At the League of Women Voters’ luncheon this past week, I had the opportunity to listen to Tani Cantil-Sakauye speak eloquently about how she became California’s first Asian American Chief Justice despite a childhood where she had struggled to overcome shyness and find her voice.
She attributed her decision to pursue a law career to a transformative experience taking a debate class in community college. When she was reluctant to take risks, her teacher would say, “How do you know that you can’t do something when you have not lived that long?” Soon, she was beating the boys in debate, and it dawned on her that maybe law school was for her.
The lesson in her journey from shy young woman to Chief Justice was not the typical message, “work hard and you can make it in America.” Rather, her journey spoke to the importance of dedicated teachers who saw the potential inside their students and called forth the best in them. Her journey spoke to the need for young people to have experiences where they can see themselves as smart and capable and where they can find their voices.
Now, in her role as Chief Justice, she has become one of our state’s foremost advocates for civic engagement. At this luncheon, she made two important points about the place of civics in school. The first point is that waiting until the senior year of high school to ask students to learn about and care about civics is too late. Her second point is that civics should encompass both teaching the structures of government and providing young people with chances to engage directly in making changes in their community.
As part of the Educating for Democracy in the Digital Age initiative, there are over 40 teachers in Oakland who are responding to her message in a variety of powerful ways. For instance, we have four high schools in Oakland that are developing plans for civic engagement that don’t wait until senior year Government but instead start in 9th grade and scaffold skills and experiences for all four years of high school. It is essential that we make civic engagement part of the fabric of the high schools and to make these opportunities available to all students. In addition, since so much civic activity now occurs on-line, civic media literacy has become a priority at all grade levels.
The Chief Justice also made clear that civic education must engage students in action, which is a part of all four of the Oakland high schools’ civic engagement plans. Those actions will start small in 9th grade and build in scope over four years. One promising arena for youth action is when young people circulate informed and persuasive ideas on social and political issues through blogs and social media.
The Chief Justice’s life journey holds a powerful message about helping young people find a voice. Our work in Oakland public schools reiterates this message. Just as the Chief Justice once was a shy student, our high school students are often most terrified when asked to speak publicly. To support them we need to start early in high school, developing and cultivating their voices so they can speak in informed and persuasive ways about issues that impact their communities and the larger world.