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74 Interview: Generation Citizen CEO Elizabeth Clay Roy on Why Civics Education is Patriotic — And Why She’s Hopeful About America’s Future

By Laura Fay | September 21, 2021

Generation Citizen CEO Elizabeth Clay Roy (Courtesy of Elizabeth Clay Roy)

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A few days into Elizabeth Clay Roy’s tenure as CEO of the civics education nonprofit Generation Citizen, a violent mob stormed the U.S. Capitol while Congress was inside preparing to certify the results of the 2020 presidential election.

Speaking to The 74 as the uprising was unfolding, Clay Roy said the day exposed the “very deep divisions” in America, but she also held onto a sense of optimism: “I am hopeful in this moment, that there is a peaceful conclusion to what’s happening now and that folks can begin to focus on how we are going to move forward and try to repair many of the breaches and rips that have occurred.”

That hope infuses how Clay Roy talks about about civics education and in particular action civics — an approach that guides students to find a problem in their community and work together to solve it — which Generation Citizen helps bring to life in classrooms around the U.S.

More recently, critics have attacked action civics for encouraging students to be activists and for promoting partisan causes. But, Clay Roy said, Generation Citizen is “issue neutral” and teachers using the program let students choose issues that matter to them.

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Clay Roy said the controversy is an opportunity to explain Generation Citizen’s mission and talk about its success. A recent study, for example, showed students in Generation Citizen classrooms were more likely to say they participate in their other classes.

The 74 talked to Clay Roy earlier this year about her own journey with civic life and her dreams for Generation Citizen.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

The 74: I noticed in your bio that when you were a kid you campaigned door to door for local politicians in Boston and led the youth coverage of the 2000 presidential election for a PBS show. How did you first get interested in civics and politics? 

Clay Roy: I grew up in a house where politics were talked about all the time. As an only child of two educators, I often say this because it is very true: I went from my preschool years of having Sesame Street on the TV all the time to watching the Eyes on the Prize documentary on PBS on repeat. The Eyes on the Prize documentary was this powerful representation of the Civil Rights Era.

Even though I was growing up in the 1980s, that it was on so frequently in my house is a representation of the fact that my parents believed that the struggle for civil rights wasn’t over, but had changed. I grew up in a house where there was a lot of discussion about politics, equity, fairness, and the role that education can and should play in a fair society.

I remember in third grade, during the Bush-Dukakis election, I volunteered to do a classroom debate with a fellow student. I was really passionate about politics from a very, very early age.

It really developed outside of school. On weekends, I would get involved with voter registration campaigns, which you could volunteer for even if you were too young to vote, or go door to door for city council candidates. I had a chance to think through that — and by watching lots of C-SPAN and Meet the Press from an early age — really develop greater confidence in myself as a future citizen and civic actor.

Part of the reason I’m so passionate about the work that Generation Citizen does is because I think it is important that a young person’s civic identity is formed in lots of spaces. For some people that’s family, for some people that’s church or faith, and for others, it might come about from a youth organization they’re involved with. But school is such an important setting for young people to have that civic identity affirmed and grow.

It was really an incredibly caring high school teacher who encouraged me to be confident and to talk about what I cared about inside of school, even if that’s not what anyone else was talking about, even if teachers weren’t necessarily creating opportunities to talk about current affairs. That teacher knew about my interest because I was always bothering him about it, talking to him about it. He encouraged me to really develop that part of my identity, and that was really important and allowed me to go from being a pretty shy and quiet middle schooler to a really proactive vocal high schooler and college student. And so I deeply appreciate not only the foundation I was given by my parents in terms of my own civic development but, I really credit that teacher, Mr. Bryant, for helping me solidify that in the school setting.

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Thinking back to you as a kid, was there anything in particular that stuck with you or really inspired you in the Eyes on the Prize documentary? 

What I really noticed was how young many of the protesters were. It was clear to me that this was different from what I read in history books, which seemed to focus on what older people were doing, what established leaders who held representative office were doing. These change makers who were putting their bodies on the line — and who ended up in many ways being founding mothers and fathers of our multiracial democracy — were really young. It was visible that they were teenagers or college students.

