Understanding civics, from the classroom to the city

Yale’s Citizens Thinkers Writers summer program introduces New Haven high school students to foundational texts — and connects their ideas to the present.
Henry Seyue, Raven Joseph, Stephanie Almeida Nevin, and Bryan Garsten

Henry Seyue, Raven Joseph, Stephanie Almeida Nevin, and Bryan Garsten (Photos by Mara Lavitt)

By the time he was entering his senior year of high school in New Haven, in 2017, Henry Seyue already knew that he wanted to study law, preferably constitutional law. One of his teachers, recognizing his academic seriousness, recommended that he attend Citizens Thinkers Writers (CTW), a tuition-free residential summer program at Yale that introduces students to foundational texts of philosophy, political science, and literature.

There he discovered new dimensions to his intellectual interests, reading W.E.B. Du Bois, Socrates (“the most confounding thinker,” Seyue said), and Martin Luther King Jr., whose “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” he said, “upended my idea of what good citizenship was.”

Now in his first year of law school at the University of Connecticut, Seyue credits CTW with both deepening and broadening his interest in law and the underpinnings of civic life.

Citizens Thinkers Writers definitely shifted my path,” Seyue said. “The program showed me that I was interested in understanding not only how to use law but why law is the way it is, what it says about society, and what the ways we interact with the law show about us as individuals.”

Citizens Thinkers Writers was founded in 2016 by three Faculty of Arts and Sciences (FAS) affiliates: Bryan Garsten, professor of political science and humanities; Stephanie Almeida Nevin, now a postdoctoral associate and lecturer in the humanities; and Kathryn Slanski, a senior lecturer in humanities and Near Eastern languages and civilizations.

The program’s focus on bringing seminal works to high school students was inspired by Freedom and Citizenship, a similarly civics-oriented program at Columbia University. Eager to also integrate New Haven into the curriculum, CTW’s co-founders worked with Yale’s Office of New Haven Affairs and community partners to add afternoon sessions with local civic leaders to the curriculum.

Our goal was to bring local students into a seminar setting, and give them the experience of reading foundational books, discussing them together, and thinking about how they relate to current political and moral questions,” said Garsten. “And we wanted to be a model of how a university could engage with its local community.”

In 2019, the Yale program received funding from the Teagle Foundation, an organization that supports liberal arts initiatives in higher education. It also became one of the originating programs in the foundation’s Knowledge for Freedom (KFF) initiative, which has grown into a nationwide network of civic humanities courses for underserved high school students.

CTW developed special attributes of the program,” said Tamara Tweel, a senior program director for the Teagle Foundation. “By focusing on the city of New Haven, they brought in new texts to help students think about the city and their place within it.”

As part of KFF’s efforts to promulgate the model pioneered by Columbia and Yale around the country, CTW’s founders helped create a toolkit for faculty at other institutions looking to start their own programs.

And last month, Yale hosted the inaugural KFF Faculty Institute, which brought together faculty and program directors from more than 30 universities and colleges — including community colleges and state schools, liberal arts colleges and research universities, in both urban and rural settings — to share ideas on how to launch, refine, or strengthen their courses.

The event also featured nationally recognized advocates for the liberal arts — including Andrew Delblanco, the Hamilton Professor of American Studies at Columbia University and president of the Teagle Foundation — who spoke to the importance of these programs during a time of declining trust in higher education.

We’re here because we all think it’s a fundamental part of the responsibility of colleges and universities to be good neighbors and to invite the people in their home communities to experience the essential experience of university life, which is gathering together and helping each other to become our most thoughtful selves,” Garsten said during the conference.

The three-day event, which was held in the Humanities Quadrangle, included a panel of students who had participated in the programs at Yale and Columbia, as well as discussions and workshops that touched on developing syllabi, recruiting campus partners, and building interactions with their home cities.

This conference was a real opportunity for the faculty to learn how to embed these programs in their universities and communities,” said Tweel. “And that’s one of the reasons why we wanted to have this conference at Yale, because it has done such an extraordinary job of working with New Haven.”

People of influence’

Speaking to attendees at the start of the conference, Yale’s Tamar Gendler said the Citizens Thinkers Writers program shares similarities with religious and intellectual traditions that seek to connect ancient thinking to contemporary problems — and, in doing so, forge important communal bonds.

