“Let The Kids Lead” - Youth Power In Action (With Josh Thompson And Zoë Jenkins)

Show Description

Baratunde calls out the adults that say, “The kids will save us,” but then underestimate or don’t support kids’ efforts to participate. Josh Thompson and Zoë Jenkins, leaders at Civics Unplugged, share a new kind of movement and organization that is setting a vision for the future of democracy in 2030 and showing us what Gen Z leadership can look like right now.

Show Notes & Actions

Show Transcript

Baratunde Thurston  0:07  

Welcome to How to Citizen with Baratunde, a show where we reimagine the word citizen as a verb, reclaim it from those who weaponized it, and remind ourselves how to wield our collective power. I'm Baratunde.

We want this show to do a few things for you to make you feel better and more empowered, and give you things to do to improve your community, and our democracy as a whole. That feels super essential right now as the election 2020 season ratchets up, and we get more dispirited and assaulted by a lot of noise, keep your head up. And if you need to just take a timeout, and trust me, I get it. I truly hope this episode helps restore you a bit. It's designed to give you a turbo boost of people power. We've recorded it with our live zoom audience as usual, which you can join by visiting and sign up for my emails or text messages. That's where we put the invites to protect our zoom universe. And speaking of email, I want to thank you if you've sent us a message to or comments at And thanks, especially if you shared a rating or review. In your podcast app, it really helps with the trolls. Now I'm going to hand the mic to myself as we all learn to let the kids lead. In this episode of How to Citizen with Baratunde, we are going to explore two things that get a lot of lip service in the worlds of philanthropy, and democracy, civic participation and youth empowerment. Can you hear the white papers Reagan in your hair and an uninspiring fashion when those terms ring that so loudly in the streets? civics as we've talked about it on this show was a topic that's gets very watered down out there in the quote unquote, real world, their civic education and participation project that often shy away from addressing the idea of people power, the history of injustice in this country, and why our systems are the way they are the questions about power in the system, and who benefits from those decisions. And why the grounding in that deep understanding of power instead, this diluted version of civics. It focuses on the idea of being informed and making sure your representative knows your views. And maybe volunteering, maybe. And none of those are bad things. They are in fact necessary. But they're not sufficient. They aren't the whole picture. And they miss key aspects that I just mentioned, which come down to true accountability, and things that make real change happen. We think this idea of youth empowerment and civic participation needs a reset, because at the same time, we're facing some pretty big challenges. I don't know climate change, racial inequality, economic inequality, and the purposeful erosion of our democratic institution. And during all that we hear this refrain, the youth will save us. It's now up to the kids. This dastardly commencement speech which burdens the next generation, with the failures of all those who came before who should have handled it. it offends me. That's not how we do that. That is not fair. We don't tell kids to clean your room and then clean our rooms too. I say to the youth, welcome to our democratic society. We will be there with you beside the front and sometimes behind to let you leap. Now we hear this talk about many in the adult population. Talking about Gen Z is self obsessed and checked out with social media, and they're disengaged, and they can't be counted on to vote. At the same time, we put the pressure of the literal world on them. We berate them for not believing in institutions, we've given them very little reason to believe it. I find it interesting that this generation is putting pressure on the system in their own way and have their own savvy critique as to how change will happen. Given my perspective on this, you're going to understand why I was thrilled to learn about this relatively new organization and campaign that is tackling these things head on but in a very new, real and promising way. I am thrilled to welcome the co founder and CEO of Civics Unplugged. Josh Thompson, along with Zoe Jenkins, a Civics 2030 campaign steering committee member to talk with me today about the founding of civics unplugged, and the launch of their Civics 2030. campaign. Welcome, Josh. Welcome. So we what is the mission of Civics Unplugged? And what was the motivation for founding it.

Josh Thompson  5:25  

So you want to take the mission, and I'll talk a little bit about the founding

Zoë Jenkins  5:28  

share, that sounds great. So it's in everybody's email bio, the kids will leave, you know, we have so many systems that are falling apart, and were tuned, I think you phrased it perfectly. We know we're putting the impetus on Generation Z while also not believing in them. And so it's a vixen plug, we're totally flipping that, that the kids aren't just the future, they know, they aren't going to just be our future presidents and our future leaders, they're going to be leading us right now. And we're seeing that just perfectly in this moment. So I think that's really demonstrated by the fact that our steering committee of which I'm a part of, we're all high schoolers, all under the age of 18, helping run a campaign to fund other Gen Z projects. And stuff like this isn't being done, because we're not trusting kids to lead when we know that they have all the power and the knowledge and the spirit to be able to do so. So I think that is really the core of our mission is really operationalizing that and letting kids start leading right now because we desperately need the leadership of young people, if that's often made me clear by everything that's going on. And I'll toss it over to Josh to talk a little bit more about the founding. I was

