Teaching Civic Engagement
This month’s election saw historic voter turnout. Time Magazine reports that according to the Associated Press, an estimated 113 million Americans went to the polls on November 6, 2018, the highest total for a non-presidential election in U.S. history and the highest voter participation rate in a midterm election in at least 50 years. However, The United States Elections Project estimates that only 49.2% of eligible voters cast ballots in the midterms.
With this in mind, I attended the Parents’ Association (PA) meeting at my daughter’s all-girls school, Katherine Delmar Burke School (Burke’s), in order to understand how the school is teaching civic engagement. I want to share with you the opening and closing statement by the PA President, Benicia Gantner, who is an alumna of the school and currently has three daughters enrolled.
For context, Benicia shares this from a perspective of her family’s deep roots at Burke’s, a school that is in its 110th year as an institution that educates, encourages, and empowers girls. While her message is specific to the history of Burke’s, it speaks universally to us all.
This isn’t a post to advocate for all girls’ education as much as it to advocate for girls. It’s a blog that asks us to look at how we are supporting and engaging the next generation of women as they come of voting age. To pull one another up isn't about the now; it is the determination about what we are building for the future.
Civic Engagement Defined
Benicia shared a definition for civic engagement, which underscores the need for us to think not about engagement for our benefit but for the benefit of our community.
Excerpted from Civic Responsibility and Higher Education, edited by Thomas Ehrlich, published by Oryx Press, 2000. Shared by the American Democracy Project and the NYT:
“Civic engagement means working to make a difference in the civic life of our communities and developing the combination of knowledge, skills, values and motivation to make that difference. It means promoting the quality of life in a community, through both political and non-political processes.” - Preface, page vi
“A morally and civically responsible individual recognizes himself or herself as a member of a larger social fabric and therefore considers social problems to be at least partly his or her own; such an individual is willing to see the moral and civic dimensions of issues, to make and justify informed moral and civic judgments, and to take action when appropriate.” - Introduction, page xxvi
Just a few days ago, many of us participated in our representative democracy by voting. More people than ever before cast ballots in the state of California. Over 100 million people voted. We now have 100 women in the House of Representatives. For the first time, Muslim women, Native American, and first nations women, LGBTQ women, Latinx women, Black women, and Jewish women all in positions and in places where they are representing their communities and districts.
It is a powerful reminder of our privilege and our responsibility to engage in shaping our communities, identify individual interest within the greater good, protect the vulnerable and disenfranchised, and exercise our civic duty. This right to vote, to register a choice, and have it count, is a right only recently guaranteed for many.
The 20th amendment, ratified in 1920 is widely cited as when all American women were granted the right to vote. However, it wasn’t until 1965 that the right to vote was guaranteed and protected for African American women and men in every state.
As recently as 2001, California created added voting protections for underrepresented voters and non-white voters.
In 2013 the Voting Rights act was practically gutted - gerrymandering, voter roll purges, and voter suppression has defined the fight to preserve the right to vote - the effects of which we saw broadly in this election.
The history of voting rights in this country is deeply complicated by both sexism and racism. This is recent history. And a long, long journey. This work toward the principles of equality is centuries old and ongoing.
People have said to me, “Can’t you just celebrate for a moment?”
I do, and if women had won bigger, complacency could creep in, and if we had won fewer victories on Tuesday, despair might have defined my day. But what I saw was that all kinds of women showed up - to register, to vote, to run.
And on Tuesday, an 18-year-old girl, just a few years older than our own students, voted for the first time, and possibly saw a woman, like her, her future self, represented on the ballot. And perhaps she saw an opportunity. Or felt hope. Or noted that her act of voting, was both small and enormous, a drop in the bucket and part of the waterfall, individual and collective at the same time.
This is an inspiring time for our daughters. Because among other reasons, they are at Burke's. Because no matter what the ballot looks like when they vote for the first time or run for the first time, they are learning about leadership here, about being advocates and allies, about hard work, and civic engagement, and about principles worthy of protection. The work happens here, and at home, around the table, together.
