth Advocate Program in DC, and the YMCA Youth Governors Conference in DC.
Q: How does the Y manage all of that programming?
Summerville: Youth and Government relies heavily on volunteers to support the work of our full and part-time staff. Most of our volunteers are teachers — many of them (but not all) are social studies, government, and civics teachers, while others are community members, parents, and alumni. Several of our teachers not only sponsor the program in their school but also incorporate Youth and Government as a co-curricular experience in their classrooms.
Q: Why did the Y join the CivXNow Coalition?
Summerville: The Y and Youth and Government have always supported civic engagement, but as a network of community-based associations and state-based programs, we don’t always have the opportunity to take part in national efforts supporting the cause of civics. As part of my role here in DC, I help provide a national conduit down to our state programs so that we can collectively support national civic education advocates, whether it’s iCivics, the CivXNow Coalition, CIRCLE, and any other kind of civic organization. We want to be able to utilize our program network and leverage the relationships we have to help further the cause of civic education. The CivXNow Coalition provided a great way to formalize that role.
Q: What role can the Y play in the CivXNow movement?
Summerville: We see ourselves as an essential piece of the civic education infrastructure. We want to see civics not only included in school curricula but recognized as a critical ingredient in building and sustaining healthy communities.
Part of the riddle — and I think this is a challenge for every non-profit — is that we can’t possibly do it all alone. That’s where coalitions like CivXNow come in. We know how impactful programs like Youth and Government can be — but up until now, we hadn’t joined the broader conversation of those who were working to elevate the civics conversation.
The Y is unique because we try to work with students from as early as fifth grade up until they graduate from college. Our youth development roadmap for citizenship starts from the moment students begin civic learning and continues until they are actively voting and in the workforce.
Q: Why is this important to the Y?
Summerville: The Y has just released our new national strategic plan, which includes a “Commitment to America” that is grounded in our heritage as a youth development organization but responsive to contemporary needs. At the heart of this commitment is a focus on “developing a new generation of change-makers who will create the communities we all want to live in.” That commitment, combined with the existing work of our Youth and Government programs, made joining CivXNow the right strategic move for our movement.
Q: What do you see as a significant challenge in the civic education movement?
Summerville: One of the biggest challenges is resources, and leveraging our collective voices to increase them. The civic education space is full of diverse interests, and we need to make sure we don’t let assumptions drive how we work together. In reality, we’re all doing the same thing, and we’re all focusing on the same people — the students and teachers in the classroom, and the families and communities that help shape them and support them.
Q: Does Youth and Government have a national agenda when it comes to advocacy or is it all really state by state?
Summerville: The Y as an organization has policy priorities at both the state and federal levels organized around our three areas of focus: Youth Development, Healthy Living, and Social Responsibility.
Youth and Government itself serves as a non-partisan platform for our students to shape their own views. We offer advocacy programs that provide participants with the opportunity to advocate for the Y’s policy priorities, but in our model government programs, the students set the agenda.
Beyond our model government programs, we work to provide platforms and opportunities for students to continue advocating for the policies important to them. This year in Pennsylvania, our YMCA Youth Governor Sam Bisno organized a group of students to meet with state officials, including the Governor and Speaker of the House, to discuss issues the students had addressed in their legislation for our program.
The Y was there to support youth voice and facilitate the opportunity. We weren’t there to endorse their views, just to endorse their active participation in the legislative process.
Q: So how do you deal with a diversity of opinion in advocacy?
Summerville: I can’t speak for everyone in my movement, but when a student comes to me with their desire to advocate on a certain issue, my response is always the same: convince me. It doesn’t matter what issue they choose or opinions they form — my role as a civic educator is to question and challenge their assumptions, not out of my own beliefs on the issue, but because it strengthens the civic efficacy of their ideas. We want students to understand the process and institutions that allow them to make civic change, regardless of their ideas.
Q: What lessons can the national movement learn from the way the Y deals with diverse opinions?
Summerville: Diverse opinions are what make communities great. If there’s one lesson the Y can offer, it is to turn these opinions into a source of strength rather than a point of contention. It’s always a juggling act, but that is the role of community organizations — to help us address issues that would otherwise get labeled unsolvable or too divisive. We don’t have all of the answers, but we do know that the more of us we bring to the table, the closer we’ll get to substantive solutions.
Q: Can you talk about a particularly difficult issue for the Y?
Summerville: As a community-based organization, the challenge for the Y is always ensuring that we serve as facilitators of conversations that can lead to solutions, rather than taking stances ourselves that may not reflect our overall movement.
As a youth development organization, our top priority is youth safety. While that might sound like an issue everyone would agree on, we all know how heated and divisive the discussion can become when it turns to the topic of firearms. That’s where things can get difficult, but also where we try to serve as bridge-builders in our communities.
The same thing goes for the civics conversation, which can get very politicized depending on the context. We need to make sure the pitch to policymakers doesn’t stray into politics but instead focuses on civic skills crucial to developing critical thinking in students. You need stakeholders in the non-profit, for-profit, and educational sectors to all come together and collectively say, “this needs to be fixed, and here are all the reasons why.” That’s what makes coalitions like CivXNow so important.
Q: Can you talk about the YMCA’s faith-based history and the challenges that might pose?
Summerville: While we were founded in London in 1844 as the Young Men’s Christian Association, our modern challenge is that we are no longer only young, or only male, or only Christian — we’re an association with a mission statement that ends with the words “for all.”
Over our history, as the communities served by the Y have grown and developed, we’ve adapted and changed to better meet the needs of our communities. When we talk about the historical principles at the heart of our movement, we frame them in the universal values of honesty, caring, respect, and responsibility.
In reality, the Y’s history as a civics-based organization is just as strong as our faith-based legacy. As the Y spread around the country, we were among the first community organizations to provide citizenship classes, teach English as a second language, support our armed services (we helped found the USO ), and help people register to vote.
Q: Do you have challenges working with public schools?
Summerville: Most public schools know and trust the Y as a hub of their community, so our name recognition is very high. The challenge comes when we have to re-introduce ourselves as more than the gym and pool they recognize from down the street. Once we’ve built a relationship with the school and staff, they become some of our strongest advocates, especially around expanding opportunities for civic engagement.
Share Insights from Derek on Social Media
“When a student comes to me…to advocate on a certain issue, my response is always the same: convince me…my role as a civic educator is to question&challenge their assumptions…because it strengthens the civic efficacy of their ideas” @ D_Summerville @ymcayag @CivXNow #CivXNow
“Diverse opinions are what make communities great…turn these opinions into a source of strength rather than a point of contention…the more of us we bring to the table, the closer we’ll get to substantive solutions.” @ D_Summerville @ymcayag@CivXNow #CivXNow
“You need stakeholders in the non-profit, for-profit, and educational sectors to all come together and collectively say, “this needs to be fixed, and here are all the reasons why.” That’s what makes coalitions like CivXNow so important.” @D_Summerville @ymcayag @CivXNow #CivXNow
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Post originally from Tuesday, June 25th, 2019 CivXNow Coalition Newsletter