Students, Teachers, Legislators, and Advocates Call for Increased Investment in Commonwealth’s Civic Education Programs

Highlighting the need for more equitable and robust civic education across the Commonwealth, legislators, teachers, students, and advocacy leaders called on the Massachusetts Legislature to increase investment in civic education to help prepare the next generation to steward the Commonwealth’s and nation’s democracy.

At the event, the Massachusetts Civic Learning Coalition (MCLC) released data on three years of grantmaking from the Civics Project Trust Fund that showed that less than half of the proposals from local school districts were funded due to the Fund’s limited amount of money.

“The policy and financial investments we’ve made in civics education here in Massachusetts are yielding real, tangible results, and we should continue to increase those investments so it is available to all students,” said Senator Becca Rausch (D-Needham).

The speakers, which included teachers and students from Boston, Lynn and Lowell, urged the Legislature to increase funding the Civics Project Trust Fund by $500,000 to a $2,500,000 level. The Trust Fund is used by state education officials to develop civic education curriculum and professional development for teachers and is also granted out to school districts to develop local civic education capacity.

Alice Mwangi, a senior at Lowell High School, talks about her work in Lowell to address issues of hunger and homelessness through her civic education class.

Discovering Justice is a proud member of MCLC that was formed five years ago to help pass the Civics Law of 2018. Discovering Justice Executive Director Matt Wilson, the Advocacy Chair of MCLC, and Adam Harrington, Discovering Justice Fellow, coordinated the event.

“Civics should be part of our school curriculums nationwide, and I’m proud to have been a part of the movement that made this law in Massachusetts. Every student deserves to learn about and participate in civic life. Building on this movement is more important now than ever,” said Representative Andy Vargas (D-Haverhill.), who was instrumental in the Civics Law passage in 2018. 

Representative Andy Vargas (D-Haverhill) tells the State House audience about the need to increase the Commonwealth’s investment in civic education.

“Civic education and engagement are foundational to building the nation’s capacity to protect and steward our democracy,” said Matt Wilson, Executive Director of Discovering Justice. “America’s youth can play a key role, now and in the future, by engaging in our democratic process to build more equitable, healthy, and vibrant communities. Yet they need to be taught the skills and perspectives and given opportunities to engage.”

Legislators were joined by students and teachers who told their stories about the impact of their civic education classes.

“I can confidently say that I have been able to grow as a person through community service and civic education and that is why I believe more people should have access to civic education,” said Anthony Gonzalez, a Junior at the Radio and TV Broadcasting Program at Lynn Vocational Technical Institute. “After seeing the impact, I was able to help make, and my growth being acknowledged by myself and my peers, I believe that every student in the Commonwealth should be able to experience those same things.”

“Civic education programs benefit the future leaders of our society, like my 6th grade student Eslenny Rosa who is here today. We have many students at the Mildred and throughout the Commonwealth who already excel academically, and civics allows us to pair those great academic skills with the kind of moral compass we want our future leaders to have,” said Derek Doherty, a 6th grade teacher for Boston Public Schools at the Mildred Avenue K-8 School in Mattapan.

“When I began to teach civics in my classroom, an amazing thing happened. Students were engaged in their community and truly involved in trying to solve issues in their neighborhoods,” said Joseph Jussaume, a history teacher at Lowell High School. “Students saw themselves, maybe for the first time, as part of the larger community picture. That they, even as young people, could bring about change.”

The Massachusetts House of Representatives will release its budget in the second week of April and the Senate will release their proposal in the middle of May. Governor Healey is expected to sign the budget for the new fiscal year by July 1.

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New Partnership with the U.S. First Circuit Court

Discovering Justice’s close partnerships with legal professionals has provided the organization with the capacity and resources to provide top-notch civic education programming to students across the Commonwealth.

Last month, Discovering Justice and the U.S. First Circuit Court agreed to a new and innovative partnership to bring new civic education programs to students in Massachusetts.

“We are excited about our new partnership with the United States Court of Appeals for the First Circuit. Over the past year, the Circuit Court has prioritized civic education as a core component of its work,” said Matt Wilson, Discovering Justice’s Executive Director. “The partnership will bring new energy and perspectives to students across the Commonwealth.”

A significant initiative of the Circuit Court is the development and implementation of a Learning Center at the Moakley Courthouse. The Learning Center will provide educational engagement for a wide audience from students to teachers on their role and that of the courts in our democracy. The Learning Center at the Moakley Courthouse is anticipated to open formally in the fall of 2024.

The First Circuit and Discovering Justice will partner in programming the Learning Center, meeting with students on Field Trips, promoting Courthouse Events, and supporting the Mock Trial and Mock Appeal Programs. Discovering Justice will continue its long partnership with the District Court of Massachusetts which has been a vital partner since the organization’s inception.

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Discovering Justice Reaches over 3,000 Students During Civics Learning Week

Discovering Justice brought the wisdom and experience of federal and state judges into more than 200 K-12 classrooms during Massachusetts’ Third Annual Civics Learning Week.

During the “Zoom with a Judge” events held the first week of March, elementary students learned about the justice system and the role of a judge through an interactive game, thought critically about a hypothetical case where they had to decide what justice would look like, and got their questions answered by the judges.

Judge Paige Kelley, Judge Donald Cabell, Judge Julie Bernard, and Justice Diana Maldonado spoke with the more than 3,000 students in K-5 and middle and high school students learned about the importance of juries in our justice system with Judge Denise Casper and Judge William Hadley.

