Q&A with Gillian Pressman of Generation Citizen, Host of the Civic Tech Challenge on November 1st

| Aimee Sprung


Generation Citizen (www.generationcitizen.org) is an innovative education nonprofit that is hosting the first annual Civic Tech Challenge, Saturday November 1st at Microsoft New England. Gillian Pressman, the Greater Boston Site Director of Generation Citizen, explains more about the organization and this unique event.

What is Generation Citizen?  How long have you been in Boston and what has the impact been / results?

Generation Citizen (GC) is a nonprofit that is introducing a new concept to education: “action civics.” We provide action civics programming in partnership with 35 Greater Boston middle and high schools (and over 120 nationally) while also building demand for the concept of action civics nationwide.

In contrast to traditional civics, which attempts to teach the democratic process through rote memorization of the three branches and how a bill becomes a law, action civics calls on students to engage in the democratic process hands-on and in real time. In our in-school course, students identify a relevant, pressing local problem (i.e. gang violence, public transit, youth unemployment), analyze the problem to identify its root causes, and then take real action, reaching out to local elected officials and other decision-makers to effect change. The students begin to understand their community and local power structures by immersing themselves in experiential learning, and more importantly, develop a sense that they have a voice in the community and a real role in effecting change.

We have had some exciting successes in Boston since we launched here in 2009. Our first year, we served 300 students per year, and now we serve 3,000 students per year. We have also made some significant investments in evaluation which have allowed us to prove our impact – we are increasingly collecting hard evidence that our students improve in the skills, knowledge, and dispositions that predict both long-term college and career success and long-term democratic engagement.

Why is it important to teach students civics?

America’s democracy is failing. Out of 179 democracies worldwide, the participation of our voters puts us at 139th – this is the bottom 20th percentile. We have a less active democracy than countries like Iran and the Congo. America actually gives out foreign aid using democratic health indicators as criteria, and we would fail our own standards of foreign aid!

This is problematic because if decision-makers attempt to tackle society’s biggest problems, especially those related to inequity and justice, they need a fully engaged citizenry. Indeed, coverage of the Ferguson, MO riots focused on the importance of a robust democracy in preventing a repeat of this tension and violence.

Quality civics education can rebuild our democracy by inspiring and equipping our young people to become active citizens.

Further, civics education is one of the most effective ways to build students’ 21st century skills such as collaborative decision-making, persuasive communication, and critical analysis. Indeed, evidence suggests that effective civics education can both prevent school dropout and positively impact a young person’s ability to attain college and career success.This means that civics is important to the skill development of every individual student, as well as critical to the health of our society as a whole.

What role does technology play in civics?

Solving civic problems is tough! (We see a lot of development in our students in measures of grit, for example, because students realize that persistence is necessary to make change happen.) If we are attempting to identify solutions to our community’s biggest challenges, we need the most innovative minds and the most advanced tools. Fortunately, this is exactly what you can find in the tech sector and at revolutionary companies like Microsoft.

For this reason, there has been an exciting recent movement to engage tech talent in civic problem-solving. Code for America, for example, has “brigades” in urban centers in which hackers come together to create open-source technology that improves government services. The nationally-recognized Boston Office of New Urban Mechanics (which will actually kick-off our Civic Tech Challenge) is an agency out of the Boston Mayor’s office that actively recruits members of Boston’s innovation community to design city improvement projects.

Technologists have always been about improving society, and in our day and age the ambitions of technology companies are not at all slight; you are in business because you want to—and you regularly do—change the world. But technologists haven’t necessarily focused on government in the past. This is changing—increasingly, innovators are realizing the potential of bringing technological innovation to government, and the necessity of doing so if they want to create real systemic change.

It is this spirit of applying technological innovation to civic problems that we are hoping to capture in the Civic Tech Challenge.

How can people interested in civic engagement get involved?

As our most immediate opportunity, we would love to invite the community to join us on Saturday, November 1st for the Civic Tech Challenge. The event will include a hackathon during the day, in which developers, designers, digital marketers, and innovation enthusiasts will work alongside high school students from GC’s program to hack solutions Boston’s biggest community problems! You can sign up for the Hackathon HERE. Participation includes breakfast, lunch, dinner, and snacks, and will culminate in an evening reception with more great food and drinks.

The evening reception will be keynoted by event Honoree Jeff Bussgang of Flybridge Capital, and include 100+ guests from Boston’s tech companies and service providers, and a Judging Panel of leading civic innovators, including Microsoft’s Civic Engagement Manager, Aimee Sprung.

I look forward to seeing you there and continuing the conversation!

PSSST: Microsoft New England is giving away 5 pairs of tickets ($100 value!) to the Generation Citizen evening reception on Saturday, November 1! Follow us on Twitter @MSNewEngland and keep a look out from 3-5pm daily for giveaway tweets to enter.

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