New York City Bar Association works to boost civic education among the public

Civic education at the State of the Union
President Joe Biden delivers his State of the Union address to a joint session of Congress, Tuesday, March 1, 2022, in the House Chamber at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C. (Official White House Photo by Adam Schultz)

The New York City Bar Association is working to do its part to help boost civic education among the public to encourage greater participate in the democratic process.

The legal organization is launching a “Civic Education Task Force” aimed at helping the public better understand how their government works for them on every level, and the importance of voting toward enduring that federal, state and local governments are fair, just and working for the people they represent.

“Knowledge is essential to constructive civic engagement,” said City Bar President Susan J. Kohlmann. “Government of the people can only function if the people understand how their government works and how to participate in it.”

The task force aims to bring together lawyers and other members of the legal community to develop ways to boost civic education at a time when voter participation, and knowledge of government functions, is sorely lacking.

Even after a midterm boost in turnout, New York City has seen abysmal participation in previous elections — just 13% of registered voters participated in the primaries earlier this year, and 21% of voters bothered to cast a ballot in the 2021 mayoral election.

These figures, the city bar contends, reflects America’s ongoing crisis with voter apathy. The United States ranked 31st among 49 nations around the world in voter turnout during national elections held in 2020.

Worse, a large number of Americans are not attune with how government functions. The city bar noted that one in four Americans are unable to name any branch of our government, and less than half are able to name all three branches together (legislative, executive and judicial). 

Judge Katharine H. Parker and Dawn Smalls have been named co-chairs of the Civic Education Task Force, which aims to serve as a “hub for best practices and a clearinghouse for opportunities for the legal community to contribute to civic literacy,” as Parker described.

“In the tradition of the City Bar bringing together representatives of the entire legal profession, our Task Force includes members from large and small firms, the state and federal judiciary, government agencies, nonprofits and law schools,” Judge Parker added. “The entire legal profession has a direct stake in ensuring that the public understands how our government functions and our justice system operates.”

“Civic education is the first building block for greater civic engagement,” Smalls noted. “I am excited to work with the Task Force to ensure that civic education is integrated into the school curriculum, and develop ways that lawyers can engage in and support greater public literacy and engagement. The Task Force will include educators and non-lawyers who have important expertise to advise us on our work. We look forward to working with them to convene leaders in civic education to discuss best practices and areas where we can collaborate and leverage one another’s work.”

Learn more at nycbar.org.