Member Spotlight — Building Active Citizen-Scholars with Democracy Prep

This month’s member spotlight focuses on Rashid Duroseau, the civics program director for Democracy Prep. Founded in 2005, Democracy Prep operates a network of 22 high-performing charter schools in New York, New Jersey, Baton Rouge, Las Vegas, and San Antonio — educating 6,500 citizen-scholars, primarily students of color, about what change is possible within American democracy. A former classroom teacher, Duroseau now ensures that Democracy Prep’s learning ties back to the idea of building schools and scholars that are active in their communities.

Q: What is Democracy Prep?

Duroseau: Democracy Prep is a charter network focused explicitly on developing active citizen-scholars. We work to ensure that we’re preparing the next generation of changemakers, policy makers, activists, and community members for the complex social and political landscape they’ve inherited. In our network, we define a “citizen” as any member of a community who endeavors to lift up the other members of that community. As such, citizenship is also a state of mind, rather than just a legal status — it’s a willingness to constantly jump in, help out, make things better, and challenge inequity in all of its forms.

Q: What is Democracy Prep’s model for building changemakers?

Duroseau: The majority of our work in this regard happens through our Civics Program, of which there are numerous aspects. While programming can vary based on community needs and larger social/political contexts, we have several core initiatives that I’m excited to highlight.

The first is our K-12 Get Out The Vote tradition, which occurs during elections. This component of our programming is designed to empower communities while also reinforcing for our scholars that participation in our democratic society should be a habit and a duty they take seriously, (regardless of one’s political leanings). To the first point (empowering communities), we saw some very encouraging results in the 2019 Primary: our scholars registered over 200 people to vote, and they were able to get over 700 people to pledge to vote. With regard to building lifelong habits as voters, a recent Mathematica study concluded that there is a 98% percent probability that enrolling in Democracy Prep has a positive impact on a young person’s likelihood of registering to vote and voting!

Prior to sending our scholars into the community to encourage eligible adults to vote/register to vote, we engage in a number of lessons and discussions about the election process, scaffolded to meet the developmental stages of our scholars in Elementary, Middle, and High School. We explore questions such as: What is an election? Why does voting matter, and what happens when people abstain from voting? Who are the candidates running, and what do they stand for? What obstacles still exist for certain communities that struggle to have their voices heard?

The second core component is our Day of Service. We believe so deeply in the importance of community engagement that we cancel classes for one day each year, sending our staff and scholars into the community to work alongside various nonprofit organizations for the day. The projects have ranged from working in soup kitchens, to planting crops in community gardens, to performing scenes from school musicals for the elderly. We offer our scholars numerous opportunities to do service work annually; however, this special day is akin to a “Super Bowl” of service, where we celebrate a year of building community partnerships and being of service to others. It’s of critical importance that we demonstrate to our young people that there isn’t a rhetoric/reality gap with regard to balancing the priorities of kindness and academic achievement.

The third and final core aspect of the civics program is our Change the World project tradition. As part of their graduation requirement, High School seniors select an issue in society, research its roots and implications for communities, then design projects to address their selected issue. The topics span an impressively broad spectrum, including issues like childhood obesity, voter disenfranchisement, domestic violence, and period poverty. As they work on their projects, seniors simultaneously take a capstone seminar course, Sociology of Change, in which they explore the philosophical works of various changemakers, learn about proven methods of mobilizing communities/challenging the status quo, and develop a deeper understanding of some of the structural inequalities that must be addressed in order to build a more equitable society.

Q: How is Democracy Prep different from other civics-based programs, such as democracy schools?

Duroseau: Democracy Prep and democracy school models share a similar ultimate aim — preparing our scholars to become active participants in a democratic society. Democracy Prep acknowledges, however, that this is a process that demands a gradual release as the young people we educate develop a familiarity with navigating institutions and an ability to make well-informed decisions. After all, this is the foundation for meaningful activism in any form.

