I had to smile. I was so thrilled to hear it. A van full of 6th grade boys talking tax policy. Yes, you heard that right. Tax policy. I mean, what do 6th graders know about this topic? As it turns out, a lot. Well, a lot more than most people. I was surprised, but then again I wasn’t. They weren’t exactly ordinary kids. They were all members of KidUnity, an after school leadership development program in Los Angeles that focuses on civic literacy, critical engagement, and community action.
We had just left the Jordan Creek School cafeteria in Polk County, Iowa. There, we witnessed a Democratic Party caucus; saw Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton supporters try to persuade undecided voters to side with them; watched each side choose its own delegates; and listened to those delegates introduce themselves and talk about what political involvement means to them. It was fantastic to witness this time-honored civic exercise–ordinary people engaged in a vigorous, respectable debate about the issues that affect our everyday lives. They were practicing what Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders had recently advocated to KidUnity participants when we saw him in the lobby of our hotel. Sanders told them to talk to one another about the issues; to engage their friends and neighbors; to think critically about things that matter to them; and to remember that politics is “serious business.” It was the kind of civics lesson a textbook cannot provide.
So the boys were talking about tax policy. One advocated a flat tax. Another said that was unfair to the poor; he suggested wealthy citizens should pay more. Another suggested there should be no taxes at all. That was followed by a flurry of guffaws and a pointed rebuttal: taxes pay for things we use everyday. As a history professor and political junkie, I was in heaven. Never mind that at one point they even sang the civil rights song We Shall Overcome. (Pure joy for this civil rights historian). But I digress. The point is they were having a serious conversation about important policies that affect our lives.
This was one of many inspired moments in my brief journey with KidUnity that I felt lucky to witness. I saw KidUnity cub reporters shake aside any fear, insecurity or bashfulness and elbow their way to the front of a press gaggle to ask candidates hard questions. It was an absolute delight, for example, to see Ben Carson squirm a bit when a smiling Sophia asked him how he would deal with ISIS if he became president. I’m sure he did not see that question coming from a 12-year-old.
I loved watching Will ask an elderly Sanders supporter sporting a vintage Clinton/Gore campaign hat why he backed a Clinton in 1992, but not now. Even better was watching as the kids earnestly listened to his answer. Or how about when a handful of kids sat down at a campaign office and made cold calls to potential caucus-goers? Incredible! They were thrilled when a caller responded positively and disappointed if they couldn’t get through. And I really couldn’t get enough of the joyful, infectious bouncing and dancing KidUnity members displayed at the Sanders after-caucus party, which they nearly turned into a pre-teen dance party. I may have suggested they start a Soul-Train dance line, but given their age, they just looked at me with confusion and kept dancing.
Textbooks can tell us why voting matters and how community engagement and critical debate is necessary for the democratic process to work. But going to the Iowa Caucus, meeting the candidates and their supporters, talking with them about their ideas and thoughts, and being part of the excitement and the frenetic energy that goes into organizing and campaigning was something entirely different. It was the difference between telling kids about the process and showing them how it actually works. It is what inspired education looks like. Experiential learning is transformative for everyone involved. I can’t wait to see what KidUnity does next!