Swearer Center 'What Now?' Series Encourages Students to Become Civically Engaged

by Kaitlin Sandmann
April 28, 2017

On Monday, Feb. 27, the Swearer Center kicked off its pilot "What Now?" workshop series with a discussion on “Navigating Student Activism” led by Scott Warren ’09, co-founder of Generation Citizen.

This series is, in the words of Warren, an effort to give students “some sort of avenue in figuring out what right now looks like.”

Warren, the Spring 2017 Swearer Center Social Entrepreneur in Residence at Brown, has worked closely with the Center to form these workshops, co-sponsored by the Watson Institute. For him, the most rewarding part of this process has been “working with Brown students and seeing their energy,” energy evident in the student-led discussions central to the What Now? series.

Warren describes these workshops as a way to channel the frustration that many see as a direct result of the recent election; however, Warren feels that this work is not specific to the moment we are in.  While “it’s fantastic to see people coming to the table,” he hopes that political action “becomes something that students are always engaged in.”

His work on this series is informed by Generation Citizen, an organization Warren co-founded during his time at Brown. Generation Citizen works to ensure that middle and high school students are introduced to the ideas of civic engagement.

While Warren has noticed an increased support for these actions in the months following the November election, he says, “I fundamentally don’t believe the work of Generation Citizen is more important today than it was seven years before the election.”

The first workshop introduced ideas that proved central to the rest of the series. It examined the importance of political engagement to democracy and, more specifically, the role that Brown students have in Rhode Island civic action.

Recalling his time at Brown, Warren said, “I realized very early on the perception Rhode Island had of Brown students, and it’s not a very positive one.” He added, “the way that our democracy works is through local civics engagement,” encouraging Brown students to get involved in Rhode Island politics.

Indeed, the most important advice Warren feels he can offer Brown students hoping to get more civically engaged is “to get engaged locally and to listen to what’s happening in Providence or Rhode Island,” pointing out that, “there’s specific action happening… that’s where action is needed.”  


'What Now?': Community Action Off the Hill


About half an hour into the Warren-led workshop, students were divided into groups of five to discuss their own ideas for becoming more civically engaged. After a half hour of discussion led by student facilitators, the larger body returned to share ideas generated in that time.

Student advice for political engagement centered primarily on the idea of individual action and small-scale efforts for change. Warren believes that “political participation matters, and so does individuals participating in the system,” prompting students to focus on the ways each individual could find their own path to social change.

Many were galvanized also by Warren’s urge “to think of what they can fight for. It’s easy to find things to fight against.”

Ultimately, although Scott reminded students that “[democracy] is not something that exists in perpetuity,” he said, “I do believe in that process of democracy.” He promoted these workshops as opportunities for students to learn more about the democratic process in order that they might find ways to become more involved.

The second workshop, entitled “RI Politics 101,” featured Rep. Shelby Maldonado (D, Central Falls), Gonzalo Cuervo, Chief of Staff for the RI Secretary of State, and Nicole Pollock, Chief of Staff for Providence Mayor Jorge Elorza. It took place on Monday, March 13, and built on the premise of the first workshop: that engagement in Rhode Island politics is crucial for students at Brown hoping to be politically involved.

During this event, Warren facilitated a panel that examined the current political atmosphere in Rhode Island, again promoting the importance of local action and engagement for Brown students. To the students in attendance, Rep. Maldonado said,“You have a voice; you care, deep inside, about certain things, and that needs to come out today.” She encouraged them, “to move forward on some initiative, whatever it may be, a passion… Your time is now.”

Warren extrapolated on his work with Generation Citizen, and how this work informs his view of a sustainable democracy, during a lunch talk on Thursday, March 16, entitled “Educating for Democracy: The Prospects and Importance for Civics Education in the Era of Trump and Brexit.” He again posed to the audience questions as to whether democracy is “really more broken than it has been,” as well as examining the value of participation.

“Brown students,” he said, “a lot of the time are passionate about making change, but not necessarily through the lens of politics, not through the lens of existing institutions.” This is not a trend he attributes solely to Brown students, pointing out that, “Young people… are increasingly divorcing from the political process, but they’re not apathetic.”

Warren suggested that this is perhaps the time to envision a new form of participation, one that recenters focus on local issues and investment in communities, despite the increasing globalization of our society. He hypothesized that this would lead naturally to promotion of national and global activism, crucial in a time in which, worldwide, “People believe less in the concept of democracy.”

Warren asserted once more that citizens must “engage in a fight for democracy.” As to the need for such a fight at this particular political moment, Warren said, “I don’t think it’s more important than it was before; I do think it’s more urgent.”

On Tuesday, April 4, the series culminated with “Community Action Off the Hill,” during which students from high schools and colleges across Rhode Island came together to discuss the various ways in which young people can be involved in local politics. The talk was facilitated by local activist and racial justice educator Marco McWilliams. Among the topics discussed were ways in which individuals were working to support their communities, and concrete ways to expand this support. The students also examined challenges faced by many young activists, including transportation, accessibility, and funding.  

*The video for this package was created and produced by Jennah Gosciak. The photos were taken by Tal Frieden.