*This is one in a series of "Hackathon" projects that Student Strategy Team members put together throughout the course of the 2016-2017 school year.
The Problem: Our elected officials do not represent the diversity of the American population, and young people underestimate their ability to rectify this through their own leadership.
The Solution: Our solution, in short, is a radical revisioning of civic education in American schools. We need a new civics, one that doesn’t simply describe the past.
Date: December 2, 2016
Why the Problem Exists:
The primary reasons why minorities and women do not run for elective office are 1) they tend to lack the support of political institutions and 2) for the most part, they are not taught that politics is a viable career path. The primary institutional barriers to minorities and women who may choose to run for elective office come from party gatekeepers and a lack of funding. As much as we would like to believe that anyone can run for elective office, the reality is that the pre-candidacy process is very much shaped by partisan operatives who encourage or choose a candidate to run and help them get the funds they need. Women and minorities are statistically less likely to be asked to run for office and are much less likely to have sufficient funds to run a successful campaign on their own, which one of our team member’s research confirms. She interviewed two white and one African-American female Louisiana state representatives, all three of whom confirmed that they had not considered running for office before someone within the political structure suggested it to them and that fundraising for campaigns proved to be a significant obstacle for them and the other female representatives they knew.
However, these institutional barriers cease to be an issue should the candidate not choose to run for office at all. Women and minorities are statistically less likely to consider elective office as a career option not only because they are not encouraged to run, they are often even discouraged from running. This is confirmed by the research of Kelly Dittmar at Rutgers University’s Center for American Women in Politics. She writes that specifically African American women “are less likely to be encouraged to run for office, and are more likely to be discouraged from running, than black men and white women.” They are also less likely to consider running for office because many women and minorities do not grow up in societies where people like them are considered “typical politicians,” and therefore they do not see elective office as a viable career path. This is not a difficult concept to grasp; if one grows up seeing only a certain kind of person in political office, you won’t grow up believing that politics is a viable career option if you’re not part of that demographic. Though we as a nation took significant strides in increasing the number of women in the Senate and in representational capacities across the country this past election, representatives in Congress and in statehouses across the nation are nowhere near reflecting the diversity of the nation.
We decided to approach solving this problem at the psychological and societal level (as opposed to changing our political structures) because it is the most important barrier to overcome for potential candidates for elective office. The structural barriers mentioned above can be overcome through money and connections, but the overcoming the perception that certain groups do not run for office is essential to creating a greater diversity of representation in this country.
Our solution, in short, is a radical revisioning of civic education in American schools. We need a new civics, one that doesn’t simply describe the past. One that doesn’t engender the false idea of path dependency that tells young people to be satisfied with the status quo because it’s always been so, and is unlikely to be different. We need a civics that is aspirational and progressive. A civics that challenges young people to reimagine their place in the community, their ability to influence government, and perhaps most vitally, their potential to lead our society into the future.
This is an ambitious project, and our objectives won’t be realized overnight. We’ve constructed an 8-week long, extracurricular curriculum that seeks to disrupt the traditional narrative. We aim to foster conversations about power, authority, and leadership. Students will explore their own self-images, thinking deeply about intersectionality and the most salient aspects of their identities. Combining these two lines of thought, students will consider ideas of representation, and whether or not they’re satisfied with the current distributions of civic power. Through a capstone project and final presentation, each cohort will put forward their own novel ideas for taking action.
Over 8 weeks, we hope to open students’ eyes to the deficiencies of the current system, and open their minds to the possibility that they each have the real opportunity to correct them. At the conclusion there may be more questions than the beginning—this is a good thing! Our hope is that, when thinking of who ought to represent their communities in the future, one of the questions our students have is “why not me?”
Why is Our Solution Necessary and Helpful?
The lack of diversity in our current body of representatives is a problem that needs to be fixed because people bring their backgrounds with them when they govern. This is not to say that sharing race or gender are necessarily the best indicators for who is best equipped to represent whom, but there are undeniably certain experiences that are linked to being part of a certain group, and people these experiences take into consideration when they legislate. There are many examples in our history where legislation about a certain group could’ve been fundamentally different had representatives of that group not contributed to its creation.
Our solution seeks to support a greater diversity of representation in this country by changing the way that young people think about the role of a representative democracy in their lives. We hope that students will learn that anybody can represent and lead the people around them. Using the workshops, we hope to give students a space to learn about representation and encourage them to act on what they have learned in the real world. By targeting younger generations, we hope that children of all backgrounds will grow up believing that representatives actually represent them, and that representation is not limited to stereotypical “career politicians.”
We also hope that connecting younger generations to leaders in the Georgetown student community will allow for a level of mentorship, showing kids that they can take the leadership skills they’ve learned in the workshops and develop on them in the future. With the mentorship program, we hope to create a lasting educational experience, long past 8 weeks of programming, allowing kids to see what leadership looks like from a young adult perspective.
The Student Strategy Team of Edward Weizenegger, Christian Mesa, Courtney Maduike, Maydee Martinez, Grace Perret were advised by Juana Summers, Editor, CNN Politics and GU Politics Fall 2016 Fellow.