One of three cardinal questions that guide PACE’s strategic focus and collective orientation in the field of philanthropy is this one:
How can philanthropy invest in information and education that prepares people for active civic participation and sustains their involvement over time?
“[The youth of today] are not the future; we are the present.”
Maya Branch, a student leader at Temple University, closed her address to a room full of civic engagement enthusiasts with these words during an event 2017. They capture the spirit that animates PACE’s commitment to civic learning — a broad term that describes the process of helping young people understand what it means to play an active role in their communities and in democracy while building the skills necessary to enable them to do so.
Why Civic Learning?
These educational experiences can occur both in and out of classrooms, and can include experiential learning, civic simulations, dedicated civics courses, leadership development, and more. Their effect is real: studies have shown that civic learning deepens civic participation, including interest in politics, application of knowledge to solve public problems, and participating in the voting process. These learning experiences build lifelong civic engagement for our nation’s young people, and deepen the connection to community at the heart of active citizenship. But today, some young people understand their rights and responsibilities as citizens and feel supported to fully engage, while others do not.
Young people from lower-income families in rural and urban areas, in particular, have fewer civic learning opportunities and, as a result, experience diminished levels of participation in civic life. These disparities deepen existing social divisions and inequities in our nation. Civic deserts — places with few or no civic opportunities — alienate young people, perpetuate distrust in government institutions, and set the stage for lifelong disengagement. It is up to us to shift that balance. Like all structures, access to civic learning must be equitable and inclusive in order to serve the wide range of American people who call our country home.
The Civic Learning Primer
Earlier this year, PACE released the Civic Learning Primer, a tool that builds on decades of research and practice to lay the groundwork for understanding civic learning and create a starting place for dialogue. The Primer highlights six practices that have been proven to advance civic learning, as well as a series of innovations that are bringing civic learning into the rapidly-shifting civic landscape of our 21st century democracy, and closes by highlighting unique opportunities for funders to play a role in improving our country’s civic learning landscape.
CivX Summit on Civic Learning
We released the Primer in the lead-up to the 2017 Democracy at a Crossroads Summit in Washington, D.C., where PACE was represented on the steering committee and our members, William and Flora Hewlett and Robert R. McCormick Foundations were supporting sponsors alongside the Carnegie Corporation. The Summit convened over 200 civic enthusiasts — including Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor — to discuss how civic learning can best serve our nation’s young people. And the call for continued dialogue on civic learning was resounding. Follow-up surveys indicated 77% of participants — and 80% of funders — increased their optimism in civic learning as a result of the event.
Civic Learning as a Pathway to Equity and Opportunity
To explore the intersection of civic learning and equity, PACE co-hosted a salon discussion with the National Conference on Citizenship (NCoC) at the 2017 NCoC Conference entitled “Civic Engagement as a Pathway to Equity and Opportunity.” Panelists and participants explored civic learning as a tool to equip communities in addressing the challenges and divisions they face, and identify tangible ways philanthropy and other leaders can support and invest in civic learning as a mechanism to influence equity and opportunity outcomes. In March, 2018, PACE and NCoC will co-host a working session in collaboration with our member, the Kettering Foundation, focused on realizing the recommendations that surfaced in the discussion.
Today, we know that when young people are equipped with the skills to discuss and analyze controversial issues, learn about the history and systemic causes of inequities, and are invited to be part of solutions, they have the opportunity to find their voice, to become a part of something bigger than themselves, and become active participants in civic life. Today, as our democracy faces faltering trust and participation, our field is charged with transforming this civic moment into a movement that reflects our democratic values. We know civic learning will be key to this transformation, and we are committed to supporting our members and partners in this shared journey.
To learn more about PACE’s Civic Learning work, please contact PACE Senior Fellow, Sally Prouty: sally(at)PACEfunders.org.