New York City Executive Director, Generation Citizen
DeNora Getachew is the New York City Executive Director of Generation Citizen, a 9-year-old national nonpartisan nonprofit dedicated to reinvigorating civics education in secondary schools in order to educate and empower the next generation of young people.
DeNora is an executive leader with over 15 years of legal, fundraising, and policy and advocacy experience in the public and nonprofit sectors. She began her career working on local democracy and government reform at the New York City Council and has worked at the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU School of Law; for Public Advocate Bill de Blasio; and at state good government nonprofit Citizens Union. Throughout her career, DeNora has shaped state and local policy on a diverse portfolio of issues, including modernizing voting and campaign finance laws; increasing police accountability; and improving public education. DeNora is an alumna of John Jay College of Criminal Justice and Fordham University School of Law. She has contributed to the Des Moines Register, Gotham Gazette, Huffington Post, the New York Times’ City blog, and Newsday, and has been featured on WNYC and NY1, among other media sources.
DeNora’s service on many local boards demonstrates her commitment to improving her community. She is currently an appointee to the New York State Civic Readiness Task Force, where she is working with practitioners, academics and policymakers to enhance New York’s civics standards. She also serves on the board of Planned Parenthood NYC Votes and the New York Junior League, and is a member of the Greater New York Chapter of the Links, Inc. and the Metropolitan Chapter of Jack and Jill of America, Inc. DeNora was an appointee to New York City Public Advocate Jumaane Williams’ Transition Team and formerly served on Manhattan Community Board 7.
Hi, I’m DeNora Getachew. A native New Yorker, wife and mother of three. I’m a democracy ninja who uses all of the tools in my toolbox to fight for all Americans to participate equally in our democracy. I am currently the New York City Executive Director of Generation Citizen working daily to transform how civics education is taught in schools. Generation Citizen is equipping the next generation with the knowledge and skills they need to make their voices heard and advocate for systemic change on local issues.
I have believed in the importance of democracy and being civically engaged since my childhood when my parents would take me with them to vote. I found my civic voice as a pregnant teen when I launched my first advocacy campaign advocating for my ability to remain in my high school instead of transferring to an alternative high school for pregnant girls. I didn’t even know that one could be a democracy lawyer, but my externship at the New York City Council during law school gave me a taste of local policymaking and I was immediately hooked. I’ve spent the last decade and a half of my career advocating to eliminate the structural and participatory barriers to democracy and now there’s no turning back.
Democracy is in again. Well democracy has always been in, but now it’s not wonky to admit that it’s important to strengthen and protect democracy. Civics education is in, too. After fifty years in the dark as the step-child of both the democracy and education movements, civics is no longer the luxury item that society is willing to pay for later. The majority of policymakers and thought leaders now realize what many who have been leading this work for decades already knew, you have to educate young people about how democracy works if you expect them to actually participate in democracy.
Now that civics education is in, the biggest debate is centered around what constitutes “effective civics education.” As the New York City Executive Director at Generation Citizen, I’d argue that effective civics is not just School House Rock. In a 21st century democracy when young people can like and retweet ideas online, effective civics has to be more than just rote memorization. It’s student-led and it’s experiential. It’s grounded in local issue analysis, research, policy goal proposals and, most importantly, action. We at Generation Citizen call it Action Civics.
There is incredible momentum in favor of civics education in this moment. That’s partly due to the politically divisive moment, but also due to the fact that society has finally realized the consequences of deemphasizing civics education on democracy. We are trying to responsibly respond to this moment through a three-pronged approach. First, we’re strengthening our existing programming to ensure that regardless of how we implement Action Civics in schools, it’s high quality. Second, we’re expanding beyond our traditional footprint in large urban centers, like New York City, to prove that Action Civics has the same result of increasing students’ civic knowledge, skills and motivation regardless of where it’s implemented. And, third, we’re advocating for Action Civics as a fundamental component of a well-rounded education for all students.
That third strategy is the key. The only way we don’t go back to the days when civics was an afterthought is if we can ensure Action Civics is the standard embedded in state policy and that there are resources allocated to provide educators with professional development and coaching to to implement this project-based approach in classrooms and assess student learning beyond just adding another standardized test. Our advocacy strategy, like our programmatic approach, is geared towards eliminating the Civic Engagement Gap plaguing underresourced communities. It’s unconscionable that students who live in low-moderate income rural and urban communities are fifty percent less likely to receive effective civics education in schools and thirty percent less likely to have debate in their social studies class. No matter we’re a politically polarized society. I believe in a democracy that is reflective of all Americans. Action Civics is a vehicle to make that ideal a reality.
I am most proud of my work at Generation Citizen to scale our local impact and deepen the local philanthropic support for our timely and vital work to transform how civics education is taught in New York schools.
