RCBA Launches Youth Civics Initiative


Inspiring and Educating Students with Ramsey's New Youth Civics Initiative

By Judge Jessica Palmer-Denig

Minnesota’s Constitution recognizes as its first principle that: “Government is instituted for the security, benefit and protection of the people, in whom all political power is inherent, together with the right to alter, modify or reform government whenever required by the public good.”1  The right of the people to petition the government is enshrined, along with other rights considered to be of foremost importance, in the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.2  
There is universal agreement that civics education is essential to ensuring members of the public understand our governmental institutions and can participate meaningfully in civil society. Yet, over the last few decades, civics education has lagged. Prior to the 1960s, it was common for American high school students to have three separate courses in civics and government, but civics offerings were later slashed in favor of core subjects and due to the rise of standardized testing.3 
The RCBA has a long history of supporting civics education for children in Ramsey County. For many years, RCBA volunteers visited elementary school classrooms to read an engaging children’s book about the U.S. Supreme Court, and to answer questions about being a lawyer and how the legal system works. The RCBA also held an annual competition for students in fifth through twelfth grades on the Law Day theme published by the American Bar Association. Students wrote essays or created art projects exploring complex themes on constitutional principles such as the separation of powers and the fundamental importance of a free press. Over the years almost 600 students in Ramsey County have participated by submitting essays and art on these weighty topics.
The RCBA is now launching a new Youth Civics Initiative to continue its progress in educating young people about civics. The COVID-19 pandemic, and its impact on schools, prevented RCBA volunteers from interacting directly with students. At the same time, it offered an opportunity to re-think the programming the RCBA has traditionally offered in this area and imagine new ways to reach young people.
The RCBA met with social studies professionals in the Saint Paul School System to discuss their goals for educating elementary school children about the work of government. From those discussions, the RCBA chose a new book to read to students: “Sara Rose, Kid Lawyer” by Spencer M. Aronfeld. In this book, Sara learns about the work of lawyers and rallies her classmates to advocate for computer resources for their classroom. The book allows young children to understand how they might speak up on issues they think are important and how they might work together to advocate for their interests. This spring, the RCBA will be seeking volunteers to resume its reading program by visiting schools to read this book and engage with children about the legal profession. Volunteer readers will leave the book with the teacher as a new classroom resource. 
The RCBA will also continue its annual Law Day competition. The 2023 theme announced by the American Bar Association is: “Cornerstones of Democracy: Civics, Civility, and Collaboration.” This timely theme asks that we work to rebuild trust in our institutions, promote mutual respect, and seek opportunities to collaborate with each other to address issues facing our nation. Students will be asked to write essays or create art using a prompt to guide their thinking. The prompt asks students to consider the following statements and questions:
Our system of government relies on the ability of our elected representatives and members of the public to express opinions, and sometimes to disagree, in a way that allows us to find common ground and work toward goals. Civility, which is the use of courtesy in interactions with others, is a basic component of successful collaboration in any group, but is particularly important when opinions differ and the issues to be addressed are of great importance to people’s lives.  What could our government leaders do to foster civility and to engage in more effective collaboration? What are some ways that you can promote civility in your own life? 
The RCBA is actively seeking your participation and input in developing new programming ideas to add to our offerings. Members of the bar are uniquely positioned to support civics knowledge and education. Lawyers have a deep understanding of the relationship between the government and the governed. Many of us devote our professional lives to government service, while others work to ensure that their clients’ fundamental rights are protected and that governmental institutions are accountable to the people.
The RCBA invites you to volunteer as an elementary school reader or as a judge for the essay and art contest. In the future, the RCBA also wants to develop a bank of volunteer speakers who can respond to requests by teachers in Ramsey County for lawyers to speak on legal issues and civics topics. Finally, the RCBA asks for your engagement with and ideas about these efforts. Your participation as a collaborative partner will ensure that the RCBA reaches young people, promotes an understanding of our governmental systems, and offers children an inspiring introduction to lawyers and their work. 

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

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



1. Minn. Const. art. 1, § 1.
2. U.S. Const. Amend. 1.
3. Amanda Litvinov, Forgotten Purpose: Civics Education in Public Schools, NEA Today (Mar. 16, 2017) (https://www.nea.org/advocating-for-change/new-from-nea/forgotten-purpose-civics-education-public-schools).