How to engage the next generation of decision-makers with opengov issues

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Photo credit: iStockPhoto

With the recent outcries for justice from communities all across the country in response to the tragedies that took place in Ferguson, Mo., New York City, and Cleveland, Ohio, there remains a recurring question: What are our next steps? There have been a number of peaceful protests to push for change and reform. Social media has also played a huge part in helping with protests, as thousands of protesters take to social media to organize their next steps of protest. But what about the ones who can’t protest yet whose voices still matter in resolving current national problems of injustice and inequality? What about the future decision-makers who will be responsible for implementing any reform or change brought about by the action of their parents, guardians, relatives, teachers and political leaders? What about the next generation of decision makers?

A video of an 11-year-old student from Ferguson summed up the dilemma in just a few minutes. He sounded better than most politicians, policy makers and political correspondents. Thanks to his grandmother, who taught him the importance of voting and how government works, he sounded like an informed decision maker. So are there more out there who are like this 11-year-old? Of course, but I have yet to find them. Why? Because we treat students like children without a voice. We forget in our civics lesson plans that this new age of technology allows for tools that can connect students to the very people and processes that are discussed.

There are countless numbers of civic tech tools being developed and being used by local, state and federal policymakers. The pace of change is remarkable. Twenty-five years ago there was no way to email your congressman, mayor or local city council member. Now, as organizations push for open government and transparency, their efforts are paired with innovative ways to let decision-makers connect with their constituents.

So how do we create a curriculum or empower students in a way that keeps up with the ever-changing technological landscape?

Perhaps the answers is putting something together like a toolbox for teachers and parents alike: a civic toolbox. The civic toolbox would contain resources that teachers historically never thought to provide to their students, largely because they did not exist. No more paper-bound Constitution, no more charts; instead, links. Links to websites that share data about public processes and public officials are powerful tools to introduce students to the government — their government.

Here at Sunlight, we have an array of tools to introduce your student or child to their political leadership. Below are links and descriptions for tools that are helpful and user friendly. If your child is old enough to use Facebook, then they are old enough to use these tools with ease.

A civic toolbox should include the following tools to help your students become engaged:

  • If teachers wanted their students to learn more about a particular congressional leader, they could use Sunlight’s Congress app for iOS and Android, a tool that allows you to learn more about your member of Congress, get in touch with them and see what they’re up to. Follow the latest bills, see floor activity and explore votes from the palm of your hand.
  • If a teacher wanted students to learn more about their state’s government and how their state legislatures make informed decisions, they could use Open States. Open States allows anyone to discover more about lawmaking in their state. With Open States, you can track state bills, get campaign and contact information for legislators and follow all the action across 50 states, D.C. and Puerto Rico.
  • Tracking bills is always a great teaching tool to show students how laws are created and passed. For example, a teacher could track bills about higher education loans using Sunlight’s OpenCongress tool. OpenCongress is a free, nonpartisan source for legislative information that lets anyone track bills, lawmakers and the issues they care about.
  • Scout is another useful tool that allows you to track legislation and see how policies are made around a specific issue. It even allows you to receive emails and texts around an issue or specific bill in state legislation and federal regulations.

Connecting with your mayor is a fun way to get students engaged with familiar public officials, too. Cities like Baltimore,New Orleans,Los Angeles ,Charlotte, Houston,Miami and Philadelphia have provided the direct email for their respective mayors. Locate your local government’s website and determine ways that your students can interact directly with the mayor through a form or email address.

Other ways to get students involved in the ever growing landscape of technology:

  • This week marks Computer Science Education Week. The Hour of Code is a one-hour introduction to computer science designed to demystify code and show that anybody can learn the basics. The Hour of Code serves as a reminder that with an ever growing amount of students spending more time online can translate into an increase of interest in coding.
  • Code.org provides an opportunity for teachers to explore different ways to teach students the basics, empowering them to create their own systems to interact with government officials. Launched in 2013, Code.org is a nonprofit dedicated to expanding participation in computer science by making it available in more schools as well as increasing participation by women and underrepresented students of color.
  • Launched in the spring of 2012, Girls Who Code is a national nonprofit organization working to close the gender gap in the technology and engineering sectors. With support from public and private partners, Girls Who Code works to educate, inspire and equip high school girls with the skills and resources to pursue opportunities in computing fields.
  • Black Girls Code is a nonprofit organization that focuses on providing technology education to young women of color ages 7–17. By teaching girls programming and game design, they hope to have started the lifelong process of developing in them a true love for technology and the self-confidence that comes from understanding the greatest tools of the 21st Century.

Sunlight is committed to creating tools that help push for open government and open data. The tools listed here provide an opportunity to give students a much needed voice in their government and equip them with the power to make informed decisions. We are always excited to see a grassroots movement forming that addresses such issues as lack of transparency, lack of accountability and inequality. We hope that these actions fuel the conversations about the need for reform. We also hope that these actions fuel open classroom discussions about government and ways that the next generation can get involved.