To the Editor:

I wholeheartedly support the view expressed by Stephen Heintz in his January 6 op-ed that widening polarization, widespread loss of political agency, [and] a broken social contractare driving the country’s democracy crisis. But a key piece of an effective philanthropic response is often left out of discussions on this topic: The need to invest in democracy education in our schools.

Young people live in the same complicated world as adults, and they are eager to engage as citizens. They need and deserve an honest accounting of our past, along with the tools to participate in our democracy today and beyond.

Heintz cites the report “Our Common Purpose: Reinventing American Democracy for the 21st Century,” which makes a strong case for philanthropy to invest in projects that connect people to their neighbors, communities, and government institutions. A key element of these investments, as the reports states, is investing in “civic educators and civic education for all young people.”

The need is urgent. The Institute of Politics at the Harvard Kennedy School released a national poll of America’s 18- to 29-year-olds last month that found a majority of young people believe our democracy is “in trouble” or “failing.”


The call to strengthen the foundation of our democracy, starting in our classrooms, is long overdue. Through equity-rooted, project-based civics education, students can realize the power of their own voices within their communities and develop a rich understanding of how government works. They can also build a set of skills that will serve them in every school subject, as well as in college, careers, and civic life.

The most effective civics education programs allow students to experience democracy firsthand — identifying, researching, and devising solutions to problems that matter to them. Engaging with diverse peers and practicing the skill of civil discourse is an effective antidote against the toxic polarization engulfing our politics.

Through the curriculum we offer at Generation Citizen, a national civics education nonprofit I lead, students address nonpartisan issues as varied as bullying, homelessness, and environmental protection. A class of 8th-grade students in Lowell, Mass., identified food insecurity as a serious issue in their community that had been exacerbated by the pandemic. They conducted community surveys and found that one in six students experienced hunger. They learned that food insecurity could be influenced by income inequality, immigration status, and inadequate access to food, as well as social stigma.

The students decided to create a food pantry at school that was readily available on an anonymous basis to those who needed it. They also gave a presentation to policy makers at the State House to bring attention to the problem of food insecurity and unequal access to resources in their community.

My organization is far from the only one doing this work. The field of civics education is collaborative and multifaceted. But we need greater philanthropic support to touch far more students.


In 2022, we must not only seek to strengthen our democracy in the next election cycle — we must also do it in our nation’s classroom. The future of democracy belongs to millions of young Americans. We need to give them the tools to be more than spectators to civic chaos.

Elizabeth Clay Roy
Generation Citizen