The most significant obstacle that I’ve encountered during my tenure at Generation Citizen is making the case to the corporate sector that they also have a responsibility to invest in civics education. Capitalism and democracy are connected principles and I would argue hinge on each other in order for either to be successful. It is in the corporate sector’s best interest to invest in ensuring we have a strong and functioning democracy, which is contingent upon individuals understanding how democracy works and understanding its importance to their daily lives.
Our Action Civics curriculum resonates with teachers and students alike because it brings civics to life. It gives educators a curriculum and related resource to educate their students about current events puts young people in the driver’s seat of their civic experience. It ensures that
I start by learning what makes them tick and using what inspires them to encourage their success.
As a ninja for democracy, it goes without saying that one of my best attributes is advocating for a more reflective democracy. Ok, that’s a little dramatic. I think I am a good public speaker and advocate.
My superpower is that I’m persistent and fearless. I am a passionate advocate for the causes and people that I believe in.
I aspire to be a good human being. To be someone who will be known for having worked hard to make the world a better place and who had a lot of fun while doing so.
My biggest success and most challenging moment is one that still guides every aspect of my life: deciding to have a child as a teenager. I am incredibly thankful for the love and support of my mother who made it possible for me to pursue my dreams. But it wasn’t easy and required a lot of discipline and sacrifice. I’m so proud of my son D’Aundre who has grown up to be a smart, caring and hardworking young man. This success made it possible for me to understand that I’m a warrior and that I have strong grit and perseverance – two very important traits of leaders. This success made it possible for me to be a loving and confident mother when I decided to have my second round of children – two smart, confident and beautiful daughters.
I have a few mantras:Work hard, play hard!
Everyday I’m hustling.
I’m a ninja for democracy or a democracy ninja – fighting to make our democracy accessible to all Americans.
When I’m trying to overcome an obstacles or motivate myself to reserve, such as studying for the bar exam or running a marathon, I often say “You’ve got this!” My son D’Aundre would say “Rock it Out!”
I have many favorite role models who have inspired me to think beyond myself and appreciate why I am in service of others. But my favorite is Shirley Chisholm. She tops the list as the first African American woman to be elected and also run for President. She was a trailblazer and continues to be a source of inspiration because if she could overcome incredible odds, there is no reason I can’t achieve my dreams.
I am a City girl through and through, but I know the limits of living the rate race that is New York City for too long without taking a break. So I work hard and play hard. I love to escape New York City to visit other cultural meccas, but there must always be a beach in close proximity so that I can fully decompress next to the ocean.
I am currently passionate about supporting young people to realize that democracy is for them. I love watching young people experience their civic aha moment and helping them to catalyze their advocacy and activism.
Prioritize your time for maximum efficiency.
How can I do it all? Or most of it?
Be in service of others.
A Day in My Life:
What do you love most about Your City?
I love that it truly the melting pot of the world. I love the diversity of New York City and that everything is at your disposal. I love riding the subway (most of the time) and learning while observing others.
Favorite breakfast meal & restaurant?
My favorite breakfast meal is eggs benedict. Some of my best New York City memories revolve around eggs benedict at former Upper West Side brunch staple Isabella’s. Now that it’s gone, I’ve struggled to find a replacement.
What are you doing at:
6:00 AM – If it’s a good day and I’ve had a good night’s rest, I’m working out before my two younger children wake up. If I was up too late working on my personal or professional commitments, I am catching my final ZZZs before my children wake up.
10:00 AM – I’ve already had at least one business meeting and I’m at my desk working on the list.
12:00 PM – Favorite Lunch spot/meal?
I don’t have a favorite lunch spot as I’m either usually grabbing something quick between meetings or meeting with a prospective supporter of GC.
7:00 PM – I’m either walking in to get quality time with my kids before bed or attending an evening meeting. It really just depends on the day, but I try not to be out more than 3 weeknights to ensure stability for my little people.
11:00 PM – I’m calling it quits on the day by watching an episode of House Hunters International or some other HGTV show involving living near a beach. I told you I love the beach.
What drink do you need to get through the day and at the end (and how many)?
I have one skim Cortado, extra hot in the morning. I am always playing a game with myself to see how long I can hold out before having that first coffee in the morning. On most days, I’m waiting the suggested 2 hours to ensure my body’s cortisol has kicked in, but on nights when I haven’t gotten as much sleep as I should have, that’s easier said than done. If I know it’s going to be a long night because I have a New York Junior League board meeting or some other evening commitment, I might have a caffeinated or decaf Cortado depending on how tired I am or how long I think I need to say awake after I leave the office.
Most used App/Favorite Instagram Account?
Ooh, the love-hate relationship I have with my phone. I have decided that I’m my best when I treat it as a work gadget, so thanks to advice from my colleague Sarah I predominantly keep the color filters off. My iPhone is far less appealing at all times of the day if it’s just about functionality and productivity. So my most used App is: iPhone Mail app or Gmail app (depending on the day or my use).
My favorite Instagram account is anything relating to fashion or beach travel.
Where do you enjoy getting lost?
Playing with my kids, with a good book as a very close second. I wish I did both more often.