It was reinforced by my parents telling me about their own experience. They both were involved in civil rights efforts, and they talked about that. I was also inspired because so much of our civil rights story of the 20th century in this country has had both youth leadership and happened in and around schools.

I grew up in Boston, so the Boston busing riots were never far from our imagination. I started school after the riots had occurred, but it was all a reminder, and one that I carry with me when we talk about issues of racial equity and racial justice. Those aren’t somehow grown-up issues that should be shielded from children. Children are very much engaged and involved in those elements of our society, from as soon as they leave home, and we have a responsibility to create an environment that’s worthy of young people’s engagement, and we have to be conscious of their safety.

We also should not shield young people from conversation and opportunities to engage in changing their surrounding environment until they’re old enough to vote. There’s nothing magical about the age of 18 that says that that’s when you fully become a member of society. Just because we’ve determined that to be the voting age doesn’t mean that that’s the first age when you get to take civic action, or when the consequences of government will start to affect you. The consequences of government start to affect young people far sooner.

I think that what the takeaway for me [from Eyes on the Prize] was that young people have an opportunity and a moral responsibility to be involved in civic change.

Police step in as a fight between students erupts in front of Hyde Park High School in Boston Feb. 14, 1975. An initiative to desegregate Boston Public Schools was implemented in the fall of 1974 and was met with strong resistance from many city residents. (Paul Connell / Getty Images)

Some critics have said action civics tends to leave out facts that they think students should know or that it overemphasizes social justice and progressive causes. What do you make of those criticisms? 

I think it’s important to be grounded in facts — we want that for our students. … Action civics is project-based learning about civics and our democracy. And the fact is classrooms are one of the only public spaces where students engage with the world independently from their caregivers. It’s especially important that students have an opportunity to learn in a supported and supportive setting, about current event issues, so that they can be supported on their path toward active citizenship.

One of the core tenets of our work at Generation Citizen is that we as an organization are completely issue neutral. We have never selected an issue that students participate in, nor do we ask teachers to play any role in that. That’s one of the many areas that we are in fact looking to support student critical thinking, student learning and deliberative debate among students, which are the skills we’re trying to teach. The students select the issues that they work on.

For those who are worried about politics in the classroom, we know that the overwhelming experience of Generation Citizen teachers over the last decade in several states has been that the curriculum brings students together and helps them find common ground, reducing polarization, reducing mistrust. We’ve seen that from Texas, to California, from Oklahoma to Massachusetts, and Rhode Island and New York, and and we believe that project-based civics really teaches students to engage in civil discourse, bridge their differences and build consensus, which are some of the skills that we sorely need as adults in this country. Being able to help the rising generation do that feels more important than ever.

Does the culture war that’s unfolding around critical race theory change how you think or talk about Generation Citizen’s work?

It doesn’t change fundamentally except that we always feel like we have a responsibility to communicate about our work in a way that is understood. And so if it means that we have to more thoroughly share our approach with a variety of different stakeholders, we don’t take that as a problem: That’s a good thing to have the opportunity to talk about our work with different folks. Our work is more important than ever. The concerns that are being lifted up do not take us off of our path as an organization seeking to support high-quality civics education across the country, and we believe that education and action are both good for democracy … We want more people to participate in their communities, not fewer. And I think what’s important is we know that because this has become polarized, and there’s different levels of information in different communities about what action civics is.

We welcome the opportunity to share our work with teachers and students, of course, but also with parents and school boards, and others. What we can take for this moment is it is always good to be having conversations about how we can best support student learning, and best support students on their path to becoming whole adults. We welcome the opportunity to talk about that.

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What would you say to a teacher or a principal who wants to bring Generation Citizen into their school or classroom but is worried about hearing backlash from people who might just be uninformed about what it means or who are worried that it’s going to be too political?

