Of the people, by the people and for the people. These words have been spoken countless times over the past century, since they were first uttered Nov. 19, 1863, during President Abraham Lincoln’s “Gettysburg Address.”
Whether you heard them in the classroom, read them in a text book or watched them on “Schoolhouse Rock,” these words carry weight. Lincoln wasn’t the first to use this phrase. It belongs to John Wycliffe, an English philosopher, theologian, Biblical translator, and a seminary professor. He included them in the prologue for his translation of The Bible. It wasn’t until our 16th president borrowed them for use in that famous 272-word speech at the dedication of a Civil War battlefield that they became one of the most-used phrases to describe the United States government.
These words form the fabric of what we think of when we discuss the concept of civics. Standing at Gettysburg, as he spoke the now-famous phrase, Lincoln essentially presented a challenge to the citizens of the United States. This challenge has become the code by which United States citizens coexist with our elected officials.
President Lincoln affirmed that as Americans, we have the right – and duty - to control our government. Politicians work for the people of the United States, not the other way around. The Center for Civic Education states: “A free society must rely on the knowledge, skills, and virtue of its citizens and those they elect to public office. Civic education, therefore, is essential to the preservation and improvement of American constitutional democracy.”
However, this right is meaningless unless we, as citizens, have the knowledge and skills to exercise that control. But we must do so responsibly, having been taught concepts and practices that become ingrained as part of our being.
This week, the country observed the rituals of honor and ceremonies bestowed when a former President dies. Many stood in line for hours at the Capitol in Washington, D.C., to pay their respects to President George H.W. Bush. If you listened to any of the news reports and historical analysis, you likely noticed a common thread of reference when describing President Bush.
President Bush has been referred to time and again as a true civic leader, with a heart for service and commitment to further the ideals of democracy by fostering a culture of citizenship and volunteer service.
In January 2003, before many of you were born or even old enough to realize who our President was, Bush created the President's Council on Service and Civic Participation. He challenged all Americans to commit to 4,000 hours of service in a year. Bush sought to engage and promote a democratic society that relies on its citizens to be informed and ready to act. This was a noble act and certainly inspired volunteerism, but one question still lingers today: What good is a government of the people, for the people, and by the people if the people themselves have no idea of what their role as citizens entails or to what civic rights as citizens they are entitled?
Preparing people to become knowledgeable and proactive members of a democratic society requires that they receive proper instruction in civics. Your presence here today is evident that you’re already an engaged citizen, even if you don’t yet have the right to vote. Your presence says that you care about democracy, the livelihood of your community, and that you’re willing to be a change agent to influence issues. Some of you may be here because you foresee a future in public service.
All of these are admirable traits and aspirations, but how do you navigate this path that may at times be blocked, winding or even treacherous. Your middle school history classes might have scratched the surface of civics education by teaching the branches of government. But that was it, before it was time to move onto another subject.
You’re probably already aware that you can register to vote when you get your driver’s license, even though the first vote you cast may be a few years away. You may volunteer, either because it’s a school requirement or for a special project.
But a conundrum occurs when the road from volunteering intersects with civic engagement and activism. How do you become an involved citizen who thinks about community issues, educates themselves, engages elected officials and acts by volunteering and serving or through activism?
Civics education should be included as part of any school’s curriculum, but unfortunately it isn’t always a priority in the classroom. According to the National Assessment of Educational Progress, only 25 percent of U.S. students reach the “proficient” standard on the NAEP Civics Assessment.
White, wealthy students are four to six times as likely as black and hispanic students from low-income households to exceed that level. The brutal, unfair reality is that students in wealthier school districts are far more likely to receive high-quality civics education than students in low-income and majority-minority schools.
Think about whether you’ve had the opportunity engage in any of the following exercises:
- Write and debate your own bills, study recent Supreme Court cases, and hold a mock trial. And, even volunteer in the community.
- Has your teacher ever incorporated discussions of current local, national, and international issues, particularly those that young people view as important to their lives?
- Are there service learning programs at your school that allow students to apply what they learned in the classroom through community service?
- Does your school offer extracurricular activities that get students involved in their school
s and community?
- Are students given a voice as to how their school operates by encouraging them to participate in student government or classroom management?
- Have you ever participated in simulations of democratic processes, such as mock elections, legislative deliberation and diplomacy exercises?
These are all proactive, innovative ways to involve all students in learning how to be civically engaged. Hopefully, you’ve been able to participate in at least a few of these exercises.
Unfortunately, civics education isn’t always given the priority it deserves or recognized as an important component of a rigorous holistic education. One out of four teachers surveyed by the Center for Information & Research on Civic Learning and Engagement
thought parents would object if they taught about politics in a government or civics class, and only 38 percent thought their district would give them strong support.
Students who are not taught civics and the importance of community engagement through volunteerism run the risk of becoming apathetic adults who feel that they have no say or influence on their government. They’re not invested in their government. They haven’t bought into the notion of their government as one that is “of the people, by the people and for the people.”
In 2014, the lack of civic awareness contributed to a 72-year low
in midterm election voter turnout, at 37 percent. Millennials’ trust in government has also plummeted, with no public institution earning more than half
of their support. Due in large part to the lack
of civics courses in high schools, people remain unaware of the powers they hold as citizens of the United States, making them believe they lack the ability to influence change. As a result, people fail to participate in the government. This cultivates a national passivity towards voting that trickles down to the local elections that matter most.
In the 2016 presidential election, voter turnout hit a 20-year low
, with just over half of eligible citizens casting their ballot. The United States has a long-held mantra of making the world safe for democracy. However, the abhorrent absence of democratic engagement says otherwise.
