Solomon is on the faculty of Stanford University's design school and a creator of Vote by Design, an educational site designed to promote civic and political engagement among younger voters.
"Now more than ever, the United States needs an inaugural poem," Amanda Gorman told an interviewer a few days before the world got to know her last week. "Poetry is typically the touchstone that we go back to when we have to remind ourselves of the history that we stand on, and the future that we stand for."
Even if you didn't watch President Biden's inauguration, you've probably heard of Gorman by now. Her recitation of her original poem "The Hill We Climb" was arguably one of the most memorable and moving portions of the ceremony, and talk of her talent and poise have taken over the internet in the days since.
She is a force of nature, a voice for our time — and, whether she knows it or not, a civic futurist.
Gorman's metaphorical imagery and evocative presentation embody civic imagination in action: a powerful articulation of an aspirational future that calls us all to see ourselves in that preferred future and be a part of the change to get us there.
When she says "We lift our gazes not to what stands between us, but what stands before us," she speaks a truth that clearly resonates with our next generation of voters. I know, because I've seen it in action.
Throughout the 2020 campaign season, I spearheaded a new national nonpartisan civic education program for young people. We wanted to challenge the notion that our newest eligible voters are "apathetic" and replace it with our observation they simply lack confidence and understanding of how to use their individual agency to make a collective difference.
We brought together youth from all parts of the country and all political persuasions to bridge divides and to learn how to examine difficult civic issues from a future-seeking perspective. We asked thousands of students to envision the futures they wanted to see, and then to work backward from that point to what kind of leader would help guide us there.
What emerged was the picture of a nation of young people who, like the 22-year-old Gorman, are future-ready and hungry for more. Our young people are all, in one way or another, futurists in the making — engaged in thinking about the kind of country they want to live in and looking for ways to breathe that into existence.
There is much to repair, rebuild and reimagine. But there is also much momentum to build on. Last year's election also saw historic levels of youth voter turnout and activism in the form of youth organizing, mobilizing and protesting. Even before the world heard Gorman's powerful words from the West Front of the Capitol, our youth were heeding her call: "But while democracy can be periodically delayed / it can never be permanently defeated / In this truth / in this faith we trust / For while we have our eyes on the future / history has its eyes on us."
We were all inspired as she helped to usher in a new administration that promises to build its policies on unity and shared democratic values. But in the midst of our hopes for the next four years, we can't lose sight of a glaring reality: We can't continue to defund civic institutions, civic education, and foundational civic skills and still expect to have a robust and resilient democracy supported by diverse engaged and empowered citizens.
There's been a promising call for more civic education funding and support in schools, but futurist Amanda Gorman reminds us that history has its eyes on us — and education isn't enough. She shows us that this is a moment to reframe civics as a mindset and an embodied, interdisciplinary literacy.
Real, lasting change comes from more than just civic knowledge, the kind of facts and figures and dates and names we ask students to learn in school. Change, the architecture of an imagined better world, happens when we help people learn how to translate civic knowledge and civic skills into a lasting civic disposition — the attitude that they can wake up each day and take an active part in the world around them.
Since the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol — and on our collective freedoms — many experts and citizens have been asking, "Is our democracy broken?" Some have moved to ideas of repair: "A new normal will help fix it."
But the futurist poet reminds us that our immediate lens is not broad enough for this moment. As Gorman declared at the inaugural: "Somehow, we've weathered and witnessed a nation that isn't broken, but simply unfinished."
Simply unfinished. That's the call. That's our charge. Healing and repair are things you do in the moment to make something as it was. But a futurist says "I will boldly imagine what can be."
If we think of our nation as unfinished rather than broken, and actively teach our next generation of citizens to imagine a finished nation, we embrace a growth mindset and open up a world of possibilities to collectively write the next chapter of the story.
In the last presidential election, less than half of eligible young people voted. Why?
After all, countless initiatives have been launched to register and mobilize these voters. School lectures stress the importance of voting. Celebrities swamp social media with urgent pleas. And in some states, there are even drives to lower the voting age. Why then do young people reject their right, and responsibility, to vote?
The standard theories are that "young people don't care enough about their future" or "they aren't able to see beyond their own limited self-interest and make decisions for the greater good." But in truth, young people do care, and their interest is only increasing. In fact, the Census Bureau says people ages 18 to 29 were the only age group that increased its representation at the polls in 2016.
So, if they do care, then why don't they vote? Experience in running a new voter literacy program, with over 1,000 students from around the country, shows that the issue is not apathy, but a lack of agency.
For too long, we have relied on history or civics classes to teach students how government works and the various roles that matter. We teach them that the president must be a natural-born citizen, at least 35 years old, and have lived in the United States for at least 14 years. But memorizing the Constitution or historical timelines is not a proxy for learning how to be a deliberative voter. We teach them about past presidents like Lincoln and Washington. And we assume that these history lessons provide all the preparation they needed to cast an informed vote.
Here's what we don't teach them: How to identify the qualities they want in a president, and why, and how to overcome their biases and look beyond the campaign messages to identify a candidate with the qualities they seek.
Also, we certainly don't ask them to envision the worlds the candidate would shape or how their leadership qualities would allow them to prevail over the crises they are likely to face.
That's why I was part of a team that created Vote by Design, a digital civics program created by educators for educators. It is designed to empower students to engage in the democratic process as independent and capable voters. We created it to ignite student agency, shift mindsets and build voter skill sets. It connects to themes of citizenship, civic engagement, inclusion and equity.
In the curriculum, we ask students to choose qualities they care about in a president, rather than focus on their policies. And we ask them to respond to a specific challenge — a geopolitical crisis or a natural disaster, for example — as if they were president, drawing on these previously identified qualities.
Immediately, students are able to see how the qualities and values they've selected show up in the types of decisions a president must make under pressure. They begin to realize the choices and decisions leaders have to make often have nothing to do with the policies they espoused in a campaign. They also soon realize no president is perfect, or can possibly have all the background and expertise needed for the role, but all presidents are called upon to step up and reveal themselves for the leaders they are.
The results of this brief exercise are extraordinary. How students think about the roles and qualities of the president are often transformed.
"I used to think our political system had gotten hopeless," they report. "Now I think ... there are many possible ways to return to compassion and integrity."
"I used to think that I had no idea about who our president should be and why it matters," they add. "Now I think presidents should represent all the people, to present a unified front in order for people to trust them with a country."
And finally: "I used to think what my friends and family thought. Now I think for myself."
These are not the reflections of apathetic people. They are the reflections of people who had been so unprepared and confused they didn't even want to vote. And they are the reflections of people who have now learned how to vote. They turned their so-called apathy into agency.
These are young people who will vote next month — and likely every election thereafter.
Vote By Design's team believes in the power of young people. We believe they care about this world and our future. We believe they should speak up and vote for the changes they wish. We believe young people not only deserve the right to vote, but deserve the right to learn how to vote. And it is our job to teach them.
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