“My students were fascinated by the judges asking and answering their questions,” said Linda Leiker, a Special Education Teacher in New Bedford Public Schools who connected her class to the 45-minute Zoom session.

The events were part of the annual Massachusetts Civics Learning Week which ran from March 6 to March 10. The week’s series of virtual and in-person events helped build broader awareness of and support for civic learning; amplified and celebrated youth voices; and empowered participants to envision themselves as change-makers in our democracy.

“Zoom with a Judge” is an example of the interactive and engaging discussions about justice that Discovering Justice brings to our youngest learners. Our Children Discovering Justice Program is a unique elementary curriculum that helps students in Grades K-3 explore the ideals of fairness and justice in their own lives and their community. Discovering Justice’s Field Trips also provide experiential learning for first grade to college students at the Moakley Courthouse. Visit the Discovery Justice website to learn more about our unique civic education programming.

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Docent Training Brings in New Tour Guides to the Moakley

To keep up with the growing number of tour and field trip requests, Discovering Justice held docent training for eight new volunteer docents, which included college students and former educators.

This training provided newer docents the opportunity to learn from experienced docents and learn more about the architecture and history of the Moakley Courthouse. Volunteers shared their passion for helping students learn about our justice system and providing positive experiences for students. Our docents brought their expertise, from former librarians, schoolteachers, college professors, and college students!

“I found the training extremely helpful. I learned a lot from the seasoned tour docents and the presentation leaders. The section on culturally responsive facilitation was particularly educational,” said Lynn Bonesteel, former Boston University professor and a recent addition to our team.

During the training, Courthouse Programs Associate Kiara Batista led the new docents as they explored the Moakley and discussed the major themes that are covered in the hour-long tour.

Without volunteer docents, Discovering Justice could not have welcomed over 1,500 members of the public to the courthouse this year, deepening their exposure to the workings of the justice system. Our volunteer tour docents make a world of a difference to our tour program!

To become trained as a volunteer tour docent, sign up here. We look forward to growing our community and providing more members of the public with informative and interactive tours!

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Discovering Justice Mock Trials December 13, 2022. (Photo/Reba Saldanha)

Discovering Justice 2023 Gala – Amplifying Students’ Voices

Save the date: The Discovering Justice Annual Gala is set for Thursday, June 22nd, 2023!

Come celebrate a year of transformational civic and justice education and help Discovering Justice prepare for the year ahead. Our theme this year is Amplifying Students’ Voices and we aim to do exactly that. You’ll hear directly from elementary, middle, high, and college students as they share what justice means to them and how they use their voices to advocate for it.

You’ll also hear from our Champion of Justice Honoree Charlie Baker. As Governor, Baker demonstrated a dedication to public service and a commitment to civic education by signing the 2018 Civics Law, which is a driving force for bringing civic education back into Massachusetts classrooms. In recognition of this work, Discovering Justice is proud to honor former Governor Baker with its 2023 Champion of Justice Award. Come help us celebrate this great achievement!

Your hosts for the evening, the Discovering Justice staff and Board of Trustees, hope you’ll join us on the lawn of the Moakley U.S. Courthouse in Boston for small plates and an open bar, live music, students’ stories, and engaging conversations with fellow civic education supporters and civic leaders. Come support our work in Amplifying Students’ Voices.

For sponsorship opportunities or any other information contact Ann Gogol at (617) 748-9642 or agogol@discoveringjustice.org.

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In Memoriam Gary Speiss

On November 25, 2022, the Discovering Justice community lost one of our most dedicated and long-term champions; Gary Spiess, founding board member, former board chair, 2006 gala honoree, and twenty-year supporter.

Recruited by Discovering Justice’s first Board Chair, Jack Regan, Gary brought extensive operational and financial expertise to the Board that would help the new group build a strong organizational foundation for success. According to Jack, “Gary had superb judgment and considered what not to do, equally as important as what to do.”

Excellent at tempering expectations by setting realistic, well-defined, and measurable goals, Discovering Justice benefited greatly from Gary’s wisdom in its early years to its current state.

“As a friend and colleague of Gary for so many years, I can say, without any hesitation, that his involvement in organizing, building, and fostering Discovering Justice gave him the greatest joy, happiness, and contentment,” said Terence McGinniss, who served as a Discovering Justice Board member with Gary. “His vision and that of several other founding members of Discovering Justice came together in such an extraordinary way and provided him with such a source of pride. For Gary, Discovering Justice represented the convergence of what truly motivated his life – love of the law, seeing social justice being actively taught and engaged, and bringing together diverse communities for the common good.”

“Gary ran the best meetings I have ever seen in my professional career. He offered all the opportunity to speak and always knew exactly when to close the conversation. He believed that all opinions mattered and was skilled at hearing all perspectives and crystalizing the essence of the conversation and issues at hand,” said former Executive Director, Lissy Medvedow.

“Gary was a brilliant and exemplary leader in so many ways, but the first words that come to mind are ‘gracious’ and ‘kind’. It is those qualities that made him so effective in the many roles he undertook, and why it was such a joy to work with him,” said Lauren Stiller Rikleen, a former colleague of Gary as a Discovering Justice Board Member.

Former board chair Tony Doniger recalled, “Gary loved lawyers and the practice of law. He wanted to share this with students hoping that some would choose to follow a similar path and one day come to love the legal profession just as much as he did.”

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