The lack of voter engagement at the local level raises the need for a significant increase in civics education
. One path towards a more educated electorate involves a required civics test
for high schoolers, similar to the one immigrants must take to become naturalized citizens. A foundational civics course that prepares students for this test would teach students their rights and duties as American citizens. If implemented across the country, this civics education would offer the particularly favorable benefit of ensuring that all citizens share this knowledge of the government and civic duty.
This idea would likely be viewed as controversial and overreaching, even dictatorial. But I invite you to consider the results and benefits of a mandatory civics education. It would be no different than the existing requirement that a minimum high school education requires: proficiency in Composition, Algebra, Geometry, Biology, History and a handful of other subjects. The formulas, statistics, skills and scientific principals learned in these core classes are the ingredients for a well-rounded education, but they only represent slices of an incomplete pie. A civics education that informs and empowers individuals to realize that they can create true change would complete that pie.
The myth that change can only occur on a national level is a fallacy that prevents many citizens from taking the steps to become civically engaged. Local grassroots movements
on both sides of the aisle are the ones that affect real change by turning our towns, cities, states, and, eventually, our Congress into a representation of ourselves. For the United States to truly be a nation by the people, for the people, and of the people, America needs greater voter participation at the local level.
Voting is just one component of becoming a civically engaged citizen. You, the ones who share this community with the decision makers and voters, but don’t yet possess the ability to vote only because of your age, have the power to begin your civic engagement today.
Here are some easy ways for parents, teachers and even YOU, to take the first steps toward becoming a civically engaged citizen:
1. Foster an open climate where diverse perspectives are debated, validated and respected.
2. Parents and teachers can encourage youth to better understand the perspectives and thoughts of others.
3. Learn how to recognize, identify and label your feelings related to experiences of inequity.
4. When feeling disempowered, discuss ways to depersonalize feelings of oppression.
5. Assist youth in identifying issues within their respective communities and strategies to create change.
6. Engage in service learning, which encourages civic participation as an adult.
Many schools incorporate service learning into the curriculum. This concept was designed to boost students’ interest and participation in civic life. Volunteering provides students with access to witness social issues firsthand. These are often the issues students wouldn’t have been made aware of had they not had the opportunity to participate in service projects as directed learning.
The awareness created by contributing to the process of positively impacting social change directly improves the lives of others. This practice can also manifest itself in a desire to respond on a different level to social issues as adults. This is how volunteerism and service learning graduate to civic engagement. Political leaders who are elected by voters create the policies and practices that dictate how social issues are addressed, such as funding for low-income housing, at-risk schools, healthcare and others.
Citizens of voting age who choose to become civically engaged come to realize that how they choose to act – or not – can directly influence the actions (and votes) by lawmakers. Participating in democracy through civic engagement answers President Lincoln’s more than 100-year-old call to action: “… that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom -- and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”
Civic engagement has many benefits, besides empowering individuals to active participants in the democratic process. Students who are civically engaged possess the following:
- Stronger public speaking skills: Civic education and participation enables children to feel confident when speaking in public and expressing their opinions.
- Collaboration: Civic participation demonstrates to children the power of working in groups or as a community in order to mobilize change.
- Better appreciation for diversity: Children who learn the values of civic engagement are more likely to flourish in diverse work settings.
As a high school student, you might wonder, “Where do I start?” Volunteering for a cause that’s important to you is one way. If you like animals, raise a puppy who will grow up to become a guide dog. How does this help with civic engagement? A visually impaired person has a disability. Disability awareness is an ongoing issue that deals with equality and access. Your involvement in indirectly helping someone with a disability requires you to become aware of the challenges faced by individuals with disabilities. The experience of raising a puppy to become a guide dog could lead you to realize a passion for protecting and championing the rights of others. If not, it at least raises your awareness of the daily struggles of individuals with disabilities.
We are blessed to live in a city with more than 120 parks and the third longest waterfront in the country. St. Petersburg is home to roughly 260,000 residents, but there are a handful of lawmakers who control what is built where and whether drilling is permitted off our coast. If protecting natural resources is your passion, there are several local environmental organizations that would love your time and talent. Your volunteerism as a student could lead to a lifelong passion for protecting the environment.
If you can’t start the day without “Morning Joe” or reading the newspaper cover to cover, you might be a political junkie. It’s never too early to learn the political process, and the best way to do that is to volunteer on a local campaign. Make phone calls to voters, knock on doors, meet your electorate and fellow citizens. This experience could spur a lifelong love of politics and the process. You may even decide to run for office someday! If you’d like to try your hand in politics before ever being elected, apply to the City of St. Petersburg’s Mayor’s Youth Congress. Participants give advice on issues they care about, travel to Tallahassee during the legislative session and even draft their own legislation.
The key to becoming civically engaged is to find your passion, believe that you can affect change, become involved, listen and learn. Then, if you should hear the call, lead. Leadership takes many forms. Lead a movement, a committee, an organization, your school government or club and let your voice be heard through purposeful action.
As you continue to study and pursue your passion, ask yourself, “Am I engaged in my community? Am I participating in some way to shape democracy? Am I taking action to create my own destiny as it relates to civic engagement? Am I contributing to a government of the people, by the people and for the people?”
St. Petersburg, Florida, native Kerry Kriseman is a public relations specialist, avid non-profit volunteer and Board member, Southeastern Guide Dogs puppy raiser and recipient of The President’s Call to Service Award. In her free time, Kerry enjoys being an “accidental political spouse” as wife to St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman and mother of a daughter and son. She presented on this topic at Shorecrest Preparatory School
on Saturday, December 8, 2018, at a student-led Civic Saturday event