CapFed Best News: Two Topeka high school students selected for Civics Unplugged program

Brianna Childers
Topeka Capital-Journal
Civics Unplugged is a national organization aimed at teaching and helping young leaders how to build a better democracy.

Fifteen Kansas high school students, including two Topekans, are participating in a national program that is geared toward teaching young leaders how to build a better democracy. 

Civics Unplugged, founded in 2020, recruits high schoolers from around the world to participate in its 15-week fellowship. In its second year, this is the first year Kansas students have participated. Shea Marney and Hope Dimick are representing Topeka. 

Marney, a sophomore at Shawnee Heights High School, said she first heard about the fellowship through the Topeka Youth Commission and was excited when she found out she had been selected.

"You know when you just look at something and you can't believe it for a second and you just stare at it? I kind of stared at it until it had hit me," Marney said. "I was very excited."

The national organization was co-founded by Nick Delis, a former civics high school teacher, vice principal and academic director. 

"I was kind of tired with having to teach to the same state standards all the time every year and I feel like my students and I wanted to kind of branch out from that," Delis said. "When I was helping found CU with my co-founders, I wanted to design a civics fellowship that was unlike a traditional civics class, and I wanted it to introduce students from around the country and now actually around the world — we have international fellows — to each other so that they could learn together as a community and kind of share their unique experiences from where they live."

The fellowship launched in January 2020 and with plans to hold the programming virtually prior to news of the COVID-19 pandemic, the fellowship wasn't hindered by shutdowns.

In 2020, the fellowship brought together 200 high school students and in 2021, the class size grew to 500 fellows. 

Fellows are selected based on five areas of criteria: civic purpose, commitment, curiosity, community orientation and lived experience. 

Applicants need to show they care about their communities, the role of government and are civically oriented. 

"We look for fellows that are open to learning more, that want to acquire new skills and that are willing to ask important questions ... " Delis said. "We want someone who is not just an individual. We want someone who feels like they are part of a larger community and that could be whether they are part of a church group, part of a sports team, part of a club at school, some kind of community orientation we are looking for."

In order for fellows to meet the direct experience criteria, they should show they are interested or have had first-hand or second-hand experience with the health care or justice system. 

"A large portion of our fellowship deals with working to improve these complex systems and we try to see if they are willing and ready to take on that kind of work," Delis said. 

During the fellowship, students focus on democratic theory, what it means to live in a democracy, why democratic values are important to uphold and what is needed to make sure the country remains a strong democracy. 

"We talk about systems thinking, what I was just alluding to before, which is how big systems, like our health care system, justice system, educational system, how those all interact in our country and if you're going to try to intervene into these big systems and make a difference, we need to learn about them first," Delis said. "Then we do some traditional government and civics work." 

Marney, who is interested in climate change, said the program has allowed her to interact with students from around the world who share similar interests. 

Fellows are also encouraged, but not required to take on a democracy strengthening project. For example, a 2020 fellow from Missouri undertook a project to help get voters in his home state registered. 

"That's an ideal project for us," Delis said. "If someone is willing to launch a project like that and has a good plan, we are willing to support them both with academic resources but also financially. We gave out stipends to fellows who were able to craft a project like that and we are planning on doing the same thing at the conclusion of this fellowship." 

Marney has been working on a project through the Topeka Youth Commission that is focused on human trafficking. Civics Unplugged has given her the resources to grow that project.

"I'm working with a girl named Hannah from Civics Unplugged who has another similar one down in Texas," Marney said. "Hers is focusing on awareness for human trafficking and domestic slavery whereas mine focuses on human trafficking and how social media makes it easier."

Marney is collaborating with her Civics Unplugged fellow to create a program similar to DARE, the Drug Abuse Resistance Education program, that informs kids and teenagers of the dangers of human trafficking. 

Marney said she hopes the fellowship allows her to gain more leadership skills and empathy. 

Delis said the big takeaway for students is that "democracy is fragile and that it is not something that we as citizens of the US can take for granted."

"It's something that we need to be constantly working to maintain and strengthen," Delis added.