As our schools were designed, specifically, to serve in communities that have been historically marginalized and under-served, we work to balance providing our scholars a rigorous and structured learning environment (to close the achievement/opportunity gap) with empowering members of marginalized communities to find their voices and advocate for equity. Democracy Prep’s highly intentional design means that more of our core decisions are made at the “adult’ level as compared to a traditional democracy school (particularly at the Elementary and Middle School levels); however, by the time our scholars reach high school, they play a much more prominent role in meaningful decision-making. This is due to their further developed capacity to navigate opposing viewpoints, build consensus, distinguish between “wants” and “needs”, and articulate clearly their positions on issues. Essentially, we offer increasing opportunities for input as our scholars mature and demonstrate that they are ready for the responsibilities of shaping policies.

It is important to note here that 1) our decision-making is rooted in the “purpose over power” ethos, which entails a deep level of reflection and constant work to endow our scholars with the social, cultural, and political capital needed to succeed in a variety of contexts, and 2) we place a strong emphasis on cultivating advocacy skills so that our scholars can still shape their learning communities and express what they need from educators.

I’d suggest that our model aligns closely with the reality in which we live as adults — we don’t always have a say in the development of a particular policy, but with the right skills and mindsets, we can interrogate the ones which do not serve us and demand revisions or the adoption of new ones.

Q: Why do you call your students scholars?

Duroseau: We believe there is a nuanced distinction between a student and a scholar. A student is an individual who is enrolled in a school — a powerful thing in itself. A scholar, however, is a student who possesses a deep commitment to and love of learning. Calling our children “scholars” coveys a belief in their potential as intellectuals and active participants in their own learning.

Q: What difference does that make in terms of a young person’s attitude about themselves or about what they’re doing in school?

Duroseau: Calling our young people ‘scholars,’ is a subtle reminder that we believe, with great conviction, that each of them has the potential to exceed society’s expectations for them. We know and expect that when they come to school, they will push themselves to produce their best work, they will request support when they need it, they will ask questions to better understand the content, and they will find creative ways to apply what they have learned in meaningful ways.

In addition to calling our young people scholars, we treat them as such. We demand excellence from them each day, encourage them to explore new ideas, and provide them with the support necessary to continue to grow as thinkers and “doers”.

Q: What are the challenges that your students are facing in terms of civic engagement and feeling connected to what’s going on now?

Duroseau: Now, more than ever, it’s of the utmost importance that we continue to help our scholars understand systems and structures in society so that they never feel that they are powerless to bring about change in their communities. Voting is one remedy, but educators need to be asking young people, “what can one do in between elections to continue to advocate for whatever change they’re seeking?”

How do you bring about change through a traditional systems-based route? And when that doesn’t work, how are you going to continue fighting for whatever change to which you’ve devoted yourself? John Lewis often speaks of getting into “good trouble” and Bayard Rustin spoke of “angelic troublemakers” — both of them were alluding to the importance of being willing to persevere in the face of opposition and make sacrifices for worthwhile causes. We emphasize to our scholars that if there is a cause that you truly believe in, particularly one that disrupts the status quo, you must not lose hope when you’re told “no,” “stop,” or “be silent”. This is a reality POC activists face regularly, as structural racism is so deeply embedded into virtually every institution in our society. Despite those obstacles, it’s important for young people to understand that when they are in pursuit of a just cause, being told of “no” doesn’t have to mean the end of the story.

Q: CivXNow is working on how to address diversity and equity in civic education. What can the Coalition learn from Democracy Prep?