Josh Thompson  6:36  

part of a mission of Senator Cory Booker from New Jersey. I'm from Newark, New Jersey, and he was deciding to run for the highest office in our country. And he's helped me so much in life, that it's not even a question that when he does something, I usually tell people do you need me or want me with Cory, it's either one I'm in. And so I was traveling around the country. And I was at all these different rallies and convenings. And a lot of campaign, not his others and other adults. Were looking out into the rallies and saying I can't believe the adults in these parents drag these kids out. And I was like, You know what, I think it's the other way around. And there's only one way to find out, which is to get out there and start talking to the kids and I call them kids in our community, they asked to be identified as that. And so yeah, all the things, I think that we may all in this community, have a feeling of, you know, go up to someone like Zoey and say, Hey, do you get dragged out here in the big do you know what I had to do to get my mom out here, like she's got to be more involved, like I had to bring her out here to tell her where it was to get her there, get her on time. And that's just when it started to come together. And it's a bit of a misnomer. Sure. You introduced me as the CEO of civics unplug my contract, and in my title within the community is that I'm the executive assistant to Generation Z. It is a intergenerational theme of service and action and service. But it started with us saying, Let's have a all inclusive paid for trip to our nation's capitol. Let's start there, access is everything we say that kids will be the change, but they've never even been to the nation's capitol majority of them. So I started going around speaking about that kind of connective tissue. And that's what I met a couple other kids and young folks and another co founder, Gary Chang, who was part of Google and building out the Google Cloud. And he said, I'm gonna build your digital platform. And I said, What digital platform, we're all going to DC and he goes, right, I'm gonna build your digital platform. And that's when we started to bring in this community that has led us to today. Before we catch up to today, Josh, I want to go a little bit further into your background, because what you shared is fascinating what I've learned about you before, the Cory Booker, speed dial moment is also fascinating. Okay, and you talk a bit about your personal journey, pre that with St. Benedict's, and even a bit of your childhood. I'm a multiple time high school dropout, talk about a system not serving, right, just getting handed one education system was was not serving. And that sense, and for the age of 11, lived in over five states, you know, a couple dozen homes, but the home and where I became a man, as I say is in Newark, New Jersey, and at St. Benedict's. And, you know, guiding in into that community. St. Benedict's really threw me for many, many reasons. One father, Edwin Leahy, much like our community, yeah, he's the headmaster, but no way the kids run that entire school. And Father Reverend found me at a time where I had no community did not know where the next place I was going to sleep. And he welcomed me in to this experience that I'm so thankful for everything. At St. Benedict's. It was the first time where I was brought in. And the first day, I went up to him sucked my teeth, told him everything. I hadn't even experienced it. I told him everything that I didn't like about the school, and he goes great, don't bring me problems, bring me solutions. And even more to the story is we know at St. Benedict, so there's a boarding facility there. And majority of us in that boarding facility or a situation where we don't have parents need not be with our parents or we need a more structured community in that sense. And that's where I learned It was called out that there was a time in my life. All I wanted was a door to hide me from everyone, right? Like, I'm good. Just Just put me behind a door and I'll be alright. Well, the dormitory that I was put in, they didn't have doors. And I found out that because if you are depressed, if you're feeling this anxiety, what you do is retreat. So the whole concept of St. Benedict's is living out in brotherhood and sisterhood as we welcome young women. When I was brought into the home of St. Benedict's, that is when I met the goofy 31 year old wearing Birkenstocks, Cory Booker, mayoral hopeful running for our city. And you know, I'm part of what was called the street fight gang. And we're the central word. I used to work it when I was not in high school hustling, playing basketball, putting around ball through a round hoop. And, you know, I found Cory I found forget a campaign I found his movement, right, he was walking me and people who were not of the age devote, like me, people because of our criminal justice system and equity's had lost their right to vote. And that's when it was really imparted upon me of Sure. Cory wanted to win. And he knows how to count votes, but it was something bigger. As he said, Josh, what were you doing with your time before this movement, so I met him at that same time I met my wife to be, and that's when I started to get deeply involved as well with the Jackie Robinson foundation. Miss Rachel Robinson is an angel on this earth. And I started to intern and work around there, which the motto is education is our pitch. So I never had a choice, man. I'm happy for that. So in a roundabout way, that's some of the background.

Baratunde Thurston  11:28  

Thank you for going there. Bear with us. That often helps to understand where you're at. I know where you've come from a bit. Zoe, I want to know a bit more about you and your connection to Civics Unplugged? How did you get connected to this? Marry band?