It tells its students to “engage seriously with this text and do so in a way that allows you to connect it to your life,” said Gendler, dean of Yale’s Faculty of Arts and Sciences. “The program invites students to come into these spaces, feel part of our community, and be a part of the conversation of billions of human beings that has gone on for generations.”

Garsten noted that Gendler had been key to the genesis of CTW, endorsing the vision of creating a program for New Haven high school students when he first approached her with the idea, and supporting it as it evolved and grew.

Over seven years, the program has expanded from an initial cohort of 12 rising seniors to the most recent class of 30, including both rising juniors and seniors. The expansion was made possible with the addition last year of new seminar instructors, including Clifton Granby, associate professor of ethics, philosophy, and Africana studies at Yale Divinity School. Also crucial to the program are a half-dozen undergraduate residential teaching assistants, who serve as both instructors and mentors for the high school participants.

Thirteen high schools from across New Haven have sent students to the program, and nearly half of the students are or will be the first in their families to either attend or graduate from a 4-year college.

Bryan Garsten and Stephanie Almeida Nevin
Bryan Garsten and Stephanie Almeida Nevin, co-founders of Yale’s Citizens Thinkers Writers program.

In addition to covering all the costs for the program, including room and board, CTW last year offered individual stipends for each student — a way to offset the lost income from summer jobs that students might otherwise pursue.

Each day, students attend morning seminars, led by faculty, and small discussion groups with teaching assistants. Afternoons are spent in discussion with community leaders, where the concepts of citizenship, civic responsibility, and justice that students encounter in their readings are brought to life.

Readings go from ancient cities and move to contemporary city life, and in the afternoon we focus on our city of New Haven today,” said Garsten. Outings have included conversations with a recent refugee from Afghanistan and John DeStefano, former mayor of New Haven; opportunities to talk with members of the city’s board of education and the director of legislative affairs for current Mayor Justin Elicker; and a meeting with Anthony Campbell, chief of Yale’s police department (and previously the New Haven police chief).

The students often come in with intense views, and very direct, challenging questions come up,” said Garsten. “They get a chance to be in a room with an influential person in the city in a relatively small group and voice doubts or questions that they might have but never really have a chance to ask.”

During a panel discussion that focused on CTW’s work with New Haven partners, Campbell noted that the program’s students often came in to meet him with their guards up, but with open minds. “I want them to [see] that philosophy is not just a theory, that these things you’re being taught and learning and speaking about, at some point of time in your life, you’ll be given an opportunity to put into practice if you so choose,” said Campbell.

The questions they ask me during these sessions help me to understand that the actions that I have taken throughout my career have impacted other people’s lives,” he added. “And in sharing with them, I try to help them to understand that they are people of influence, too.”

Building community, and confidence

Though all the students live locally, having them stay in campus dorms during the program is essential to the experience, said Almeida Nevin.

A big part of the program is really trying to build an intellectual community,” said Almeida Nevin. “That’s a lot harder to do, especially in just two weeks, if you don’t have that intense experience of living together, of staying up late discussing the readings and talking about them over meals and building those bonds.”

The program also offers students the chance to grapple meaningfully with challenging texts, in a context both more focused and more demanding than the typical classroom, former participants say.

The Citizens Thinkers Writers program was the first time where I felt that my mind was being expanded,” said Raven Joseph, who attended CTW in 2019 and participated in the alumni panel. “I’ve always had experiences where I was praised for my academic performance, but never challenged to do more than what I was doing, and CTW did that for me.”

Moreover, the program offers mentorship, events, and community gatherings to students throughout their senior year, including guidance through the college application process, and maintains an engaged alumni network through their undergraduate years and beyond.

The support she received from both from her undergraduate mentors and her peers made stressful transitions feel more manageable, said Joseph, who is now in her senior year at Howard University.

The confidence that CTW gave me is out of this world, to be quite honest, and that has definitely transcended into my life here at Howard,” she said. “And I hope that it continues to follow me as I’m in board rooms and seminars of my own.”

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Bess Connolly : elizabeth.connolly@yale.edu,