Students as Agents of Lasting Change: The Citizen Power Project

First Book

The function of education, therefore, is to teach one to think intensively and to think critically…Intelligence plus character – that is the goal of true education.

– Martin Luther King Jr., “The Purpose of Education”, 1947


Today is Martin Luther King Jr. Day and even now, all across the country, educators and students strive to meet the goal that Dr. King set for education. The Citizen Power Project — presented by First Book, the American Federation of Teachers, the Albert Shanker Institute, and the Aspen Institute’s Pluribus Project – seeks to identify the intersection between critical thinking and character in order to uplift it.

In November, educators planned and then proposed civic engagement projects for their students and communities. Of the hundreds that were sent in, 15 were funded as part of the challenge.

Students used resources made available on the First Book Marketplace to think intensively and conduct research about an issue in their community or abroad. The next step would be using what they’d learned to take action and help right wrongs, inspire others, and make their world a better place.


In Brooklyn, New York the first step in elementary school teacher Maria Diaz’s project would be taken in others’ shoes. Her school, P.S. 24, is a Title I school and many of her students experience hardships on a daily basis. The goal of her project was to use the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and books from the First Book Marketplace to present issues of global inequality.

For a population of students who face their own adversities every day, empathy is an important social and emotional skill that is sometimes overlooked.

“Although we work in a Title I school and 96% of our students qualify for free lunch and many live in shelters, it is sometimes difficult for them to realize that there are other children going through similar or worse situations,” says Maria.

Once her students became aware of and learned about the conditions that other children around the world face they made connections to their own lives and searched for ways to empower their fellow students.

The results of that search have been monumental.

Through a student art show and auction, Maria’s students raised money to buy new books for a school in the Dominican Republic that they chose to sponsor. Maria’s hope is that this experience will give her students the confidence to help others and be proactive, no matter their own situation.

“I want them to realize that they do not need an adult to lead the cause. They can be the agent of change.”

Across the country in San Bernardino, California, high school teacher Nicole Menold’s project has been an exciting blend of democracy and direct local action.

“Once I showed my Key Club members that we were awarded the grant, we all voted on how we should use the funds and how this can help us with our main goal this year: to give back to San Bernardino, California,” says Nicole.

Student ownership of this project has been a key theme since Nicole learned her project was selected. After much discussion, students settled on using their funds to purchase new Chromebooks from the First Book Marketplace to inject technology into their classrooms.

More than just research, the Chromebooks allowed students to plan and implement a large-scale community service event. Nicole’s students sponsored a local homeless shelter and invited the children and their mothers to the school for a holiday celebration complete with toys, books, and crafts.

The event was a great success. Students and children read together, made crafts, and most importantly they shared in a sense of community.

Nicole and the Key Club are using this project as a model and look forward to using their new resources for good.

“With the amazing help from the Citizen Power Challenge, we at Indian Springs High School now have new technology to help us communicate with our local schools, business owners, colleges, homeless shelters, those in need, and so on to help students realize their civic potential.”

Harry Brubaker and Robert Thomas are high school teachers in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania and for them, a place where students could read and learn about healthy living while helping themselves wasn’t quite enough.

That was only the first step.

Now that their project is finished, students at Bartram High School are walking away as teachers of healthy living, community organizers, and with increased self-esteem.

Harry and Robert’s project was to create a Teen Wellness Center that students could visit before, during, and after school.

There, books from the First Book Marketplace about eating healthy, managing your emotions, and overcoming obstacles fill the shelves. Using what they’ve read about and learned, students cook healthy meals, practice yoga, and even garden.

Then they go out and teach others.

“This project was important because it made powerful connections between parents, guardians, neighbors and students within our school,” says Robert, “students joined together to become leaders of their community. They were given leadership roles for each activity, and they became teachers themselves for students and their families.”

Not only have Harry and Robert helped create an environment where individual students learn to better themselves, they’ve instilled the idea that by improving yourself you can help improve those around you.


This year’s Citizen Power Project and the immediate impact it has made, are over. All across the nation students have used books and resources to plan and implement specific projects that are improving their communities and the lives of those around them.

But the two-month impact is only the beginning. What the Citizen Power Project does is plant the seeds of civic responsibility in those who participate. When children see firsthand that they can work together to achieve goals and that their ideas can become reality, it gives them the confidence and self-esteem to try it again and again.

It is our great hope that as they grow up, participants in the Citizen Power Challenge will always have a clear answer to what Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. called life’s most persistent and urgent question:

What are you doing for others?


Click here to learn more about the Citizen Power Project and read about other impactful projects. If you’re an educator serving kids in need, please visit the First Book Marketplace to register and browse our collection of educational resources. If you want to start a campaign to bring books to your community, start a First Book campaign today.