If everybody with goodness in their heart got up and did something to change the world, it would be a much better place. We just need to remember that we can do it, no matter how hard it may seem.
— Cameron Kasky, via Twitter (Class of 2019, Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, Parkland, Florida)
A highly functioning democracy demands civic engagement. When too many citizens treat their democracy as a spectator sport, tyranny by the minority — where politicians and policies don’t represent the views of the majority of the people — can occur. Sound familiar?
So how do you get people to pay attention, think critically about important issues, and step up to be active and vocal citizens?
Not surprisingly, our PopEd team thinks citizenship education needs to start with young people. That’s why, this fall, we launched our World of 7 Billion Activism Toolkit. This new resource can be viewed at worldof7billion.org/activism-toolkit/.
Many students who take the time to learn about critical global issues and create educational videos for our World of 7 Billion student video contest are looking for additional ways to use their talents and enthusiasm to be change agents. Now, they’ll have some resources to help them get started.
Listening to Young People
Even before they are old enough to vote, kids and teens can be effective activists on issues that excite and motivate them. Consider the courageous students who survived the shooting last February at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida. Within days of experiencing the nightmare of having an active shooter in their school, and while mourning the loss of many of their friends, these students were speaking out against gun violence, confronting their lawmakers, taking social media by storm, and planning nationwide marches and rallies. Months later, they were still using their newly-honed civics skills to register young voters and inspire their peers.
But teens don’t have to lead national movements to make a difference. Our activism toolkit provides guidance on a range of activities small and large. Developed by our 2018 Duke University Stanback interns Nadia Thompson and Caroline Reents, the toolkit provides a wealth of background resources and “how to” ideas for affecting change in students’ schools, homes, and communities, as well as in society at large. Reents, an Environmental Management graduate student, sees the toolkit as a way to help students to “harness the passion they fostered through the video contest and teach them ways to turn that passion into concrete actions that make a difference.”
Polls show that today’s teens hold more progressive views than older generations on issues ranging from environmental protections to women’s reproductive rights to social justice. Though the voter turnout among young adults has been historically low (just 43 percent among 18–24-year-olds in 2016), there appears to be a new energy among youth to participate more fully in the democratic process.
Knowing the Issues
The first step in effective activism is to understand society’s pressing issues in order to be able to translate relevant information into persuasive messaging and projects. The toolkit provides background readings and resource links on a variety of population-related issues from climate change to wildlife to women’s health and education. Eight issue areas represent topics that have featured prominently in students’ video entries over the past few years.
There’s also a section on being a critical consumer of information. With so much information just a click away, it’s important for students to know which websites are reputable and to be able to recognize bias when they see it (and how to fact check when they aren’t sure). We’ve included a link to Factitious, an online game that tests one’s ability to spot hoax news items.
Once students feel knowledgeable about the issues, they will find a variety of ways to get involved. The toolkit outlines six areas of activities for all degrees of engagement:
- “Practice What You Preach”
Ideas for daily changes for a sustainable future, including recommended apps to help track individual carbon output and make conscientious consumer decisions
- “Making Changes in Your School”
Starting environmental clubs, advocating for new class offerings (like environmental science or comprehensive sex education), tabling at school events, or hosting a speaker for a school-wide assembly
- “Making Changes in Your Community”
Tabling at community-wide events or hosting events like watch parties, park clean-ups, or food drives
- “Using the Media”
Writing letters to the editor, creating a social media following, hosting a podcast, and sharing World of 7 Billion contest videos on YouTube
- “Fundraising for Your Cause”
Tips for online fundraising and profiles of two former video contest participants who initiated effective fundraising around issues they care about — preventing child marriage and protecting coral reefs
- “Influencing Lawmakers”
Contacting legislators, attending public events (i.e., town halls), participating in rallies and marches, and, of course, voting
Filling a Need
Even though many agree that civic engagement is vital to a thriving democracy, civics education has not been a priority in school curricula for most of the country. In fact, only nine states and the District of Columbia require students to take a civics or government class to graduate high school. And very few of the available curricula include experiential education like the activities described in the toolkit.
With so many issues demanding urgent public action — from climate change to human rights to pollution to feeding a growing population — there’s no better time to encourage some of our youngest citizens to take an active role as advocates for a sustainable planet and human wellbeing.
Find the Activism Toolkit, along with this year’s student video contest details at worldof7billion.org.