My dad taught math at Rochester Community College. When I was 10, the Minnesota Community College Faculty Association, of which my dad was a member, went on strike. At issue were wages and benefits, the typical stuff people strike over. I didn’t know how much my dad earned or how much he wanted to earn. All I knew was that he was walking a picket line and very unhappy with the Governor.
So I decided to write the Governor a letter.
It was hand written and my parents didn’t make a copy, so I’m not sure exactly what I said. I suppose I told him that I thought teachers worked hard and deserved raises. I probably told him that my parents were feeling stressed about the strike and that made me feel stressed. I remember writing that he should do something quick to get things resolved.
I didn’t think twice about whether it was appropriate for a 10-year-old to write to the Governor. Nor did I doubt that he would want to hear from me. I was unhappy about a public issue and he was the one in charge of that public issue.
I was raised to believe that it was not only your right but your responsibility to respectfully voice your opinion if you felt a situation was unjust (for the record, this did not apply disagreeing with my parents about bedtime, homework, practicing piano and a whole host of other things that occasionally troubled me). I didn’t know I was practicing civic engagement. I simply wanted to ensure that the person responsible for making decisions that affected my family understood my point of view.
I was lucky. I had parents and teachers who encouraged me to be passionate about issues, and to speak up when I felt strongly about the potential outcome. I was also taught that it was important to be concerned about the common good in addition to my own self-interest, and to believe that it is possible and worth trying to make a difference through public action. Not all young people grow up hearing those messages or feel supported when they voice their opinion.
That is why I am so excited about Minnesota Civic Youth. Our mission is to help kids and young adults develop the knowledge, skills, confidence and desire to be informed, active citizens now and in the future. We do this by engaging them in authentic civic experiences and activities that respect their viewpoints and celebrate their voices. We invite them to cast a ballot on Election Day. We invite them to research challenging public issues, develop thoughtful solutions and share those solutions with policymakers. We invite them to participate on public boards to experience first-hand the discussions and decisions that go into operating a successful organization. There is a lot of research confirming that kids learn best by doing. So we help them do civics as often as they can. I look forward to sharing examples from our programs in the months ahead.
In the comment section below, I invite you to share some of your early experiences with civics. Did they take place in school or at home? What was the outcome?