by Rebecca Johnston
Many United States citizens have become more interested in politics in the last year, spurred on by such events as the 2020 Presidential election and January 2021’s attempted capital insurrection. Because of these new conversations around civic engagement, many cultural heritage institutions are weighing in and promoting their own collections and interpretations. To increase civic engagement and knowledge within the city of Pittsburgh and beyond, the Senator John Heinz History Center launched the America 101 initiative in October 2020. This wide-ranging proposal includes events hosted by the History Center, the formation of a coalition with civic and history organizations across the country, and the development of two mobile applications. The History Center’s goal is that by 2026, the citizens of Western Pennsylvania will know more about American history and demonstrate this knowledge by passing the history and civics portion of the U.S. citizenship test. The motivation for this proposal was in part the passage of Act 35 in Pennsylvania, mandating that all middle and high schools test their students on the “history, government, and civics” of the United States.
As an online viewer, this project includes quite a few items of interest, although I will focus on only one in detail here: the History Center’s development of two free mobile apps, Citizen You and America 101. After downloading both, I can attest that they are both appealing in different ways. Citizen You “gamifies” civic engagement and service in day to day life. Choosing from a wide variety of activities, users can earn points in return for making a positive impact in their communities, including voting, volunteering, and connecting with others. In order to reinforce this behavior, Citizen You encourages you to connect with other users and see how they are being good citizens. Clearly, this app targets members of the public interested in social media, and there has been some success because users are choosing to participate. Meanwhile, America 101 focuses on the collections within the History Center; available through the GuidiGo, the app leads users through exhibits at the History Center and challenges them to engage by answering questions and photographing specific items. Directed toward younger users, this app also awards points. Unfortunately, neither Citizen You nor America 101 have received reviews by users, so it is difficult to tell how the apps are being received.
While these apps present interesting opportunities, I think it is worth noting some potential issues with the cohesiveness and impact of this project. For example, the development and implementation of America 101 involved a number of different departments—including Marketing and Communications, the Library and Archives, and IT, at the very least—but the project seems to be fairly decentralized, with each department taking part in different activities. This makes me wonder what the experience of this initiative would be like on the ground—whether it would be difficult to carry the themes of the initiative throughout an experience at the History Center, making it less impactful overall. Furthermore, outside of the History Center’s website, there does not seem to be much publicity about the initiative as a whole. The Pittsburgh Post Gazette has not reported on it, and the History Center’s Twitter makes only a few mentions of minor events associated with the initiative.
I originally chose the America 101 initiative because I was so impressed with all that the project entailed, as well as its mission in general: I also think it is important to promote civic education and engagement. And as many of our course readings have pointed out, our role as cultural heritage professionals is to engage in social justice work, whether it be in what we collect or what we display (see Jimerson’s “Archives for All”, Through the Archival Looking Glass). According to the History Center, it is “committed to telling the American story and inspiring a community of citizens to explore what it means to be an American.” This initiative clearly falls in line with those goals, but there did seem to be some gaps or disconnect in implementation. With the whole of Western Pennsylvania as the intended audience, it is difficult to specifically engage with groups and make an impact, and while the timeline of 2026 gives some breathing room to make progress, it also seems like there is not currently enough advertising or public awareness to promote this project. America 101 provides an excellent opportunity for outreach, especially to students, but it has not yet made the impact that could be possible.