A Morning with We the People

by ursavoice

Denny Chan
J.D. Candidate 2012, UCI Law

When I volunteered to serve as a judge for the We the People Southern California Middle School Competition last month, I did not quite realize exactly what I had agreed to do. To be sure, my high school government class used the We the People textbook, so although my school did not formally participate in the competition, I had some hazy memories from high school, sufficient to form a vague recollection. This vague recollection in no way foreshadowed what I would later experience on the morning of the competition.

The unit I was assigned to evaluate was on citizenship and its associated rights and privileges. As I sat with my two other judges during the breakfast training, I was told that this unit, which marked the very last unit of the course, was often the one where students had the most freedom to be creative in their ideas and arguments. We were also told that in our role as judges, we should avoid asking “gotcha” questions—ones that would stump the participants—as We the People strove to be an encouraging space for students to compete.

Before I knew it, my two colleagues and I sat before the first middle school team. All teams were required to answer the following questions: Many people believe that an informed citizenry is essential if democracy is to work. Should people be required to pass periodic citizenship tests to maintain their citizenship? Why or why not? Would you prefer requiring literacy tests, fairly administered, before allowing citizens to vote? Why or why not? As you can probably tell, these are fairly complicated and intense questions, so naturally I was curious how middle schoolers would respond.

I was wowed, but at least in part for several uncomfortable reasons, particularly by the final team of the day. To its credit, the team had a nearly flawless Obama-like delivery and supported their positions with the Constitution and several cases. All of that quickly fell to the wayside when I focused on the substance of their arguments. “Illegal immigrants are a burden on our country!” exclaimed one student. “Citizens should be able to know English to vote,” advanced another. I would like to say that a Fox News commentary suddenly interupted the competition, but these were the actual, uncensored thoughts and positions of the participants.

Conflicted on how to respond to these problematic statements, I froze. The training did not address how to handle semi-politically charged values, and in accordance to our responsibilities, I did not want to challenge the students in a “gotcha” manner. Regardless, this incident triggered deep concern. These statements have remarkable implications for the pursuit of social justice. The 13 and 14-year-olds who strongly advocated these beliefs did not form them overnight. The thoughts did not originate from overhearing one random political commentator on TV, or from one conversation with an adult. Rather, these pre-teens have been socialized into a system of fear and xenophobia, and from such a young age, they have continually been sent message after message on what it means to be an American and who really counts as American. I realize the battle for social progress begins incredibly early in someone’s life, such that by the age of 13 or 14, minds might already been made up. This reinforces the importance of sharing values of social justice with youth and other community members. Although unique, our law school can be an incredibly insular bubble, and we must remind ourselves that the fight for justice must reach even those who we typically would not include in our special community.