Experts have been worrying about the sad state of civic education for years. According to a 2018 study by the Institute for Citizens & Scholars, only one in three Americans were able pass a test based on questions from the U.S. Citizenship Test. In a 2023 survey taken by the National Assessment of Educational Progress, only 13 percent of eighth graders were proficient in American history and only 22 percent were proficient in civics.
But at least one Massachusetts youth is getting an early start on her civic education. Along with her mother and uncle, eight-year-old Ciara Barber embarked on a road trip this summer, vowing to visit every city and town hall in the commonwealth of Massachusetts, all 351 of them.
Ciara’s “Town Hall Project” was inspired by a visit from her uncle, Adam Barber, a Californian, who was surprised to discover that there were 351 municipalities and townships in the geographically smallish commonwealth. He began pinpointing cities and towns on a map, which gave Ciara’s mother, Blue Barber, the idea for a road trip.
They began their journey in Ciara’s hometown of Worcester in late June visiting ten to fifteen localities a day. By mid-July she had visited 150 of them. As word of Ciara’s travels spread via the media, local officials began rolling out the red carpet in preparation for her visit. In Westfield, Massachusetts, for example, she was proclaimed “Westfield Mayor for the Day.”
A police cruiser and a fire truck greeted her when she arrived at the Danvers, Massachusetts, Town hall where she toured the building and met with Mayor Steve Bartha and Assistant City Manager Jen Breaker, who later told the Salem News that Ciara’s visit was the highlight of her summer. “Her excitement about being here is awesome,” said Breaker, “and it’s great to have the opportunity to show her a little bit of behind the scenes, which we don’t often get to do.”
Massachusetts makes a particularly interesting location for a civics lesson, not only because of its historic role in the American Revolution, but also because it boasts of several different types of government. Some localities have the” strong mayor” form, others have city councils and city managers. Many retain the direct democracy tradition of the New England town meeting.
As they go from city to city and town to town, Chiara and her fellow travelers have been documenting their journey on Instagram and Facebook, posting photos of their visits and adding text with fun facts about the various localities and their governments.
For instance, in one post, the travelers remarked on the fact that the town of Townsend (formerly known as Townshend) changed the spelling of its name in response to the British Parliament’s passage of the Townshend Acts, which imposed new taxes on tea and other commodities in colonial America and inspired an independence movement.
“But there's more to Townsend than historical grudge-settling,” they wrote. “As the largest town in Middlesex County, Townsend has declared themselves to be a Right to Farm community. In fact, chapter 34 of the town code goes so far as to say, ‘whatever impact may be caused to others through the normal practice of agriculture is more than offset by the benefits of farming to the neighborhood, community, and society in general.’ A strong statement, and one shared by 139 other #farming communities in #Massachusetts.”
Rebecca Townsend., a Longmeadow (MA) Town Moderator described Ciara’s Town Hall Project as “an innovative grassroots effort to develop positive relationships” with local governments. “It motivates each municipality to highlight their hospitality, inclusiveness, and openness. And it generates interest in how things work,” she wrote in an email shared with us by League Board Member Valerie Lemmie. “Her story is inspiring to both kids and adults and is worthy of a broader audience.”
Now, if we could just get another two thirds of the country to embark on similar journeys, we might just get a handle on this crisis of civic education.
Ciara recently visited her 200th town/city hall!