Brush Up on Civics 101

I went canvassing recently to survey people about their thoughts on the latest Supreme Court nomination… and no one was familiar.

Sometimes when I ask people close to me about voting they tell me they don’t feel informed enough to participate.

We learn the basics in school, but to be real I was better at pneumonic devices than actually absorbing knowledge from my K12 government lessons, and by the time I got to grad school I needed a refresher. I know I’m not the only one. For one, my professor begrudgingly delivered several such refreshers in her 5000 level health policy class. But besides my anecdotes, there is plenty of evidence that we are slacking in civics know-how:

It’s intimidating to be put on the spot without confidence that you know your stuff–but we shouldn’t let shame or pride get in the way of getting back to basics so we can reinforce the foundation necessary to engage in our communities and in civic life.

Here are some resources to consider for yourself or share with someone else:

Short Videos

Of course, there’s a TED series for that. Specifically TED-Ed’s Government Declassified videos. These shorts cover big events through history, an intro to the United States Federal Reserve, and dozens of other civics lessons. 🏆 Most are animated but there are a few with people talking to a web cam or delivering the classic TED monologue from that infamous red dot carpet.

The TED series has some info-tainment mixed in (e.g. Black Friday: an accident of history). Indiana University’s Center on Representative Government has a collection of ~1 minute videos called Facts of Congress of more educationally focused topics like “Committees” “Key Congressional Leaders” and “House and Senate”. They speak to younger viewers but IMO are not annoying for grown folks to watch.

They do have one on How a Bill Becomes a Law but we all know it could never hold a candle to Schoolhouse Rock’s:

Open Courses

Harvard offers free, self paced courses on U.S. Government on the edX platform. You can take a course or complete the entire series:

  • American Government: Constitutional Foundations
  • U.S. Political Institutions: Congress, Presidency, Courts, and Bureaucracy
  • Citizen Politics in America: Public Opinion, Elections, Interest Groups, and the Media
  • U.S. Public Policy: Social, Economic, and Foreign Policies

You’ll see prices listed for the program or individual courses but that’s completely optional, for if you want the verification for completing the coursework.


Knowledge is power, and there’s no shame in getting back to basics. Play a video when you’re doing the dishes or brushing your teeth, or complete an open course over coffee on the weekends. Bonus points if you replace these exercises with a less healthy habit like mindlessly scrolling through Instagram! Get a refresher in Civics 101 and have the confidence you need to go out and engage with your neighbors, your friends and your elected officials.


Using Tech for Good

706EDFC6-4C31-4F7A-9F9D-60DEDF06085A.jpegIt can be hard to keep up with the issues close to us. At the same time, it’s unsustainable to expect to know comprehensively all of the votes, proposals and cases you want to keep an eye on.

Using technology for civic engagement is kind of like using technology to socialize. It’s convenient, it keeps you in-the-know in real time, and a lot of it is BS so you shouldn’t rely on tech exclusively for this aspect of your life. I’ve talked a lot about media literacy in older posts and all of those rules apply here. With that in mind, here is a list couple of tools you can use to rely on someone else to put the most relevant stuff in front of you in a consumable and timely manner.

  1. Countable – for being generally informed
    Countable is an app that keeps you up to date with bills on the Congressional agenda. It seems dedicated to creating a space for unbiased discourse. When you select a bill you see an objective summary, and then you can scan the comments For and Against. They use reddit-style up votes to make it easy to find the strongest arguments, instead of having to sleuth through low-blows and poorly written rants to get to the comments that actually open your perspectives up a bit.Still, in the interest of sustainability you might just want to stick to the platform’s content to inform yourself and skip the comment section if you’re not in the mood for tea. Or perhaps a compromise is to just read the top ones? It’s a slippery slope, I’ll admit.The app is marketed as a kind of polling tool, where you can vote Yea or Nay and the results will be shared with your reps. I’m not sure how responsive legislators are to these metrics, though. I’d be interested to find out!
  2. GovTrack – to subscribe to specific issues/areas
    This tool helps you keep track of political activity that aligns with issues you want to be particularly tuned into. It sends email updates based on political activities you subscribe to. You can track specific members of congress, bills, votes, committees, and ‘subjects’ like health or even subcategories that get real granular such as ‘allergies’. How cool is that?
  3. Oh wait.
    The tech tools I’m familiar with lean partisan. I’m committed to writing these posts for everyone so I’ll avoid those. But I’m sure conservative and liberal users can sign up for SMS action updates through special interest groups that align with their values, online communities (have your media literacy toolbelt handy for these!) and more.

Can I really call this a list if there are only two items? Help! What tech resources do you use to keep up with the most important things?


A final note on using tech for good: be a picky subscriber. Too many sign ups and you’ll be overwhelmed and tuning entirely out in no time. This is a challenge for me but I know we can do this together! Happy nerding.


Party with a Purpose

I’m a firm believer that if you clean your bathroom without making it a dance party, you’re doing it wrong.

Getting and staying involved is work, but combining your civic engagement with things you already wanted to do is one way to achieve sustainability.

My mentor almost exclusively partied with purpose. When she wanted to record kazoo covers, she threw an album launch party and sold the CDs for the literacy council.

Pro tip: Her cause also helped convince her homies to provide free recording and graphic design support to make the album happen.

Make your own party with a purpose: if you prefer dirt over dancing you can sign up with a community garden. If you like to run, find races that fundraise for causes you connect with. If you prefer parties for one you can use your hobbies for good.

Sometimes the opportunity to do what you love isn’t available as a pre-packaged “see you Saturday at noon” kind of volunteer shift. And that’s OK–make your engagement authentically yours.

With all due respect, no one would have ever asked Patty to create a kazoo album for their cause. Don’t be discouraged if the path isn’t obvious. Plug into communities with similar goals and you can make it happen.

Sometimes this means mixing in the less glamorous work that’s necessary to make those communities run–but we’re playing the long game here. And the reward at the finish line is an engagement opportunity you can look forward to. Getting involved shouldn’t always feel like adding another chore to your list.

Happy partying!


feature image 📸: Andrew Knechel