Civic Action Projects

In 2019-20, we divided the Civic Fellowship into a two semester program.  The fall was spent in Civic Forums through which Fellows learned foundational knowledge about critical civic issues of our time through engaging with readings, Forum speakers, and most importantly with their fellow Fellows. This spring, 40 of our Civic Fellows from across 15 public and private schools applied and were selected to pursue cross-school Civic Action Projects (CAPs) in voting rights and voter engagement, criminal justice, freedom of expression, and immigration. 

The Spring Semester was designed to provide those who applied and were selected to participate with a three-month opportunity to delve deeper into one of the focal issues from the fall, and to develop more expertise through the creation of an Action Project that would be of use to the field and to the partners who facilitated Forums during the first semester: The Brennan Center for Justice & Generation Vote; Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), Center for Justice @Columbia University; Institute for Innovation in Prosecution @ John Jay College of Criminal Justice; and Border/Lines. It was also meant to deepen bonds between small groups of Fellows who share interests and to execute college-level work that is authentic and useful in advancing civic knowledge and practice.

Each group addressed a set of guiding questions, engaged in power mapping, and collaborated with key stakeholders. Through their CAPs, participants have deepened their knowledge and insight through creating projects that blend policy and action and that will ideally be of use to the field and our partner organizations

On Sunday, May 17 from 2-4 PM, Civic Fellows presented their work and engaged in robust Q & A with an audience of 90 peers and civic leaders on Zoom. Our 12 Lead Civic Fellows launched the afternoon by introducing themselves and providing one-minute overviews their respective projects.

Check out each of their dynamic presentations:

High-quality, cross-school civic action projects in which high school students do sustained, complex civic work with peers very different than themselves over the course of multiple months are all too rare. That our Fellows maintained their commitment and focus over the course of the pandemic and the pressures of remote learning demonstrates their civic determination and resilience. We will learn more about what they learned through their responses to an assessment administered through Harvard’s Democratic Knowledge Project, and look forward to continuing to build the program out in the 2020-21 school year. 

How Are Participants Chosen?

  • Fellows in good standing from the first semester are invited to apply, ranking their top choices for the focus of their Civic Action Project, along with a brief explanation of why they’d like to pursue this advanced work and their commitment to completing it with excellence.
  • Four to six Fellows will be chosen for each Action Group—Voting Rights/Voter Engagement, Freedom of Expression, Criminal Justice, Immigration.
  • At the launch of the Civic Action Projects, each Action Group connected with each other and the representative of their respective partner organization to develop an initial game plan for your Project, including selecting a policy and action focus to pursue.

What Does a Civic Action Project entail and What Are the Expectations of Civic Fellows?.

Below is an overview of the focus of the Civic Working Sessions this spring. Each Sunday focuses on a different phase of the work necessary for completion of a high-quality project. Fellows were also expected to engage in additional work over the course of the month in between sessions.

Feb 9—Issue analysis and exploration from multiple perspectives

  • Community-building; 
  • Consultation with partner organization and other key stakeholders
  • Initial research on what is and isn’t happening around the issue, historically and presently
  • Delegation of roles to validate and pursue further research over the month

March 8—Power mapping and stakeholder analysis

  • Examination of what it takes to make change in this arena
  • Mapping of key stakeholders and drivers related to issue, inclusive of competing pressures and priorities;
  • Honing in on target audience and how to most effectively reach them while engaging dissenting viewpoints productively

April 5—Implications for Action

  • Concretizing and articulating
    • what you want other young people to know and do
    • what you want practitioners and policy makers to know and do
  • Brainstorming actions and nailing down action steps, 
  • Determining modalities (print, oral, visual/data) through which to reach target audience
  • Beginning to craft an effective 5-10 minute presentation for experts in the field and civic movers and shakers

April 26–Prepare to Share

May 17—Presentations

  • Each Civic Action Project Team will present to an audience of experts, elected and civic officials and peers, getting feedback on how to enact proposal and giving feedback to other teams

Between April 26-May 17-June 14—Reflection on Feedback from the Panel and your Peers, refining work and solidifying next Steps to ensure that project has impact

Possible Projects to Draw From:

Voting Rights and Voter Engagement

  • Develop and execute an action plan to organize high school students for Youth Advocacy Days around Youth Voting Rights in Albany, inclusive of development of materials explaining why these issues matter to other young people 
  • Develop a pre-registration campaign for high schools, inclusive of piloting at a local high school and providing recommendations to the State Legislature and Board of Elections about ways to improve pre-registration policy
  • Make the case for and against lowering the voting age to 16 through a research project and policy panel 
  • Make the case and develop a campaign to recruit 17 year olds to be poll-workers

Freedom of Expression

Action Component:

  • Design and conduct peer-conducted focus groups on censorship, self-censorship, and creating inclusive environments;
  • Create an action plan for the creation of nationwide clubs focused on healthy discourse and free expression; 
  • Create a game (board or card) focused on freedom of expression and censorship based on key challenges and questions being faced in the U.S., being explicit about the skills and knowledge that will be utilized and strengthened

Criminal Justice

  • Create a policy proposal for a vital criminal justice reform (for ex, parole policy, voting rights restoration for felons) as part of the Justice Ambassadors Youth Council, operating this semester as a partnership of Columbia’s Center for Justice and the Center for Court Innovation
  • Craft an initial policy platform for a Million Youth March in 2021 (inclusive of and spanning beyond Criminal Justice)
  • Support the creation of a Trauma Informed Prosecution toolkit and curriculum, inclusive of participating in a Trauma Informed Prosecution Round Table on Tues, Feb 18 from 9:30AM-1:00 PM at John Jay College of Criminal Justice that will serve as a springboard for the toolkit. The Roundtable will bring together a small group of mental health and criminal justice experts to better understand how prosecutors’ offices do and can address trauma in the people they serve.  This interdisciplinary discussion will be a first step towards developing guidance for prosecutors to better incorporate trauma-informed best practices into their work in order to serve victims, witnesses, people accused of crimes, and all community members who come in contact with the criminal justice system.


  • map out different legislators’ perspectives on key immigration issues–i.e. detention funding, restricting executive power–and tease out the drivers of their positions and potential implications
    • Complement by interviewing people who are immediately affected by the issues and/or visit Varick Street Immigration Court and looking at detention cases
  • Analyze the Public Charge issue–the history, where things stand, issues likely to arise in the future and potential implications.