Cool Companies: Generation Citizen

A decade ago, Scott Warren recognized that America’s school children were not being taught how “effectively participate as citizens.” Understanding the need, Scott launched Generation Citizen (GC) with a goal of “clos[ing] the civic education gap by promoting civic engagement among underrepresented youth.” To date, 30,000 students in 6 regions have participated in GC’s programs.

When people think about start-ups, they think of Silicon Valley and China, Apps and AI, and venture-backed firms run by starving young people. But rarely do we hear about the hundreds of entrepreneurial non-profits changing the world. (There are over 1 million non-profits in the U.S.) How do we get the next generation of innovators to work with or create high-quality and sustainable entrepreneurial non-profits?

I think the stereotypical perception of non-profits is that they work at the surface level, addressing small-scale challenges but not thinking about systems change.  To ensure that the next generation of young people work with and create more non-profits, we need to think about transformative change.  This doesn’t necessarily mean everyone has to develop huge organizations that work with a ton of people- quality matters. It’s more that we need to think about how we change systems, rather than offering band-aid solutions.  That proposition, of fixing inequitable systems that aren’t working for vast swaths of the population, seems to be an inspiring one, and one which I would bet would galvanize young people to participate.

You have been talking about the importance for over eight years, does the current political climate vindicate the efforts you and your team have taken to tamp down the rhetoric and foster real change?

We’ve seen a lot more interest in our work lately.  I joke with people- for the first five years of starting GC, I would tell people what we do, and their eyes would glaze over. Now, people say, “Oh my god we need that everywhere.” I don’t think the need is necessarily more important—I do think people are more aware of the problem and profound ramifications of not educating young people to be active citizens.

To that end, we’re more galvanized than ever to work towards real change.  Sometimes it takes some time, and some external events, for folks to come around to recognize the importance of intervention.

Teaching methodologies are discussed but rarely change, is your project-based platform (students find a problem and solve it), a model more schools should adopt?

We think that GC’s Action Civics approach is one that schools throughout the country could adopt.  Our students learn civics by doing civics—they choose local issues they care about and work with local government to affect change.  We need schools to recognize the importance of educating and engaging young people to be active and engaged citizens at a young age.

Fundamentally, we don’t want civics to put students to sleep; it should be the most exciting class in school; our approach was discussed in 2017 Education Week article:

https://www.edweek.org/ew/articles/2017/10/11/civics-education-shouldn’t-put-students-to-sleep.html.

You can see another example of this approach at work in Bastrop, Texas: https://www.statesman.com/news/local/bastrop-students-make-history-establishing-city-youth-advisory-council/358PdL8wsrUKjiEF5LUreM/

GC has outposts in six states, what are your managing challenges?

We have offices in Rhode Island, Massachusetts, Oklahoma, Texas, California, and New York.  We love having so much geographic diversity, but it brings up numerous challenges.  First, every context is different: Action Civics comes across much differently in Oklahoma than it does in New York.  Managing across backgrounds—geography, age, education, ethnicity—can be challenging.

Additionally, determining which practices are standardized, and which sites can alter and transform, is also a challenge. We’re continually trying to empower our employees, take their concerns into account, while pushing forward with scale.

What would you tell the young Scott to do differently?

So much!  We grew too fast; we didn’t invest enough in talent, we tried to do too many different things. Most of all, however, I’d tell the younger version of me to listen more.  There isn’t a problem that a scaling organization is facing that another one hasn’t encountered before.  Don’t spend so much time recreating the wheel.  Our intervention is different, and we want our culture to be unique, but the ways of getting there come from trued and tried practices.

I also think I’d tell myself to have some perspective.  The beginning stages of launching an organization are such a roller coaster.  Some days, you feel like you have it all figured out.  Other days, you feel like you’re going to fail.  It’s exhausting.  Giving yourself some wiggle room, and recognizing that it’s a long slog, is crucial.  I tired myself out too much.

How do you recruit bright graduates, who have many options, to join GC?

We’re doing important work, educating the next generation of young people to be active citizens—it is clear need today.  We also have a collaborative, democratic culture- you’re not going to be a cog in the machine, but a vital part of our efforts.  Your work will matter.

Are you hiring? If so, why is GC a “cool” place to work?

We are!  Because you get to see young people making a real change every single day.  You can see the impact your work is having on the daily.

 


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