Missteps in Civic Engagement

This educator reflects on the importance of identifying missteps in civic engagement projects. 

I recently attended the National Council for Social Studies annual conference in Boston, where I saw countless examples of the work that dedicated educators are doing to increase civic engagement in students from kindergarten through college. It’s clear that educators who teach students about the valuable roles they can play in their communities are doing a great service. However, no matter how well-intentioned, some civic engagement activities can miss the mark when educators do not carefully guide students.

This fact emerged during a session at the conference on a Project Citizen endeavor in Tennessee. Project Citizen is a program sponsored by the Center for Civic Education, a nonprofit organization “dedicated to promoting an enlightened and responsible citizenry committed to democratic principles and actively engaged in the practice of democracy in the United States and other countries.”

In Tennessee, participating students identified a serious community problem: the terrifying experience of children after methamphetamine busts at their homes. Stripped of all their clothing and belongings and then decontaminated, they are placed into the foster care system with only a blanket wrapped around their naked bodies. The students were rightly outraged and developed the brilliant solution of equipping police with backpacks to carry in the trunks of their cars, to give to children when they are removed from their homes. Each backpack contains a pair of underwear, a T-shirt and toys. The students secured funding and worked with the local authorities to get the backpacks placed in police vehicles.

This is an example of important civic engagement, and the educators involved excelled at teaching their students how to make a difference in their own communities.

There are just two problems: the toys and the T-shirts. First, the toys were rooted in gender stereotypes to which not all children conform. Not all girls want dolls, for instance. When I asked the presenters—the teachers behind the project—about this, I was told that the participating students decided on the toys. To me, this is a missed opportunity for a teachable moment about difference and the importance of suspending judgment.

But the T-shirts were the greater problem. The shirts identified the project and featured a slogan about the harmful effects of methamphetamine. 

I asked the teachers whether they thought such a shirt would stigmatize the children who wore them. They assured me that nothing of the sort happened: The students who ran the project also wore the T-shirts. No one could identify why each child wore the shirt.

If that’s true, great. But the educators did not produce evidence to support this conclusion, nor did they provide any feedback from the children for whom that T-shirt might be one of the very few items of clothing they own upon entering the foster care system. In addition, the T-shirts might serve as painful reminders of their horrible situation. The educators defended the shirts, arguing that they were acceptable because the students leading the project created them.  

I don’t think that’s a good enough reason to put a T-shirt about methamphetamine destroying families on a traumatized 6-year-old. It is the educators’ job to encourage students to question their work, to say, “This is a great design, but let’s think about it. You would wear it by choice because you’re proud of this project. But how would you feel about wearing a T-shirt like this if you came from one of those homes? Would it remind you of that bad time? Would you worry that people who saw you wearing it would think bad things about you and your family?”

I am reminded of Atticus’s instructions to Scout in To Kill a Mockingbird: “You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view . . . until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.”

Project Citizen in Tennessee would have been more successful if educators had asked students to walk around in their T-shirts as if they were beneficiaries of the project, not the creators. While the educators running the program correctly and successfully allowed students to control the process of civic engagement, they missed an opportunity to intervene and challenge their students.

Had they done so, they would have built greater empathy in their students. It’s empathy, not sympathy, that helps build tolerance and understanding—two qualities that one needs to make a difference in a community.

But ultimately, we can learn from missteps. These are teachable moments—for educators and students alike—and upon reflection and discussion, they can help build a more robust civic engagement practice. Teaching Tolerance would like to hear from you. In your experience, what are some of the lessons you and your students have learned from missteps in civic engagement projects? 

Silos-Rooney is an assistant professor of history at MassBay Community College.

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