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Concerns about the state of American democracy are at an all-time high. Civic engagement is more polarized than at any time in recent history. From parents disrupting and taking over school board meetings, to 29% of Americans (and 61% of registered Republicans) continuing in their false belief that the 2020 presidential election was stolen, to the attack on the U.S. Capitol on January 6, 2021, and ongoing investigations; democracy is facing constant threats.
What, then, is the role of educational institutions, education nonprofits, and philanthropic foundations in combatting this polarization, these threats to democracy, and promoting more productive and community-oriented civic engagement?
We sat down with Raj Vinnakota, President of the Institute for Citizens & Scholars, to hear more about his thoughts on what he calls “civic learning,” and how philanthropists, educators, and operators can build the field of civic learning for all.
Raj has a long history of groundbreaking work in the education and civic learning sectors. He began his career as co-founder of The SEED School, a first-of-its-kind urban boarding school for low-income students, which was featured in the documentary feature, “Waiting for Superman.” After leading SEED for nearly two decades, Raj joined the Aspen Institute to start and lead the Youth & Engagement Programs division. He then took over as President of the Institute of Citizens & Scholars (formerly, the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship) to lead it in its new direction and take on the field building work for civic learning.
Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
Tyton Partners (TP):
Raj, thanks for joining us. Can we start with what the Institute for Citizens & Scholars is?
Raj Vinnakota (RV):
Thanks for having me on. The best way I can describe our work is how we view the current situation. In our view, our democracy is at risk, and we have a situation where we are on the knife’s edge. The question is what will happen over the next 10 years? Do we stay as a democracy or continue our slide toward autocracy? Do we value liberty over tyranny? Do we believe in freedom of expression over cancel culture? There are 44 million young people between the ages of 10 and 19, who are entering the public sphere in the next 10 years, and what we need to do is to ensure that they are civically well-informed, productively engaged and committed to democracy in such a way that they tip our country in the right direction. All our work focuses on that.
How do you go about doing that? What are the initiatives that you have?
Our strategy focuses on two age groups in slightly different ways. The entry point in our intervention with 14- to 18-year-olds who typically go to high school is to focus on how we make sure that they are civically well-informed. Do they understand how their government functions? Do they understand the historical underpinnings? Do they know how to consume information the correct way and get their information from multiple sources?
We do that partly through schools, but our time is spent around other mechanisms such as libraries. Lots of mayors come to us and say, “How can we leverage our assets besides schools to get civically engaged young people?” So, we work with mayors to figure that out, as well.
There is a lot of content out there, but how we get in front of young people is really our focus. We spend time partnering with social media and other virtual platforms to try to get this information directly to young people to develop their capabilities to be well-informed.
Then we transition into the next age group, which is the 18-24 age group. We call them the “post-high-school group” and they fall largely into one of two camps: they are either going to college or going into the workforce. Our intervention when they go into college is working directly with college presidents across the country to reprioritize and balance out the role of higher education to center citizen development, civic preparedness, and civic learning. This will be done by teaching them how to have thoughtful civil discourse and supporting faculty so they can actually facilitate such discourse to ensure that young people come into college empathetic and curious and leave with a broader mindset and understanding when they graduate.
Today, a majority of young people go into the workforce, so we are starting a first ever pilot project to work directly with employers to partner on how to develop better young employees, ones who want to work across different departments, who are curious, want to work towards common goals, are able to empathize and connect across multitudes of diverse backgrounds and ideologies. They call that “workforce development.” I call those “civic skills.” And we know that in either scenario, they can apply those skills at work and in the community. It is a multifaceted approach, and we think that is the only way to tackle this problem in a larger and scalable way.
What you are talking about is “civic learning.” You have written a very robust white paper on this and you talked about the field building components. Can you walk us through what field building look like?
Let me start by just explaining field building. In 2019, I wrote a white paper that looked at the state of civic education in this country, and in its most basic essence, civic education is about citizen development and how it’s been so undercapitalized over the last 40 years. It’s so myopically focused on that class that you and I would call the civics or government course that we took as a junior in high school, as opposed to a broader notion of civic knowledge, civic skills, civic dispositions, that happens in schools, at home, at your kitchen table, in faith-based institutions, online, higher education, and at your first place of work. We need to have a more comprehensive approach to this and the only way to do that in a durable sense is to build a field.
There is a lot of academic research around field building and what it means to be a field at its core. I would tell you that it needs to have a shared identity in which all participants know what it is they are trying to achieve, it has a set of standards of practice research tools, it has both private and public funding that supports it, and it supports the educators. I use educators in the broadest sense here – those who are involved in developing young people in the field. All those things need to be true and frankly, none of those things were true when I did my research. The good news is we have made significant progress since then, we have made it in policy and in bringing the space together.
In February, the Institute for Citizens & Scholars rolled out the first ever measurement framework for citizen development in the civic learning space. What we have done over the last nine months is brought together more than 40 different thought leaders not only in the civic learning space, but also in national service, workforce development, character formation, and other adjacent spaces to create a framework for measuring citizen development. We then identified and mapped more than 180 tools that already exist onto this framework so that people can learn about the framework, access the framework, and apply it to their work. For example, I can apply it into my own work as a nonprofit leader, I can apply it from a policy perspective.
That is the starting point, because I would say that the next phase of our research is bringing leading academics to kick the tires on all these tools because I cannot vouch that all 180 tools are valid. The next phase of work validates and identifies the gaps so that we can eventually build a robust, valid set of tools for this space. That is a way of getting into field building that goes outside of the flawed and highly politicized nature but still makes significant progress.
The core to our DNA is this notion that we need ideological diversity in all of the work that we do. This is because the only way our nation will have durable solutions is by ensuring that ideological diversity comes into the product. If it doesn’t, at some point in time, the pendulum will swing the other way politically and you’ll lose all of the work you’ve done.
How are employers thinking about citizen development as part of their broader offering to their employees?
We are going to have to do some analysis, but the ones that are coming to us are worried that their youngest employees do not have the right skills as they are working in teams because so much of the work nowadays is about being able to work in teams. At the same time, making that investment is so hard. Lots of employers wonder whether it’s worth it and so part of our value proposition is saying we know the content for how to develop many of the skills and dispositions that you’re talking about and if you partner with us, we’d love to be able to research whether it actually also increases retention. Then we are actually solving two problems that an employer has nowadays. Firstly, how to integrate the youngest population into their workforce and secondly, how to keep them in this really difficult economy.
You have been in the education space your entire career; you have accomplished remarkable things and you have been thinking about this topic since you were at the Aspen Institute. What is your vision for this? What is the vision beyond the work of Citizens & Scholars?
At its core, a self-governing nation needs to have its citizens practicing both active citizenship and just as importantly, civic virtue. The way I talk about civic virtue is the Aristotelian conception, which is that you need to have your citizens taking the needs of the community in equal balance with your own personal interests. As long as everyone understands that and balances it out, you can have a thriving, flourishing, civil society. As soon as everyone becomes selfish in a self-governing nation, you are doomed to fail.
You asked me the question of what the future looks like. It is, hopefully, a citizenry of a majority of people who take their own personal interest in mind, but who balance that with community interests at certain necessary moments. I’ll give two examples. People who go to fight wars on our behalf. They are doing it for a greater cause, they are certainly not doing it for selfish purposes. That is a very great mechanism of demonstrating civic virtue. The second is other methods of service. I think we’ve lost the desire to engage in our political systems. People don’t graduate from high school and college and go, “I want to go be a politician.” It is not in the same kind of notions that might have been under JFK. I want to get back to that country. Not all parts of it. But I want to get back to that country in terms of civic virtue.
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