Why community-based civics education?

I strongly believe that lawyers should share our knowledge and unique perspective to educate citizens about civics, American government, and the Constitution.  To that end, I designed and taught a four-part lecture series at my local libraries on American government, which I offered for free to community members. 

I was inspired to design a civics education course following dismal election turnouts and because I saw widespread misunderstanding about basic governmental functions.  During and after the 2016 election cycle, I talked with many non-lawyer friends and was asked some startling questions that indicated serious gaps in civics education.  Some very well-educated, intelligent, successful people asked me questions like:

·       Is the House of Representatives state and the Senate federal?

·       Are there three parts to the legislative branch: Congress, the House, and the Senate? I don’t understand how that works.

·       How many court systems do we have?

·       And, because we are in Colorado, the perennial favorite: why is pot legal in Colorado but illegal under federal law?

I knew that if these otherwise well-educated people were asking these questions, others would be too.  I decided that even if I only helped one person to better understand our government, it would be worth designing a course.  “American Government Primer” was born.

I asked participants to describe their familiarity with American government prior to the course.  61% of people indicated that they were either not at all familiar or somewhat unfamiliar with American government.  Some participants commented that they were “coming from near zero knowledge on the subject,” and that they couldn’t “recall having a class in govt/civics ever—maybe in elementary school,” and that “government process” was mystifying.

This prescient interview by retired Supreme Court Justice David Souter about eroding civic knowledge and the death of democracy inspired me to do something:

I chose to work with my local libraries to deliver the American Government course for a few reasons.  Libraries and library staff are deeply committed to sharing knowledge and serving a resource to the community.  Libraries already have the tools and resources to advertise the course and host the lectures.  Also, I love my local libraries and would do anything to support this valuable institution.

I saw an opportunity to work in my community to change the landscape of civics education.  In the next post, I will discuss why lawyers are perfect for the job of teaching community-based civics education.