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How A Lowell High School Civics Class Changed My Life — And Our City

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Last spring, my high school history class tackled the difficult issue of gun violence in our community. We were startled to learn how lethal guns can be not only in mass shootings, but in cases of domestic abuse, suicide and accidental deaths of children. In Lowell, our city, a third-grader brought a loaded gun to school in October. He believed the pistol was a toy gun and showed it off to his classmates on the school bus home. Miraculously, no one was hurt.

In history class, we decided to try to create a gun buyback program in Lowell because we wanted to take local action. Gun buybacks have been run successfully in a number of cities in the Commonwealth. The program aims to make homes and communities safer by providing incentives for families to get rid of unwanted guns, exchanging them — no questions asked — for grocery gift cards.

At the beginning of the semester, we doubted whether we could really create change. It seemed impossible that we, as teenagers from more than 15 countries, could present our ideas to adults from important organizations and be taken seriously. But with the help of our teacher, Ms. Jessica Lander, we gave it a try.

We started by doing research and contacting activists in other cities. We also talked to the Middlesex County Sheriff Peter Koutoujian to get advice. Once we saw the immense support, we knew our project had potential. It was powerful to witness how our small initiative grew over time.

(UTEC/Facebook)
(UTEC/Facebook)

Excitingly, the Massachusetts legislature just voted on a bill that would allow all students the opportunity my classmates and I were given by our school. This bill (S.2375), if signed into law, would give every student in Massachusetts public schools the chance to participate in two student-led civics projects, and would establish a fund to help support this new type of civic education.

Throughout the semester, my classmates and I practiced many important skills. We sent professional emails and made phone calls to rally community partners and raise funds. We learned how to organize and run meetings with key city and community officials, to plan strategically, to write convincing op-eds. We gave interviews to the local newspaper and radio and television stations.

In the end, we partnered with the Middlesex Sheriff's office, the Lowell Police Department, 30 churches and other houses of faith and more than 10 local nonprofits and businesses.

"Action civics" is a way for young people to learn about civics, but also become engaged in government. Learning the three branches of the government and how a bill becomes a law is important. But young people also need to learn how to use our voices to advocate for our communities.

We must learn how to exercise our civic muscles through activities such as creating an initiative like the gun buyback program, attending a protest or testifying at a hearing. Those of us who don’t have the right to vote (not meeting the legal age requirement, not being a citizen, etc.) can still take action for their communities. Because our school prioritized action civics projects, we were able to get an effective civics education.

In creating our gun buyback, we had the very powerful experience of being heard. We suddenly felt we could create change on issues we cared about when we didn’t think they were being addressed sufficiently by adults.

Early one Saturday in May, we held our gun buyback. That day, we collected 39 guns in partnership with police, the Middlesex County Sheriff’s officials and community leaders.

... young people also need to learn how to use our voices to advocate for our communities.

It is critical for students to experience and witness the impact of action civics. All students in the Commonwealth need a high-quality civic education to become well-formed citizens who will be able to call for action on community-based issues, and able to help take that action.

Many people wonder how they can address affecting their communities. I was lucky. In a classroom at my high school, I learned how to create real community change.

Our communities are aching for change. We young people have the potential and desire to create change. Adults and politicians might not believe we can succeed, but we are ready. We're willing to work hard to make our communities stronger. This bill will give all students the knowledge and skills to do so, and have an experience like the one that changed my life.

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Julian Viviescas Twitter Cognoscenti contributor
Julian Viviescas is a junior at Lowell High School and sits on the student leadership board of Generation Citizen, a nonprofit that supports action civics education in schools.

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