March 7th marks the start of the first-ever Civic Learning Week in Rhode Island. Educators, students, policymakers, and community members in Rhode Island are gathering to discuss how to build strong communities through civics. The weeklong series also serves as an opportunity to take stock of the state of civic education and engagement in our state.
When we hear the words “civic engagement,” the first thing that typically comes to mind is voter turnout, especially during an election year. While voter participation is fundamental to democracy, other forms of civic engagement are just as critical to our success as a state. Being civically engaged means taking an active role in improving your community. For some, it may be volunteering at a local nonprofit or helping an elderly neighbor shovel out after a storm. For others it means writing a letter to the editor, attending a peaceful protest, or even running for local office.
All Rhode Islanders, regardless of age, background, socio-economic status, or immigration status, have a role to play in building a strong Rhode Island. Too often we hear that Rhode Islanders perceive government as inaccessible or feel intimidated by the complexities of some government processes. It shouldn’t be that way. In fact, increased political participation – not just in elections – is necessary to keep government transparent, effective, and accountable to the people it serves.
This means prioritizing civics education the way we have prioritized STEM education. The Civic Literacy Act, championed by Senator Hanna Gallo and Representative Brian Newberry, establishes a requirement for proficiency in civics starting with next year’s graduating class. We must work together to ensure this law is implemented so educators have the support they need to provide a foundation in civics for our future leaders.
In 2020, young Rhode Islanders took a strong stand in demanding equitable access to civics education in their classrooms, when they filed a class action suit in U.S. District Court that argued the State had failed to provide them with an adequate civic education. We’ve heard these young Rhode Islanders and in turn, are working to raise the profile of civics education through programs such as Civic Learning Week.
Generation Citizen is a leader of the recently founded RI Civic Learning Coalition that is co-hosting Civic Learning Week. We are bringing civic education back into our schools by training teachers to implement action-based civic education curriculum, where students learn civics by acting on issues in their local communities that are relevant to their lived experience and advocating for policy change over the course of a semester.
And since civics is a lifelong endeavor, the Secretary of State’s office recently launched a new online Open Government Center at sos.ri.gov with interactive data tools and resources to help facilitate civic participation and government accountability. These include tips for testifying at a public meeting, how to read proposed legislation, guidance for filing Access to Public Records Requests, and a glossary of government terms.
We all have a role to play in lifelong civics learning. This includes the journalists who keep us informed about our government; educators and civic organizations who teach the fundamentals to our youth; elected officials who represent their constituents; and every single Rhode Islander who has the power to hold their government accountable. The best decisions are made when there is a diversity of voices represented at the policy making table. Elevating civic education is the key to ensuring that all Rhode Islanders are equipped and empowered to actively participate in their government.
Nellie M. Gorbea is the Rhode Island Secretary of State. Areille Jennings is the New England Executive Director of Generation Citizen.