Amplifying youth voices.
Transforming Democracy.

Action Civics:
 A Declaration for Rejuvenating Our 
Democratic Traditions*

*The following is the original National Action Civics Collaborative founding document written in 2010.

American democracy is at risk. The risk comes not from some external threat but from disturbing internal trends: an erosion of the activities and capacities of citizenship. – Democracy at Risk

We must constantly work to renew our democracy: the contributors to the above book, along with many other educators, philanthropists, elected officials and concerned citizens are deeply alarmed by our failure, as a society, to provide individuals with the knowledge, skills, motivation and opportunities necessary to participate in our democratic way of life. Democracy is not a battle that has been won; rather, it is an on-going process that needs constant attention, nurturing and renewal. Failure to equip people to meaningfully participate in this process will only lead to further disengagement, threatening our legitimacy, stability and, ultimately, our overall health as a democratic community, society and nation.

Youth, especially marginalized youth, are disengaged from democratic processes: despite numerous studies documenting the prevalence of youth disengagement, we have not adequately addressed this issue. Preparation for a democratic life, to the extent that it does is exist, is typically relegated to fact-based, textbook oriented “civics” classes which, research has shown, have little to no effect on students. In fact, the distance between what is taught and the students’ personal experiences may further discourage them from political and civic engagement. And, while some schools do provide more experiential approaches for their students1, which have positive impacts on learning and participation, these opportunities tend to be limited to more affluent school districts, thus creating a civic empowerment gap that mirrors and reinforces the well-known academic achievement gap.

OUR STRATEGY

Re-define civics education: in September 2010, six community, school and university-based organizations came together to discuss their concerns about, and approaches to, engaging youth in the types of activities that foster the motivation, knowledge, skills and behaviors necessary for a life of constructive civic and political participation. Geographically and programmatically diverse, these organizations share a passion for, and expertise in, providing youth with the kind of experiences that research demonstrates does enable people to take action and leadership on community problems3. Out of these discussions came a commitment to collaborate on promoting and expanding the practice of Action Civics as an evidence-based approach to creating an engaged citizenry capable of effective participation in the political process, in their communities and in the larger society. Through the sharing of practices and tools, through research, dissemination and advocacy, and through professional development activities, the National Action Civics Collaborative (NACC) seeks to re-define the way civics is understood and practiced both in schools and in out of school time activities.

ACTION CIVICS IN PRACTICE

Action Civics, an authentic, experiential approach in which students address problems through real-world experiences that apply to their lives, can be a powerful motivating experience setting them on a path towards lifelong civic and political engagement. In practice, Action Civics is an iterative process typically comprised of issue identification, research, constituency building, action, and reflection. The process is integral to building the skills, developing the knowledge and cultivating the values and behaviors mentioned throughout this document. During this process, adults provide the guidance and scaffolding for successfully launching youth-driven projects. Action Civics is not content area specific; what matters are the guiding commitments to:

  • Action, especially collective action
  • Youth voice, including experiences, knowledge, concerns, and opinions
  • Youth agency, including action, authority, and leadership
  • Reflection, especially as it enriches the process

PLAN OF ACTION

Between September 2010 and June 2011, NACC plans to reach out to organizations engaged in programming that embodies the principles outlined above, disseminate information about Action Civics, and cultivate additional support for this approach. These activities will lay the foundation for a conference in Summer 2011 where NACC will launch the Action Civics Campaign. Our work is inspired by our collective commitment to our youth and to the health of our democracy.

1Why We Vote: How Schools and Communities Shape Our Civic Life, David Campbell, Notre Dame.

2Levinson, Meira (2010). “The Civic Empowerment Gap: Defining the Problem and Locating Solutions.” In Lonnie R. Sherrod, Judith Torney-Purta, and Constance A. Flanagan, eds. Handbook of Research on Civic Engagement in Youth. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons. Ch. 13: 331-361.

3Soule, Suzanne, “Will They Engage? Political Knowledge, Participation and Attitudes of Generations X and Y.” Center for Civic Education, 2001

SUPPORTERS

  • Cynthia Canary, Illinois Campaign for Political Reform (Chicago, IL)
  • Chicago Freedom School (Chicago, IL)
  • Earth Force (Denver, CO)
  • Francis Parker School (Chicago, IL)
  • Generation Citizen (Providence, RI and Boston, MA)
  • Peter Levine, CIRCLE, Tufts University (Medford, MA)
  • Meira Levinson, Harvard Graduate School of Education and Harvard Civic and Moral Education Initiative (Cambridge, MA)
  • Ted McConnell, Campaign for the Civic Mission of Schools (Silver Spring, MD)
  • Mikva Challenge (Chicago, IL)
  • Rock the Vote (Washington, DC)
  • University Community Collaborative (UCC), Temple University (Philadelphia, PA)
  • Youth on Board (Boston, MA)
  • Youth Leadership Institute (San Francisco, CA)
  • Jeanne Walker, Orr High School (Chicago, IL)