GDS Civics Center with Lofty Mission Will Include Outside Students

Russell Shaw introduced the Center for Civic Engagement during his State of the School address in January. Photo taken from GDS on Vimeo.

Head of School Russell Shaw announced earlier this year that GDS will create a Center for Civic Engagement, which will offer programming to the GDS community and outside students. While much of the school’s plans remain vague, the center represents a substantial expansion of how GDS administrators view the school’s purpose in the world at a moment when it faces the challenges of reopening and its “anti-racism” push.

Many—if not all—aspects of the center, which was unveiled during January’s State of the School meeting with parents, are still in the works, including its staffing, programs and interaction with the school community. Barbara Eghan, the current director of enrollment management and financial aid, who was selected in February to be the center’s founding executive director, said its work will focus on the four lofty pillars of dialogue, equity, experiential learning and partnership. 

“We are living in this moment where cultural and political fractures are tearing communities apart,” Eghan said. “In this country, long-standing issues around race and economic equity remain unresolved. The need to equip the game-changing leaders of tomorrow has never been more urgent for us.” 

Two of the three students contacted by the Bit had not heard of the proposed center, since the school has not introduced it to the student body. When informed more about the school’s plans, senior Anoushka Chander, the chair of the Student Action Committee, said the center could help with student-advocates’ collaboration with people from other schools. “I really love the idea of having this civic engagement office being not just for GDS,” she said. 

Shaw, who conceived of the idea, said the planned center is still “very much in a definitional phase.” “Over the next two years, we plan to develop and refine some critical programs,” he explained.

GDS wants the center to be accessible beyond the school community. “GDS students do not lack opportunities at all,” Eghan said. “Thinking of a random week at the high school and the guest speakers and assemblies we have, most high schoolers in the country don’t have that. We want the center to be a resource for the students who do not have access to the same boutique networking that GDS students have.”

In terms of cost, Eghan does not anticipate that participants will have to pay for programs at the center. The administrators involved are exploring various funding models, such as a membership fee for outside organizations looking to take part in the new center’s programs. 

Those in charge also face the challenge of determining how the new center will fit within GDS’ current structures. According to Eghan, the goal is for the center to become a non-profit entity separate from GDS.

“For me, this is a moment of creation, and it’s an opportunity for us to engage our students and our faculty in that process of creation,” Eghan said. Eghan plans to invite students into a focus group conversation to get their input, as well as have both a youth and adult advisory board for the center with members drawn from inside and outside the GDS community.

Shaw first presented the idea to the Board of Trustees for approval at the start of the 2019-2020 school year. During the 2021 State of the School meeting, Shaw stated that the school hopes GDS students and faculty will benefit from participating in programs hosted by the center. 

“This type of work is in the school’s DNA,” Shaw said. “Activism and engagement in the democracy has been part of our school’s fiber over the past 75 years. We attract a student body that is passionate about engagement and activism.”

The center will be holding its first event this week, a virtual presentation and discussion led by Raymond O’Mara III, the chief of staff to Representative John Sarbanes, a Maryland Democrat. O’Mara—who Eghan said has been one of the chief architects behind the For the People Act, an election reform bill proposed by Democrats—will speak and answer questions from members of the GDS community in attendance on 1 p.m. on Wednesday, May 5.

Some universities, such as nearby Georgetown University, have implemented similar programs. What will make GDS’ unique? Mo Elleithee, a GDS parent and the founding Executive Director of the Institute of Politics and Public Service at Georgetown, who has advised GDS on its center, said, “Giving students an opportunity to explore their own interests and passions in making change—and giving them the tools and experience before they get to college—is an important goal and it sets GDS apart.” 

By next year, Shaw said the school plans to hire an additional part-time staffer to work on the initiative with Eghan and to set a physical location, either on the GDS campus or downtown. Both Shaw and Eghan hope that one day, the center will even go beyond the D.C.-area. “Who knows, it might one day be its own 501(c)3 organization doing its work as a non-profit out in the world,” said Eghan.

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