Civic Lab Hosts Speakers on Zoom But Draws Few Students to Watch

One teacher came to the library during lunch on March 15 for a Civic Lab Speaker Series conversation. Photo by Sawyer Thompson.

During lunchtime on March 15, history teacher Sue Ikenberry sat down to watch a Zoom conversation about civic engagement and democracy projected on one of the library’s large screens. Although the event was publicized to students and teachers through an all-school email and posters, she was the only one to attend.

GDS’ Civic Lab, an initiative founded last year with the goal of helping students enact social change, has hosted nine Zoom conversations between its founding executive director, Barbara Eghan, and external speakers about topics related to civic engagement. Three were at 7 p.m. online; the other six were at noon and played in the library during lunch. These events, part of the Civic Lab Speaker Series, have been mostly empty except for a few students or teachers.

Sophomore Julian Montes-Sharp, who said he has attended four of the events in the library, estimated for the Bit that around five people have been in attendance when he has gone.

Eghan told the Bit she is aware of the low attendance and is hopeful for an increase. “I do expect it to grow,” Eghan said in an interview before the March 15 event. “It’s hard to say what my expectations are.”

The Speaker Series is mostly meant for students, Eghan said, but there has been more teacher than student attendance, likely due to students’ extracurricular commitments.

Tuan Nguyen, who teaches studio arts and is the Civic Lab’s program associate, said in an interview that the Zoom format “was based on GDS guest policy.” The school did not allow guests on campus at the beginning of the year, due to COVID protocols, but now does.

According to Nguyen, the Speaker Series is going to continue at GDS for the foreseeable future, with in-person speakers next school year. When asked about future attendance, Nguyen said, “Hopefully in-person next year we’ll have more.”

Senior Adam Leff, who watched one Speaker Series conversation from the library, told the Bit that the online format may dissuade students. “I got really tired of Zooming over the pandemic,” Leff said.

Sophomore Lina Fawaz, who has not attended any of the conversations, said that their scheduling may affect student attendance. “It’s at lunch and most people want to hang out with their friends,” she said. “You want free time in between your classes—nobody wants to go and listen.”

Ikenberry, a frequent attendee of the Speaker Series, agreed that timing was holding back attendance. “Lunch is only 45 minutes and kids cherish it,” Ikenberry said. “I don’t think kids want to give up their lunch.” She suggested the events be held during community time instead.

Although students may miss the Speaker Series conversations live, they are all recorded and uploaded on YouTube and the Civic Lab website. Nguyen said he “hasn’t checked the viewing rates.”

Fawaz said it was not clear to her what the purpose of the Civic Lab is. “I don’t really know what it entails,” she said. “I’ve just seen emails talking about speakers who are coming every now and then.”

According to Eghan, the purpose of the Speaker Series is to “have discussions on a number of different topics” and “introduce folks to a lot of different civic avenues.” These avenues include political engagement, academia and entrepreneurship. “We’re introducing a wide array of ways to have a social impact,” Eghan said.

Montes-Sharp said that he has gone to the Speaker Series to “learn things that I don’t really know about.” He added, “It’s an interesting opportunity.”

The Civic Lab was founded last year, and the Speaker Series is one of several facets of the Civic Lab. It has also helped run a program of dialogue among students called the Discussion Lab and has created a Social Venture Lab to support students with entrepreneurial ideas and an Art and Activism Lab for creating art related to social justice issues.

Eghan said that the Speaker Series was created as the first initiative of the Civic Lab as she and Nguyen “were laying the groundwork for these learning labs.” Their goal, as Eghan put it, is to have “young people think about, ‘How do I drive social change?’”

The speakers have included leaders of nonprofits and companies such as the Civil Rights Corps, Just The Pill, and Choose Love.

“It’s kind of tragic,” Leff said when asked about students’ involvement in the Civic Lab. “They’re starting this program that’s meant to do community outreach and it feels like they haven’t even reached the GDS community yet.”

Caroline Garland contributed reporting.