At a time of declining trust and disaffection, we embrace unity and difference. As a student-led organization, we voted on the name Rhizome to express how we want to move. We know civic systems are often interconnected in ways that are not fully visible. Like mycelium, we address root causes and act as connective tissue that links students from different walks of life, fosters belonging, and builds more resilient communities. Like the rest of nature, we are resilient.
In a country of widening health disparities, we believe that youth civics spaces should be led by youth who are proximate to gaps in civic power. We value co-design and are student-led at each level of governance:
We’ve formalized a system where Student Organizers vote to shape our 1) vision, 2) goals, and 3) all changes to our work environment. Organizers also vote to approve nominees to our Board of Directors - which also includes youth members - and decide our unified national actions.
Organizers lead our city-based Chapters of the Civic Service Fellowship. This includes onboarding new Fellows, year-round training, and supporting Fellows to lead actions in their communities.
Fellows receive support to lead actions year-round: this includes community empowerment events around the ideas Fellows are most passionate about in the fall, teaching democracy to K-5 students in the winter, and voter education drives in the spring. Fellows also vote to decide the unified national actions we take each year. An example is a Student Bill of Rights focused on mental health, which we voted to collectively draft and advocate for in school year ‘23-’24.
Rhizome is a network of relationships, so we are defined by the quality and the meaning of our relationships. Our culture is grounded in dignity, respect, and belief in the value of civic institutions. Here are some of the key ideas that we have co-designed to structure how and why we bring emerging leaders together in civic communities.
Our mission is to activate young people’s identities into action and help youth treat civic service as the work of a lifetime.
We envision a world where all young people can look towards a hopeful future carved from the tools of determination and civic engagement, where communities come together to celebrate their differences, and where the youth of today can feel inspired in a productive and safe space.
Theory of Change
We transform the world by transforming how young people see themselves and what they are capable of.
Young people hold untapped collective power to create the safer, happier, and healthier world they want to live in. We provide structures that unify young people to shape change and lead meaningful lives.
We embrace new ways of thinking. Here are some examples of what makes our model different from other organizations:
We Share Power
Democracy is about equal empowerment among free and equal people across all of our society, and we share power at every level of governance. We are inspired by Ella Baker’s insight that group-based leadership offers more ownership, sustainability, and meaning than charismatic leadership models.
We Act With Integrity
Integrity is the reflection of outer and inner. The highest goal of civic life is to close gaps between is and ought, so we align means with ends to reflect our hopes for a safer, happier, and healthier world in the internal culture we create. Our internal model is consistent with our long-term vision.
We Have a Positive Relationship To Change
We’ve voted to implement a system where Affinity Spaces can propose ideas to make our systems more healthy, welcoming, and dynamic. After ideas are surfaced, all Youth Organizers discuss the proposals, refine them, and vote to approve or deny them. This voting system allows us to center the insights of disinherited communities, embrace change, and create a healthier culture.
We Use Consent-Based Accountability Systems
Many student-led organizations struggle with their accountability, retention, and impact. This is a problem because people are interdependent. Every position in Rhizome is opt-in and grounded in clear, time-bound, and consent-based accountability standards. This allows us to sustain shared commitments and steward transitions gracefully. We approach collective power as an outgrowth of proactive consent and we strive to be sustainable and accountable.
We Are Organized
Something that happens when you start with 90 Co-Founders who bring strong ideas is that you either 1) implode or 2) get super organized. With one unpaid full time staff for 21 months, we had to establish clear workflows and ensure that all of us took responsibility. The result is that we’ve built a trust-based and distributed system that embraces both freedom and responsibility.
We Are Proactive, Not Reactive
We know the only viable path toward a healthy civic culture is through proactive efforts, proactive relationships, and proactive steps to create the world we want to live in. We don’t react to current events, chase funding that doesn’t fit us or only focus on what is wrong with our country. We don’t focus deeply on specific policies or limit our scope to one issue. We engage at the intersections.
We Have Long Time-Horizons
Young people today are forced to grow up fast, and to develop longer time horizons than older generations. We know that uniting a generation of compassionate, effective young leaders is a necessary investment in America’s long-term health and happiness. As Howard Thurman wrote, “Community cannot feed for long on itself; it can only flourish where always the boundaries are giving way to the coming of others from beyond them — of those unknown and undiscovered.”
We Move Together
By creating information ecologies that allow for learnings between young people across different communities, we balance the need for local leadership with the need for emerging leaders from different communities to learn from each other at scale. Rich information ecologies, feedback loops, and voting systems let us avoid small wars and schisms while moving together.
