Member Spotlight — Commonwealth Club’s Focus on K-12 Civic Engagement

This month’s member spotlight shines on Dr. Lauren Silver, the Education Director of the Commonwealth Club of California, the nation’s largest public affairs forum. Dr. Silver, who was previously the Vice President of Education for the Computer History Museum in California, is the first ever Education Director for the 117-year-old Commonwealth Club. She’s been charged with a new initiative to develop positive civic engagement with the K–12 community. In this Q&A, she talks about how the organization is changing to focus more on young people, how it’s been forced to shift its work rapidly in the COVID-19 era, and about the Student Summit on Civics that the Commonwealth Club is hosting with CivXNow.

Q: What is the Commonwealth Club, and what has it been historically?

Silver: The Commonwealth Club is the oldest and largest public affairs forum in the U.S. It was founded in 1903 by prominent citizens in San Francisco to study and discuss civic problems and their solutions. My understanding is that it used to be more of an exclusive organization, for distinguished, wealthy citizens, mostly men, who could influence public policy. But it was also founded on core values of mutual respect, positive regard across differences of opinion, and the concept of working together for a common good, and it has always been at the forefront of movements for positive social change. From the very beginning, the Club has been a nonpartisan place for speakers and thinkers with varying points of view to come together to discuss and debate important civic issues. We’re still a membership organization, but we’re open to anyone and our core values haven’t changed.

Q: But it has gone through a number of changes over the years?

Silver: Well, I think any organization that has been around for over a century would have to have changed over the years! I think one of the strengths of the Club has been its ability to adapt and respond to the issues of the day, as well as to take advantage of new opportunities as they’ve become available. I love that our website talks about the “advent of radio” in 1924 as an exciting new technology that initiated our radio program, which still airs today. We’ve also changed by expanding into new communities around the Bay Area, and by spearheading special initiatives dedicated to specific issues such as California governance reform and, as I just said, climate change. And, obviously, we’ve had massive shifts just in the past five months.

Q: How have the past five months made you change your model?

Silver: Before COVID-19, all of our programs took place in person. But when the Shelter in Place was ordered, we made a fast pivot to digital so that we now offer everything online. I haven’t been at the Club for very long, but my impression is that we might actually be producing more programs now than we did before the shutdown. It has obviously been challenging in many ways, but it has also been a great way to expand our audience and even to experiment with new ways of producing and distributing our programs. And in some ways, being all-digital has given us better access to speakers, because we’re not bound to restrictions on their travel schedules — they can talk to us from their living rooms; they don’t have to be physically present.

Q: Can you talk more about the shift to online? How has the audience changed and expanded?

Silver: In a physical space, there’s a limit to how many people we can accommodate at one time. But there’s no limit online. For really well-known speakers, we’re getting audiences in the thousands; in our auditoriums, we could have hundreds. Dr. Ibram X. Kendi, Dr. Anthony Fauci, and Stacey Abrams are some speakers that have drawn huge audiences. And, while our broadcasts and podcasts have always made it possible for people to listen to our programs after the fact, now they can watch the live streams from anywhere in the world. We’re also finding that programs on our website are getting more traffic than they did in the past. We record every one, and we post a lot of them as videos on our site. That’s not new, actually. But it seems that now, with the pandemic continuing, and people living more of their lives online, viewership for our programs is having a longer life than it used to; sometimes the audience for the recorded version is exponentially larger than for the live stream. We’re also seeing a demand for past programs that are relevant to current issues. We put together playlists for topics such as racial justice and COVID-related health topics. So people are looking to previous speakers to help them understand and think about the present; it’s putting current events into a broader context.

Q: How will this inform how the Commonwealth Club does programming in the future?

Silver: We were already talking about increasing our online presence when the pandemic hit. And, as an educator, I knew that we’d have to make more use of digital media if we really wanted to reach students and younger audiences. But we also had a good model with our in-person programming, so we didn’t necessarily feel the urgency that we did when we suddenly had to close our building. Now that we’ve seen the impact and reach that we can have online, we’re talking more about how we can build on that, even after we go back to physical programs. Luckily, we — or, actually, my colleagues, since I didn’t work here yet — had the foresight to build in some really good digital capacity when they renovated the building. So our AV and media teams have been able to experiment with new ways to produce and distribute our programs that I’m not sure we would have done if we hadn’t had to rethink things so radically over the past few months. In June, we were able to serve as the live stream production source for Global Pride — a 24-hour event that was watched by 57 million people. We had no idea we could have that kind of an impact!

The events of the past few months have also prompted us to renew our commitment to equity and social justice and, especially, against racism. We’re re-evaluating our organization and our programs, and taking an honest look at the changes we need to make to be sure that we meet our mission. The Club has always been about civil rights and social justice, so this isn’t completely new, but we’re prioritizing diversity, equity, and inclusion even more strongly in all of the topics we consider for programs, the speakers we invite, and the audiences we reach out to, and this will have a long-lasting effect.

Q: You were hired eight months ago to in essence help the organization strengthen its historic mission in civics, and build out its civic education program. Can you talk about that?

Silver: The Commonwealth Club has always been a civic organization and an educational organization at heart. But it has never really focused on young people. Over the past few years, strategic discussions among our staff and Board of Governors kept coming back to what the Club needed to do to meet our mission of promoting civic engagement and civil dialogue, especially in an era of increasing polarization and political divisiveness. They understood that civic engagement begins in youth, so it became increasingly evident that one of the most important things we could do would be to incorporate civics education for youth into our work.

Q: So what does that civic education look like from the Commonwealth Club’s perspective?

