Gotham Gazette Sun, 22 Oct 2017 04:36:31 +0000 Joomla! - Open Source Content Management en-gb (Webmaster) The Most Important Step to Reinvigorating Our Democracy mmv yr

Council Speaker Mark-Viverito (in green) visits a school (photo: William Alatriste)

As we reflect on the recent September primary election in New York City -- where only 14% of active registered Democrats actually cast a ballot, a 53 percent drop in turnout compared to the 2016 Democratic presidential primary -- we are concerned that the city citizenry is not adequately prepared for responsible voting. But, how can we expect young people, or adults for that matter, to participate in our democracy if we have not educated them to do so?

Many have blamed turnout woes on a lack of enthusiasm for candidates or structural voting challenges. Though there are certainly reforms to be made, instead of only perpetuating this blame, we can and should aim to inspire more participation throughout the city. A bold idea at this critical moment in our national and municipal history to increase voter participation and civic engagement is to reinvigorate civics education in New York through a new, engaging pedagogy: Action Civics.

Action Civics is a student-centered, project-based approach to delivering participatory civics education to young people. This is not your grandmother’s civics. Instead, the innovative approach to civics education begins with teacher-student interactions in the classroom, and ripples outward to help students identify community challenges, name root causes, and propose concrete solutions, which often engage local government to remedy those challenges.

This community-minded and outreach-intensive strategy provides a multitude of benefits: Action Civics gives students the key civic knowledge, skills, and motivation to develop regular voting habits, while furnishing additional motivation for teachers, parents, and other stakeholders to start or recommit to consistent voting and civic engagement themselves.

New Yorkers can boast of tremendous civic accomplishments—a public transportation system that, until the more recent constant subway delays, was the envy of the country; world-class parks in every borough; an amazing array and concentration of arts and cultural institutions; and the nation’s largest public school system, to name just a few. The city’s many accomplishments must not be taken for granted, though. As New Yorkers, we are always looking to the next frontier. Living up to our full civic potential requires a renewed commitment to preparing our young people, and all residents of our city, to exercise the franchise as educated and empowered voters. What better stage of development to begin this process than with our youth, in our classrooms?

To be clear, Action Civics is not the same as conventional civics education. Traditional civics, the mere mention of which can cause a yawn, assumes that increasing awareness about how our political system works, and rote memorization of the names of candidates and key provisions of the Constitution, is sufficient for educating and mobilizing current and future voters.

We could not disagree more. Civic knowledge is important, but must be supplemented by civic participation that adopts a “learning by doing” pedagogy.

We have found, for instance, that educating students about how to take action -- for example to advocate for the Department of Transportation to install a pedestrian safety signal at key intersections to address hit-and-run accidents near their school or pushing the State Education Department to update the outdated health education curriculum to ensure that students are educated about how addictive opioids are given the epidemic plaguing their community -- is a more effective pedagogical approach than a textbook-first experience with democracy. Not only are students taking action, but they are learning how city government or the State Education Department actually works, and who elected and appointed officials are accountable to.

Local election officials matter, not just who the President is, and Action Civics helps young people understand that in a very real way, leading to increased interest in local elections.

In a few short weeks, on Election Day, New Yorkers statewide will be presented with a back-of-the-ballot question: “Shall there be a convention to revise the Constitution and amend the same?” Given this unique, once in 20-year opportunity, should it be left to chance that young (or older) people will be sufficiently informed and prepared to understand the importance of this ballot question? Will they know how to take action to advocate in support of or against such a convention? We think not, which is why we released lessons for teachers to educate 8th- through 12th-grade students about this rare opportunity.

But this is only one example highlighting the urgency of ensuring that all students statewide receive an effective Action Civics education, focused primarily on local issues.

Advocates have consistently pushed and seen tabled reforms to modernize New York’s antiquated voting laws. While enacting those reforms should remain a priority, boosting voter turnout in New York requires a more long-term vision to improve our democracy, focused on empowering citizens themselves.

Action Civics holds the promise for the future—it is a transformative, long-term investment in the health of our democracy. That is why Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito and the New York City Council made a bold investment in Action Civics through the Civic Education in City Schools initiative allowing Generation Citizen to bring its rigorous, standards-aligned curriculum to approximately 3,4000 New York City public school students in the 2016-17 school year. And, they renewed their investment in New York City’s young people again this school year.

We know New York’s young people need this approach, but implementing it citywide and, ultimately, statewide will take substantial resources. Now is the time for all of our city and state leaders to partner with us, and the broader civics education field, to bring true Action Civics to secondary students in New York. Then, we can dream of a day with a vibrant local democracy, in which the vast majority participates in local elections.

DeNora Getachew is Generation Citizen’s New York City Executive Director. On Twitter @DeNoraGetachewDeNoraGetachew and @gencitizen.