We Harness Technology
Tech does not determine its own uses, people do. We are building something never seen before because Rhizome was not possible in the 60s, 70s, 80s, 90s, 2000s, 2010s. We are made possible by advancements in technology, and by the tech-fluency of the young people who lead our work. We harness technology to learn from each other, build relationships, and grow methodically.
We’re Collaborative, Not Competitive
Competition too often gets in the way of ambition, as people lose sight of ourselves and miss the forest for the trees. This is why our theory of change is grounded in emergence, not resistance. Our system is flexible to the needs of each community, flexible to the incredible work being done in our communities, and embraces community care and sympathetic joy as pillars of our culture.
We Value Multigenerational Work
We must combine our energy and imagination with the wisdom of elders. We seek elders to guide our thinking, open new doors, and teach us what they’ve learned so that we can pass it forward to those generations who follow. As Toni Morrison once claimed, “Your real job is if you are free, you need to free somebody else. If you have some power, your job is to empower somebody else.”
We Work Where We’re Needed
One of the very earliest decisions we voted on was to prioritize Title 1 schools, under-resourced schools, and rural resource deserts. Although we know this will make us grow slower than a path of least resistance, early expansion will focus on under-resourced schools in diverse and/or rural districts. We strive to make sure that we’re spending our time where it’s most needed.
We Don’t Do Urgency
We don’t sprint at constant deadlines because we want to work sustainably. We move fast and get the work done, but we do it through clear planning, proactive feedback loops, and steady steps that we take each week. We also take time to be goofy together, and to ensure we see each other as people. Civics is the work of a lifetime so we pace ourselves, take time to reflect, and enjoy it.
We Do Dignity
Dignity is something we receive from others, from the shared process of seeing and being seen. To dignify each other in our work, we get to know each other, respect each other, and show each other appreciation for the work we’re doing together. This can be as simple as making sure that everyone has cameras on for a virtual meeting, and as deep as centering why we do this work.
We Do The Work
We don’t use inflated numbers or partner activations to count numbers from other groups. We do the work week after week to create a safer, happier, and healthier future for all. We are building a network of relationships that grows one conversation at a time - rather than focusing on dramatic actions - so that we get the work done over the long run. The emperor has no clothes, but we do.
One of the most patriotic things our country can do is invest in inclusive civic engagement practices to build common ground among people of different backgrounds. Research shows the vast majority of Americans support civic education, as civic education leads to healthy outcomes for individuals and communities.
Despite Pandemic, Civically Engaged Youth Report Higher Well-Being - Kristian Lundberg
Is Responsiveness to Student Voice Related to Academic Outcomes? Strengthening the Rationale for Student Voice in School Reform - Joseph Kahne, Benjamin Bower, Jessica Marshall, Erica Hodgin
Young Women of Color Continue to Lead Civic Engagement - Noorya Haya, Addhya Shivakumar, Alberto Medina
What is Public Narrative? Us, Self, and Now - Marshall Ganz
The Republic is (Still) at Risk, and Civics is part of the Solution - Peter Levine and Kei Kawashima-Ginsberg
The Need for Civic Education in 21st Century Schools - Rebecca Winthrop
NCSS Statement on the Development of Social Studies Standards - National Council for the Social Studies
Cygnal research on widespread bipartisan support for civic education - Brett Buchanan
“Freedom and love go together. Love is not a reaction. If I love you because you love me, that is mere trade, a thing to be bought in the market; it is not love. To love is not to ask anything in return, not even to feel you are giving something - and it is only such love that can know freedom.” - Jiddu Krishnamurti
Culture is self-replicating, so we wanted to establish a healthy culture from the very beginning. We co-created a set of values and norms to tie the threads of our work together. These values and norms were drafted by all 90 Co-Founders, and they show how we want to move.
Or as we like to say, normalize “mom energy.” This can be during meetings, during check-ins, or randomly throughout the week. Just let people know that you see all the work they're putting in and appreciate them.
Take care of yourself -- drink water, get sleep, set boundaries, dance, finish writing that paper, hang with your friends. Do whatever you need to do to feel your best.
We have to listen to other peoples' experiences and perspectives and lead with empathy in order to connect with each other (and ourselves). If we do this well, results will follow.
Admit you don't understand or know something. We're a big group with a lot of different talents, someone is always around to help.
By aiming to be the best version of yourself and believing that you can shape the future in fundamental ways, we have the chance to empower the next generation… and the one after that… and the one after that.
Our best work comes within community, and each of us can only ever leave a legacy through the relationships we build with others. Share your journey with your team so we can learn with you.