Silver: Right now it’s still taking shape. It’s a mix of building on our strengths, expanding our education network, understanding where the need is, and inventing new ways to meet those needs. I’ve created a framework that we’re calling “Creating Citizens,” which includes different types of programs, some of which have already begun, and others which we’ll do in the future. The foundation for all of them is the Club’s strength in civil discourse. The age group I’m focusing on is K-12, but with the understanding that that doesn’t just mean students, and it doesn’t even mean just school-age, because kids live and learn in a larger context. We’ll be including teachers, parents, community members who work with youth, and students older and younger than K-12 in ways that are relevant to that core age group.

Q: What types of programming will this include?

Silver: There will be different formats. We’ll continue to do “traditional” programs, with adult speakers addressing mostly adult audiences, but the topics will be about issues related to youth and civic learning. We’ve done a few of those already. Our first was in May, focusing on how the pandemic could be used as a unique moment in history, to foster civic awareness in students. And we just did another one that explored ways to keep Gen Z politically and civically engaged.

We’re also developing programs that will help students practice and model civil dialogue skills. We’ve begun a series of “Youth Talks,” interactive conversations about issues that are important to youth and their communities. Our most recent Youth Talk focused on the issue of school reopenings during the pandemic. We found out from students that they feel like no one is listening to them: they’re scared, confused, and feel like they have no way to influence policies that affect their daily lives. This is especially true for students from low-income communities and other populations that are typically marginalized or excluded from civic conversations. So we brought students together with education leaders to ask questions, express their concerns, and speak and listen respectfully to each other. It was surprisingly powerful, for the adults as well as the students, and also for people who watched the program online. We’ll be doing more of these in the future.

Q: What other types of programming are you considering to engage young people?

Silver: We’ve been experimenting with ways to bring young people together with some of our speakers. During one Youth Talks, we learned that one of the students had taken a course at UC Berkeley last semester with Robert Reich, who just happened to be scheduled for a program with us. We always include time for audience questions, so we invited the student to pre-record a video of himself asking a question for Mr. Reich, and we showed it as part of the program. Both of them were thrilled: Mr. Reich was genuinely pleased to hear from a student, and the student was really interested in the response to his question.

We also have an interesting idea to collect personal narratives from civic leaders — kind of an archive of civic oral histories — and I’d like to involve students in that. I’d like to train them as interviewers, transcribers, even to tell their own civic stories. This could be a great opportunity for young people to meet and learn directly from people who have made civic engagement a focus of their lives.

Q: Why did The Commonwealth Club join CivXNow?

Silver: We absolutely believe in the mission and vision of CivXNow and we wanted to be able to contribute. We recognize the members of the Coalition as leaders in the field, but we know that no organization, no matter how strong, can solve the crisis in civics education alone. We’re strong believers in the power of collaboration and wanted to be a part of a network that would allow us to leverage the Club’s strengths and compliment others’ to meet our shared goals. We are extremely happy with how the networking and relationship-building is going. We’ve been honored to have Louise Dubé, Amber Coleman-Mortley, and Scott Warren as speakers recently, and I’ve been learning so much from other Coalition members I’ve talked with. As a relative newcomer to the world of civics education, we feel really fortunate to be able to learn from and contribute to the Coalition.

Q: And in September or October, the Commonwealth Club is working with CivXNow to create a Student Summit. Tell us about that.

Silver: The Student Summit on Civics was a true blend of ideas. It started in conversations with Louise Dubé and Patricia Leslie-Brown. Both of them talked about CivXNow’s goal to influence people’s mindsets, to make people really care about civics education and to see it as essential and important. That clicked with my own thinking about using the Commonwealth Club’s national platform to spread awareness of civics education and elevate youth voices. When Louise, Patricia, and Amber proposed the idea of the Summit, it seemed a perfect opportunity to collaborate.

The goal is to have student leaders share their perspectives on civics education, why it’s important, what changes are needed to make it more relevant for today’s young people, and how it can fuel a healthy democracy. We’ve selected four amazing students from the Equity in Civics Youth Fellowship program as speakers. They all have powerful voices, and together they represent a wide range of backgrounds, perspectives, and experiences, so it will be a very rich discussion. The panel will be moderated by a journalist who’s knowledgeable about issues in education and young people’s lives. They’ll be covering questions such as what, if anything, from school has prepared students for this historic moment (and what they wish they had learned); what they see as barriers to civic engagement in communities; the role social media plays as a force for social change; and students’ experiences with the recent protests against racial injustice.

I think it’s important to say the role of programs like this is to raise as many questions as it answers. We don’t want to shy away from difficult, thorny issues. Students are ready for change; they have a voice; we want to encourage them to use it. To me, this is a perfect example of the kind of civil discourse that is central to the Commonwealth Club’s mission and that we want to promote for our students.

Q: Why is youth voice so important right now?

Silver: Adults, policymakers, educators, parents, politicians — we’re all making so many decisions on a daily basis that affect young people’s lives. Yet we’re not asking about how they’re doing or trusting them to participate in the decision making process. The core of a democracy is that everybody is a decision maker. Everybody is a participant. If we want this democracy of ours to survive and to thrive, we absolutely have to ensure that all citizens have access to information about how it works and that they understand their roles, their rights, and their responsibilities as citizens. There is no “them” in a democracy. It’s only we. We can’t use an old model in which we say to kids, “You just hang out. We’ll do this for you. And then when you’re older, you can have some power in what happens to you.” I think so much has changed in the world and it’s changing so fast, we have to make young people aware and let them get involved. They have a voice. They’re using their voice. Adults have to listen to them and to learn from them. We have to allow the world to change. We have to let youth know from the very beginning that they are the future of this democratic experience of ours and to give them the power and the tools to learn how to lead it.

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