Zoë Jenkins  11:44  

Yeah, um, so I guess I'll walk back because I'm, I was an inaugural fellow with CU. So I applied last November. But I want to go back a little bit of how did I even come to the point of wanting to apply? Um, so my mom, she is a CPA, she's an accountant. She worked at a her parents trash company, they were first generation college students paid for it on their own got alone during Jim Crow, which was really difficult for African Americans. And so they really instilled in her and all their children that's like, you're going to college, or you're not my child, like education was like the pathway to success. And, you know, for them to be able to start a trash company that's so profitable. 50 years later, they're like, yeah, you're going to college, and you need to take your schoolwork very seriously, not something that she and my father have both instilled in me. And then going through elementary and middle school with, you know, that attitude and seeing a lot of students who don't have that attitude for a myriad of reasons, or a lot of students who, I guess, quote, unquote, don't care about school, but there's something going on at home. That's why they're not caring about school, or you know, there's something going on with how we're catering to different types of students. There's something with the way that we handle discipline in schools that makes students not want to go. And so with all of that experience, I got involved with a local group in Kentucky around education, advocacy and student voice because students go to school 35 hours a week, it's a full time job, but they're not at the decision making table deciding what's going to be on our curriculum, how are we going to discipline students? What does the school day look like? And so, I've been doing that work. I guess I'm approaching almost four years, four or five years of doing that work. And then the application Pacific sun plug came about, and I was like, wow, this is a great opportunity to take your education work to a macro scale. I think I kind of skimmed over the word civics because I was like, that doesn't apply to me education and civics is not the same thing. And then I think probably within like three weeks of being in the fellowship, I was like, Oh, wait, I was like education, reform civics. And that's all the same stuff. And I was like, this is a great opportunity to kind of unite those two things. And then, you know, going through the fellowship, we had our launch event for civics 2013, I hosted that event, where we had Cory Booker speak, we had Andrew Yang. And then that was kind of the launch pad for me getting more involved with the steering committee, and then just getting more committed ever since. And it's just, it's been fantastic the whole way through.

Baratunde Thurston  14:10  

So we use the word Launchpad. Now, I want to give you an opportunity to talk about this organization you launched. Tell us the name and what your mission is.

Zoë Jenkins  14:19  

Okay, so with Civics Unplugged, I launched a diversity, inclusion, equity and anti racism training for a Gen series called dice. And it was inspired off of some stuff that happened in my own school. I was in this math and science program, predominantly white and Asian students, and a lot of them were using the N word and I was like, trying to figure out how do I like, educate my peers on why that's not appropriate? And I think what I realized is I was like, I've been in K through 12 education all my life and I cannot even put the words to it, of how do I explain to someone why that's exclusive language and why that's not okay. And so with a little bit of extra time during quarantine, with school, being more Flexible, I did a lot more research into there must be some kind of diversity inclusion training for young people, right? Apparently, that's not the thing. And so I partnered with some people at the University of Kentucky partner with verta, one of the co founders, and just an amazing resource in all things, anti racism, and see you to create a curriculum that's free and open source. And we're starting our own pilot cohorts here in the next week or so. So just super exciting to try and get this to as many young people as possible because it's so important. It always blows my mind that we were on this train, probably in February. So before a lot of us were, I think, more in tune, everything going on. And so we were just kind of, you know, perfectly positioned, I think, to really jump off in the summer here.

Baratunde Thurston  15:46  

How old are you doing?

Zoë Jenkins  15:48  

I'm 17 years old,

Baratunde Thurston  15:50  

I have a huge smile on my face right now. Mm hmm. So and noting that I think part of why this training didn't exist is because we have this assumption that young people just magically know things. But like the next generation just, it's in the air, they breathe different air, their genetics are slightly modified to a more woke setting. And someone's got to be a part of that educational process. So I'm really grateful for the effort you've taken to either review, you know, do you have this term in your movement called civic superheroes? Who or what is a civic superhero to you?

Zoë Jenkins  16:25  

So you know, I think we all have superheroes, like when we were younger, we all hooked up to Superman and Batman, I love these superheroes. They're so powerful, and they're going to save the world. And I think that, you know, we ascribe to them the ability to fly, because crazy ingenuity, all of this wealth, in the case of Batman to jail by any gadget that you want. And you know, I think our societies in the place where we need superheroes, we need people to look up to who we know that these are the people leading systems change. And so I think that is the inspiration behind the use of the word. I mean, we would normally call these icons, their, their Titan, social entrepreneurs, I mean, they're great words, and they describe who they are, but they don't really get at the powerfulness of somebody who can really unite a group of people around the betterment of a society. And so I think that's a lot of what our language at civic some plugs about, we're all space themed, all astronaut themed talking about lifts off, you know, everybody was just an astronaut, kind of exploring the realm of space. And just that representing the social betterment, which I think is so crucial to the whole visionary culture that we've created with that organization.

Baratunde Thurston  17:38  

visionary is sometimes a word overused, but I think in the case of your organization, you actually have a vision. It's not a 2020 vision. It's a 2030 vision. I think you call it civics 2030. There's a plan. There's people involved in moving us toward it, you call them builders, what is the civics 2030 vision? And what motivates someone to be a builder in that in achieving that vision?

