A few drinks help the civics lessons go down

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 Civics on Tap is offered at National Mechanics in Philadelphia. (Rob Zawatski/WHYY)

Civics on Tap is offered at National Mechanics in Philadelphia. (Rob Zawatski/WHYY)

A lot of people have been scratching their heads since the presidential election.

They have questions about the way government works — and how it’s supposed to work. One Philadelphia public school teacher is on a mission to answer those questions and create better-informed citizens. 

On the second Thursday of the month, people fill the seats of National Mechanics bar and restaurant in Philadelphia’s Old City for a lesson in participatory democracy. 

Dubbed “Civics on Tap,” it combines a civics and history lesson with beer.  

Grace Palladino, a teacher for about a decade, said schools don’t spend a lot of time teaching students about citizenship. She’s not surprised that adults have been asking her questions in the wake of the 2016 presidential election. 

“It’s pretty safe to assume that you haven’t really received any civics and government prior to senior year and sometimes not even then,” she said. “So, there’s no base knowledge of the intricacies of how government works,”

Since President Donald Trump took office, more people have been looking for ways to get involved with politics, said Matt Slusser, one of the organizers of Civics on Tap.

But Slusser, who belongs to a South Philadelphia political action group, said they don’t really understand how it works.

“We were just seeing a low level of education around, kind of like, who your state rep was. So … people are saying, ‘What can I do?’

“And we’ll say, ‘Contact your state representative.’ And they’re like, ‘Well, I don’t know who that is,'” said Slusser, describing a continuing conversation.

A little levity on draft

Civics on Tap is a way of helping educate voters without being heavy handed. Palladino tells jokes about what could otherwise be dry topics, and Slusser creates attractive and witty slides to go along with her talking points.

“So it was trying to figure out what we can do, and how we can give people that level of information without it being boring,” said Slusser. “So, we’re able to kind of like engage a little bit more by doing it at a bar and having some fun with it.”

Kate Lynch, who came to Civics on Tap on the recommendation of a friend, said the recent election was a wake-up call.

“I think people are amazed that the things that are happening can actually happen,” she said. “I think everyone is lulled into this sense of, ‘Oh well, that will be fine, that can never happen.’

“And then you’re like, oh my gosh, that’s actually happening.” 

Lynch said she appreciates Palladino giving her the civics primer she never received. 

“I think that I need to know more about civics than I do right now, in terms of actually how the government works,” said Lynch.

Palladino said she plans her lessons based on relevance and urgency. Lecture topics have included the Electoral College, gerrymandering, federalism and even the race for Philadelphia district attorney.

Knowing that the subject matter can be dense and daunting, Palladino said she tries to keep the lessons entertaining.

‘The history teacher we never got in high school’

Jo Johnson, another regular at Civics on Tap, said Palladino’s passion is infectious.

“She is the history teacher we never got when we were in high school,” Johnson said. “She has a way of educating you on things that you never thought you wanted to learn about — and then you’re excited to learn about them.” 

Josh Godick, who has attended every session of Civics on Tap since it started in January, said he keeps coming back because it is more than just an old-fashioned history lesson.

“There’s a lot of discussion topics that come up. Not everything is just a fact that I didn’t know. It’s more a feeling that sparks a discussion between people,” he said.

Palladino, who said she has been interested in politics since she was quite young, might even consider running for office.

“I would never stand back and preach to others to get more involved and not also embody that as well,” she said.

In the meantime, she’ll keep her day job and keep leading Civics on Tap.

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