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The Magic of The Policy Institute

All day long, my cell phone thrums with the texts of nine juniors and seniors. Questions, quips, emojis, links, the messages keep coming and chirp late into the night. For months, this has been happening. Since June 17, in fact—the launch of last summer’s Policy Institute, a one-month summer intensive course at the High School that explores issues of national importance. Meg Blitzer’s “Life Resettled” group added me to their text string and from that day onward, my phone hasn’t been the same.

Yes, these teens are texting each other day and night about immigration. Months after their deep dive into the issue at the Policy Institute, they’re still obsessed with unfolding events at the border, ongoing court cases, legislation, and advocacy. I had heard that the Policy Institute is magical. After witnessing my first session last June, I could quickly see why. It was the middle of the summer and they weren’t being graded, yet these students worked long days and often stayed late, the empty third floor hallway echoing with whoops of laughter and ideas shouted through mouthfuls of pizza.

At a time when our democracy calls us to civic engagement, the Policy Institute is a powerful incubator for inspired activism. Launched in 2014, this experiential summer program has hosted several different issue tracks over the years. Last summer, we ran two: Meg’s track on immigration and Topher Dunne’s legendary track on homelessness called “Waging Life in the DMV.”

Experiential learning is different from the typical classroom lecture format. It explodes the walls of the classroom, leading the students out into the city and beyond to do research and advocacy in the field. That demands a special type of teacher, and Blitz and Topher blew me away with their energy, passion, and creativity, sustaining the attention and enthusiasm of their pods for a solid month.

But there’s also magic in the format itself. It flips the typical formula of “Heads, Hearts, Hands” to become “Hearts, Heads, Hands.”  Activists aren’t made in classrooms, they’re forged in the crucible of shared human experience. So before studying the policy framework of an issue, the students establish a deep, emotional connection first. The immigration track went to court to witness families being reunited and ripped apart. The homelessness track worked with a local social enterprise to distribute food assistance to the hungry—face-to-face with people experiencing homelessness. One student said to me that day changed her life forever. It’s vitally important to understand the human side of an issue—through a felt sense of empathy—before moving into abstractions. That way, by the time you study the policies and regulations, you’re looking at them through a lens of compassion. Seeing policies in a humane perspective reveals their inhumane contours. We can see where reforms must be aimed.

Connecting the heart to the head also truly inspires the hands. Not long into the program, I watched these students ignite with enthusiasm. That’s why they came early and stayed late. It’s why they’re still texting each other all day. They’re inspired to make change.

But making change is challenging. Enthusiasm can make you overshoot your mark. At last summer’s Institute, we focused on designing action projects that were small enough to be doable, big enough to make an impact, and fun enough that they can be undertaken throughout the year. These projects were shared out to family and faculty at the Policy Institute’s culminating event.

And last week, both tracks hosted assemblies at the High School to provide a glimpse of what they explored last summer. Topher’s track hosted Alan Banks from longtime GDS community partner Friendship Place and Christina Sturdevant Sani, a journalist for City Paper and other publications. It was a powerful, very moving conversation. Meg’s track hosted Cait Clarke, a GDS mom and Chief of Defender Services in the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts, and Victor Mena, a Financial Specialist in the Administrative Office, who is also a DREAMer. Cait and Victor helped to make the DACA issue being argued in the Supreme Court this week more human and vivid to the students.

Meanwhile, the Policy Institute continues to evolve. This summer, we’ll be launching new tracks: an Environmental Justice and Sustainability track and a Gun Control track. Applications for rising sophomores, juniors, and seniors will be accepted in the spring. The program will run from June 15-July 10. It has always been, and remains, free to students.

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