Josh Thompson  18:04  

So someone asked me the other day, Josh, what's your role at Civics Unplugged? I said to pick fights with the kids that I consistently lose. Right. And that's like one of the funnest things in the world. But that dialogue is super important, right? It's not just, Hey, I disagree with something so No, why? How, what's the research behind it? Don't just say, I don't like this system in throat Have you experienced it? Have you gone gone all the way. And all the adults that you see recognize as civic superheroes, they were all selected and elected by our community, which was one of the funnest thing launching civic 2030, that when Cory was selected, or you know, the rock, it was the easiest outreach I've ever done, I literally would drop a line of like, Yo, I can care less. If you do this, the fellows in the community have selected you. And in the see the speed of the Civic superheroes that. So the intuition of the kids were remarkable, but you know, the launch of it. When I picked the first fight, it made me roll my eyes, right that the community had come up with this 10 year pledge. I've been in politics and government public service, how many superintendent, five year plans that I heard about, I got a three year strategy, a five year turnaround plans, like here we go. We're recreating this other generation of a plan that's going to be written like a white paper, put on a shelf and get dusty. And that's been one of the community members said, Nope, here's the deal with the 2030 plan. And then so talk about how to become a builder and how that's evolved. They said adults a lot of the way stress out about what to have for lunch tomorrow. The 10 year plan is when I make my 10 year pledge around climate change that informs what I'm going to have for lunch for the next 10 years, the impact that that has on the environment. And that is the sense of actionable pledges, and that's when I got it. And that's when Zoey and the kids just ran with it. So so if you want to talk about the process and how you become a builder,

Zoë Jenkins  19:50  

yeah, how you become a builder is just that you're committing to build a better 2030. So at the end of our fellowship, all of the fellows who were to become builders created their own tenure pledges they designed what is the ideal community? What is our ideal democracy? What am I personally going to do. And over the next year, five years, 10 years to realize that mission, we all signed a declaration, where we laid out, this is what we want 2030 to look like. And this is how all of our individual pledges play into that this is how our community is going to be governed, we have probably as flat of a structure as possible. The only reason we need steering committee members is because you need somebody, I guess, to just sit in the room every Monday because not everyone can get their Monday nights, but the whole builder community votes on everything. And so yeah, just being a builder just means that you're committed to building the future of 2030.

Baratunde Thurston  20:55  

What are some examples of the picture of 2030 that you've painted?

Zoë Jenkins  21:00  

So my own personal builder pledge revolves a lot around dice a lot around how can we get people to be more vulnerable, via listen to other people and just work more collaboratively organically. But there are a lot of other people's pledges like what Josh mentioned, that revolve around climate change, we have people who are focused on election reforms. And it's just a really diverse array of what people are committing to, but I would say, you know, getting a chance to see some of our other builders, pledges, which you can also actually find on our website, for the most part, a lot of our own pledges are just out there for people to see it to ask us about building a society in the community that listens to everybody. And I think this works more concretely together than we are right now. Because that's the basis of any kind of system change, you need to be listening to the people who are on the front lines, the people who are experiencing it, but just making the through line of connecting it and, you know, bring the value proposition to every single citizen.

Baratunde Thurston  21:58  

What are some of the motivations of the builders in this community?

Zoë Jenkins  22:02  

I'll say that something our co founder mentioned to me recently, I think I totally realize it is that every single builder has some kind of chip on their shoulder, that like, you know, you don't just wake up in life wanting to, you know, totally flip all the systems that you've been experiencing and living through, like on their head, you don't just wake up wanting to do that there has to be something that happens, which is sad. Yeah, we we want everybody to see that value add. But I think the motivation is that people see a problem. they're experiencing a problem. They know, someone who's experiencing a problem at the system, they've, you know, taken, I guess all the traditional routes. And at some point, they realized they were like, no one else is going to do something about this, I have to be the one who steps up and does it. And you know, there are a lot of natural barriers, especially for young people, you know, if you're under the age of 18, you can't sign certain checks, you can't yo create certain contracts that your parents being there. And that I think is the real beauty of Josh and the rest of the co founders. They have a lot of value, I assure you, but huge value is that they're over the age of 18. They can sign contracts for us. I just really operationalize that the kids can lead and there are a lot of superficial barriers that we place on young people on people of color, and we placed on women that we place on various other people of different social locations, but their virtual barriers and their barriers that we have exemplified are committed to helping people break and move paths. Can you

Baratunde Thurston  23:31  

explain even more how Civics Unplugged differs from existing civic engagement work?

