When I walked into the conference room on the first floor of Oakland City Hall, I saw high school and middle school youth engaging in conversations with elected officials and college students about how to fix tough community problems. The kids looked assured and confident, presenting next to their cardboard projects.
This event was called Civics Day, and was put on by a national non-profit organization called Generation Citizen. The goal of the event was to engage young people in civics and empower them to become effective citizens. Each student group had to come up with a proposal for improving their city. The projects included ideas from gang violence to school nutrition and public transit.
The judges included corporate leaders and community members, as well as elected officials, including Mayor Jean Quan.
I walked up to Mayor Quan while she was taking notes on her pad, talking with a young man about his project. Afterwards I interviewed her about what she had just seen.
“Too often their idea was just to tell us to fix it, so I had to push back and ask them so what are you going to do about it,” she said. “Each of the proposals had one great concrete thing they can do and they did a good job for the most part targeting people who had some power. But they still need to learn to identify things they themselves can do in the community to make a difference.”
It struck me that the Mayor flipped the script on the students and asked them what they could do to help the solution, instead of just depending on others.
Students did not have to complete the project entirely alone. They had guidance from college volunteers called “Democracy Coaches,” who helped them with their proposals and how to address them from a political standpoint.
One Democracy Coach I interviewed, named Shen Shen, the students she worked with now feel they can help and make a difference because of this project. “They changed their mentality because they thought they couldn’t do anything in life to make a change, now this gives them possibility to make a change or at least try,” she said.
Deniella Herren, 13, whose group project won an award, took up the issue of safety on the Muni bus line she rides to school everyday. She feels there should be more security for young people. She says one of her classmates saw someone get robbed for their phone and PlayStation 3 on the bus. “[This issue is] important because a lot of my classmates ride those buses and they want to feel safe when they ride them,” she said. Her suggestions for improving security included adding a second person to the back door.
Josh Xiao, 14, John O’Connell High School.
Issue: More electives at the school and getting more student input.
“We have to be the one starting this higher new revolution of ideas and I know that other schools have this issue as well, but we want to be the school that starts this… A lot of students at our school are dropping out because there is not enough motivation for them to go to school, and we believe if we had more electives more students will be more motivated to go to school.”
Mateo Francisco Perez, 13 Paul Revere PK-8th School.
Issue: More trash cans needed at the BART stations.
“[Litter is] not good for the environment and people try to plant trees and bring nature back into cities, and having trash all over everything doesn’t help much… The trickiest part of this project was getting a hold of important people and influencers. We did petitions and we sent emails to important people.”