Duroseau: Democracy Prep is committed to honoring and acknowledging the historical contributions of marginalized communities while encouraging the next generation to pick up the proverbial torch and continue the charge towards equity. In order to empower our young people, we believe it is essential to begin with properly training the adults who educate them. One of the core priorities of our network’s CMO (charter management office) is to provide DEI training for all staff, whether administrative or instructional. Each of our campuses engages in a professional development series that pushes them to collectively identify and unpack implicit biases; examine the roots of local, national, and global structural inequities; and adopt practices to promote dynamic language and a “purpose over power” approach to school culture. We train our staff to engage in difficult but necessary conversations (with colleages, with parents, and with scholars), driving home the understanding that the needs of our young people supersede any desires for personal comfort.

We strive to show our scholars “success that looks like them” — highlighting the changemakers who grew up in their communities, who’ve walked the same paths that they have walked, and who have persevered through some of the challenges they may currently face. This happens both through our instructional materials and through community building programming such as Black History Month, Latinx Heritage Month, and others. This approach sends our scholars the message that they are seen and loved, and that we believe that they, like the icons and unsung heroes of history, have the power to lift up their own communities.

To further reinforce the message of empowerment, we regularly discuss current events with our scholars, asking them to reflect on patterns and root causes, then design solutions to the problems they identify. We want them to know, truly, that they are not merely witnesses to history as it unfolds, but participants in it. Beyond discussion, we provide numerous hands-on opportunities for our young people to serve and lead, whether that means navigating institutions, leveraging the power of social media, or adding their voices and physical presence to larger direct action campaigns.

Ultimately, it’s important to understand that there is a tremendous, civic education (and civic opportunity gap) that primarily affects communities of color and low-income communities. Democracy Prep’s work is marked by a sense of urgency around ensuring that the members of such communities understand their rights, have the capacity to examine whether systems are serving their best interests, and are equipped to advocate for change in the face of marginalization.

Q: Any final thoughts?

Duroseau: It’s critical that all educational institutions place a greater emphasis on empowering our young people to take the reins in a time in history where we’re seeing so many opportunities for radical change. Our young people are poised to shape and build a more equitable future. Democracy Prep’s team is excited to join the CivxNow Coalition and learn from other civics-oriented institutions. It’s not going to be one school or organization that can address the issue of civic education equity — it will be all of us collaborating, celebrating and building off of each other’s successes, and pushing one another to do even better in service of our young people.

Share Insights from Democracy Prep on Social Media

“[We are] focused explicitly on developing active citizen-scholars….It’s more a state of mind and a state of willingness to constantly jump in, help out, make things better, and ask questions.” @DemocracyPrep #CivXNow

“We cancel classes for one day each year, and [we] go out into the community and engage in various projects for the day…We think that it’s just important to demonstrate that there isn’t a gap between our rhetoric and reality.” @DemocracyPrep #CivXNow

“what are some of the fundamental mindset, skills, of an engaged citizen?…Because we feel that’s really what’s going to help scholars really develop into people who, no matter what community they live in, there is a tool kit that they can draw from.” @DemocracyPrep #CivXNow

“helping our scholars understand that, in order to arrive at the truth, it’s really important for them 2 analyze both perspectives — especially perspectives that are not similar 2 their own, because it’s somewhere in between where the truth can be found.” @DemocracyPrep #CivXNow

“it’s so important that we continue to help our scholars understand systems of structures in society so that there isn’t this sense of powerlessness…Voting is one remedy. But what can you do in between elections to continue to advocate for change?” @DemocracyPrep #CivXNow

“you may be told ‘no,’ especially as a person of color…but being full of ‘no’ doesn’t have to mean the end of the story…We teach our scholars to be persistent…When it’s something that’s important, how do you make sure that your voice is heard?” @DemocracyPrep #CivXNow

“It’s about building community…This connectedness is really important as we talk about civic education because ultimately it’s rooted in a commitment to lifting up the people of a community.” @DemocracyPrep #CivXNow

“it’s critical that [CivXNow is] focused on empowering our young people to take the reins…It’s not going to be one school or organization that can address the issue of civic ed equity…it’s going to be all of us collaborating and pushing each other.” @DemocracyPrep #CivXNow

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