Today, I’m looking forward to reflecting on how civic engagement and community building happens at Burke’s. Consider the new flexible seating in the classrooms, so different than most classrooms of our youth. Instead of row upon row of isolated desks all facing uniformly forward, most often the class configurations are set up as table groups. Our girls are learning shoulder to shoulder, in companionable collaboration, or literally reaching across the table to make a point or share a resource.
In this table set up, they are almost always meeting someone else's steady gaze, occasionally of confrontation, but mostly collaboration and validation. These peer to peer relationships are full of skill building.
Under the guidance of teachers, advisors, and mentors, our girls learn how to be leaders, facilitators, and supporters. They are learning to lead with confidence and listen with acuity. They are learning to respond with sensitivity and strategy towards solutions, sometimes as leaders, and sometimes as supporters.
They are those 18-year-old high school seniors voting for the first time, and they are the candidates for whom their future selves will be voting.
Two years ago, the morning after the last presidential election, I walked one of my youngest twin daughters into her preschool classroom, and one of her teachers greeted us at the door. He was dressed in black, he was dressed like I felt - in mourning - black jeans and black sneakers, and his sweatshirt was black, too. It had photographic images of the universe with constellations, gorgeous multicolored gas clouds, stars, and planets spanning the front and back of the sweatshirt. Across the front, in bold all-caps read the word DREAMER.
The same day, I came and picked up my oldest daughter from Burke’s. I walked up to the front office with the gaze of my grandmothers and great-grandmothers at my back. These are my elders, some of whom didn't have the right to vote even after they graduated Burke’s.
Their teacher, Miss Burke, didn’t have the right to vote when this school was founded.
She and the other dynamic women educators in her family were dreamers. Fighters. They were persistent in their work and hope for those young girls. They worked to prepare young women for a future that wasn’t prepared for them.
These girls and their teachers were dreaming towards and working towards a world where they would have agency and impact. They knew that it was unrealistic to believe that there could be a world without any impediments or obstacles. Miss Burke nurtured these young voices, not with the expectation that they would be unchallenged, but with the hope that in the face of challenge, their voices would remain resolute, clear, and strong.
The same is true today. This work is centuries old, and centuries long. It is ongoing.
We are still on that long walk, but I take great pride in the possibility of what lies ahead for our girls. Not for a future that we will build for them, but for a future, they will dream of and build and define for themselves. We are here to help them on their way, help them find and invent the tools, and to help them dream of things we cannot imagine.
The Numbers Behind the Message
Michele Williams, the Head of School at Burke’s, shared a few statistics about girls’ school alumnae and politics. She referenced the article, Data Points on Girls School Alumnae & Women in Politics, published by the National Coalition of Girls’ Schools. Click on the following link If you would like more information about Notable Girls’ School Alumnae in Politics.
One out of every five women serving in the U.S. Congress attended an all-girls school. An impressive statistic when you consider girls’ school students account for less than one percent of America’s female student population.
Girls’ School Alumnae in U.S. Federal Government
An estimated 151,000+ (or less than 1%) girls in the United States attend girls’ schools, yet an impressive 20% of the women currently serving in the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives graduated from an all-girls school.
While only 23% of the current U.S. Senators serving are female, 13% of those women graduated from girls’ schools.
Women in U.S. Federal & State Government
The Cabinet: 6 (26% of 23 seats) 
Congress: 107 (20% of the 535 seats)
Senate: 23 (23% of 100 seats)
House: 84 (19% of 435 seats)
Governors: 6 (12% of 50 states)
State Senate: 452 (23% of 1,972 seats)
State House/Assembly: 1,427 (26% of 5,411 seats)
Women Who Ran in the U.S. 2018 Midterms Elections
State Senate: 627 (46 states)
State House/Assembly: 2,754 total (46 states)
Women in Canadian Federal & Provincial/Territorial Government
The Cabinet: 17 (50% of 34 seats)
Parliament: 137 (31% of 439 seats)
Senate: 46 (44% of 105 seats)
House of Commons: 91 (27% of of 334 seats)
Premiers: 1 (7% of 13 provinces/territories)
Women in National Parliaments
#5 Grenada . . .
#39 United Kingdom
#103 United States of America