California Lawyers Association

Prioritizing Civics Engagement Amid Tumultuous Times

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Of all the California Lawyers Association’s pressing priorities, stakeholders agree one in particular has assumed heightened importance amid our country’s tumultuous politics: the civics engagement and outreach initiative. Increasing the civic awareness, knowledge and engagement of Californians is one of CLA’s top goals, and our Civics Engagement and Outreach Committee is constantly thinking of new ways to connect with everyone from elementary school children and other students to community activists, teachers and classroom volunteers. It’s always been a crucial mission, but the fierce political divisiveness and devolving discourse that culminated in the Jan. 6 riot at the U.S. Capitol underscore the urgency even more. They’ve also further energized CLA leaders and supporters eager to build on the initiative’s early success.

“I think what has been happening in the United States illustrates how important it is that people understand the different roles of the legislative, executive and judicial branch,” said Hon. Judith McConnell, administrative presiding justice with the 4th District Court of Appeal, Division One. “Failure to understand the roles is leading to a lot of unease. If people don’t understand, they’re often asking courts and other entities to do things that are not appropriate for the role that they play.”

Justice McConnell’s commitment to civic engagement includes chairing the California Power of Democracy committee, and it’s also inspired her to work with CLA on outreach efforts, such as a workshop for two 5th grade classes during our annual meeting in 2019.

The students discussed the legal implications of a mock law that prohibited animals in school due to safety concerns, running through scenarios in a small-group discussion that inspired an ongoing “animals in school” effort from the CLA. It led to a new CLA program targeted at 5th-grade students that explains the rule of law by guiding students through an exercise on whether animals should be allowed in school. Any school interested in hosting the program can request a team from CLA to conduct a lesson virtually, and CLA will provide lawyers and judges who can guide students through the exercises and help build their understanding of laws, attorneys and the judiciary. It includes a lesson by McConnell and an introduction by Chief Justice of California Tani G. Cantil-Sakauye.

The lesson is curated by the judges in the Classroom program that’s part of Cantil-Sakauye’s Civic Learning Initiative. McConnell sees more partnerships on the horizon.

“It’s been a longtime practice of ours to honor great programs, and we think CLA is the perfect conduit to some of these underserved communities, because you have lawyers in every county,” McConnell said. “I know that the California Lawyers Association has had a longtime focus on equity and diversity and underserved areas of the state, and those are areas we’re very interested in as well.”

Jerrilyn Malana of the San Diego County District Attorney’s Office chairs the CLA’s  Civic Engagement & Outreach Committee, which advocates at the state Legislature and develops programs for the public and CLA members. She and McConnell both sit on the steering committee for Cantil-Sakauye’s Power of Democracy campaign, which is another initiative with which CLA partners and supports.

“Through our partnerships and through the CLA’s robust initiatives and membership, we’re constantly thinking of new and creative ways to help increase civic engagement and awareness nationwide, in our communities but also with our members and lawyers,” Malana said. “We want to connect with people who might not have the CLA on their radar, and that can involve new ways of approaching timeless ideas.”

Technology, the internet and social media play big roles. CLA developed a toolkit for classrooms to coincide with Law Day and Law Week in May 2020 as well as the 100th anniversary of the 19th Amendment in August 2020 and Constitution Day in September 2020. It focuses on the 19th Amendment’s 100th anniversary, and it includes a PowerPoint presentation with speaker notes and information about how the Spanish Flu of 1918 may have contributed to the 19th Amendment’s passage. It can be presented to students – 5th graders are the target – by teachers or volunteer attorneys, and CLA can provide attorneys to help teachers answer questions and provide other support. It also fits in the pandemic because it can be presented virtually through Zoom or other video streaming.

Additionally, the CLA launched a social media campaign in July 2020 that aimed at bringing interesting civic education to the public and CLA members in a quick, easy-to-digest format that fits social media formats. Through the CLA’s Twitter page @CALawyersOrg, the campaign shares civic-related facts such as the origin of the Fourth of July, the processes of the Electoral College and presidential inauguration.

CLA also is developing a comic book for children aimed at showcasing diverse lawyers and judges and produced in both English and Spanish.

It’s part of a broader effort to overhaul brochures and other public resources for classroom presentations. CLA members also have opportunities to earn CLE credit through our civics programs, including a recent presentation on impeachment and the 25th and 14th amendments that was organized with the Beverly Hills Bar Association.

“Civics education is more important than ever before,” said CLA President Emilio Varanini. “We encourage all our members to get involved and look for ways to promote civics in their communities, their kids’ schools and anywhere else where we can make a difference.”

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