Voter registration booth

A woman takes a picture of workers at a voter registration booth on Indiana Avenue. (Photo/Tyler Fenwick)

The consequences of what’s come to be called the civic engagement gap can be especially apparent during major election years.

Research has consistently found that people who make more money are more engaged than people who make less money, as measured by working for a campaign, serving on a board of directors and contacting elected officials, among other things. Researcher Eric van Holm from Arizona State University also found cities with increasing income inequality have lower rates of civic participation.

Perhaps no act signifies civic participation more than voting. Black voter turnout took a sharp dive to 59.6% in 2016, Pew Research Center found. It was the largest decline on record between general election years. That’s compared to a 65.3% voter turnout for whites in 2016.

In the end, campaigns and news media focus the bulk of their election strategy and coverage on what white suburbanites want.

Narrowing the engagement gap isn’t as simple as lecturing people on the importance of voting or getting involved. It takes real work.

Lesley Gordon, a board member for IndyHub, believes part of the challenge is getting rid of intimidation.

“A lot of times we think civic engagement gets very formal,” she said.

IndyHub’s flagship event, IndyVolved, features virtual events throughout September to help millennials and Gen Zers — people in their 20s and 30s — get connected to volunteer and service opportunities. It’s a chance to find a passion and get involved.

Gordon, event chair for IndyVolved, said there’s an “indirect tie” to direct political engagement, with some participants finding their voice in policy ideas or get-out-the-vote campaigns.

Voting is one of the simplest things you can do to get engaged, said Joanna Nixon, director of 10 East Arts. The organization set up a voter headquarters at 2301 E. 10th St. to encourage people to register to vote, as well as keep voters educated about the basics.

Knowledge about things such as voter ID laws and early voting opportunities is “pretty low” in the near east side area, Nixon said, but that’s likely in part because voter registration is so low. If people aren’t registering to vote, they don’t have a reason to know how to request an absentee ballot.

The voter headquarters will focus on voter registration until Oct. 5, the last day to register to vote in Indiana, and then will shift more to voter education and removing barriers such as transportation. Anyone in Marion County can go to the headquarters.

Education’s role in civic engagement

Studies show parents who talk with their children about current affairs can have a positive influence on their civic development, but that’s often a luxury reserved for affluent families.

In her book, “No Citizen Left Behind,” Meira Levinson from Harvard University writes that civic education should be an ongoing part of school curriculum, just like students have a math and English class almost every semester.

Levinson and others advocate for urban schools, especially those that serve students from historically disenfranchised groups, to take on a bigger responsibility in teaching the role of political action and other civic duties.

But that’s a fairytale land for under-resourced and over-tested American schools.

Shawnta Barnes, a dean at Enlace Academy’s middle school, said the school doesn’t have specific civics curriculum but has added a social justice component to homeroom classes.

Ideally, Barnes said a good civics education would teach students about themselves, their place in society and how government works. It would also teach that adults aren’t the only people who can get involved and make change.

“I want students to know you don’t have to become an adult to have power,” she said. “You can use your voice now.”

Indianapolis Public Schools offer two classes — Citizenship and Civics, along with Applied Citizenship and Civics — with similar descriptions. Basically, students learn how to get involved in policymaking, the relationship between society and government, and their rights and responsibilities as citizens.

Many high schools don’t have specific civics curriculum, instead requiring students to complete some form of volunteering or service learning before graduating or brushing over the subject in a U.S. government or history class.

There is very little incentive for schools to provide a robust civics education, especially as urban schools often face pressure to focus on raising test scores.

Graduation requirements laid out by the Indiana State Board of Education include references to “civic life” and “civic identity” in the social studies section, but the only reference to “civic engagement” simply says students should explain why it’s important.

The state’s ISTEP+ tests, given to students starting in 10th grade, only include English and math.

Contact staff writer Tyler Fenwick at 317-762-7853. Follow him on Twitter @Ty_Fenwick.

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