“Dear Mayor Curtatone,
I'm a student at the East Somerville Community School. I live in Somerville and I think affordable housing is important because people and families are losing their homes because rents are raising more than usual. [...] Kids’ best friends have to leave and move apart due to un-affordable housing. Please fix this issue. If you do, thanks.”
-Emily, 5th grade
This letter urging the Mayor to address rising rents in Somerville was one of the many tactics undertaken by students participating in the Generation Citizen (GC) action civics apprenticeship through Citizen Schools (CS) at East Somerville Community School (ESCS).
Generation Citizen is grounded on the tenets of youth-led participatory action research (YPAR), an approach that trains young people to conduct systematic research and make positive change in their lives and communities. Over the course of the semester, with their goal of creating more affordable housing, our team of fifth and sixth graders took action. Emily asked thoughtful questions and took copious notes during an informative meeting with a community group addressing housing affordability. Natalia and Mario artistically illustrated the process of negotiating a Community Benefits Agreement, a tool used to ensure local communities benefit from development. Aidsa led the charge on an awareness-raising photo campaign and Seline helped conduct a community survey, discovering that 90% of ESCS parents surveyed are concerned about rising rents and 63% are worried that their families will become homeless.
During our end-of-year showcase, Maria expressed the importance of our issue to Katjana Ballantyne, the Somerville City Council President, landing the group an invitation to present their work during the next meeting. Walking over to City Hall, we laughed together as we practiced chanting “Hey hey! Ho ho! These rising rents have got to go!” Stepping up to the podium, Emily, Aidsa, Seline, and Maria spoke articulately of their research and strategies and shared how the gentrification of Somerville increasingly impacts them personally.
Their confidence and poise earned them a standing ovation. On our way back to ESCS, the girls giggled over their phones as they googled “Somerville City Council livestream” and rewound the video to watch their presentation. The excitement continued when they ended up on the front page of the Somerville Times. We were eager to head to the Massachusetts State House to present our process.
At Civics Day, District Attorney Rachael Rollins delivered the keynote address. She asserted the need for more people of color in political positions, urging the students to become the leaders of the future. Looking to my right, I made eye contact with the powerful young women sitting beside me and whispered “that’s you!” They nodded seriously with a sense of responsibility.
As a hands-on project-based learning program, CItizen Schools seeks to close the opportunity gap--it is crucial that our curriculum includes cultivating civic knowledge, skills, and dispositions. Environmental disadvantages like insecure housing can have a profound impact on our youth. It is not uncommon for East Somerville students to say goodbye to friends who can no longer afford to stay.
Commitment to equity includes fostering the capacity of students make durable social change. There are no better leaders of tomorrow than those who know intimately the systemic problems impacting their communities.
Want to help prepare the young leaders of our future? Click here to express your support for the Civics Project Trust Fund so that all students in the Commonwealth will have access to action civics curriculum.