by Cynthia Changyit Levin
Cynthia Changyit Levin is a volunteer activist who writes the Anti-Poverty Mom Blog. She is also the author of the upcoming book, “From Changing Diapers to Changing the World: Why Moms Make Great Advocates and How to Get Started”. You can visit her website at www.changyit.com.
In the summer after a normal year, social media would be bursting with creative ideas to prevent kids from losing academic ground over the long break from school. These discussions are especially important in 2021 to protect the fragile gains our children made during virtual learning. But after all COVID-19 put us through, parents who had to share workspace with kids on Zoom class are probably not into reading posts about making math fun or enticing kids into doing a grammar worksheet.
I fall into that category for sure! Truth be told, we’re exhausted. I won’t require a lot from my offspring over the summer. But the past year has taught us that there is a subject none of us can afford to ignore: civics.
Citizen engagement doesn’t get a ton of attention in school. Reading, writing, and arithmetic get top billing and STEM classes (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) are super fashionable. Yet even in regular “American Government” social studies curriculum, students rarely learn how to engage with members of Congress beyond voting. That’s a shame, since the past year demonstrated all kinds of ways that government policy shapes our lives…for better or for worse.
COVID-19 hit people living in poverty and communities of color harder than the rest of America. It exposed all kids of problems in our nutrition safety net, housing policies, and health systems. Government policies for vaccine rollout and mask-wearing affected everyone. Voting rights and systemic racism came under the microscope, too. Citizen engagement is critical for a functioning democracy. This is a lesson our kids need to learn well before they graduate from high school.
I’ve never come across a camp focused saving the world using personal political power, so I’ve always taken a Do-It-Yourself route to teach my kids about democracy. Now, I have teens who are influencing policy all on their own! Here’s my five-step plan for introducing kids of all ages to impactful actions.
Pick an issue your kids can understand
There’s no shortage of causes that need help. Start with something they can already understand for their age. Even the littlest littles understand people shouldn’t go hungry. Grade schoolers can understand the importance of school (even if they didn’t enjoy virtual learning). Older kids may already have concerns about our climate crisis and gun violence.
Find a reputable organization to give you basic talking points
Advocacy groups have websites with great info, so you don’t have to start from scratch with your kids. Most of them have pre-written sample letters, too, so you can see what specific action you can request from members of Congress at this moment. Here are a few links with sample letters on various issues:
Look up your members of Congress
Use govtrack.us to find your two U.S. senators and your U.S. representative. I recommend doing this step with your child for a couple of reasons. First, sometimes you need the “zip code plus four” if your congressional district is a little tricky. They might need help to find the zip code lookup. Second, you can learn about your members together by clicking around the information on govtrack.us.
Write a letter to Congress
If your kids are skilled enough to write note to Santa or Grandma, they can write to their members of Congress as well! Help them to write their own letters to members of Congress. Here’s my blog with tips on exactly how to do this with kids using a simple format.
Discuss the topic with them before they write and help them think about their own reasons for supporting the issue. Absolutely let them know how you feel, but be prepared to listen. You might learn from them!
Encourage them to personalize their letter and deviate from the script if they wish. Kid-pictures are always welcome. They sometimes end up being passed on directly to a senator or end up being tacked up on an aide’s desk because they are cute and unusual.When my daughter was in 2nd grade, she noticed as we looked up our Congresswoman’s name and address online that it was Jan Schakowky’s birthday. She added “Happy Birthday” to her letter. I was so surprised that when we got a response, Rep. Schakowksy wrote a personal note thanking her for the birthday greeting and responding to the individual details of the letter. My grownup mind would have never thought of adding that personal touch, but my daughter made a thoughtful connection.
If you feel comfortable with gatherings this summer, top off your lessons with a field trip to a 4th of July parade. Most members of Congress travel back to their states and districts to march or ride in Independence Day parades. A little detective work can turn up which ones they will attend, so you can take your kids to see the target of their advocacy.
Also, be sure and celebrate when you get responses even if your senators or representatives don’t agree with you. Your kids still took an important step to tell Congress how they feel. With enough pressure from more letters from more people, they just might change their minds. Brainstorm about how to get more letters. Ask the entire family to write? Invite friends to write? Write with a scouting group?
If your child takes a liking to your letter-writing exercise, there are more ways they can take action. If they are old enough to have an email account, you can help them take an online action to contact Congress or the President. Or, they might like to actually call a congressional office on the phone or make a video showing other people how to call-in to Congress.
Whatever you choose to do, I encourage you to find an issue that will make the world a better place and help your children feel they are a part of the democracy we live in!