Josh Thompson  23:39  

It's been natural Baratunde in terms of how we're different one being we consistently get this feedback from our partners, hey, we are kid light, like their advisory. Y'all are kid heavy. And and we're working with our community to really understand that that for them, they can't just flip that switch. They just can't make that culture change or organizationally overnight, right. We need to walk together we need to learn together and and we share our mistakes consistently. But what we really found is when the fellow started to be recognized for their work two things. One was other nonprofit or more specifically, political campaigns wanted access to arcades. Cool. We are never we're decentralized. We're not the barrier. But when I started asking what they wanted to do, they said well be interns. As a cool, what do you want them to do? I want them to run our product, our social media campaign. Think about how we do engage youth. I was like, that's a leadership position. That's not an internship. So show me the budget, that you have to recognize that and we were met with a lot of them saying, Okay, I'm with you. It is leadership, but we don't have the budget. And I said, cool. We'll chip in. We're not going to let budget get in the way of these youth attaching themselves as leaders. We're investing capital directly into these projects like Zoe's like the project down in St. Louis. Talk about a chip on your shoulder. Our builder down in St. Louis is Working in has been recognized statewide that you need a notary to recognize your mail and ballot. And he has built this organization and got funding to provide access to notaries and even beyond. And he called me one night with a list of like 5000 names. He was like, I need connections to all these people. I said, cool. I know most of them why. And he goes, I did a complete internet search. And anyone that has ever said, young people need to vote. I'm going after him on this. Because if they actually mean it, they will help with this. And I was like, that is that mentality that we are just lifting up as an example. It was remarkable.

Baratunde Thurston  25:32  

That is remarkable. I mean, talk about calling someone in. That is what that means. The boldness of someone stepping up to that degree is beautiful. I had my own experience with a Gen Z leader within the climate space, who hit me up, and she's like, you're on TV a lot. I need introductions to all these Booker's so they can hear directly from the most impacted generation about the biggest crisis that species has ever faced. Hmm. You can join our zoom.

Josh Thompson  26:02  

Welcome to my every morning, man.

Unknown Speaker  26:05  


Baratunde Thurston  26:09  

So despite or in addition to this focus on Gen Z, your movement and campaigns have an intergenerational flavor to them. Can you share more about that perspective, how you are achieving that other than using people over 18? To sign checks?

Josh Thompson  26:25  

appreciate you. So yeah, we are not anti generational, right? We are not that okay, Boomer movement, which is not Gen Z. This is caused at that. And, really, from the founding ethos back to, Man, I wish this existed when I was always age, right the amount of things that I did in my public service that I'm proud of, but it could have been a lot more impactful if I understood the system, as opposed to the issue. I just did my issue. I didn't know what system in which it existed in. And with age comes wisdom, no matter what that wisdom is, whether sharpening your own conviction or learning from what they have carried out. So our community is 14 years old, all the way up to 94 of individuals that have signed pledges and if committed and rolled up their sleeves. And it comes in a lot of different forms and fashions. But that superhero, it's not even a superhero theme. We are superheroes, right? People say oh, you lean into it? No, no, we are explorers, we are astronauts, we are superheroes. We are building the largest democracy movement, forget America that this world has ever seen. And we say that with humility, and with conviction. And so we asked the intergenerational of Okay, I see your LinkedIn, I see that you're a good CEO. That's great. What is your actual superpower. And we have this mantra in the community, you have to lean in at what you're good at, to show that you can lift this community up. But what's the other side of you that you don't get the flex all that often, and one, lean into what you're good at, and then lean into that side? So that there's everything from providing jobs, providing mentorship to joining boards of the organizations and movements that our fellows and builders are launching? I don't know if I did that. Justice only you tell me?

Zoë Jenkins  28:01  

I think so. And I think he framed it perfectly. There's a lot of wisdom of the co founders, all the board members. I mean, you can look at their LinkedIn, but you can also just talk to them. And I've been amazed, I'm like, wow, I'm like, these people are doing stuff that like I want to do. And like I know, I got that feeling when I talked to Nick, for example, because he used to be an educator, and went to law school. And I was doing, you know, Civics Unplugged work and leading program development, like, wow, I'm like, this is like the education person that like I've always needed to talk to. And so I know, I joke that, you know, so much of their purposes of administrative assistants, but there's an even added, I mean, they're not assistant, they're administrative assistants, you know, there's a lot of feedback. There's a lot of advice. There's a lot of help that comes from having these adults. I can't tell you how many times I have slapped Gary laid down like Gary, I'm trying to figure out how to do this tech thing or Gary, how do you figure out? You know this, because I'm trying to figure out like, how do I frame this for a college essay? He's great responds so quickly, it's always there. But then, you know, it's, it goes back and forth. So I would say that not only are all of the co founders mentors, but I think we're also just friends out think that young people get to have that relationship with adults all the time where it's like, you rely on them, but they just as much rely on you as well. And that's not a dynamic that you see a lot. I think when young people have mentors, it's been a really powerful and transformational experience.

