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“When I was a boy growing up in Alabama, I would head into town and see all these signs that said, ‘white men,’ ‘colored men.’ ‘White women,’ ‘Colored women.’ ‘White waiting,’ ‘Colored waiting.’

I would come home and ask my mother and father, ‘Why? Why this injustice?’

‘That’s just the way it is,’ they said. ‘Don’t get in the way, and don’t get in trouble.’

But then, I saw Rosa Parks speaking out, and then I heard Dr. King on the radio. They inspired me to get into trouble. Good trouble. Necessary trouble.”

Congressman John Lewis talking to NYC students about the importance of student activism

Congressman John Lewis told NYC students, “the politicians are more afraid of you than you are of them.” (Photo Credit: Michael Appleton/Mayoral Photography Office

When civil rights activist and congressional representative, Rep. John Lewis (D-GA), spoke at the NYC Department of Education’s “Truth, Justice, Civics… The Comic Book Way!” workshop at the New-York Historical Society on December 2, 2019, students and teachers in attendance got the incredible opportunity to see a living American legend connect “history” to the here and now.

The workshop, hosted by the DOE as part of our Civics for All initiative, was a day-long event held for City educators and students about how graphic novels can be effective and vivid teaching tools for learners of all ages and backgrounds.

Congressman Lewis is something of an expert on the topic himself, having written the award-winning and best selling autobiographical graphic novel trilogy, “March,” along with co-author, Andrew Aydin, and award-winning artist, Nate Powell. 

“March” is the story of the Civil Rights Movement, as told from Congressman Lewis’ own perspective as one of the movement’s primary players. He decided to create the graphic novel after Aydin, who also serves as the congressman’s digital director and policy advisor, discovered that Lewis himself was inspired to rally for civil rights after reading the 1958 comic book, “Martin Luther King and the Montgomery Story.

“It was about the way of love and nonviolence. That comic book inspired me to make trouble. But it was the good kind of trouble,” Lewis said.

NYC students listening intently to Congressman John Lewis

NYC students listening closely as Congressman John Lewis talks about what it takes to be a student activist

When Aydin—also a huge fan of the genre—learned of Lewis’ connection to the MLK comic, he imagined Lewis’ take on the Civil Rights Movement as a great graphic novel in its own right. Aydin then convinced the congressman of the book’s potential—Lewis’ story could inspire a new generation of student activists in the same way “Martin Luther King and the Montgomery Story” inspired Lewis in his youth.

The rest, as they say, is history. Since Aydin and Lewis’ initial idea years ago, “March” has blossomed into a three volume, 560+ page work that has since become a critically-acclaimed bestseller and a staple of classrooms across the country. In fact, after the DOE became the first major school system in the country to use “March” in its curricula, today, the book is the second most widely-used graphic novel in classrooms across the country. And in 2016, “March, Book 3” became the first-ever graphic novel to ever receive the National Book Award for Young People’s Literature.

Congressman Lewis handing NYC student a signed copy of his book, "March"

Congressman Lewis signed copies of his graphic novel, “March,” for students in attendance after the panel.

In addition to discussing, “March,” Congressman Lewis also encouraged students to realize their own political power and capability to inspire change, drawing parallels between the political activism of his youth and today’s rising generation of students.

“Sometimes you have to do something out of the ordinary,” said Congressman Lewis. “Sometimes you have to make a way out of ‘no way.’ There are times when, no matter what, you HAVE to say something, you HAVE to make a little noise. When you have to get into trouble. Good trouble. Necessary trouble.”

Following his speech, Congressman Lewis, Aydin, and Powell stayed for a Q&A discussion with City students, followed by an autograph session, where students in attendance were able to get their copies of “March” signed by the book’s three creators.

Student asking Congressman Lewis a Question

NYC students got the opportunity to ask Congressman Lewis questions about his work during the Civil Rights Movement.

Civics-minded events like these are part of the DOE’s Civics for All initiative, which aims to empower students to change their community and country for the better by providing them with the knowledge and skills they need to effectively participate in our democracy.

To best engage students, Civics for All programs are interactive, project-based, and relevant to their lives.  They include graphic novels, such as Lewis’ own “March” trilogy, as well as brand new comics that are being developed just for DOE students.

Other elements of Civics for All include:

  • A K-12 civics curriculum aligned to the DOE’s “Passport to Social Studies“: It’s designed to be flexible to meet the differing needs of all DOE schools.
  • Participatory Budgeting in Your School: A student-driven, democratic process to fund projects that benefit the school community. This year, 154 NYC schools have signed up for this effort.
  • Civics Week (March 2-6, 2020): A week-long celebration of civic engagement in our schools, including student voter registration drives for students aged 16, 17, and 18.
  • SoapboxNYC: A public speaking competition using Mikva Challenge’s Project Soapbox that calls for young people to speak out on issues that affect them and their communities. Students are engaged in creating and advocating for solutions to improve their schools, communities, and the lives of young people.
  • News Literacy: Resources that empower educators to teach students the skills they need to become smart, active consumers of news while exposing students to the standards of quality journalism.
  • Civics for All Partner School Program: Schools for all grade levels can receive support from Civics for All Senior Program Planning Specialists and civics advocacy organizations. Those partner schools receive guidance in implementing instructional resources, accessing civic learning opportunities, and implementing age-appropriate civic action and real-life democracy projects. This year, 104 schools are participating in this program.
  • Civics for All-specific Field Trips: These are designed by cultural institutions for K-12 students.

Generating student excitement about civics and democracy also engages them more in school generally as they gain confidence in expressing themselves and experiencing how their voices can have an impact.  As Rep. Lewis told our students: “Use your education as a non-violent instrument to help change America and help change the world.”

Official blog for the NYC Department of Education, home of a million students across 1,800+ schools


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