High schooler Thanasi Dilos was frustrated. It was 2016, and like many other Americans, Dilos was watching the presidential election with concern. Today, Dilos describes what he saw as an “absolutely insane” spectacle.
“Everywhere I looked I saw people trying to create division,” Dilos tells Parentology. “There was no one trying to push people to become educated on issues, or to have civil discourse. It was all about who had the most soundbite-worthy quote or funny insult.”
Put off by the shallow political arguments, Dilos felt the need to initiate a change. At the same time, he wanted to help other teens think about politics, as well. “I would just start writing about politics and how I felt,” Dilos says. “Originally I started writing for my friends, trying to help them understand from a middle perspective.”
Dilos’ writing developed into a full-blown fascination with civics. “I got into civics and learned more about the movement to help students like me who know very little about government and politics really get a basis in it,” he says.
And with that, Dilos became a student outreach coordinator with Civics Unplugged. This organization aims to “ensure that America’s youth are heard and equipped with the tools, training, and spaces to become the change they want to see in their communities.”
Youth Skepticism Toward Politics
Dilos’ struggle was like many other students in the US who see a problem and feel there’s no way to fix it. According to an Associated Press poll of teenagers, four in five believe Americans are “greatly divided on their most important values.”
While six in 10 say they have “high hopes” for the country’s future, the same amount report believing the US is “currently headed in the wrong direction.” The same poll notes 68% of teens hold a favorable view of former President Barack Obama. This is compared to only 30% who feel the same about President Trump, and 38% about Hillary Clinton.
At the same time, forming a basic understanding of civics can be difficult with only public education to rely upon. According to the Education Commission of the States, only 17 US states hold public schools accountable for teaching civics. Meanwhile, in 2014 only 23% of eighth graders performed at proficient or above levels in the subject. This figure is up from 22% in 2010, 2006, and 1998.
Supplementing Civics Education
With teens becoming more concerned with current politics, some startups and nonprofits are stepping in to help supplement civics education. Civics Unplugged strives to provide students with a broader understanding of political systems than is typically provided in public school civics. The group enrolls civically-minded students across the country in a three-month online civics curriculum. Once they complete the program, they will participate in a national conference in Washington D.C.
“The curriculum is a systems-change curriculum,” co-founder Amanda Cole tells Parentology. “So it starts with a system of you, and then it takes you outward to understand the systems that you’re part of, from your school to your community to your national government.”
Co-founder and CEO Josh Thompson gives a systems-change example of a student protesting a school principal over bad lunch food. “Are you protesting the right person? We’re going to go through, together, how there’s federal funding to local funding — by the time it gets to your secretary of education, your chancellor, your deputy superintendent, does your principal even have the decision-making process to make that?”
Helping to Engage the Youth
For Dilos, CU’s heavy focus on system mapping is just the kind of civics lesson public education is missing. “There’s no emphasis on understanding the entire problem, the entire community, the entire system,” he says. “There’s an emphasis on putting on these blinders and focusing on one part, but that’s not how you change things.”
As he prepares to start college next year, Dilos hopes to one day provide the kind of support and community that Civics Unplugged has provided him. “I feel like without the community, and without the mentors that I’ve had and the ideas that have been presented to me, I would not be here today,” he says. “I want to come back and find these kids like myself who don’t have access to community, wherever they may be, and give them something that supports them and empowers them.”