The Boston Senior Civic Academy was created in 2018 by city officials, with the assistance of the Gerontology Institute’s Center for Social and Demographic Research on Aging. Its curriculum is designed to help older adults better understand how local government works and develop skills to advocate for issues important to them. Institute research fellow Caitlin Coyle has played a central role in the development of the academy. She recently spoke with the Gerontology Institute Blog about the program.
Q: How did Boston’s Senior Civic Academy come about?
Caitlin Coyle: The program was developed as a part of the Age Friendly Boston Initiative. As part of that initiative, we did a comprehensive needs assessment for the city of Boston several years ago. We found seniors felt that local policy makers and advocates did not necessarily take into consideration their experiences, needs and preferences. In response, this program was created as an opportunity for seniors to become more involved and to empower them as self-advocates at the policy level. It also created an opportunity for public education about how policy and decisions are made at the local, state and federal levels.
Q: Who participated in a Senior Civic Academy?
CC: We’d end up with 25 participants, but there is an application process. This wasn’t a “come one, come all” program for anyone who wanted to attend. As the name “academy” indicates, we wanted people who were really learning, developing and gaining experiences that were valuable to them. There are folks, in this city in particular, who already have life experiences in advocacy and politics. We wanted people who were motivated, but didn’t necessarily feel like they were pros at self-advocacy. So, the application process was important to make sure those 25 people were on an even playing field with respect to their experience and knowledge.
Q: How long did an academy last?
CC: It’s a six-week program. It’s typically about thirty hours total of curriculum, so that’s about five-hour days, six consecutive weeks.
Q: How many classes have graduated and are there more planned?
CC: We’ve graduated two classes of Senior Civic Academy participants, in 2018 and 2019, and Senior Civic Academy 2020 is scheduled to start April 17 of this year. Applications are actually open right now.
Q: What happens at the classes they attend?
CC: There is some information shared to sort of set the stage for that day’s theme. This is an introduction to difficult challenges facing older adults — economic security, social isolation, equity and access to information, things like that. We’re helping people jog their minds about what kinds of issues that we can advocate about. Then we’d move on to city-level government, state-level and federal-level government.
Two other elements of the program were very important. First, we bring in outside speakers every single day. Sometimes it’s a panel of department heads, on other days it’s folks from existing advocacy organizations. A lot of elected officials come and talk about how their constituents can effectively advocate to them.
Second, there’s always a portion of the day reserved for what we call knowledge application. Participants can take the information that’s provided and their experiences interacting with those guest speakers to develop bare-bones skills for how to advocate on their behalf or on the behalf of their peers.
Q: At graduation, Boston academy participants also demonstrate the advocacy skills they’ve developed.
CC: One requirement for graduating from the Civic Academy is a two-minute elevator speech. As part of their skills development throughout the course, they learn what needs to be included in that speech, how to do it in two minutes, what kind of additional materials might be needed and who the appropriate audience might be. The idea is that the most effective advocacy tool we have is a combination of our personal experience and the ability to deliver it in a concise and compelling way. The culmination is that graduation elevator speech.
Q: Having completed two classes so far, what have you learned from the process? What works and what doesn’t work?
CC: I touched on one already, the importance of that application process and making sure the people in the room have the right level of passion and motivation for the topics but also the interest in learning more. Another piece that came through strong and clear was the value of the peer-to-peer connections.
From a networking standpoint, we had these 25 residents from all over the city with different kinds of backgrounds really coming together. The one thing they have in common is they care deeply about affecting their communities. There’s a lot of power in that, in them being able to interact with one another and network with each other. What we’ve seen is that they stay in touch after the Academy. Continuing to support ways people can have time to do that peer-to-peer relationship development is going to be key to how we adapt the program moving forward. It’s really just making sure there’s time for that to happen.
Q: What have you learned about the exportability of this idea to other communities?
CC: Boston’s Senior Civic Academy provided public education about how policy is made, but there was also that self-advocacy skill development. The education piece feels a lot more exportable to me. There are a lot of residents in other communities who simply don’t know who to contact about getting an article on the town meeting agenda or where is the shelter in place location. This is very basic knowledge so I think a lot of communities would find it valuable. The advocacy piece might be tougher just because it is a little bit more heavy lifting with respect to the curriculum, inviting all the guest speakers and some of the administrative burden.
Q: Is that an either-or decision or is there some middle ground?
CC: I could certainly see a hybrid version work. The curriculum developed in Boston allows communities to make it their own – how things work in you name the town or city. Size certainly has a lot to do with it. In Boston, you can go to the State House, city council chambers or regional federal offices. They have a lot of resources many other communities don’t have. We’ve talked about videotaping some of those sessions and figuring out way to make some of that core material more translatable.
Q: Any other ways the program could be customized to the needs or interests of individual cities and towns?
CC: There is also the potential to create an intergenerational program as well. Participation by high school students could fulfill some kind of civics education requirement. Or it could be way or orienting new residents to a town. What is absolutely necessary for this work to take hold in other communities is enthusiasm and support from both resident and municipal leadership.
Q: Have any other Massachusetts communities actually tried a similar program?
CC: To my knowledge, there hasn’t been another Civic Academy done. But when we go out into communities, we often share the idea with folks who are interested. In some communities, that very educational version is starting to happen, these very basic nuts and bolts kinds of things. One way they see that as valuable is that it feeds into their ability to fill boards and committees within their municipalities.