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Inspiring Civic Engagement

Linda Strean September 24, 2015
photo - Civic Engagement Event 0915

Many eligible Californians don’t register to vote, turnout in statewide elections has reached record lows, and PPIC surveys show many residents are disengaged from state government. What can be done to increase participation in elections and engage residents more broadly in all aspects of civic life? Tani G. Cantil-Sakauye, California’s chief justice, and Alex Padilla, California secretary of state, offered their responses last week in Los Angeles at an event co-sponsored by PPIC and the California Community Foundation.

In a conversation with Mark Baldassare, PPIC president and CEO, both emphasized the contribution schools can—and should—make to civic engagement.

Cantil-Sakauye noted that her teen-agers were taught civics in the second semester of his senior year in high school. “Now, think back where you were mentally in your second semester of senior year,” she told the audience. “Not the best place.”

She described Power of Democracy, a judicial branch initiative that includes Padilla and is an effort to elevate the status of civics education. Rather than focusing on teaching civics as a stand-alone subject, the group helps to integrate it into all school subjects, school projects, and community service. Partnering with Tom Torlakson, state superintendent of public instruction, as well as organizations and school districts, Power of Democracy provides schools the resources to do so, she said.

Padilla and Cantil-Sakauye each described personal experiences that sparked their interest in government and the people who had been influential along the way. Padilla said that after his freshman year at MIT, he returned to Los Angeles and visited his high school government teacher, who told his former student, “You’re 18 years old now. Have you registered to vote?” Then the teacher pulled out a voter registration form from his desk. “He wouldn’t let me leave until I filled it out,” said Padilla. That teacher, Alex Reza, was in the Los Angeles audience at last week’s event.

Cantil-Sakauye said she developed an interest in how decisions are made and who makes them after hearing adults in the Filipino community talk about their frustrations with government. When she was 9 years old, her family lost their home in an eminent domain proceeding. Cantil-Sakauye said her mother went to court and came back feeling “disrespected and humiliated.” Later on, her mother took her to see the pioneering Filipina lawyer, Gloria Megino Ochoa. “My mom threw me an elbow and said, you could do that!”

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