I think it comes down to first making the very clear, data-driven case, first, that action civics is effective at supporting student learning. We know that high quality civics education prepares young people to be informed civic participants in our in democratic society. There are so many program evaluations that verify the effectiveness of Generation Citizen’s work and other civics education curricula, and find positive influences on their applied knowledge, their skills, as well as their civic disposition.

The other part is to answer some of the questions that other stakeholders might ask of that teacher or administrator. First, does action civics promote a partisan agenda? And the fact is no, it does not push any partisan agenda. Neither the curriculum nor teachers ever tell students what to think or what to prioritize or identify as a critical issue. Instead, teachers are guided to help students gather reliable information, including sources of information from different perspectives, and how to read those carefully considering assumptions and underlying logic to formulate their own conclusions.

Another question that sometimes comes up is, are students too young to engage? What we know is that civic literacy is not something you’re born with, but it can be developed in a developmentally appropriate way at every age from elementary school on up… No one is imposing on students an agenda, but in fact, teachers are giving them tools to use as they look at the world out in front of them, which can be their classroom, school, community or country. This is different in each school. We believe that teachers have deep wisdom and knowledge about how to support their students through this journey, and our role as Generation Citizen is to provide state standards-aligned materials, and a well-documented and tested program that can support educators to guide their classes through that process.

The last thing that has been raised, for example, on social media, is a notion that students are taught to protest or to have or to have a negative point of view about establishment or government. That is not what action civics is doing. We’re supporting students to learn how to find their own voice and participate in self government. … We take very seriously the notion that our government is a government for the people, by the people and of the people. And action civics is a set of tools that helps schools make that real for their students. And I can’t think of anything more important or more patriotic that schools could be doing in a moment like we’ve been in.

We just have lived through a really dramatic couple of years: There’s a major crisis in the pandemic. We saw an impeachment, Donald Trump disputing election results and making false claims, and an armed insurrection at the capitol. What does civics education need to look like in the post-Trump presidency America? 

Despite the intensity of this moment, civics education in many ways is as urgent now as it was 12 years ago when this organization was founded, and the urgency remains, and has only grown. What Generation Citizen believes is critical for civics education is that it is fully experiential and action-oriented. Not just because pedagogically that is a powerful approach to engage students and have them feel excited about and connected to what they’re learning. It’s even more critical in this moment, because in a moment like this when we are seeing such turmoil, a danger can be that young people — or any of us — get into an observational stance around our government. We have to remain firm in a sense of our own agency. And the active role that we play reminds me of Rep. John Lewis’s quote, “Democracy is not a state. It is an act.” It feels particularly critical in how we think about civics education and I think what is so essential, even on a day like Jan. 6 when [many students were in school remotely and might have been watching on TV].

By having a positive experience where they have learned about and identified a priority issue in their community and researched it so that they feel confident in their understanding of that issue, and then having the experience of being able to go to city council meetings, talk with local officials, work with staffers of a state legislator and put together legislation — to me, that kind of lived experience can create a likelier path to success for bigger projects.

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What does your identity as a Black woman and your previous work on racial justice mean for you as the leader of Generation Citizen? 

I’m conscious, frequently, of the fact that a generation from now, there will be no one racial group that is a demographic majority in the United States. I’m hopeful about that. I think people are recognizing that greater racial justice and deeper democracy are actually interwoven as critical for America’s foundational strength, and that it’s going to be difficult for us to have a strong multiracial democracy without addressing the challenges that racial injustice have created in the foundations of our country.

[At Generation Citizen,] we have set a clear goal around strengthening democracy by elevating youth voice, and that also means being attentive to the ways in which racial equity is connected to whose voices are listened to. The outcomes of a healthy, robust democracy are intertwined with the outcomes of an equitable society. That’s something that for me, as a Black woman growing up in this country, has always kind of been second nature. I can’t imagine a notion of a strong, healthy democracy that leaves some people out. So in that sense, I think we have always been on the path of perfecting our democracy. And we’re not, in fact, in a moment where we are looking to the past, to find our democratic strength, I think we’re looking to the future.

