A student sits lethargically at a table in the back of Tim Ahern’s history classroom at Dr. Jorge Alvarez High School in Providence. His iPod is turned on, and his head is in his hands. His pen rests idly beside a worksheet that he has not touched since it was distributed to him a few minutes ago.
While his companions show some interest in their assignment, the boy decides instead to increase the volume of his iPod. Sonia Kim ’11, who takes over Ahern’s class twice a week to teach U.S. politics and government, walks over to the boy. She leans over him and rests one hand lightly on his shoulder.
“How’s it going?” she asks. Her voice is soothingly quiet, yet assertive. “What do you know on this sheet?”
The boy stares down at the paper and shakes his head. “I don’t get it,” he says.
She looks him straight in the eyes. “I guarantee you’ll know something on here.”
This is Kim’s second semester helping students in Providence high schools understand civics and American government. As a mentor for the Generation Citizen program in Providence, Kim is one of 20 students who work in 11 classrooms across the city, teaching lessons on civics, government and politics that culminate in a semester project on an issue the students pick themselves.
Kim heard about the fledgling program when she noticed an advertisement for it in her dorm last winter. She said the notice — with its stress on the importance of giving high school students the tools necessary to advocate for causes they care about — spoke to her directly.
“Everyone takes history class, but there’s oftentimes that lack of application for the ‘real world.’ For a lot of kids, the history of our government seems like a jumble of acts and laws, and they don’t know how those things apply to them,” she said.
‘A civic engagement gap’
Scott Warren ’09, co-founder of Generation Citizen and now its executive director, always believed it was important for students — especially those from underprivileged backgrounds — to be engaged in their government.
While at Brown, Warren was the executive director of STAND, a national student-led coalition to end genocide in Darfur and elsewhere, and also lobbied for Brown, Providence and the state of Rhode Island to divest from companies associated with the Sudanese government.
When he was working to achieve change through these organizations, Warren — along with fellow student activist Anna Ninan ’09 — decided to establish a group on campus that would help students in Providence’s public school system enact social change in their own communities.
“Research has revealed a problem: There is a civic engagement gap between those in the lower income bracket of our country and those in government. Our country is in this situation where the people who need reform are not the ones asking for it,” Warren said.
In a period of economic uncertainty and heated debate over health care reform, Warren said he finds it frustrating that government officials leading the nation through these crises ignore the “bottom economic third” of their voting constituency.
In order to close this gap, Warren and Ninan developed Generation Citizen as an educational program that places college students as civics teachers in history and social studies classrooms across Providence.
Though the organization has since expanded to other campuses, Warren said Brown was the perfect environment for its conception.
“The University fosters a community of like-minded social entrepreneurs to make actual change,” Warren said. “Brown is a place that is not like too many universities.”
Warren said that now is the perfect time for a program like Generation Citizen because of Rhode Island’s high jobless rate, the state’s new emphasis on enforcing civics education within the public school system and increasing occurrences of gang violence and economic hardship in many of Providence’s poorer communities.
After a large sum of money was donated to the program by an anonymous donor during Commencement week last spring, Generation Citizen has expanded to nine schools in Boston. Now, students from Tufts University and Harvard serve as mentors to high school students in the program’s new location, and within Providence the program has also grown to include mentors from Rhode Island College and Providence College.
An ‘everyday’ impact
Generation Citizen’s student volunteers said the most inspiring part of their work is the impact they have on the students they work with, even beyond learning about politics and government.
“One girl approached me and said, ‘I’ve never talked in an English class, and now I do,'” said Reuben Henriques ’12, one of the Providence branch’s coordinators. “It’s just exciting to hear that these students have been inspired in some way by the program to be involved more, not just in their communities and government, but also in their education.”
Julia Dahlin ’12, Henriques’ co-coordinator, said her students wrote an op-ed last year for the Providence Journal. Though it was not published in the actual paper, she said, the exercise was a way for the students to see the important “everyday” application of politics in their lives.
“Politics is in everything,” Dahlin said. “You can make a change by speaking up, and not many of these students realized that before this program.”
After leaving Ahern’s history class, Kim and her fellow mentor, Folashade Modupe ’10, sit on a RIPTA trolley , returning to their lives on College Hill. The two are looking over note cards filled with students’ comments on what they liked and disliked about the class.
Modupe smiles when she comes across a card that says, “I learned new things about politics. I liked the class.”
But Modupe recognizes that her students are not the only ones who are constantly learning.
“When I’m working on lesson planning for the class, I find myself thinking about these kids’ lives. What do they do after school? How can the teen mother make the commitment to come to class, despite all of the stress of motherhood? I always think about all of that now,” she says.