Youth Civics Initiative: Get Involved

By Judge Jessica Palmer-Denig

In May 2023, the New York Times reported that U.S. history scores for 8th graders plunged during the pandemic, accelerating a decades-long downward trend.1 Civics education was among the areas showing a decline. Civics education is essential to ensuring people understand their governmental institutions, and to maintaining a functioning, civil society. Yet only 22 percent of students were proficient in civics, a decrease from just 24 percent in 2018. We find ourselves at the crossroads of a critical moment, and members of the bar can play an important role in reversing these trends. 

Last year, the RCBA created the Youth Civics Initiative (YCI) to support civics programming in Ramsey County. The YCI continued an elementary school reading program in which lawyer-volunteers visit classrooms, re-launching this program post-pandemic with a new book “Sara Rose, Kid Lawyer” by Spencer M. Aronfeld. In its first year, YCI volunteers visited 16 classrooms across Ramsey County and reached hundreds of children.

We also continued an essay and art contest for students in 5th to 12th grades based on the ABA’s 2022 Law Day theme: “Cornerstones of Democracy: Civics, Civility, and Collaboration.” We received 34 essays and art projects and gave three awards in each category. Chief Judge Leonardo Castro of the Second Judicial District graciously hosted an awards ceremony for students and their families in his courtroom, offering contest winners a chance to sit at his bench. We also had a strong presence from bar members who came to show their support for the students’ work. 

Our existing programs were successful, and we hope to grow them further, but the YCI is also working to develop new opportunities to support civics education. The YCI has partnered with the Minnesota Justice Foundation’s Street Law program, in which law students work with teachers to educate students about their legal rights and responsibilities. We are currently building a speaker’s bank of volunteers to create content about different areas of the law and provide speakers for classrooms. This year, the YCI hopes to support Street Law teachers in seven Ramsey County schools. We plan to use our speaker’s bank as a resource to provide speakers to other classrooms as well, and to offer teachers courtroom or law office visits for their students.

We also engaged in outreach to other people and organizations interested in civics programming. The YCI met with attorneys from the Minnesota Chapter of the American Board of Trial Advocates and others who are concerned about civics education. We began exploring the possibility of a partnership with Girl Scout troops in Ramsey County to support their educational efforts. Students who begin 9th grade next year will be required to take a course in government and citizenship in either 11th or 12th grade as a graduation requirement, and this will open the door to even more opportunities to connect with teachers and students. The YCI also has a new webpage devoted to youth civics work, where people interested in becoming involved can learn more about our programming. 

The YCI asks that you consider how you might assist in these efforts. Our committee is always happy to welcome new members, but if your schedule does not allow for that level of involvement there are many other ways to contribute. Volunteer for our speaker’s bank or indicate an interest in hosting a student visit by filling out this sign-up sheet.

We are kicking off our Spring programming, and we need volunteer readers for our elementary school reading program. We are continuing to look for children’s books about civics that might work for the reading program, so if you know of a good book, we’d love to read it. 

The YCI will be conducting an essay and art contest again this year. The 2024 Law Day theme is “Voices of Democracy,” and we will ask students to consider how they can contribute to civil dialogue and help strengthen our democratic systems. We invite you watch for details and to attend the awards ceremony in May 2024.

Finally, one of the most important things you can do requires the lowest time commitment: please talk to the teachers you know about our programming to help us spread the word about these resources. Our success in reaching these students depends on our members connecting with and supporting teachers in the crucial work of civics education. 

If you are interested in volunteering or learning more about these projects, please reach out to Sabina Zeenat,, 651-789-3752. 

The Honorable Jessica Palmer-Denig is an Administrative Law Judge with the Minnesota Office of Administrative Hearings.


1. Sarah Mervosh, It’s Not Just Math and Reading: U.S. History Scores for 8th Graders Plunge, New York Times (May 4, 2023).