What Happens When Our Youngest Citizens Become Our Most Vocal Citizens

Topics: Future of Learning

By Heather Gerker.

I was traveling for work, 2,000 miles from my home in Cincinnati, when my 10-year-old daughter leaned into the camera during a Facetime call and asked earnestly, “Mom, can I write a letter to the Mayor?”

She’d been trying to get a sidewalk put in our street and she explained that her efforts weren’t working. I’d mentioned to her a few weeks ago that writing to the Mayor might help, but I’d let the idea drop.

But she hadn’t.

Ten-year-old Madelyn saw a need in her community for a sidewalk. She made a plan, she took action and she succeeded in engaging her community. A few days later, Channel 9 News knocked on the door and wanted to interview her – the letter had made it to the Mayor’s office. She had also walked down our street explaining to members of Councilman Sittenfeld’s office exactly why we need a sidewalk. The letter was presented at a City Council meeting and a motion was filed asking for the city administration to apply for federal funding to provide the sidewalk. We learned just last week that the $400,000 grant we applied for in partnership with the city was awarded.

But the best part of this story for me? My daughter showed persistence where I had given up. 

Letting her have her own experience.

Ten-year-old Madelyn saw a need in her community for a sidewalk. She made a plan, she took action and she succeeded in engaging her community. I tried to figure out why we didn’t have a sidewalk when we first moved to our neighborhood four years ago. I called a few offices that friends had told me might oversee this sort of thing. I emailed a few folks at the Department of Transportation and with the City.

I didn’t get any responses.

And life is busy, so I stopped trying.

When my daughter asked me on a walk to school one morning why we didn’t have a sidewalk, I was honest. I told her how I had tried and didn’t get a response, so I stopped trying. She seemed disappointed. She was quiet the rest of the walk to the school; I could tell her mind was spinning. When we approached the door of the school and I leaned in for my hug, she said, “Mama, I want to try to get a sidewalk.”

And she did.

She came home from school that day with a plan.

A plan that included creating fliers to hang at school and in the neighborhood. A plan that included talking to Mr. Smitty, the Crossing Guard, to ask what he thinks about the need for a sidewalk. And a plan to talk to a friend who also uses the street to walk her daughter to school and is on the Mt. Washington Community Council.

Each step of her plan led her down a different path and a new learning experience. All the while, I struggled with how to best support her without a) doing it for her and b) making my experience of failure her experience. Maria Montessori is famously quoted as having said, “Follow the child.” However, even many Montessori educators fail to recite the full quote: “Follow the child, but follow the child as his leader.”

Ten-year-old Madelyn saw a need in her community for a sidewalk. She made a plan, she took action and she succeeded in engaging her community.

Following Madelyn while leading her in this experience meant helping her understand the core of a politician’s work, that their real job is working for the people. It meant trusting her, showing her the power of organizing, guiding her energy in the right direction and teaching her the processes that are required in government systems.

It meant questioning respectfully why those processes are in place and who they are in place to benefit. It meant taking time off work to get her to meetings with city council members and the Department of Transportation (DOTE). Following her in this experience meant asking for help from friends who work in government to take her under their wings. It meant being open to learning more myself, realizing I didn’t know what I thought I knew.

It also meant recognizing our privilege.

Recognizing our privilege – and our responsibility.

There are many families that use our street as a walkway – many that would not have the benefits we have to see this safety concern through but who certainly deserve a safe route to school. We are a privileged family. We are well connected in the community, with the many benefits of being middle class: taking time off work without fear of losing our job; having transportation to get us to and from the many city council, school board and Department of Transportation meetings; having technology to help us connect to the many news stations that reached out to get her advocacy story coverage; having the time and education needed to write a grant application.

Teaching my daughter about the process of making change happen in the community also meant teaching her that it is our responsibility, as a white family of privilege, to speak up. To use our privilege in ways to fight for what is right for all, for those that might not have the privileges we have.

Throughout this process, I have watched her confidence grow and her interest in local government increase. These are two things that may not have happened had I let my own experience get in the way of her having her own journey and allowing her to discover her capability and her responsibility to the community for herself.

Individuals, nonprofits and volunteer organizations are working to fill a growing governance gap with hopes of reweaving the social fabric and redefining civic engagement. In our latest forecast on the future of learning, we explore a driver of change we call Civic Superpowers. Stories like this demonstrate the we all have the power to flex our civic superpower.