Often, the answer to the question, “What is the purpose of civic education?” is focused on teaching the fundamentals of our constitutional democracy so that more of our citizens understand our system of governance, vote, commit to community service, and engage in local politics. These are important tenets of civics.
The moment at hand – as millions of Americans have raised their voices in outcry against racial inequities, institutional racism, and incidents of racist attacks that have pervaded this country since its beginnings – is a stark reminder that civic engagement is also a manifestation of our commitment to self-governance. Sometimes the voice of the people is best heard when people are joined together. As a result of the protests, in short order, we are beginning to see movement toward change; some of us are among those trying to make change as part of the gathered people.
As the Advisory Council of CivXNow, we are writing this open letter, urging that now is the time that we as a Coalition should listen to that voice and lift it up where it already speaks from among us.
Protests can be traced back to our nation’s founding, and are often the most vivid evidence that it is the people who ultimately govern. Today, peaceful protestors who have taken to the public square in every corner of our country in the aftermath of yet another police killing of a Black man, George Floyd, are shouting in the streets that we must take more seriously our commitment to equality and justice, and to addressing systemic, particularly anti-Black, racism.
CivXNow – a community of over 120 organizations – is dedicated to prioritizing and improving civic education. The signers of this letter believe that we can, and we must, do better to integrate racial equity into our work. We must lift up voices from communities of color to learn more about the disjuncture between civic education as it is traditionally taught and the realities experienced by students of color every day – and we are urging other members of the Coalition to add their names to this.
Individually our members have released dozens of statements condemning recent police violence, supporting legislation on police reform, standing in solidarity with the Black community, calling for action and an end to racism in our democracy – and for changing the way we teach civics to layer important historical context. We invite you to add your organization’s statements to this list. Please email Patricia Leslie-Brown links to your statements if you would like to add yours.
But now cannot simply be a time for making statements. This moment should propel us to build better civic education moving forward. This does not necessarily mean a wholesale change. Civic education includes civic knowledge, the skills to engage in the civitas, the dispositions to engage with diverse viewpoints, and the agency to take action. Yet civic educators must also dig deeper, and teach with more depth and nuance so that students can grasp the racist patterns in our history, develop the breadth of moral vision necessary to overcome them, and be motivated to act. We must make a commitment to tell the full and complex story of our republic – including how racism has manifested itself in the work of our institutions – so that students can learn how to recognize racism today, and become advocates proactively working against anti-Black racism. This is a moral imperative.
Civic education must teach about our country’s ideals of equality and justice – about when this country has pursued those ideals with integrity and when it has failed to live up to them – because as students of history, we know that justice will not come without the people demanding it.
The success of our Coalition’s work will depend on collective and individual efforts. Many of our member organizations have indicated that they need to revisit core elements of their work to address racism. We urge every organization in the Coalition to continue conversations about race, and to consider taking urgent steps to help all our nation’s young people understand the historical and continuing impact of systemic racism and also to acquire the tools, skills, and moral vision to overcome it.
Over the past year and a half, a diverse group has been grappling with the issue of equity in civics through a Hewlett Foundation funded Equity in Civics grant co-facilitated by Generation Citizen and iCivics. Over 30 people have been engaged with this work so far, including many members of the CivXNow Coalition. The goal of the project is to advance the issue of racial justice in the field of civic education. We will publish our results this Fall. Never has the success of that work been more critical. We recognize that this is only a first step of a larger process of change that must happen throughout the field.
We do not have all of the answers within the civic education field, and we must continue on the path of learning and discovery. This is only the beginning. The commitment of the Coalition – in its own work – is to a process of listening, learning, and action.
- Equity is at the heart of the CivXNow Policy Menu. In it, we call for states, districts, and schools to establish strategies such as including civics in state accountability systems, disaggregating results for subgroups, and devoting resources that will reduce racial and economic disparities in civic learning. It’s time we revisit the deficit approach reflected in some of our recommendations, and commit to an inclusive approach that prioritizes the voices of communities of color in fashioning solutions to inequities in the civic education system.
- Going forward, when we issue guidance about how to craft policies for civic education, we must do so incorporating the perspective of addressing systemic racism.
- We need to examine who is at the table, and whether we are meeting our goals as to inclusion – including the composition of this Advisory Council which offers this statement acknowledging we are a majority-white governing body that needs to diversify.
The civil unrest of the past several weeks has elicited voices on both sides of the aisle. Addressing racism is not a partisan issue, and it’s good to see that our political leaders recognize that, even in this polarized time. It’s once again brought to the forefront conversations about ending racial inequality that we need to make a permanent pillar of our work – and not just a matter we revisit after each violent incident.
We issue the call to members of the Coalition interested in joining a conversation about racial equity to get in touch with Patricia Leslie-Brown.
The civic education community has always focused on supporting, and in many instances rebuilding, the civic fabric of our country. But civic strength can be built only when the words found above the entrance to the United States Supreme Court ring true: Equal Justice Under Law. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., said that the moral arc of the universe bends toward justice, but he emphasized that it does not bend on its own. It is a “tragic misconception,” he wrote, that “the very flow of time… will inevitably cure all ills. Actually, time itself is neutral; it can be used either destructively or constructively.” As a community, we must work together to strengthen our national commitment to a present and future that lives up to the best of our country’s founding ideals of liberty, equality, and effective self-government, and that also builds beyond them to address injustice.
Danielle Allen, Director, Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics at Harvard University
Brian Brady, President, Mikva Challenge
Kristen Cambell, Executive Director, Philanthropy for Active Civic Engagement
Louise, Dube, Executive Director, iCivics
Shawn Healy, Democracy Program Director, Robert R. McCormick Foundation
Peter Levine, Associate Dean, Jonathan M. Tisch College of Civic Life at Tufts University
Ted McConnell, Senior Policy Advisor, CivXNow
Julie Silverbrook, Senior Director of Growth Initiative, iCivics
Sterling Speirn, Senior Fellow, National Conference on Citizenship
Scott Warren, Chief Executive Officer & Co-Founder, Generation Citizen
Andrew Wilkes, Senior Director of Policy and Advocacy, Generation Citizen