Project Citizen is an interdisciplinary curricular program for middle, secondary, and post-secondary students, youth organizations, and adult groups that promotes competent and responsible participation in local and state government. The program helps participants learn how to monitor and influence public policy. In the process, they develop support for democratic values and principles, tolerance, and feelings of political efficacy
Entire classes of students or members of youth or adult organizations work cooperatively to identify a public policy problem in their community. They then research the problem, evaluate alternative solutions, develop their own solution in the form of a public policy, and create a political action plan to enlist local or state authorities to adopt their proposed policy. Participants develop a portfolio of their work and present their project in a public hearing showcase before a panel of civic-minded community members. Many of the student groups involved in the program actually take the next step of direct civic engagement by contacting appropriate public officials and attempting to influence them to adopt their policy proposal.
Please note that the 2022 Showcase will be virtual again this year.
Project Citizen offers students a chance to have a voice in public policy, even though they are not eligible yet to vote for political candidates, initiatives, or referendums. This newly found voice then leads students to an awareness of power they have when looking at public policy and making determinations about what to do about a situation in their local community. Their research efforts on a problem leads them to have questions about “why” situations are in the state that they currently are in locally. This is where it becomes real interesting for students because with these questions that arise out of researching a problem, they now begin to reach out to local leaders, groups, and organizations and ask “why,” and “what can be done?” This begins many conversations with local leaders about the problem they are researching and a gathering of opinions from these leaders as to what they believe should or should not be done to help correct or alleviate a problem. Ultimately, I have found the most effective result of research work is to have the student(s) invite a speaker come into the classroom and discuss, with the class as a whole, their experience in dealing with a public policy and to offer their suggestions to the class on how to help improve the situation.
When research and opinions from local leaders, groups, and organizations have been discussed as a class, and alternative ways on how different individuals, groups, and organizations have been evaluated, then the class moves on to looking at how they would like to solve, or lessen the problem that they have chosen for the year. This is a crucial point in their process. Students really need to work as a team to succeed. As a result of their passion for this project, it creates some difficult times for me as a teacher. Their passion is fantastic, however, there are many skills that they must learn to come together as a team and to work cooperatively as a group for preparation to move forward in their decision making processes. I prep many days in advance for large discussions on the value of others opinions and reasons they bring as support for their positions; about compassion, empathy, and “taking 24 hours” to make a decision (sleep on it for a night). I have found that, after working with middle school students, they have a strong understanding of “right” and “wrong” according to their individual value systems. It really helps to front load these lessons before large group discussions.
After much discussion about evidence that has been found, and opinions from local leaders, including our class of students, the pro’s and con’s of a problem, we come to our classroom final decision about how our class will help to solve or alleviate the problem. From this point forward, we are planning out what that means logistically, planning out how to get there, and get this done.
In summary, Project Citizen is so very empowering to our future leaders of this country. It allows them an opportunity to participate in local public policy and to have “their” voice be heard by local leaders who actually listen to their plan of action. It is an opportunity to work with a real problem with the potential to make a change in public policy. It is rewarding. It is exhausting. I have found it to be the most successful way to engage students in local public policy because it is their issue. They choose it, and they decide how to solve it. It is all about ownership, and the class owns this project each year. It is their creation, their baby. The lessons learned here will enable them as future citizens when issues arise in their communities. Project Citizen is a powerful program for students indeed.