Baratunde Thurston  29:22  

You've talked a bit about the flat organizational structure about being executive assistants to the generation from Josh's perspective, what are some of the top technologies or even processes that you have in place that are critical to powering this campaign, and to actually governing in this different way?

Zoë Jenkins  29:42  

I'll say in terms of technology Slack, number one, I don't think anything that's going on, see what exists without Slack, the ability to just message anybody in slack whenever you want to. It's just so powerful to I think, just like flattening that organizational structure you know, when you have an idea You want the steering committee to hear it, you just add all of them in a message, you're like, hey, at steering committee, I want you to think about this, or Hey, or you can add anybody on the cu team, hey, I want you to look at this. And you get the notification. And we have, I think, a really strong culture of like, when someone has an idea when someone wants to experiment, you go all in, you're supposed to help them figure it out. And I think that's a really powerful attitude we all have, it's just that we want to experiment because that's the only way you figure out how to do things better. And so while we have, you know, a strong culture, and we have traditions, we're always looking for ways to change that, and to make it better, more conducive for everybody. Like, for example, we have an opportunities channel where people can share things. And so sometimes in Slack, you can notify everybody in the slack workspace. So like all 186 builders would get notified every time somebody posts an opportunity. And someone was like, hey, that's a lot of notifications in the day. Could we maybe condense this can we do like a weekly thing, and now we do weekly roundups. And that's something that I think in a more hierarchical organization would have taken weeks to figure out and we we made that change in two days. And I think it's really powerful and really key I think, to how fast civic Simplot is able to move on a lot of things.

Baratunde Thurston  31:13  

I like the idea of my city council being available to me on slack. Yeah, ever, like, Hey, don't fix this. This is right. Yep. Change the funding of the police do it, you're accountable. I have one question that we ask all our guests now, which is, this show sees citizen as a verb, more so than a legal status? And so if you interpret citizen as a verb, for both of you, how would you define the word citizen?

Zoë Jenkins  31:42  

I think like two words, I guess, come to mind, I guess it's just a vulnerability, knowing that you don't know everything. And it's important to seek out the voices and the information that you're not hearing. But it can really shape the kind of change that we can create. And then I think mobilizing, you know, I think when you have a really great idea, when you're really passionate about something, it's important to bring people along, the co founders of See, you could have just run on this idea of what what do we want 2030 to look like, let's just do this as a group. But, you know, they knew that they needed young people behind that. That's why they put together the fellowship. That's why they started see you because young people had to come and be on that mission with them. And that's, you know, an impetus it's also been put on all of us is we in many cases have the privilege of being able to be a part of this community to be able to check slack every hour or so how can we bring young people who aren't able to do that? Or how can we bring young people who aren't engaged yet into this movement as well.

Baratunde Thurston  32:40  

And Josh, for you, how would you define citizen if you interpreted as a verb,

Josh Thompson  32:44  

I'm bad with verbs and adjectives and stuff like that. So I'll just riff on as real. But what I think about it is just that whole idea of how boring is life if you're actually the smartest one in the room, that is a position. I never want any myself to be in, but a lot of us to be in. So think about that in terms of how you do citizen to consistently seek out communities that are more active, smarter, intelligent, thoughtful than you. And the second one is how you and I vibed on it, as I was rooted in the love of Jackie Robinson's legacy, and had the privilege to grow up there. And Mr. Robinson wrote a book first class citizenship and talk about him turning it into a verb, way post his professional baseball career, it picks up of what he did thereafter to make citizen a verb a more active and people's life. So that's what comes to mind.

Baratunde Thurston  33:40  

And now we're going to go to questions. I'm starting with this first one, in terms of leadership, have you found it more effective to empower people to become leaders? Or has it been more effective to bring together and catalyze people who already are taking action as leaders.

Josh Thompson  34:00  

So that has been one of the coolest things to play out. So when we announce to the community that, hey, you went through this fellowship, you poured it in with us, and now we're going to invest in your project. So right, that project plan will invest in it. Once again, I was wrong, I figured, you know, all a couple hundred plus fellows moving in, the builders would have made their own proposal, but we did see is about 5050 50% of them bring in work from other folks in their peers that they already saw happening in the community saying, I lean in behind the scenes, which is often more important, and they need the support, they need this community. And then about the other 50 printers say, Hey, you know, I'm the leader, this is what I want to want to head up. And that that was really something very hopeful that I experienced.

Baratunde Thurston  34:46  

There's a follow on and our next question from ginans home. Not all kids are leaders. How can kids who aren't into leadership still be involved?

