Wednesday, January 9, 2008

Growing Active Citizens

The youth of our nation can have a powerful voice, if they choose to use it. Not long ago I posted about the film 18 in ’08 - which is meant to inspire our 29 million young voters between the ages of 18 and 24 to exercise their democratic voice through the ballot box. It was all the news after the Iowa Caucuses and if Iowa and New Hampshire are any indication, it appears that this is just what they are doing.

I am thrilled that we have reached this point. I am wondering, however, if it’s the timing, the candidates or the issues that has finally moved these kids to action. And are Republican youth driven by the same issues and concerns as their Democratic peers?

There are issues that our kids relate to: certainly a greater awareness of Global Warming brought to us by Al Gore, more knowledge of the health care crisis thanks to Michael Moore and his documentary, Sicko, the Iraq war and Afghanistan, thanks to well, you know, along with a “threat” of nuclear threats in North Korea and Iran. Then there is the genocide in Darfur - also a newsmaker that our youth are actively engaged in. Bigger topics, that are less issue specific such as the economy, unemployment, national security, education, crime and welfare and many other are less glamorous and more difficult to wrap their arms around but still undoubtedly on their minds. Whatever has lit their fires indicates that they are on a mission to help put them out.

Just read the voice of one youth, from a blog called, “It’s Getting Hot in Here” to hear the passion in their voices. It’s electrifying. Here’s just a piece of it:
What does this all mean? Is it all rhetoric? Of course it is. But what it means is that Obama is rallying this state and in turn the country around the idea of a movement. The high-school kids in Concord, NH who rallied for Obama: they’ve never yelled for the civil rights movement before, they’ve never been told they’re part of a movement before - and now, there they are, cheering to be part of something bigger than themselves.

During the 2004 Presidential election, I home schooled one of my daughters who was then in the eighth grade. The election stood as the backdrop to our year of study. We examined the Constitution, voting, citizenship and politics. As a result of that year, she took on leadership positions in high school and is a very active citizen, engaging her classmates in community awareness and service projects. During that home schooling year I discovered that there are many organizations devoted to educating our youth about voting and citizenship. There are curriculums for elementary and middle schools. For example, the mission of Kids’ Voting is:

to get students involved and ready to be educated, engaged citizens. Students learn about democracy through a combination of classroom activities, an authentic voting experience and family dialogue.

PBS sponsors the Democracy Project for Kids that includes an interactive website. Service Vote, a program of Youth Service America,
challenges young people to think critically about how they can affect the issues that they work to address through service by participating in the political process and provides opportunities for them to participate in the presidential election.

Beyond voting, is the notion of civic engagement -- engaging kids in the community through service projects and teaching philanthropy. Making current events a regular part of family discussions and talking about solutions will contribute not only to a more educated electorate but to one that believes that community service is essential to the wellbeing of our country. As kids we had the Boys and Girls Scouts, now such, on-line organizations as,, and Youth Services America have made our world so small that kids can help affect change in their local community or across the ocean.

Rather than receiving gifts from classmates for their Bar or Bat Mitzvah, my daughter’s class opted to open a Tzedakah in Action (Charity) fund, where each family contributed the equivalent of the gift each child would have received. Under the supervision of our Rabbi, the class acts as a Board of Directors of a Philanthropic Fund and they decide how the money will be disbursed. They are not only learning about philanthropy, but also about decision-making, compromise and leadership. And it’s never too early to start. During the holidays, the popular on-line game, Club Penguin offered members (elementary aged kids) an opportunity to trade in their virtual "hard-earned" money for real donations to one of 3 chosen organizations:

..."Coins for Change" campaign ending on Christmas Eve in which 2.5 million users donated in some cases as many as 1,500 coins -- enough to furnish an igloo -- to charities. In turn, the site, owned by Walt Disney Co., divided 1 million real dollars among the charities: the Elizabeth Glaser Pediatric AIDS Foundation, the World Wildlife Fund and Free the Children.

This was money that kids had earned on the site that they spend to buy items for their penguin. It was an opportunity for each child to understand first-hand how good it feels to give.

As parents, we must use these early years as a training ground for teaching civic responsibility by seeking out meaningful opportunities. Taking interest in what is going on in our world, participating in activities to help better our own or other communities, practicing philanthropy at an early age and bringing our kids to the polls when we vote will create informed and compassionate adults who will not squander their precious right to vote but instead use it as it should be - to make their voices heard loud and clear.

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