Apr 27, 2023
Through the Prism with Elizabeth Clay Roy
Elizabeth Clay Roy is a lifelong leader of civic engagement and social change initiatives, and the new Chief Executive Officer of Generation Citizen, a national nonprofit committed to providing youth with the knowledge and skills they need to actively participate in our democracy. Leading Generation Citizen brings Elizabeth full circle to her childhood roots when she campaigned door to door for candidates in Boston before she was old enough to vote. She was so active in voter registration drives that PBS’s show In the Mix chose her to lead youth coverage of the 2000 Presidential election.
What is one of your earliest memories of the power of human connection?
Some of my warmest childhood memories of deep connection are special moments with extended family around holidays, laughter-filled intergenerational Thanksgiving dinners, and carolers singing in our neighborhood at Christmas and Easter church services.
I also experienced a profound sense of human connection in a place I did not expect to, which was being a constituent service intern for Senator Ted Kennedy when I was a student. As a representative of a deeply trusted public servant, people felt comfortable opening up about their lives and challenges within moments of speaking to me. In turn, I felt a sense of purpose in resolving bureaucratic challenges, advocating for Social Security and other federal safety net programs, and committing to effective governance that worked for all.
What values guide your personal life and your work?
The first value that guides my life is critical patriotism. Epitomized through the 20th-century poetry of Langston Hughes (and now through Amanda Gorman), it calls for an unflinching look at our nation and a dedicated love to what the country can be.
I say it plain,
America never was America to me,
And yet I swear this oath—
America will be!
"Let America Be America Again," Langston Hughes
If critical patriotism is the what, service is the how. The adage, "Service to others is the rent you pay for your room here on earth," attributed to several honored ancestors and elders, including Muhammed Ali, Shirley Chisholm, and Marian Wright Edelman, is the spirit my parents raised me in. My upbringing was grounded in the personal and collective interdependence that required action. It is distinct from service as charity, where some people serve and others receive, which creates a false distance between us.
When did a person or experience change your mind about an idea or belief?
Studying and volunteering abroad as a college student was transformational, particularly in Ghana, Brazil, South Africa, and India. It was not just the myth of American exceptionalism that came crashing down (I was raised to challenge that); it was also the chance to understand the social construction of many identities and observe and learn from activists around the world.
I am enriched by these international experiences even as I focus on civics education in the United States and supporting young people to learn honest U.S. history and make positive changes in their hometowns.
I was overjoyed when Generation Citizen was chosen as the first U.S. partner of the global Be Seen, Be Heard campaign, led by the Body Shop and the United Nations Secretary-General’s Envoy on Youth, to change the representation of young people in public life in over 75 countries. I am also proud to be on the Board of World Learning, a global education organization supporting experiential and inclusive global learning.
What are you working on right now?
I joined Generation Citizen as the Chief Executive Officer in 2021 with the belief that effective, experiential civic learning can affirm a sense of belonging and civic identity for young people. Despite this era of polarization, social isolation, and widening societal disparities, their determination, action, and empathy exemplify what is possible if we come together to realize our shared vision for an inclusive democracy.
Over the past two years, we have sharpened our approach to improve the conditions for belonging for students and strengthen civic bonds in communities. This year, we are excited to partner with school districts and organizations in eight states on our curriculum, teacher professional development, and coaching to deliver project-based civic education to more students.
Through the Equity in Civics initiative, Generation Citizen has collaborated with peer institutions to help establish a public narrative about the importance of civic education that is relevant, inclusive, and representative of the lived experiences of students, teachers, and their communities. We produced a national Equity in Civic Education White Paper and a series of toolkits for educators, parents, students, policymakers, and community leaders to frame the conversation around civic education and advance equity in civics. We also recently launched a $10,000 award for a courageous teacher in the name of our dear colleague Darcy E. Richie, and nominations are open through June 1st.
A healthy democracy begins with an affirmation of our belonging and is only possible in an equitable, inclusive society. And yet, without sufficient avenues for civil discourse or genuine community connection, the open wounds from our past and the ever-deepening political and social divides will continue to fracture our country. That is why I am pleased to be a New Pluralists Field Builder and connected with thoughtful leaders around the country looking for tools that help us work together across lines of difference.
What is giving you hope? What positive visions do you have for our future?
Civics Day is coming up this spring, and that fills me with hope. Like a science fair for democracy, Civics Day is an event hosted by Generation Citizen with our school partners to gather hundreds of students to share their solutions to challenges in their communities. It is such an energizing event because wherever the event takes place — in State Capitols, City Bar Associations, and think tanks — buzzes with the students' excitement and action projects. Civics Day is a time for us to welcome volunteers and recognize young people as partners and problem-solvers, not citizens in waiting!
My vision for the future is that America will be an inclusive, participatory, multi-racial democracy where children grow up to lead choice-filled lives. All young people will develop empathy and civic maturity as they grow up in nurturing communities and engage in service and experiential civic education. Our politics will be guided by aspirational visions for advancing prosperity and wellness at home and abroad, and the paths to public service will be wide and smooth.