Opinion: Working to engage Gen Z in history, civics

Civic Season effort brings optimism and challenge of reaching often-disillusioned young people.
American grievance is nothing new. Just look to the Declaration of Independence. (Dreamstime/TNS)

Credit: TNS

Credit: TNS

American grievance is nothing new. Just look to the Declaration of Independence. (Dreamstime/TNS)

Juneteenth and July 4. Two important American holidays, but two that might not at first seem connected. History shows us that rather than being in opposition, these holidays do not make sense in our current context without the other.

The Atlanta History Center is fully committed to a new initiative called Civic Season, one that embraces the complexity with a goal of engaging young Americans (and young-at-heart Americans) in historically informed civic engagement leading up to the 250th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence in 2026.

Atlanta History Center is in good company, leading the effort with the First Americans Museum, History Miami, Monticello, Missouri Historical Society, National Archives Foundation, the New-York Historical Society, the Sen. John Heinz History Center, Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History and The Wright Museum of African American History.

Sheffield Hale, an Atlanta native, is president and CEO of the Atlanta History Center

Credit: contributed

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Credit: contributed

For the second annual Civic Season, we kicked off things nationally in Atlanta with a block party in Midtown. Guests were invited to listen to an engaging panel discussion about civics and food, add their voices to the record with StoryCorps and get to know their neighbors. It was the first of hundreds of events across the country – everything from podcasts to online games to in-person tours and talks.

Crucially, Civic Season engages an age demographic not always served by museums. This audience, often called Gen Z, is important to reach in part because many are disillusioned.

They are becoming adults in a polarized America, in which people only listen to people who agree with them. We are all in bubbles, whether we realize it or not. It is exhausting. The young adult years are when people establish their world views and ways of interacting with their communities.

Young Americans (and others) increasingly are asking questions like: Should we even celebrate July 4 since it is honoring a time when Black Americans were enslaved, women were second-class citizens, and Indigenous Americans were being dispossessed of their lands? As we approach the 250th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence, many Americans won’t be comfortable simply celebrating the way we did our 200th in 1976 with tall ships sailing into New York harbor.

Of course, there is another segment of our population that believes celebrating it any other way violates their idea of positive patriotic American history and their concern that “negative” history denigrates what they perceive America has gotten right. This is part of something larger – what I call our democracy problem.

Our newest federal holiday, Juneteenth, is the other bookend to this new tradition. Although celebrated by many Black communities across the country for decades, its prominence as a federally recognized nationwide celebration is new. It’s also a holiday with its own share of complications — after all, June 19, 1865 is the day when U.S. troops in Galveston, Texas read a federal order declaring the end of enslavement, but enslaved people had been fighting for years to claim their rightful freedom. Far from a smooth transition, Black Americans continued to face violence, segregation and oppression for years to come.

Made By Us, the organization we formed for this national effort puts it like this: “We’re on a multi-year journey to dig deep into our collective story. Who were we? Who are we now? Who will we be, as a country? Made By Us is leading this conversation and invites YOU to be a part of it. We connect trusted sources on history – from partners in communities all across the United States, with expertise on immigrant experiences, the Revolutionary War, the Civil Rights Movement and everything in between – with what’s happening right now, in the IRL (in real life) and virtual places young adults spend time. Together, we create empowering and informative experiences that connect past, present and future, inspiring participation in civic life. Like our democracy itself, Made By Us is shaped by the people involved.”

In my view, July 4 represents the promise of democracy. Juneteenth marks a day in which the country made important strides toward making that promise true for all.

Civic Season provides an opportunity to evolve the way we celebrate these holidays, and in turn, how we think and talk about democracy. We aren’t looking to chase young people into the parking lot and tell them what to think. We want to bring facts to the table and facilitate healthy conversations.

Civic Season helps us reckon with the reality of our democracy: that we have yet more promises unfilled, but we also have the power to inform and shape our country.

As we near the end of Civic Season 2022, there is momentum to make it even bigger next year. In recent weeks, we have begun to receive grants from corporations, foundations and individuals for this effort.

Overall, I am optimistic. History shows us that it has been worse, but that doesn’t absolve us of striving for improvement now. The seeds of our democratic revival are in our communities, in our history, and in our young people. Let’s get to work.

Sheffield Hale is president and CEO of the Atlanta History Center.