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The Most Important Step to Reinvigorating Our Democracy Wed, 04 Oct 2017 04:00:00 +0000
Bushwick Students Give City's Street Cleanliness Scorecards An Incomplete trash Bushwick

Bushwick photos by local students

Walk down a typical street in Greenwich Village or SoHo. It's likely to be clean of debris and garbage — in fact, there's a 93 percent chance the sidewalk is "acceptably clean," according to city records.

Now walk down a typical street in Bushwick. According to the City, it's not all that different — there's an 89 percent chance that the sidewalk is clean.

To some young Bushwick residents, that's a finding that doesn't match reality.

Fed up with having to walk around discarded soda bottles, plastic bags, and dog droppings on their way to and from school, a class of seniors at Bushwick's Academy of Urban Planning, a high school, decided to get to the bottom of how the City assesses street cleanliness. They found what they say is outdated policy that masks a 'Tale of Two Cities'-esque reality.

And they are pushing city officials to take notice.

It's called the scorecard system. Each month, employees from the Mayor's Office of Operations observe a sample of streets in every city neighborhood and rate them on cleanliness, assigning scores to both the sidewalk and the street surface. A 1.0 means perfectly clean, and a 3.0 means a lot of litter. "Acceptably clean" is anything below a 1.5. Percentages of acceptably clean streets are released by community board district and can help the Sanitation Department decide its street-cleaning policies.

The rubric for making the determination of clean or unclean, based on example photos, hasn't changed since the scorecard program began in 1974, a city spokesperson confirmed to Gotham Gazette. What was acceptably clean in the New York of the 70s, of graffitied subway cars and financial crisis, might not be all that acceptable in today's Big Apple. City officials argue, though, that the consistent standards means ratings reflect cleaner streets.

These days, a vast majority of city streets and sidewalks are rated acceptably clean, which critics say prevents sanitation department crews from prioritizing neighborhoods that actually have a lot of litter.

In November 2014, the most recent month available, 93.1 percent of city streets and 94.7 percent of city sidewalks were rated acceptably clean. 56 of the city's 59 community board districts had 85 percent or higher ratings of acceptably clean sidewalks, and 52 out of 59 had 85 percent or higher ratings of acceptably clean streets.

November 2014 scorecard ratings, by community board district

source: Mayor's Office of Operations data

In Brooklyn Community Board 4, which covers Bushwick, 88.5 percent of sidewalks and 89.5 percent of streets were scored acceptably clean in November.

"We live here, and we saw that it's not true," said Jorge Santamaria, an Academy of Urban Planning student. "There's a lot of garbage on the street."

Santamaria and his classmates in Jose Ortiz's third-period "Participation in Democracy" class decided to do something about it. Tasked with solving a problem in their neighborhood, students researched how the scorecard system worked.

They requested the specific scores for their district through a Freedom of Information Law Request and took photos of litter-covered streets that the city claimed were clean.

In one report, "Manhattan was scored with a 2, us with a 1.5," Santamaria said of ratings suggesting Bushwick had cleaner streets. "Whenever I go to Manhattan, it's not dirty at all. We think we should get more resources."

"Of course, people there want their community to be clean, but I think our community should be as clean as Manhattan," added student Maritza Zeron.

NYU junior Ryan Castellano, a "democracy coach" who helped students with their activism as part of the Generation Citizen program, which brings together college students and high school classes to identify and solve community problems, said the divide in street cleanliness was obvious.

"I live in Greenwich Village. If you walk around there, and go to Bushwick and walk around, you can see an enormous difference," Castellano said. "Those [scorecard] numbers don't match up at all."

Over the years, New York "definitely has gotten cleaner, and our class' position is not that the city as a whole isn't better," Castellano said. "But there still is a diversity in how dirty neighborhoods are...there are still some that are much worse than others, and it's being misrepresented."

City officials say the program provides valuable data on street and sidewalk cleanliness. The fact that the rubric hasn't changed shows how dramatically average cleanliness has improved, they say, from roughly 70 percent acceptably clean in the 1970s to over 90 percent clean now.

"With a program's history as long as ours, we understand the importance of providing our City stakeholders and the public with useful information that impacts the cleanliness of our neighborhoods," said Mindy Tarlow, the director of the Mayor's Office of Operations, in a statement to Gotham Gazette.

But the students are hoping to see action on the part of the City to raise standards of what is considered acceptably clean. That might mean a City Council hearing or a change in policy at the Office of Operations.

City Council Member Antonio Reynoso, who chairs the council's Sanitation Committee and represents part of Bushwick, met with Castellano earlier this month to discuss the students' research.

"[Council Member] Reynoso is concerned and looking into it," Reynoso spokesperson Lacey Tauber said in an email.

In addition to advocating for change at the city government level, the Academy of Urban Planning students are hoping to help fight litter themselves, through social media and by giving out t-shirts or stickers urging people not to litter.

"In order to make our community cleaner, we need our whole community involved, not just our class," said student Kimberly Goris. "Our community is our home, it represents us — it's our identity."

by Casey Tolan for Gotham Gazette

Bushwick Students Give City's Street Cleanliness Scorecards An Incomplete Mon, 09 Mar 2015 05:00:00 +0000