An Overlooked Pathway: Law and Civic Engagement


For as much as we talk about the three branches of government, the judiciary branch is often overlooked or, when taught, it’s described hierarchically. Rules and laws exist and citizens are meant to follow them. What if we did more to help students understand that we can shape those rules and laws to design a better world?

Rules and laws guide how we live and work, and act as a powerful tool to catalyze change. When we help students understand this link they can explore how they might employ legal pathways to shape rules and policy to better engender the various types of systems they want to create. This can help students uncover opportunities to advocate for themselves, their communities, and their world.

Youth activism is already demonstrating the power of law to support the concerns of our youth. A recent ruling in Montana ruled in favor of sixteen young people advocating for their right to a clean and healthy environment, which claimed the state of Montana was violating this right by allowing continued fossil fuel development without taking into account the impacts of climate change. Rulings such as these prove the power of legal pathways and pave the way for young people working towards climate action — a topic on the forefront of the agenda for many of today’s youths. 

In some states, students can join the school board to help inform decisions and shape school policy. Other states are working to ensure students can vote within school committees.  In states like Oregon, students are working together to draft legislation to push for climate change education. As students discover the opportunities they have to draft legislation one can’t help but wonder if this guidance has come from their formal education or is purely driven by passionate youth working to ensure their voice is heard. 

As educators, we have ample opportunity to demonstrate how law can act as a pathway toward civic engagement. Whether it’s going to a local courthouse to watch a trial, attending a town hall meeting, getting involved in school council, or attending an HOA meeting – providing students with ideas on how they can get involved in decision-making (therefore rules and/or laws) can help them understand pathways so they might have the know-how to shape where they work or live throughout their lives. 

Civic Pathways

What does law look like at the high school level?

A few organizations are working to make law a more common part of the high school experience. The Youth Justice Alliance helps students understand the power of law, how it shapes their lives, how they can use the law in their favor, and how it presents an exciting career opportunity. With a focus on underrepresented populations and Title I Schools this organization works to “democratize the law by redistributing legal knowledge and legal power.” It demonstrates the power of law as a pathway towards creating more equitable communities. 

Armin Salek, an Ashoka Fellow, noticed that the legal landscape was hard for many to navigate and that many people didn’t have any sort of legal literacy. For this reason, he has been working to bring more legal education courses into high school and even established the first-ever high school-led legal clinic. Students get real-world exposure to applied law while simultaneously supporting those in their communities with free legal counsel. 

Local partnerships are always making it easier for students to explore law as a legal pathway. The Kansas City Metropolitan Bar Foundation was able to partner with a local education organization to create the Student Law Academy (SLA) for students within Kansas City’s school districts. Programs like this ensure more students can access a legal career pathway. 

In addition, many students are mobilizing and finding movements to join. From the Sunrise Movement’s Green New Deal for Schools pushing for sweeping reforms in climate and jobs to local activism, students understand the power of law and policy.  As schools and school leaders, it’s time we look more holistically at all the pathways available for our students to step up, be heard, and get involved. 

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