It all started when a podcast host pointed out how little Americans know about how their government works or how they can influence it.
So a group of Iowans came up with a plan to change that.
The plan is called Democracy Defenders of America, a non-profit, nonpartisan organization with the goal of educating Americans about civics, from the federal to the municipal level, and teaching them how to get involved in their government.
Former Rep. Heather Matson, one of the founding members, said that in her experience with public service, she’s heard so many people say they don’t care about politics or don’t pay attention to it.
“What I realized over time is that for most people, it feels really risky to be engaged because they don’t know how to be engaged, or how things work in order to realize their own impact or what it could be,” she said.
Another problem, she said, is that people mistake “politics” with fighting and taking sides, not negotiating how society should work.
Democracy Defenders of America looks to change that, starting with free, incentive-based online courses over the basics of civics. The curriculum will be written by educators who write for AP history and government classes in schools, and then presented in the form of free online classes that anyone can sign up for.
Though the group is still in the early fundraising stage, Matson said they hope to start courses in the fall and to eventually expand the broader effort to other states as time goes on. The courses can be taken by anyone, from anywhere in the country.
She said the courses will also incorporate case studies and be as applicable to real-world civics as possible. For example, the Ankeny Parks and Recreation Department, which Matson said hosts ice cream socials in parks around town and, while people are there, asks residents for input into future projects for the city.
“I use this as an example because I think it could be a piece of a curriculum on local government,” she said. “Like here is an example of how people in the community can be engaging with their local government.”
Matson is just one of the founding members. Julie Stauch, the CEO, has decades of experience with campaigns and government and has spent a lot of time explaining American democracy to Americans.
The other full-time member of the group is Susan Everett, the education director who’s working with teachers to shape the curriculum offered in the online classes.
More information can be found on the website or on Facebook.
After the classes, Matson said people can also choose to be trained in organizing, so they can be involved in government and help their fellow citizens do the same.
“Over the last several decades, we’ve seen how civics, history, social studies as a whole has been kind of pushed back on,” she said, pointing out that STEM subjects have taken the lead.
“All subjects that are really important. But civics has really taken a backseat. And the unintended consequence of that has really, in my experience, led to generations of adults who are really uncomfortable having these conversations because they either didn’t get all of the education they really needed in their regular K-12 or they’ve just forgotten.”
Because of the hyper-partisan reality of the country right now, Matson thinks it’s important people relearn civics and how to problem-solve together.
“This is not about like, ‘oh, everything can just be so bright and easy, people know how our government works’ and that’s that,” Matson said. “We have hard problems to solve. And that requires hard conversations. But disagreeing in and of itself is not a bad thing. It’s how we work through those disagreements.”
by Nikoel Hytrek