03/29/2013 02:43 pm ET Updated May 29, 2013

The Meme-ification of Civic Engagement

This week, the progressive world -- and, encouragingly, a broader sect of the national public -- was set on fire with the fight for equal marriage rights. Nowhere was that fire more noticeable than the sweeping red takeover of Facebook.

The image of a simple red equal sign has come to represent the judicial fight for marriage equality this week, as the Supreme Court heard two cases challenging California's Proposition 8 and the Defense of Marriage Act. But it's also the most recent indication of the Internet meme-ification of social justice and political engagement.

On Tuesday morning my newsfeed was a stream of red, with a huge swath of my friends changing their profile photos and sharing the ubiquitous image. But by Wednesday, the message had changed. The red equal sign was morphed (Bud Light and Smirnoff both chimed in with similarly-themed images, and the meme got special Internet treatment by corgi lovers and Grumpy cat enthusiasts) or mocked ("Before we make a ruling, did enough people change their Facebook profile picture?" said a highly-shared photo of Justice Anthony Kennedy).

What a roller coaster of a day -- from solidarity to cynicism in less than 24 hours. It's amazing how quickly people can become engaged, engrossed, and then embittered in a cause.

You could call this a problem inherent in online practices, with organizations focused on vanity metrics instead of actual community development and individuals wanting to appear as part of a movement while remaining ahead of the curve. Or you could say it's indicative of a generation of slacktivists who equate liking an image on Facebook with an active pursuit for social change and justice.

I think it's something slightly more hopeful. I'm convinced that the outpouring of political activity on social networks -- especially around hot-button social issues like marriage equality -- is a frustrated attempt to engage by a generation of people unsure of how else to make change. We've grown up in the political reality of big money domination of our government, where civic education courses are a luxury and a sense of civic duty is quaint. When all you feel you can do to further your views is to share a photo on Facebook, which recycles content so rapidly, then it's a short but hard fall from engagement to impotence.

According to a 2011 study from the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), only 24 percent of high school seniors in America's schools scored proficient or above in civics evaluations. That means the vast majority of America's newest voters are unaware of the means and implications of political participation. And the numbers are dropping. Decisions about our economy and health care, our energy sources and environment, our access to social security and education, are being made ostensibly on our behalf but without sustainability, because we're not being equipped with means to engage in the system. Instead -- and even worse -- we're left with the belief that there isn't anything we can do about it, except send a tweet and chalk it all up to how awful Congress is. In the classroom, we're not learning more robust ways to express political views and engage, so we're turning to social media to share. But without strategic leverage, our efforts get left behind once an election cycle elapses.

A few weeks ago -- on Facebook, unsurprisingly -- my high school civics teacher posted a message in a group of program alumni. He informed us all that our school, which had represented my home state of New Jersey in an intensive civics competition for the vast majority of the program's existence, needed to raise $1200 per student to send this year's slate of seniors to the Center for Civic Education's We the People Competition. National and local funding for the program had been slashed so significantly that the students -- who used to face no out of pocket expense -- now had to shoulder nearly the entire cost of participation.

When I participated in the program, I took nearly all of my lunch periods in the library to read up on current events before class, woke up at 7:00 a.m. almost every Saturday morning to practice, and learned more about the ins and outs of the library at Rutgers University than most of the college's freshmen. I met some of my best friends and started learning skills that I utilize every day in my work in Washington. My classmates and I immersed ourselves in the history and practices of political parties in the U.S. and abroad and explored the separation of powers. When we graduated, we went to prestigious universities and became engineers and pharmacists, government employees and teachers, social workers, accountants, communications consultants, and so much more.

But most importantly, in civics, I learned that if I was dissatisfied with what my government was doing -- if I didn't agree with a policy or a plan, if I felt like important issues were being ignored -- I could do something about it. I didn't just have to sit by, binging on cable news that preached inevitability, crisis, and the erosion of citizen agency. Civics taught me that I could make a difference in my life and the lives of my fellow Americans by being informed, being engaged, and being proactive.

Again, my experience is far from typical. I grew up in an affluent suburb in New Jersey. We the People is an intensive program -- incredibly valuable in my mind, but maybe not translatable everywhere. But even at my high school, programs that fostered civic engagement and knowledge of the political process, from Model Congress to debate club, often charged significant program fees that precluded interested students based on cost. We're squeezing out classes of students looking to learn about the political system that makes our country a stand-out nation, discouraging engagement and ultimately setting another dangerous precedent: that without big money, you can't get anywhere in politics.

Every day I work with people and organizations trying to change the world for the better, and I see a fight that's so much harder than it should be. Tools like, part of's recently launched "Million Leaders" strategy, seek to equip people with the online tools to start movements. But first, people need to recognize the innate value of our First Amendment right to petition our government. We need a renewed commitment to civic duty in this country, and it needs to start in our classrooms. We can teach our students as much science and math as can feasibly be squeezed into a school year, but without civics, we're setting our economy, our government, and our society up to fail.

I won't discount a Facebook like or share as useless. The meme is an important means of raising awareness. If one person learned about the judicial process of oral arguments, deliberation, and decision, then it's worth it (especially considering that, just last year, polling data showed that two-thirds of Americans couldn't name a single Supreme Court Justice). But every American needs to know and believe that there is more they can do -- and should do -- to make changes on issues that matter to them.

Civics education remains under the knife, and that's the optimistic view. In too many cases, it's already been thrown on the scrap heap of budget cuts and is quickly becoming a vestigial organ in our classrooms. If we are to maintain the system of government that has made America a shining beacon upon a hill for centuries, the system that we pride ourselves on and that policy makers claim they seek to uphold, then we need to enhance civic education in schools all over America.