Zoë Jenkins  34:55  

Yeah, I can take that you don't have to lead an organization. You don't have to be On the steering committee, so much of everything that cu has done would not have happened without people just doing the work. And I mean, like, we have leaders who are doing the work. And of course, those are the front people who are maybe, you know, on podcasts like this, or people who are going out and kind of evangelizing the message. But, you know, we wrote a ton of song parodies to invite our civic superheroes to come to commence. And that's work that every builder participate in, we had builders who didn't submit their own projects. But man, they can write some really good, Drake parodies, I didn't even know that was a skill that people had. But there's just so many ways for people to plug in. And I think the parodies is a great example of like, you don't think that's something that's going to help. But if we hadn't written those parodies and hadn't gotten those people to come to connect with, we have the energy right now that we're having, we have the connections that we're having in the name recognition, no. So in many ways, you know, those just writing those songs at like 11 o'clock at night, in the middle of the summer really did catalyze a lot of the Civic 2030 movement. So I think there are a lot of ways to be a leader in your own right, without necessarily leading like a team of people.

Baratunde Thurston  36:14  

I have long believed that drink parodies were key to restoring and renewing our democracy. And now I have the evidence that our next question comes from Ned and Amber is about the organizational structure. How big is the organization, the number of staff are those involved day to day, but it's related to this idea that most people have a sense that an organization needs a hierarchy to ensure order. So in addition to sort of your org chart and headcount numbers, how does your culture defy the narrative of hierarchy to ensure that things get done?

Josh Thompson  36:56  

It frustrates me at times, but the steering committee that Zoey talks about right, we leaned into that structure where they are the ones because we built it with them and co piloted it and then agreed that these five community members were the ones that make the decisions on what projects we invest in. And I couldn't love that more, because I know myself, and I knew I would start to mingle in it. And the second I think, was the first project that you all invested in, I jumped in, it was like, well, I've got all these questions about it. And I'm not sure it was like, well, that's why we set up the structure. And so it is actually leaning into structures to ensure that there is leadership and accountability within these different mechanisms. So we started with 220 fellows, we got hundreds of applications from all 50 states, Guam, Puerto Rico, our community. So you got to recognize we had zero marketing budget, we did zero ads, we built a website with these kids and said, take it out and start with 220 because we were going to culminate in Washington, DC. And Georgetown only gave us a man I love you, Georgetown, but you only gave us 220 bets. So that that was that forcing function now, when COVID shut down. And we as a community decided we decided in, I think, early April, Zoe, we weren't going to DC we call the shot. When we weren't going to DC we started launching things like unplug conversations, fireside chat. So that's when we started to bring in hundreds of more other participants. And we just launched your two application in less than 48 hours, we got more than 200 applications in two days, we're probably going to cap around 500. But the size of everyone working on it all the time, I say is at about 11 deep, but we interact as a community every single day. So we start our mornings off with the morning reflection where I come from. It's called complication, but it's a morning reflection where we all lean in set for the day expectations, reflect on something challenge each other but that's a bit of how we're structured and the size.

Baratunde Thurston  38:48  

Thank you for that. We are going to go to a live question. We're going to Gunnar Carlson. I'm going to Carlson I'm in Minneapolis, Minnesota.

Unknown Speaker  38:56  

Thank you for this talk. First of all, I'm thank you for your leadership and service. Zoey, my question is for you. And specifically, I work with a lot of youth. And so something I like to ask and get an honest answer on is one way that you think that adults like us can be supportive and get behind you and lean in and help your momentum. And what is one area where we need to just get out of the way because we're a problem. And it would be easier to just let you do your thing.

Zoë Jenkins  39:23  

I think the biggest thing is just to believe just believe in young people. You know, if a young person has the drive to come and talk to you about a problem they're seeing if they happen to policy they want to recommend then you just got to lean it. I can tell you from personal experience with my education advocacy group, we were lobbying in Frankfurt to increase pay but also just increase the number of school counselors because our school counselor ratio is like almost close to 500 to one, which is just ridiculous. students aren't getting school counseling resources and that the response from a senator in the Kentucky legislature was you Well, she started a bake sale and raise money to pay for your school counselors. Yeah. Which is like what I know, people are laughing. They're shaking their heads. That's ridiculous. You know, you can't pay for school counselors have a bake sale. So I think that just overcoming that culture of writing kids off, if a kid's going to come and lobby to you in Frankfort about how they think they need more school counselors, then, you know, they're lobbying just like anyone else, where they really care about an issue in terms of, I guess, I guess, tips as well as I think a lot of kids sometimes say they want to be treated like adults. But there's a nuance to that we don't want to be treated like we're 30, because we're not 30, but just given the same kind of like value in our opinions and what we know, but also recognize, though, that for 18, like what Josh was saying, we obviously don't have the same kind of wisdom as somebody who's lived much longer. But that doesn't mean that our ideas are any less merited, it just means that we may need a little bit more support from intergenerational partners to operationalize those ideas. I hope I answered your question. I just

Baratunde Thurston  41:03  

thank you. I appreciate it. Thank you, I appreciate that question. And I'm still mad about the ways those Kentucky elected officials responded to you. So I want to know how we can help up telling kids to do a bake sale, instead of you doing your job is the height of offensive and on small d democratic. So we got to work on that. Especially in a pandemic. So because there's been so much concern, especially by folks like your parents in the age group of your parents about the consequences of living in a digital landscape. How do you manage the full time screen time life? What does that digital hygiene look like for you?

