A Bridge to Civic Knowledge & Empowerment


Written by Julie Silverbrook from Consource and Ron Allen from Martha’s Table’s Bridge Program (in photo)

A Partnership of Martha’s Table and The Constitutional Sources Project (ConSource)

At a time when our nation is confronting a number of difficult challenges, a lack of high-quality civic education leaves millions of citizens without the means to make sense of our system of government and the decisions of governmental actors. Studies have consistently shown that most Americans lack basic civic knowledge. In a nationwide study on the subject, researchers found that

– only five percent of Americans had a competent understanding of economics,
– only eleven percent of domestic policy issues,
– only fourteen percent of foreign affairs, and
– only twenty-five percent of United States history.

Citizens who are not properly educated about their system of government and role as citizens are less likely to be civically engaged by nearly every metric. They are less likely to vote, less likely to engage in political discourse, and less likely to participate in their communities.

Studies have shown that, on average,

– African-American and Hispanic students are twice as likely as their white counterparts to score below proficient on the national civics assessment.
– A similar civic knowledge gap exists between America’s wealthiest and poorest students.
– Eligible minorities vote at about two-thirds the rate of their white counterparts, and
– Families making about $75,000 per year are twice as likely to vote (and six times as likely to be politically active) as families that make below $15,000 per year.

These gaps exist not because of differences in intrinsic aptitude, but because our education system provides fewer and lower quality civic learning opportunities to minority and lower-income students.  Knowledge of our constitutional system of government and our corresponding rights and responsibilities is not a genetic inheritance. It requires an education, which spans a citizen’s lifetime and which takes place both inside and outside the classroom.

When students receive an effective civic education,

– They are more likely to vote and discuss politics at home.
– They are also four times more likely to volunteer and work on community issues, and
– They are more confident in their ability to speak publicly and communicate with elected officials.

Civic learning has also been shown to promote civic equality. Poor, minority, and urban youth who do receive high-quality civic learning perform considerably higher on civics assessments than their similarly situated counterparts.

Creating a Bridge to Greater Civic Knowledge and Empowerment

To address the civic knowledge and empowerment gap, The Constitutional Sources Project (ConSource) and Martha’s Table are partnering to create a grassroots-level civic education program for lower-income and minority youth in the District of Columbia. Our hope is to create a cost-effective, high-quality program that can be replicated in other similarly situated communities.

So often young people in urban areas are treated as individuals in need of surveillance, assessment, and, possibly even, remediation. This mode of thinking communicates to young people that they have nothing important to contribute to our local and national political communities. ConSource and Martha’s Table reject this paradigm, and instead view our young people as worthy contributors to their communities. Our program is designed to empower young citizens to become active learners and contributors to the society in which they live. We believe that young people have authentic civic experiences that matter and that should be an important part of their civic educational experiences.

We know from research and first-hand experience that a quality education can have a powerful impact on breaking the cycle of poverty. To this end, ConSource and Martha’s Table are launching a summer-long workshop series for youth in the District of Columbia. The goal of our program is to empower and educate young people in the following areas:

(1)   Civic and History Education

(2)   The Constitution, the Courts, and the Law

(3)   Leadership Skills

(4)   Creativity

(5)   Personal Growth and Development

(6)   Community Building and Civic Engagement.

We also plan to instill positive social and economic values in our youth, which will make their communities a better place to live, both today, and in the future. In addition, we will provide a safe forum for youth to express ideas, to get creative, and to be heard. Furthermore, by educating our young people about the Constitution, the courts and the law, we hope to insure that the youth do not become a product of the juvenile or adult justice system.

To further empower, educate and inspire the young people who participate in the Civic Knowledge & Empowerment Bridge Program, they will have the opportunity to visit important historic sites in the DC-metropolitan area, including the National Archives and Mount Vernon. The young people will also be invited to work with attorney-mentors, who are part of ConSource’s larger network of legal professionals. Finally, as a capstone project, participating students will be asked to debate a particularly relevant political or legal issue in front of a panel of distinguished judges from the DC-metropolitan area.

The Civic Knowledge & Empowerment Bridge Program will thus do much more than bridge the gap in civic knowledge and participation; it will also bridge the gap between some of DC’s poorest neighborhoods and its wealthiest and most educated communities. By working together to provide high-quality civic programs for all young people, we can ensure that the next generation of citizens is prepared for the important task of self-government.