Letter to the Editor: Fostering the next generation’s civic engagement begins in the classroom

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For many Northwestern students, November will be the first time they cast a ballot in a presidential election. In just a few weeks, students will be lined up to pull a lever that will determine the course of our nation — no pressure for you, first-time voters.

As a recent Northwestern grad and current high school Spanish teacher in DC, I’m also thinking a lot about another group of first-time voters: my students. Because I teach high school, some of my students are 18 and will be casting their first ballots this November. Like many young folks of this generation, this election has made my students concerned that their vote won’t matter, or that it is just too polarized to choose. As a teacher, this is why my job is so important. I know my students are the future leaders of our country and that their voices, and their votes, matter deeply.

Teaching Spanish (and sometimes civics) wasn’t always my plan. As a senior, I was on the path to go straight through to graduate school in International Relations. But through meeting people with diverse perspectives and taking classes that pushed my thinking, I learned my privileged upbringing wasn’t the norm. I grew up in a wealthy, mostly white suburb of Milwaukee where I never had to worry about getting a quality education. I quickly realized that if I was going to be part of shaping our nation’s political future, I first needed to understand inequity up close and to make an immediate impact. Reading about injustice from afar simply wasn’t enough.

Now that I’m a teacher, I realize that the future of our country lies squarely in my classroom. Every day my conviction of my students’ boundless potential grows, and I am eager for the day when they’re charting the path of our country.

I think about our class trip to Cuba last summer, where eight of my students were able to practice their Spanish in real life and I was able to share my love of International Relations with them. For one student, Demetrius, the trip was his first experience on a plane. It was inspiring to see him travel to another country, meet and interact with Cuban people, learn salsa and deal with not having Instagram for seven days. I also think about Ahmad, who sat next to the tour guide during our trip so he could ask him questions about gender equality, civil rights and racism. It’s these moments that turned my hope into conviction.

This November, we must ensure our country’s moral arc continues bending towards justice for all. We can do that by showing our students real-world examples of leaders who look and sound like them — thanks, Obama. And secondly, we must empower our children to become the next generation of leaders.

So when we think about how this election will go down in history, we have two choices: We can tell the next generation that we lived it, and we couldn’t find the answers. That we didn’t have the courage to disrupt the systems and structures that sustain inequality and injustice.

Or we can tell them that we lived it, and we changed it using our voice and using our vote.

As you head into your polling place, and as you consider how you’ll make your impact after graduation, I ask you to think beyond yourself. Don’t just be a leader. Let’s create the next generation of leaders.

Lindsay Jagla is a 2015 graduate and current high school Spanish teacher at Anacostia High School in Washington, D.C.