When Capitol Hill Came to GDS

When Capitol Hill Came to GDS
Danny Stock

What do you do when you cannot visit Capitol Hill? You invite the Hill to come to you. 

This year, GDS 8th graders weren’t able to take their annual Hill Day field trips to interview experts on prominent constitutional issues in the national dialogue. And yet, the thoughtful work to deepen their understanding of multiple perspectives around these issues continued. The invitation to bring the dialogue to GDS this year proved compelling: nine interviewees chose to attend in person on the unified campus, adding to the seven experts who had to attend virtually.

Students explored Second Amendment issues, access to education, reproductive justice, criminal justice, environmental justice, freedom of speech, immigration, and economic inequality. In an evolution of the curriculum from previous years—spearheaded by 8th grade history teachers Erika Carlson and Ginger Holmes—this year’s students have been challenged to seek potential areas for collaboration and even compromise between parties with different views, in lieu of binary pro/con position papers. To support that work, 8th graders benefited from in-person interviews with Alec Buckley (Everytown), Leroy Nesbitt ’78 (Black Student Fund and GDS alum parent), Malia Brink (Counsel for Indigent Defense), Aaron Schuham (Department of Health & Human Services as well as current GDS parent and alum parent), Toni Jackson (Crowell & Moring LLP, Former DC Deputy Attorney General, and current GDS parent), Lora Ries (Heritage Foundation), Jonathan Kanter (Assistant Attorney General for Antitrust and current GDS parent), Dan Mach (ACLU and current GDS parent), and Rexon Ryu (The Asia Group and current GDS parent). 

Students also met virtually with Lexy Higgins (National Rifle Association), Kathryn Yannick (Archdiocese of Washington), Roxanne Landis (National Women’s Law Center), Scott Faber (Environmental Working Group and current GDS parent), Mary Cheh (Ward 3 Councilmember), Brent Newton (former Sentencing Commission member), and Neal McCluskey (Cato Institute).

Long before meeting their guests—or logging onto Zoom to speak with them—students received multiple layers of support to prepare to conduct their interviews. They met New York Times’ journalists (and current GDS parents) Lulu Garcia-Navarro, Cecilia Kang, and Alix Spiegel as well as alum parent Dick Meyer (Chief Washington Correspondent for the Scripps Washington Bureau). On the morning of Hill Day, the 8th graders met with High School students who had previously participated in the Policy Institute, exploring many of the same topics. Both the parent journalists and the High School students helped the 8th graders fine-tune their questions, presence, and process for the big day.

During the late morning, students engaged in an advocacy visioning activity with Barbara Eghan and Tuan Nguyen from the Civic Lab @ GDS. They worked collaboratively to develop future youth magazine headlines, showing aspirational outcomes of their social justice work.

By the end of the day, many students felt reinvigorated in their study of constitutional issues. Leo ’26, who was a member of the criminal justice track, said, “[I’m feeling…] enthusiastic. It was very helpful to me to speak to people directly involved in this issue. As someone who is interested in the law, I enjoyed asking lawyers about constitutional issues.” 

Like other students, Leo listened well to the advocate whose views on the death penalty oppose his own, in order to understand that perspective better. Still, Leo found that even while he picked up some new ideas for his position piece, his opinions held firm. “I understand Mr. Newton's suggestion that the reference to the death penalty in the Constitution means that it is sanctioned by the Constitution, but I cannot ignore the fact that the Constitution was written by people who engaged in slavery, dueling, and many other barbaric practices,” Leo said. “I do not believe that the framers of the Constitution believed their lives should be the standard by which all constitutional claims are evaluated today—and I do not think they would want us to. We should [adhere] to the timeless ideals of the founding—life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness—instead.”

Andie ’26, from the Immigration track, said, “The interviews went extremely well: the first interviewee [Lora Ries off The Heritage Foundation] immensely broadened my understanding of the ‘con side,’ and I understand the complicated issues of immigration much better now.” Learning to listen across difference—one of the key capacities described in A GDS Student Will…—features prominently in the Hill Day interviews as students work to develop the most comprehensive arguments they can.

Henry ’26 left the interviews in the economic inequality track feeling “enlightened.” He said, “I have learned a good deal about the nuances of affordable housing and homelessness. I didn't have a very strong stance on economic inequality prior to these interviews. Now I have a better idea of how antitrust lawyers have a connection to the free market and how councilmembers like [Mary] Cheh deal with systemic racism in their wards. I also learned that many wards in DC are built on racism and redlining, which forced out its thriving Black communities.”

Black Student Fund Executive Director and GDS alum Leroy Nesbitt ’78 spoke to students in the access to education track about affirmative action. Anjali  ’26 “felt informed and inspired” by the conversation and wants to “learn more about how my generation can impact affirmative action.”

While it’s not yet clear whether Middle School students will have the opportunity to travel up to Capitol Hill next year—we hope so!—it’s safe to say that regardless of the circumstances, GDS students will continue to engage with and host advocates and policymakers from the Hill for many years to come.

Many thanks to the 8th grade history teachers and chaperones—Erika Carlson, Ginger Holmes, Angela Counts, Michael Desautels, Angie Errett, John Headley, Jenn Heffernan, Caroline Loh, Felipe Oyarzun Moltedo, and Tabitha Raskin ’15—as well as Community Engagement and Experiential Learning (CEEL) Interim Director Leigh Tait and CEEL Associate Monique Leyden, for their tireless work to make Hill Day 2022 a success.

When Capitol Hill Came to GDS
  • Community Engagement
  • Engage Ethically
  • Middle School