Zoë Jenkins  41:49  

It's been an adjustment. So I think for a long time, I resolves like, well, I don't spend too much time on screens because I'm at school. And I know on screens, I'm at school. So it's okay for me to do all these zoom calls. And I get home because I've had all this in person interaction. And then when that went away, I think a lot of the kids I know, it was kind of a wake up call, like, Whoa, we need to do some things personally to make sure that you know, we're filling our own cup, before we're filling everyone else's. So we've started kind of like taking Saturday's off of slack. And that's something we started recently, it was like, we need to have something where people know I don't have to be on slack today. because nothing's going to happen. Important today. I think a lot of digital hygiene thing is just making sure that you're being social, because if you're just working all day, and just on zoom calls, which is work, I think that's really draining. But a lot of what we do at Civics Unplugged is a lot of fun. You know, if we're not getting right into the meat of things, we're just chatting, just chatting about how life is going. I always like to reference Lilian, another person on the steering committee, she started a meme channel is an example where we just send means and just talk about meme culture. So just something casual so that you can be on the screen because that's one of the few ways we can really interact with others especially and see you but still, yeah, have a good time. While also you're working to save democracy on the other side of things as well.

Baratunde Thurston  43:09  

Ah, this conversation with both of you has been what I needed. I think it's been what a listener needs right now. We are in this moment of extraordinary fatness and precariousness and balancing and feeling overwhelmed. And we don't get very many signals of anything worth fighting for. Looking forward to from our major news outlets. And you have filled my cup with your energy with your approach with your Drake parent, and your belief in mediums to restored and renewed democracy. Thank you for showing up. Thank you for building relationships. Thank you for understanding your power. Thank you for working on behalf of the many and not just the few. That's how to citizen and we are learning from you in the process. Zoe and Josh Civics Unplugged family. You're welcome here any and every time. Thank you for sharing this space with as though we still gonna work at a bake sale. Back of a very specific nature.

I don't know about you, but I am feeling motivated, inspired and uplifted by that energetic conversation with representatives from the next generation. We are so grateful to Josh Thompson and Zoe Jenkins for joining us. You can find them online Joshua T. Thompson on Twitter, or Civics Unplugged on Instagram, or Twitter and you could also of course go to their website at This whole episode, a transcript and the actions I'm about to tell you are always fine So listen to what I'm about to say. Also just go to the website. Here are some actions you can take in the spirit of Youth in Action and letting the kids lead. internally we have, as usual, a writing exercise. This one is inspired by the Civic 2030 program at civics unplugged, and it's to help you start your journey as a Civics 2030 build, even though you're not formally in the program, you can run alongside. So you want to fill in the following statements. To me a flourishing democracy is one that a flourishing community is one that is blank, right. And by 2030, I pledge to have contributed to the flourishing of the following communities and then list them. Finally, by 2030, I pledged to have played any many or all of the following roles in service of creating a brighter future for my communities and American democracy. And if you're not American, that's okay. I might be low key jealous of you. So pick your society, your community as it fits. After you've done developing your own vision, check out a bit of the vision of Civics Unplugged, we are linking to two pieces. Why we must save American democracy is one of them, and what American democracy could look like in 2030 for external actions, we have four things lined up for you in this episode. Number one, identify young people in your life that you could support. Ask them what they are working on, and ask how you can help then help them. Number two, the Civics Unplugged fellowship is open and accepting 2021 submissions The deadline is November 30 2020. nominate someone encourage someone spread the word to get high schoolers involved in this process number three, get involved as a mentor yourself in supporting builders at the Civics 2030 campaign. We have a link to that And a bonus This is my favorite assignment. By far. Don't tell the other producers my favorite assignment. I want you to find or create your own Drake memes and parodies. Yes, do it for democracy, y'all. This is how we do it. If you take any of these actions, share them with us via email action at Make sure to mention kids will lead in the subject line and brag about it loud and publicly on social media. Use the hashtag #howtocitizen we love general comments. You can hit us up comments at I'm Baratunde Thurston. I am your host and I am infinitely reachable. Wherever Baratundes are found on social media but specifically reachable by you via text message at 202-894-8844. How to Citizen with Baratunde is a production of IHeartRadio Podcast executive produced by Myles Gray, Nick Stump, Elizabeth Stewart, and Baratunde Thurston. Produced by Joelle Smith, edited by Justin Smith powered by you


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