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Beverly Leon ’20 thinks that a young person’s first interaction with civic engagement should not be on the day they turn 18 and can register to vote. This belief inspired her to found Local Civics, a social venture devoted to connecting young people to their local communities and empowering them to be active, informed, and engaged citizens.
Leon launched Local Civics two years ago in the fall of 2018, and she grew and tested the venture throughout her time at the Business School. During her MBA, she also met Director of Growth Strategy – fellow cluster-mate Caitlin Gallagher ’20. The mentorship and grant support from the Tamer Center for Social Enterprise and the Lang Center for Entrepreneurship has prepared Leon to pursue Local Civics full-time since graduating in May.
Faced with challenges growing the venture during the global pandemic, Leon launched Local Civics’ virtual workshops with civic leaders and created other learning opportunities to continue educating and motivating young people during this critical time — when their vote is more important than ever before. Read on for more about the company’s mission and how Leon believes this work can change the country and our democracy.
Local Civics was inspired by several experiences in my personal and professional career. As an undergrad at Columbia, I was lucky enough to serve as a teaching fellow for a youth seminar called the Freedom and Citizenship program. In the program, NYC high school students explored important texts, from ancient political philosophy to contemporary political thought. Being a part of that transformed the way I began to think about civic engagement and education. Little did I know, that experience would come back to inform my current entrepreneurial journey, but when I reflect on the early seeds of Local Civics, I think they were planted there. My time playing professional soccer after college also shaped how I developed my own sense of citizenship and civic participation particularly as I moved from NYC to Iceland, to Italy, and eventually to the UK. Living in Italy and not speaking Italian made me realize quickly the barriers I faced to participate meaningfully in civic life and to reflect on how many young people face similar barriers in connecting to their community. This drove the research I would go on to conduct at the University of Oxford on youth civic engagement, before coming back to Columbia for the next step of my entrepreneurial journey. I began my MBA at Columbia Business School to test, iterate, and refine what using technology and building a curriculum around civic engagement education could look like. The academic research coupled with my previous experiences laid the foundation for Local Civics.
Our Theory of Change is built around creating accessible on-ramps for young people into civic life. We have an evidence-based curriculum that schools, educators, and youth organizations can use to engage their students in important conversations around leadership, community engagement, and civic participation. We learned from educators in our early partnerships that they were looking for supports to have these conversations where young people can lead, and we built standards-aligned, interactive, and project-based lessons with educator professional learning for implementation. We created a goal-based learning technology platform that supplements the curriculum and enables students to craft their personalized civic journeys. Students and educators first work to set actionable impact goals, then students can find local and virtual events and opportunities that help them achieve those goals, and finally students measure their progress and civic impact.
Over the course of the past five months, we have engaged nearly 300 students in free virtual workshops with incredible community and civic leaders. We found that many students joined these sessions on their own time, showing interest, curiosity, and commitment to their own youth activism. We approach civic conversations through the lens of individuals' journeys in civic life. One powerful conversation we had was with Columbia College alumnus and NFL player Josh Martin. He shared that sometimes we are unaware of the impact we can have as leaders in our community and that he personally realized the power of his own platform through engaging with mentors and teammates. Conversations like this with Josh Martin can inspire students to view themselves as leaders and challenge themselves to lead. Simple ways that they could impact the community were not only important and powerful for them, but attainable and accessible.
A lack of civics education has left millions of students without the skills to develop civic mindsets. In 2016, 43 percent of my age group (18 to 29) voted in the presidential election. If only 43 percent showed up for one of the most important civics activities, what does that mean for what is happening on the state, municipal, and local level? What are the ways that we can use technology and entrepreneurship to tackle that gap? For middle and high school students, 23 percent of eighth-grade students scored proficient or above on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP)civics exam. Civic proficiency in K12 education and civic participation in national elections are things we are trying to solve to get to the root problem of civic disengagement in our democratic life. At Local Civics, we want to address these before youth register to vote and before they can vote at age 18 – you don’t wake up at 18 years old and suddenly understand the reasons that your vote matters or all the places your vote impacts our society. Voting is part of a civic participation journey that we believe should start much earlier in young people’s lives.
At Local Civics, we are really focused on growing voters and building the civic skills and mindsets that are needed to create change. When one thinks about voter activation, too often one thinks of something that happens at a point in time – usually when a young person is 16 or 17 years old, and they are approaching the eligible age to vote. Part of our theory is that voter activation is grounded in a strong foundation in which youth build civic mindsets and actions before age 18; every young person must begin their civic journey, and we believe this means participating in civic life as a young person, and then exercising the right to vote. Civic participation takes many forms, whether it’s through sports and recreation, science, or the arts; these spaces can teach young people about how communities work and how they directly impact the lives of our families, neighbors, and eventually, the country. We have to introduce young people to these spaces in an accessible way and in a way that allows them to amplify their engagement and understand how they’re connected. If students take part in these spaces, they will not only be better prepared to build their civic engagement and vote when they’re 18, but they’ll also more deeply understand how much their vote impacts their own community.
If a civics education was introduced into our schools and curriculum in a powerful, equitable, accessible way, more young people and eventually adults would feel deeply connected to their communities and would be actively participating in our democracy. A huge part of that is learning how to navigate power. One of the things we teach our students is about power and the spaces that exist in which they can be change agents. If civic education was present for the millions of young people that come through our education system each year, young people would be empowered to access the spaces in our civic life where they aren’t usually present. At Local Civics, we are motivated to continue collaborating with students, schools, and communities to make civic participation accessible for everyone . The future of our democracy depends on it!
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