The elections earlier this month—from local to national—were arguably the most important of our lifetimes. The outcomes will disproportionately affect young people who can’t yet vote, but whose lives and futures are impacted by climate change, racial justice, public health, and beyond.
How might we engage young people in this election and in civic life more generally, when they can’t vote or make campaign contributions? How might we make civic engagement captivating, community oriented, and fun for people of all ages?
As a 2019-2020 Jackson Fellow and someone committed to effective, equitable systems-level action to address climate change and racial injustice, I felt inspired to take on these questions through both my Fellowship project and my role as Director of Environmental Education & Sustainability at The Northwest School.
In spring 2020, I developed Civics & Swing States, a free 4-week program aimed at mobilizing young people to meaningfully engage in the 2020 elections. To design the program, I began with the questions:
- What would compel someone to care about government?
- What might inspire a high school student to devote their free time to civic engagement?
- What was my motivation for better understanding policy making processes, and how did my journey evolve to include working on climate policy for seven years?
Civics & Swing States Program
This led to designing the Civics & Swing States program from the inside out. I began with personal identity and family history by asking, “How might your identities and family history impact your perception of government and your engagement in elections?” Then I asked participants to identify what issues they care about and why, which segued into how government and policy impact these issues. From there, we could easily find the interest to examine the demographics of elected officials, the structure of government, voter turnout and voter suppression, the Electoral College, campaign finance, and communications and rhetorical framing.
In addition to laying the groundwork for examining personal identity and the issues one cares about, I also framed the program with two overarching existential questions: “What does it mean to have a democracy on stolen land?” and “What does it mean to have a democracy built on the backs of enslaved people?” I wanted to encourage participants to jump back and forth between their personal scales and the national and global scales, as well as current and historical time periods.
But I wondered, would anyone even show up for such a program? And would people stick it out through all eight sessions? I wasn’t entirely sure….
Yes! I ended up facilitating four sections of Civics & Swing States, two during the summer and two during the fall, to roughly 130 people. While designed for high school students, I opened the program up to anyone who was interested. The groups I facilitated had participants ranging in age from 12-79 years old, including students, faculty, parents, and friends from The Northwest School, the greater Seattle area, and across the country.
The Civics & Swing States program has resulted in all sorts of beautiful unanticipated outcomes: high school and middle school students have organized phone banking sessions among their peers for months (they’ve called over 3,000 voters in swing states!) and shared their experiences with their communities; parents felt inspired by their children to take action; and faculty have built relationships across departments and roles. It’s also enabled people to transcend age and employment status, and to develop relationships with organizations and fellow humans beyond their immediate circles.
As evidenced not only by participation in the program, but in phone banking and campaign volunteering nationally, people are hungry for avenues to take action and shape their futures. At the same time, they seek cross-generational engagement, understanding, and to peel back the layers of themselves, their family history, and their government.
Available to the Public
With this interest in mind, I made all the Civics & Swing States materials free and publicly available on the program website. I encourage you to pull a group of family or friends together (virtually or physically distanced, of course) to learn and engage.
The 2020 election has been a rallying call for civic engagement across demographics. We must sustain our efforts far beyond Election Day. When people of all ages engage civically, we strengthen our communities, our understanding, and our commitment to take action for a present and future in which we can all thrive.
I found inspiration to create this program with the support of the Jackson Fellows Program and the Jackson Foundation, to whom I am immensely grateful. The community of Fellows, Foundation staff, and board members has been invaluable for bouncing around ideas, supporting me throughout the process, and joining as guest speakers during the Civics & Swing States program itself. Thank you!
Jenny Cooper, 2019-2020 Jackson Fellow and Director of Environmental Education & Sustainability, The Northwest School (Seattle, WA)