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Democracy for the Next Generation: Is Civics 101 Enough?
by Charles M. Tampio

"I am an environmental leader today because of Earth Force. My future, like many other young people who have participated in Earth Force, will be tied to service, environmental stewardship, and civic action. Earth Force has a very bright future because it is committed to an exciting and daring idea—engaging young people as active citizens who improve the environment and their communities now and in the future."

John Vogel, Earth Force Youth and Member of the Earth Force Board of Directors

While celebrating Presidents' Day this year, I wondered what our past presidents would think about a recent wave of studies that paint a rather alarming picture of our democracy’s future. Polls, surveys and studies show that young people today do not understand the democratic process and lack the desire to participate in it. Is democracy as we know it at risk? Yes, quite possibly. Does youth civic engagement belong on an "endangered species" list? Yes, most certainly. Is there something we can do to protect this "endangered species"? Yes, most definitely.

One of the first things we must consider is the nature of young people today. Young people are passionate about a wide-range of issues and desire a way to contribute to their communities. The spike in youth volunteerism over the past decade makes it very clear that apathy is not the problem with this generation. Young people today believe in the power of individual action and take part directly in local assistance programs in unprecedented numbers.

However, one of the major problems is that young people, like many adults, simply do not have confidence in collective action and do not understand how to take part meaningfully in the civic life of their communities. The Department of Education’s Report Card on Civic Education has continually shown that students understand basic facts and figures about American government but do not understand how to apply their knowledge to real-world situations.

Earth Force, an organization I recently joined as president, is one of a growing number of civic-minded organizations that focus on the application of democracy in the classroom and in the community. Earth Force was launched in 1994 to address three emerging national trends among young people:

  1. Their overwhelming desire to act on behalf of the environment
  2. Their desire to help their communities through voluntary service
  3. Their need to know how to translate their interests into civic action

For more than a decade, Earth Force, with the help of sponsors like Staples and General Motors, has served thousands of young people across the United States. Earth Force believes that engaging students in authentic civic action is the most effective way to give them the knowledge, skills, and predispositions they need to participate effectively in public life. By authentic, I mean two things: students address issues that matter to them, and projects involve genuine efforts to affect the relevant issues through either policy advocacy or community education. Discussing issues, taking and defending positions, and talking about policy change are necessary but not sufficient; students need to try to effect changes in existing policies and community habits. This type of civic experience is happening in schools and communities across the country through Earth Force programs. When Earth Force was first launched, the idea of youth civic engagement around environmental issues was both exciting and daring. Today, thousands of students in seventeen states are participating in Earth Force and making this idea a reality.

Several years ago, twelve Belle Hall Elementary 5th graders focused on getting bike and pedestrian lanes included into the design of the Cooper River Bridge as their Earth Force project. Last year, those young people were among the first to bike across that span connecting Charleston to Mount Pleasant in South Carolina.

Those students, with the help and guidance of their teacher, Eva Stratos, partnered with the Charleston Bicycle Advocacy Group to influence state and local government officials to include the bike lanes. The project included researching national trends and bridge designs, as well as surveying hundreds of Charleston area residents, and culminated in a visit to their senators and representatives in Washington, D.C. The impact of their efforts was clear throughout the Charleston community. Dr. Don Sparks, president of the Charleston Bicycle Advocacy Group commended the students saying, "I will never again take on an environmental issue without involving young people."

"The campaign made a huge impact on me," said Stratos, who says she has been inspired to become involved with other pedestrian and environmental issues. The students feel that the experience helped them "build confidence in talking with adults, approaching strangers about an issue and to realize that we can have influence on powerful politicians."

Recently several Michigan area students spoke in front of members of the Michigan House Civics Commission regarding a range of local environmental issues.

  • Jonathan Ismail from Grosse Pointe recommended that the House of Representatives encourage the use of rain barrels to alleviate the effects of storm water runoff.

  • Christine Geerer and her students at Parcells Middle School in Grosse Pointe examined the problem of improper motor oil disposal. They pointed out that one gallon of oil poured down a storm drain can contaminate one million gallons of water.

  • Shelly Cataline from Eaton Rapids encouraged representatives to create "Mercury and Moms Week" in Michigan to alert mothers and young women of the dangers of consuming high quantities of mercury-laden fish from the Great Lakes.

  • Cheri Derksen from Rochester Hills encouraged communities to include parking garages in their future planning efforts to help preserve valuable wildlife habitats.
Can you imagine the future potential of young people who are part of this kind of success when they are in middle school? Children as young as 11 or 12 have the capacity— not to mention the enthusiasm and creativity—to incorporate civic action and problem-solving skills into projects that create lasting change in their communities. By planting the seeds of responsible citizenship in middle school, you instill those values for high school, college, and beyond.

Charles M. Tampio is the president of Earth Force. Through Earth Force, youths discover and implement lasting solutions to environmental issues in their community. The creation of Earth Force in 1994 by The Pew Charitable Trusts recognized young people’s overwhelming desires to act on behalf of the environment and to help their communities through voluntary service. You can reach Earth Force at www.earthforce.org.


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