Scott Warren grew up in Del Mar until he was eight years old. After that, his childhood horizons expanded beyond anything his young imagination could conjure up. His father joined the State Department as a foreign-service officer and the international whirlwind began. Warren lived in the Dominican Republic, Argentina, Kenya and Ecuador.
“At first, I was incredibly disappointed to be leaving the comfortable environs of Del Mar,” Warren recalls. “Now I look back on that experience as incredibly formative to becoming the person I am now. I am so grateful for the opportunity to have observed so many different types of cultures and to have seen so many emerging democracies in action.”
Warren observed the first truly democratic elections in Kenya’s history in 2002. He was in Ecuador during a coup in 2005. He visited his parents in Zimbabwe in runoff elections in 2008.
All these experiences convinced Warren, now 32 and back in Del Mar, of the power – and the fragility – of democracy. “I believe democracy is a concept we always need to cultivate, grow and improve upon. It also taught me how much the United States can and has to learn from the rest of the world. We do not have a monopoly on effective democracies.”
Warren decided to take action on all his observations while living across the globe. In college at Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island, he majored in international relations and became an activist concerning the ongoing genocide in Darfur, Sudan. He knew he wanted to do more, beyond the campus itself.
“I learned a lot about the political process by emerging myself in it. I learned about the Rhode Island legislature through pushing lawmakers to pass Sudan divestment legislation. I also realized that a lot of my peers wanted to make the world a better place, too, but didn’t necessarily see government or politics as the best way to do so. There are a lot of reasons for that, including a very valid distrust and cynicism of government right now. But a key reason is that we don’t teach civics anymore, and when we do, it’s one of the most boring classes in school.”
Warren was determined to change that perception, so he started a nonprofit with another Brown student called Generation Citizen. The mission of the organization is to ensure that every student in the country receives an effective action civics education to provide them with the knowledge and skills necessary to participate in this country’s democracy as active citizens.
Warren calls it “Action Civics.” Over the course of a semester, a class of students chooses one issue to focus on, then examines the root cause of that issue and takes action to change it. Warren believes the best education takes place when students are learning by doing, so he believes students should learn civics by doing civics.
Students in the program focus on hyper-local issues in their community – including housing and gentrification, youth homelessness, cafeteria food, and then bigger causes such as immigration.
“The goal of the program,” Warren explains, “is to ensure young people become engaged and active citizens in the long term. Democratic change takes a long time, so we don’t necessarily expect that they’ll achieve massive results in one semester; that’s not how democracy works. At the same time, students have helped secure funding for youth homeless shelters, passed police accountability legislation and changed disciplinary policies across school districts.”
Warren says many students are skeptical of the program at first because they’ve been programmed to believe they have little ability to effect change. “Public institutions often tell young people – implicitly and explicitly – that their voices do not matter. The most empowering moments happen when young people recognize, often through meeting with elected officials, that their voices can and do matter.”
Warren believes the work of Generation Citizen is more vital in today’s political climate than ever before. “There is unprecedented interest in our work right now,” he says. “We are non-partisan, but I think it’s impossible to ignore the ramifications of the fact that we’ve deprioritized civics education for so long. At the same time, our work is so local that we can avoid a lot of the hot-button issues that make our politics so tumultuous at the national level.”
Warren’s greatest fear is that reaction to the immediate reality, like election after election, will take away from the long-term foundational efforts to rebuild this county’s democracy. And his greatest hope? “That we use this moment in our democracy to collectively rebuild, and that young people are at the center.”
Warren has just published a book on the same topic titled Generation Citizen: The Power of Youth in Our Politics. The book is available on Amazon. He’ll be doing a book-signing event at the Del Mar Library on Wednesday, April 3 at 6 p.m. Address: 1309 Camino Del Mar, Del Mar, 92014.
To learn more about Generation Citizen, go to generationcitizen.org.