Priten Shah leading an United 4 Social Change workshop
Photo: Courtesy of Priten Shah
When master’s student Priten Shah was an undergraduate at Harvard College, he was surprised to learn that rates of civic engagement in modern democracies were low. Because of this, he realized, democratic nations were being controlled by the voices of the few, rather than the many. Shah, who was studying the intersection of philosophy and citizenship, began to wonder how civic society could become a more productive forum for change.
Leaning into his experience in education (he had started a nonprofit tutoring company in high school), Shah decided to approach the problem from an educational lens. “I realized if every member of a democratic society were offered the tools to be a civic leader, communities around the world would benefit,” he explains. While on a gap year before college, he founded United 4 Social Change, an interdisciplinary civics education platform, to teach those tools to students of all ages and backgrounds.
Since its inception in 2014, United 4 Social Change, or U4SC, has offered a constantly evolving catalog of civics-related programming to students all around the world. What began as a series of small, in-person workshops on public speaking and argumentative writing quickly grew into a summer camp for middle school students, with lessons on speechwriting, debate, and current events; remote Saturday sessions and semester-long seminars for advanced students; and a robust online library offering civics education resources for both students and teachers.
U4SC, a member of a venture team at the Harvard iLab, champions civic advocacy, but its programs do not align to a particular political agenda. Instead, says Shah, the organization encourages participants to reflect on and discuss the impacts of civic policies on their lives. This focus on critical thinking and public discourse, rather than on any one issue, reflects of the organization’s commitment to sparking authentic civic engagement.
“We want to help participants find the causes they are passionate about and equip them with resources to work towards solving those problems,” he says.
Shah also believes in the power of community building, so he strives to connect U4SC participants by forming “chapters” for students from different geographical areas and identity groups. These chapters allow U4SC participants to form relationships and advocate for true change in their respective communities.
Despite the challenges introduced by the pandemic, U4SC is growing, expanding its past projects. Its summer camp, offered remotely due to the pandemic, grew from 20 students in 2019 to over 100 this past year. UFSC is also initiating new ventures, such as its creation of more than 200 instructional videos for teachers and students. Shah, who came to HGSE to learn more about civic agency and education, hopes to continue U4SC’s growth based on what he’s learned. He is also eager to connect with peers and professors who share in his mission of “using education to create healthier and more stable democracies.” In the meantime, Shah has a clear goal for U4SC’s future: “I want to see every classroom in the world integrating something about civics into its curriculum using our material.”