Generation Citizen is not for the faint of heart. Like many NYU clubs, GC dedicates itself to addressing and ameliorating socio-political issues that plague our society. However, this particular group differs greatly from other NYU social justice clubs in two crucial ways: its members work directly in New York City’s public schools, and it’s not yet an NYU club.
GC seeks to empower the city’s youth — especially low-income and minority students, who are among the least politically active and most disenfranchised in our country — to be civically active by directly working with them in the classroom. Akin to the Peer Health Exchange approach, GC sends proactive NYU students into classrooms to lead high school students through the process of identifying a salient problem in their community, formulating an attainable solution, identifying the decision-makers who can affect change on their issue, creating an action plan and finally presenting their arguments to those decision-making officials so they can create change.
Past projects have included providing convenient, educative opportunities to pregnant teenagers, hosting a job fair with local employers to reduce teen unemployment and many others. Still, although some GC-led classes have induced significant policy changes, this is not the sole goal; the primary purpose of the program is to teach students how to pursue and effect change in their communities beyond their GC involvement.
And it works. Despite GC’s relative infancy, it’s been shown that GC alumni are 22 percent more likely to vote and 20 percent more likely to volunteer in their communities — high numbers, considering most are not yet 18 years old.
NYU students who work with GC work hard. GC’s version of club participation is not discussing societal plight in a Kimmel room overlooking Washington Square Park, it’s taking the C train into Bedford-Stuyvesant at 8 a.m. twice a week to teach 30 teenagers how much civic apathy can devastate a community.
Sounds tough, right? Well, the NYU students — formally called Democracy Coaches — are not alone. Each is paired with a teacher at their host school, whom they work with closely to develop effective teaching skills and lesson plans. In all, Democracy Coaches dedicate roughly seven hours a week to GC: two to three hours teaching, which includes lessons and travel time, one to two hours to plan each lesson and a one-hour weekly meeting — a manageable workload for an organized undergrad.
As it is still relatively young and unknown to the NYU masses, GC is constantly attempting to court the brightest and most civically minded students on campus despite the impediments of lacking formal club status. The Student Activities Board has twice denied the chapter’s application, both times failing to specify a substantive reason for the decision. Nevertheless, through diligent recruiting GC has increased its membership every semester since its inception on campus, placing as many NYU students in New York City’s public schools to teach civic engagement as possible.
The need for a program such as GC is obvious. Young people, minorities and those in poverty all vote and participate civically at a substantially lower rate, leaving their collective futures to be decided by those with different and often conflicting interests. Instead of allowing this group to be ignored — or even worse, exploited — NYU and its students will ultimately empower the youth of the city to affect their community positively by supporting and participating in GC. And that is something, at least in theory, NYU students believe in.
A version of this article appeared in the Feb. 5 print edition. D. William Jeblinski is a contributing columnist. Email him at [email protected]