The Center for Civic Engagement
Since he first proposed his ideas for a Center for Civic Engagement to the Board of Trustees at the start of the 2019–20 school year, Head of School Russell Shaw and school leaders have explored the ways GDS’s mission-driven work could spark a focus on public purpose with broad-reaching dialogue and advocacy beyond GDS.
With some of our most basic assumptions about democracy in America badly shaken in recent years, much of our ability to communicate across lines of political difference and find common ground in this country has eroded. Yet, today, as it did at its founding, GDS strives to train the game-changing leaders of tomorrow to wade into the great conversations of our time, reaching across racial, economic, and cultural divides, to bring much-needed change to a troubled world.
GDS’s work to educate young people to believe in—and participate in—our democracy continues so that students and alumni can do their parts to deliver on our nation’s promises of liberty, equality, and justice. With the blessing of the Board, Russell and school leaders have now formally introduced the Center of Civic Engagement at Georgetown Day School to the GDS community, established its founding principles, hired a founding director and program associate, launched a faculty and staff task force, hosted an event about the For the People Act, and begun to engage the community in defining all that the center will be.
“Drawing on GDS’s unique history at the nexus of education and democratic engagement in the nation’s capital, we recognize that while this work has always been in our DNA, we must scale up our efforts to meet this moment,” said the newly appointed founding executive director of the center, Barbara Eghan, who has served for seven years as GDS’s director of enrollment management and financial aid.
“We believe that young people can be engines for positive change—and with the Center for Civic Engagement, we aim to create a new civic platform that engages community partners in the DMV and beyond to educate and inspire the next generation of civic leaders. The Center will equip them with the skills, opportunities, and networks to address the most pressing social challenges that undermine the health of our democracy.”
During the 75th Anniversary Speaker Series panel discussion, “Philanthropy in a Time of Social, Economic, and Political Unrest,” Russell introduced the center to Ford Foundation president Darren Walker, Annie E. Casey Foundation president and CEO Lisa Hamilton, and Skoll Foundation CEO Don Gips, all leaders of organizations committed to social impact. Russell said, “We want to be part of helping train changemaking leaders of tomorrow. What are the capacities or skills that changemakers are going to need? Who are you going to want to hire? What are the things they are going to need to know how to do?”
“I would suggest you engage young people in the creation of it because they are never short on great ideas about what can be,” Lisa said, before naming data analysis skills and storytelling as essential skills for changemakers.
“Teach students how to listen and not focus on trying to solve somebody’s problem but to empathize with where others are coming from,” Don said. “Starting with that opens up the doors to the real conversations we have to start having.”
Darren offered a caution and reminder that co-creation is foundational to social impact work. “Privileged institutions, even progressive ones like the Ford Foundation, have learned a lot from our impulse to want to do good in the world and how that can actually turn to harm if the path to doing that doesn’t start with the people we want to impact,” he said.
The four pillars anchoring the center’s work—dialogue, equity, experiential learning, and partnership—will be guided by this caution to proceed with humility, along with an abiding commitment to empathy rather than a determination to jump in with solutions to other people’s problems.
Current students expressed enthusiasm for the unveiling of plans for the center. “I am so excited about the center and Barbara’s leadership,” said Anoushka Chander ’21, founder and outgoing head of the High School Student Action Committee. “I had the privilege of attending the center’s opening event...and already could tell how impactful the center is going to be for providing GDS students with education and advocacy opportunities. I am also excited to learn that the center will not just serve GDS students, but also other students in the area, as collaborations are super important. As I graduate, I hope to still be involved with the center and provide advice or talk to current students about political advocacy!”
Barbara noted that the center will also be a key partner in GDS’s DC-area launch of the “Can We?” Project, an immersive student experience in civic dialogue established in Maine by Waynflete to “harness the wisdom and power inherent in the great diversity of the American people to revitalize our democracy, mend the social fabric, and live out the true meaning of the American promise of liberty and justice for all.”
“For all the positive introspection that occurs at GDS, the center provides an incentive to turn outward—to step away from what is safe and small and toward what is messy and difficult,” said Nick Penniman ’22, who participated in Can We. “It’s exciting—and it’s necessary. There’s a certain appeal to the notion that all we need to do to improve the world is find more people like ourselves and work with them. As the Can We Project and the center propose, people who are unlike ourselves have things to teach us. I couldn’t be more invested in the goals of Can We and the center, and I don’t think that’ll change anytime soon. Engaging in democracy is a lasting obligation, not a high school hobby.”