“If you were elected president of the United States, what would you change?”
This past summer, I asked this question to a group of a dozen or so grade school students, aged 7-12, from Washington D.C.
This inquiry opened my biweekly educational series with the Boys and Girls Clubs of Greater Washington entitled “Be the Change.” The curriculum explained politics in the United States and outlined different modes of catalyzing change in our country.
“I’d stop the wars.”
“I’d have less gun violence.”
“I’d end the racial profiling that’s going on.”
Following my opening question, the children explained, through stories, why each issue mattered to them. In a bittersweet way, my summer lessons were uniquely timely: While many of the children’s stories came from earlier points in their life, others highlighted the national issues occurring at the same time as the online course. My first session was taught as the Ahmaud Arbery case gained popularity, and my last one was conducted after George Floyd’s murder. From May to June, we covered topics such as racism, voter suppression and the criminal justice system.
But even with an altruistic fervor and a keen awareness of issues in society, the students were lost on how they could go about actually making change at the start of the “Be the Change” series. Throughout the lessons, I did my best to explain different modes of exercising civic power — the influence each person has in public life as a part of a democracy. Voting, which is the most prominent today, is reserved for adults, but it was the only one they could name initially. Advocacy, protest, organizing — all of these have no particular age limit. So why were the kids never made aware of this?
Seeing as we live in a world where 53 percent of American’s don’t believe undocumented immigrants have rights, 73 percent can’t name all three branches of government and our Supreme Court Justices fail to remember the five freedoms granted by the first amendment, this comes as no surprise.
In his book “You’re More Powerful than You Think: A Citizen’s Guide to Making Change Happen,” former Yalie and founder of Citizen University Eric Liu ’90 outlines different types of civic power, laws around civic power and modes of wielding civic power. He emphasizes a concept called power literacy which consists of two components: to “read power” and to “write power.”
To read power is to understand how institutions and social groups are set up and understand how they exercise political influence to make a change or keep the status quo. To write power is to implement and execute the strategies necessary to change policy and enact reform. To read power is to learn. To write power is to act.
As soon as children are school-aged, and often before, we attempt to develop their literacy skills by getting them to talk, read and write. Similarly, as soon as children are able to point out issues in our country, we should begin their civic power literacy training.
To be taught to children, these topics will need to be simplified. Creativity will help in this regard. For example, during one lesson, I likened the electoral college system to a basketball game to differentiate it from the popular vote. In the same way that there are one-pointers, two-pointers, and three-pointers, different states are worth a different amount of “points” when “won.” In the case of the presidential election, California is worth 55 points and Alaska is worth three. Whoever gets the most points wins, not whoever gets the most votes. Of course, you must be mindful of these types of metaphors, so as not to build an early association between democracy and “winner-take-all competition,” but a simple analogy paired with proper qualification can go a long way toward ensuring that young kids understand political processes — some of which still elude many adults.
Power literacy can be taught anywhere and by anyone: by parents, by siblings, by neighbors, by youth organizations and by schools. I believe that schools have the biggest responsibility to teach these lessons — seeing as they are the public institutions dedicated to teaching. But improving widespread civic education depends on a mix of federal, state and local buy-in. It will take a critical mass of civic power — which brings us full circle.
Now that election day is here, the question I asked months ago, “If you were elected president, what would you change?” has become more salient than ever. Young voters are breaking records with their interest and participation in this year’s election. But outreach to young people, when it occurs, often only extends to those of voting age. Individuals 17 years old and younger are largely excluded from political conversations, even though they are participants in democracy and civic life. We must teach them from an early age how they can be an “author of change” by way of developing power literacy and understanding how to read and write with civic power.
KAHLIL GREENE is a senior in Timothy-Dwight College. He was the previous President of Yale College Council from 2019-2020. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.