The poem that has always resonated with me so profoundly — though this was before Amanda Gorman became perhaps one of my favorite American poets — but the poem that’s always struck me so deeply, so personally, is Langston Hughes’s Let America Be America Again and the recognition that he describes in that poem — “America will be” — is my version of patriotism, which is a deep, abiding love for the country that we could become, and that we have not yet been. That language really speaks to a recognition that you cannot have a true robust, healthy democracy that leaves some people out based on any marker of their identity.

From a practical point of view, how does getting kids involved in action civics and real-life projects help make this country a more robust democracy? 

It does it in a number of different ways. When young people participate in Generation Citizen’s curriculum, some of them go very quickly from feeling like they are observing politics from afar to recognizing that they are actual changemakers in their community at that moment. They don’t need to wait for anyone’s permission to be changemakers in their community. And once you learn that, and once you’ve experienced that, and you have gotten the attention of an elected official who is listening to you, recognizing your expertise, and is starting to make change as a result of what they’ve heard, it’s hard to go back to a place where you think that your participation doesn’t matter.

Even if your entry point to that is on the safety of water of the water in your schools, as it is for some of our students in New York, or it’s about substance abuse issues in your school in Lowell, Massachusetts, whatever your entry point is, the recognition and the civic knowledge you develop, as a result of that process, will forever be part of your consciousness as other collective challenges arise. You have learned the skills to bring your voice forward and engage others to bring their voices forward, to try to make community change. And particularly to do that outside of the ballot box. Now, we believe so deeply in voter engagement, and often partner with groups that work on voter engagement, but too often, our conversations about democracy with young people are telling folks to vote. We feel very deeply that what we’re doing here is talking about everyday democracy, which complements voting and is a real driver of long-term civic engagement.

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The other piece is that in our curriculum, we invite students to do a root cause analysis of the challenges facing their community. That is a lesson that sticks with young people. When we ask years later, what do you remember most of the curriculum, often former students talk about the root cause analysis, because once you have undergone that with a great teacher, with engaged classmates about one issue, you keep doing it, and you wait to return to a deeper understanding of the root causes of any of the symptoms of our collective crises. For me, that is the most exciting kind of critical thinking you can do.

And lastly, the civic knowledge and skills that are developed as a part of the curriculum invite young people to understand the levers of power in their community, in a way that does make them more invested and engaged in future elections, and potentially in running for office themselves, because they have a real, tangible understanding of how change gets made on issues that they know impact their lives.

You wrote this year in a Generation Citizen email that hope is a “tool of personal and collective survival.” Can you talk more about your sense of hope and what that means for you going forward?

Many of us who spend time working with young people in or out of schools have to be hopeful almost by definition because there’s attention to the possibility in every day and the possibilities for each student and a real commitment to never giving up … Some of my hope is grounded in a core belief that individuals can make a positive and profound difference and that even as we see dark moments for our country, the positive action of individuals, particularly young people, can be meaningfully transformative. I believe that when we invest in young people — whether that’s through civics education, whether that’s through mentoring, whether that’s through the arts or the many other areas where we invest in young people — we will see the results of that can be exponential. That’s why I feel deeply passionate about working with and for young people.

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The other reason I feel a sense of hope and optimism is because I believe there has been a greater unveiling of the challenges that we face as a country and a shared witnessing of the seriousness of the moment we’re in. The pandemic has made incredibly visible our interdependence. It’s become cliche to say this, but we’re not going back. We’re only going forward. I believe strongly that there is going to be a deep desire on the part of many many many Americans to find ways to move forward that strengthen our democracy. I believe we’re not going to take it for granted.

I am particularly hopeful because I think that the rising generation — which reflects a diversity not yet seen in America and a greater understanding and openness to our diversity — creates space for so much leadership to emerge. They can be transformative for our country in a positive way. I’m excited about this work because of what Generation Citizen’s work can do to support our democracy and to support a sense of self worth and agency in the hearts of young people across this country. I think both of those are needed — collective transformation and an individual sense of agency and purpose.

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