Staying Present and Aware: The Value of Civic Engagement and Critical Thinking for Teenagers

Staying Present and Aware: The Value of Civic Engagement and Critical Thinking for Teenagers

Being a member of DRNY has shown me that youth voices, opinions, and actions are forces that help bring real change.

Leila presents Seal of Civic Readiness Project

My composting presentation at the Board of Education Meeting.

My civics journey

When registering for my senior year courses, I enrolled in a class called Civic Engagement because it was an opportunity to create change in my school community and earn the New York State Seal of Civic Readiness The Seal is a way to recognize students’ commitment to creating positive change in their community, and executing this type of project allows young people to gain experience in the world of social justice and political action. There was a project I had envisioned since ninth grade: initiate a composting program in my school’s cafeterias. I knew my capstone project would involve sustained, dedicated action, yet there were moments when the project felt stagnant, the tasks were too complex, and the presentations I needed to give seemed daunting. At those times, I nearly convinced myself that my efforts were not worth the trouble and that my workload would have been more straightforward if I’d taken AP Macroeconomics or AP Government. However, I have noticed that the non-linear nature of this type of civic work feels more meaningful than those instruction-based classes. Instead of listening to lectures and completing worksheets, I had the opportunity every day to build upon my goal of schoolwide sustainability. I continued to forge new connections with supporters so that I could change the waste management system at Shaker. Being involved in real school issues has rooted me in my community. 

Now it is May, and my capstone project is nearly complete. I will present my research and work involving sustainable waste management at Shaker High School at our school civics symposium in June and receive the Seal of Civic Readiness at graduation. But these achievements are not the entire reward. Throughout this school year, I have learned the value of contributing to my community. I no longer think it is acceptable to live in this world without making a difference. In society, we need less passivity and more commitment to solving issues. That is the core of civics, but without Civic Engagement and the DemocracyReady NY Coalition (DRNY), it is a lesson I would have learned much later.  

Being a member of DRNY has shown me that youth voices, opinions, and actions are forces that help bring real change. Having the chance to frequently listen and contribute to conversations about media literacy and responsible technology and the effects these topics have on the civic education of my generation has been wonderful and strange. In our digital world, it is wonderful to closely witness the efforts of establishing guidelines for an accessible civic education for all students in New York State yet unnerving because we can see the nearly uncontrollable pace of technological advancement in society.

The downside of technology

Technology’s presence, whether in the classroom or in our personal lives, impacts everyone because it provides a good portion of social connection and news about the world for people of all ages and backgrounds. Digital platforms are how we communicate and raise awareness of social issues. With that in mind, social media and the internet are our greatest resources. But too often their presence is pervasive, and most of my peers agree. In our interviews to find some perspective on the topic, my friend Annabel emphasized how “we are wasting our time” when it comes to immersion in the digital world. Adults may not assume so, but many teenagers realize that our sheer amount of time spent online is a problem. We do not know how to untangle ourselves from the digital world when almost everything in our lives is contained on our devices. To change this, we need adults to look out for us and not disparage our behavior. Beginning with legislation, we can work across generations to find ways to dismantle the systems that take away our attention and childhoods. Lawsuits against platforms like TikTok and Instagram show that people are aware of the way social media negatively affects mental health, chances for meaningful human connections, and the ability to think critically. People also want to do something about it. When we discussed social media usage and artificial intelligence in our interview, Annabel mentioned how the resources are often misused. Social media does not result in the change we hope to see because social justice movements sometimes remain online instead of solving conflicts in the real world. And AI is sometimes an excuse to let technology take over the role of the human mind. Students are less engaged with the real world due to the presence of these technologies.

The intersection between civics and technology 

It would be wrong to ignore how my computer and technology have helped me complete my Seal project. Without email I would not have met key supporters; without the internet, I would not have found other success stories whose footsteps I could follow (like local school districts and even youth global climate activists, like Greta Thunberg); without literature databases, I would not have found solid facts on which I could write my research paper on composting. Yet among the resources that support conservation, I have encountered some that downplay the graveness of climate change, including politicians and news sources. 

That is why it is great how many mornings I overhear librarians teaching lessons about media literacy in my school library. They are reminding students how to be critical and aware of sources and avoid the misuse of the infinite stores of information on the internet. Senate Bill A08891 proposed by Linda B. Rosenthal and Senate Bill S8217 proposed by Leroy Conrie include steps to ensure all students in New York State are media literate. Though legislation can provide a framework to support these goals, it will ultimately be up to educators and administrators to ensure that the younger generation can determine truth from misinformation and navigate the influx of information in our world from a young age.

As a youth member of DRNY…

I am grateful to be part of the broader NYS civics community through the DemocracyReady NY Coalition at Teachers College, Columbia University. My involvement in school and state civics makes my capstone project easier because I am frequently reminded of how many individuals are dedicated to bringing change and ensuring a bright future. Not only have I found countless teachers, administrators, and students who support my project, but I got to meet a cohort of insanely intelligent DRNY peers outside of school.

The DRNY coalition exists to amplify student voices, and with that in mind, I knew I needed to present to my school board of education to advocate for the investment in compost bins and pickup service for my high school. I learned that my fear and preparation were worth experiencing because they led me to the outcome of creating policy change in my school community for the better. That is precisely what civic engagement is. It is about responsibly projecting your discontent to create action when problems must be solved. Youth voices are precious and necessary to enact the changes we need for the future.

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