There is an organization you should know about that plays an important role in encouraging kids to become good citizens.
Seattle City Club’s mission is to inform, connect and engage the public to strengthen the civic health of the Puget Sound region. City Club doesn't define “the public” as adults only. It also has programs to foster youth civic engagement.
A shining example is the annual Colleen Willoughby Youth Civic Education Awards ceremony, an inspiring event that would convince even a hardened cynic that the future is in good hands.
Named for Colleen Willoughby, a City Club founder with a lifetime of civic involvement, these awards showcase Washington state youths who are working to strengthen their communities and build vibrant civic health through a variety of programs and projects.
Dressed in their finest for the recent awards ceremony at Town Hall Seattle, this year’s winners were eager to describe how civic engagement had changed their lives.
“I was rough around the edges,” says Katt Hudson, a three-year veteran of FEEST (Food Empowerment Education and Sustainability Team). Each year, FEEST hires interns to lead and promote weekly community dinners, using ingredients from local markets and farmers.
But FEEST interns are more than just chefs; they are activists who lobby decision-makers on issues such as healthier, tastier school lunches, and engage communities in discussions about community health and equity.
FEEST intern Fatma Zubeir describes surveying a group of high school students at the Evergreen Campus of the Highline School District, where 80 percent of students receive free and reduced lunch. She and her colleagues learned that students didn't have enough time to eat the school-provided breakfast in the morning and that the lunches didn’t taste good and therefore often were left uneaten. The FEEST team provided this feedback to Highline’s school nutritionist with the recommendation that food services money would be better spent if students’ preferences were considered.
FEEST has shared its youth empowerment model locally and nationally, through conference presentations and workshops.
Now a freshman at Evergreen State College, thanks to scholarships she was awarded because of her work with FEEST, Katt is studying food justice and food science.
FEEST Executive Director Christina Orbe says the table is more than just a place to share a meal, it’s a way to bring people together. “If you feed them, they will come,” she says.
Socrates and cake
If you feed them dessert, they will come and discuss political, social and economic issues.
This has been the experience at Seattle’s Nathan Hale High School, whose popular Dessert and Politics program uses the Socratic method of inquiry and discussion among individuals to look at issues through an informed lens.
Tony Renouard, a faculty advisor to the program, says Dessert and Politics adheres to the school’s mission of creating honorable, skillful, thinking citizens. These popular discussions have drawn as many as 500 participants from the community.
Jade Chowning, a spokesperson for the Legislative Youth Advisory Council (LYAC), another award winner, describes how her involvement in this program, a 22-member council of 14–18 years olds who advise the Washington State Legislature, as moving beyond the theoretical into practice. Though she understood that civic engagement was in her future as an adult, Jade appreciated the opportunity LYAC provided to be involved now. “I have a voice now, and my voice matters,” she says. “I’ve gained a lot from this program and I think our state has too.”
One of the most valuable aspects of his participation in Judges in the Classroom, a statewide program that pairs municipal county judges with students and teachers, was gaining a firsthand understanding of the judicial system in action, student participant Tyler Charawell says. “It’s kind of funny to see kids quiver when they see what can happen if they do the things they were thinking of doing,” he jokes. Students attend court proceedings and participate in classroom debates and courtroom simulations to show how the law impacts everyday life.
Creating a new community
ReWA (Refugee Women’s Alliance) is a home away from home for immigrant and refugee families in Seattle. Its youth program provides a haven for young people from a variety of communities, introducing them to the rights and responsibilities they have in the U.S., exposing them to a broad array of cultural communities and even helping with homework. “ReWA brought out the best in me,” says student participant Elizabeth Gray, whose family emigrated to the U.S. from Liberia. “It has opened me up.”
City Club’s mantra is that an engaged public matters. City Club Executive Director Diane Douglas said the purpose of the Colleen Willloughby Youth Civic Education Awards is to shine the light on youth civic engagement, noting that for civic education to be successful, it has to have a real world component.
You can measure the success of civic education in a variety of ways, but perhaps the best is through the experiences of its participants.
“I feel alive,” says Elizabeth Gray.
“I wouldn’t be the person I am today without this program,” says Katt Hudson.
“I’ve learned that change can happen, if you are passionate and work together as a team,” says Fatma Zubeir.
Learn more about the Youth Civic Education Awards and other opportunities for civic engagement at www.seattlecityclub.org