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The Page Turner

Literacy and Democracy

Citizenship Beyond Civics

Afterschool Programs and "Civic Muscle"

Serving the Community

Creating Global Change

Building "Civic Muscle":
Literacy Activities That Foster Democratic Processes

by Lena Townsend

I’ve heard it said more times than I can remember: Voting is a privilege and a responsibility of the citizens of a democracy. Disenfranchised people in this country and throughout the world have fought, and continue to fight, for the right to vote because it matters so deeply. Voting is the means by which we choose our representatives and hold them accountable for implementing policies that affect us on the personal and societal levels.

Voting, however, is not the sole means of participating in a democracy. In their paper "Democracy of the People: Expanding Citizen Capacity", Harry C. Boyte and Nancy N. Kari present an alternative definition of citizenship that goes beyond the right to vote.

Citizenship beyond Civics

Boyte and Kari identify three models of democracy and citizenship: civics, community, and public work. The civics model is the one we learned in civics class; it defines democracy as having to do with representative government and a citizen as an "individual with rights"—who presumably tries to maintain and expand those rights by voting and other means of participation in the government.

The community model emphasizes the role of citizens to be responsible to each other, primarily through volunteering and voluntary associations. To generate effective engagement, this approach depends on the ability of voluntary organizations to meet communities’ needs.

Boyte and Kari’s alternative, democracy as public work, defines citizens as "producers," as "contributor[s] and creator[s] of public goods." Democracy, then, goes beyond government to include "tools, practices and institutions of ‘civic muscle’ through which citizens act together to meet immediate challenges and shape a common destiny." The public work view of citizenship includes and adds to the roles envisioned in the civics and community models. Rather than being something we do on Election Day or in our spare time as volunteers, democracy is something we do in our daily lives: We use our "civic muscle," as Boyte and Kari put it, to "shape our future and build the nation."

This view of citizenship can help educators address the common perception, particularly among young people and historically disenfranchised communities, that government is remote from our lives and that we can do little to improve our common life beyond volunteering at the local soup kitchen. The public work model empowers people—even those too young to vote—to take seriously their responsibility to work together to "shape a common destiny."

Afterschool Programs and "Civic Muscle"

As the issues we face become more complex, an increasingly large component of "civic muscle" consists of advanced literacy and critical thinking skills. That’s where afterschool programs come in. In this issue’s How I Did It, Mary Cipolloni describes an activity that integrated the civics and public work models of democracy, as students worked on a project to encourage community members to vote. I’d like to highlight the ways in which two other community-based afterschool programs actively engage young people in activities that reflect Boyte and Kari’s civics and community models while moving them toward the more comprehensive public work model. In the process, students developing their "civic muscle" not only by serving as "producers" of real-life public goods but also by engaging in literacy activities that develop the knowledge and skills they need to function as informed citizens.

Serving the Community

Fresh Youth Initiatives (FYI) encourages community service among participants, in keeping with its slogan, "young people taking responsibility for things that matter." FYI participants as young as 10 years old are introduced to this responsibility with concrete activities: feeding the hungry, providing clothing, reading to younger children, and beautifying their neighborhood. Such examples of Boyte and Kari’s community model of democracy often lead naturally to deeper commitment. Says Andrew Rubinson, FYI’s executive director, "As they gain experience and mature through their work, many youngsters begin to have questions. A young person asking, ‘Why do so many people need food?’ is the starting point for a discussion that begins to transform their experience."

When FYI opened a food pantry out of a small room in a Washington Heights church basement in 1996, clients asked if any clothing was available. Japheth Youmans, 16, recognized the need and decided to address it by establishing a clothing bank. His first problem was finding space in one of the most densely populated neighborhoods in the country; clothing could be stored in, but not effectively displayed or delivered from, the basement room. Japheth’s solution: a traveling clothing bank! In keeping with FYI’s procedure, Japheth wrote and submitted a proposal, which was reviewed and approved by FYI staff members. Japheth recruited four younger FYIers who, under his leadership, collected clothing and distributed it twice weekly at such locations as the Port Authority Bus Terminal and Columbia Presbyterian Medical Center. In the second year, Japheth submitted a budget for his project, including not only costs for racks, bins, and other supplies for the clothing but also rewards—dinner and a movie—for his volunteers.

Japheth thus went beyond volunteering, the hallmark of the community model of democracy, and flexed his "civic muscle" to address a societal challenge. His public work required him to expand his collection of "tools" as he wrote a proposal, marketed his ideas to adults and peers, and provided leadership to younger volunteers.

Nearly 10 years later, the traveling clothing bank is still in existence and has grown. Clothing is distributed at FYI’s expanded site as well as at Columbia Presbyterian Medical Center and the open-air market on West 175th Street. Japheth, now a college graduate, knows that he has made a difference in the lives not only of clothing bank clients but also of young people who perform community service in Washington Heights.

Creating Global Change

Global Kids’ Human Rights Activist Project (HRAP) is a youth-led social action project that supports young people’s efforts to effect policy change through activism and civic engagement. The program begins with a period of training, discussion, and research, during which HRAP participants examine issues that affect young people around the world. This phase concludes with selection of a single issue, which the students investigate and address in their own communities. Throughout the program, the students compare the experiences of youth in New York City with those of youth in other countries.

This year, the Global Kids focused on homelessness, specifically, the high percentage of homeless youth in NYC who are lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, or queer (LGBTQ). The youth carried out a campaign to raise support for two specific policy changes: the removal of a curfew for youth on the Christopher Street Pier and the return of a drop-in center for homeless youth in Greenwich Village. The campaign included such activities as drafting and gaining signatures for a petition to the New York State Senate; developing and performing an interactive skit; making panel presentations to educate peers, community members, and policymakers; leafleting and tabling at youth-oriented events, and raising money for an LGBTQ group home. You can read more about the campaign at the Global Kids website.

The campaign culminated in two significant events: a Day of Action and a meeting with New York State Senator Thomas Duane, who represents the district where the pier and the drop-center are located. The Day of Action, for which the youth created both a skit they performed around the city and host of outreach materials they distributed, raised public awareness by reaching hundreds of people in the neighborhood. During the meeting with Senator Duane, the youth articulated their position and learned from him about the different points of view in his constituency. Ultimately, Senator Duane said he would support the youths’ work if they continued it in the future.

This campaign is another example of how afterschool programs can encourage young people to, as Boyte and Kari put it, "act together to meet immediate challenges and shape a common destiny." Participants develop their "civic muscle" by learning to do Internet and traditional research, presentations, community service, and coalition building. The knowledge these young people gain through literacy activities—engaging in reading, writing, listening, and speaking in order to better understand themselves, others, and the world around them—becomes a means by which they can change the world.

The Page Turner focuses on library development and reading for afterschool programs. It is published electronically by the Robert Bowne Foundation. Contents copyright © 2005 by the Robert Bowne Foundation.

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