The Citizenship Project: Discovering American History through Art

The New-York Historical Society's collection helps permanent residents in New York City prepare to become US citizens.

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Citizenship Project students encounter Question #3, which asks about the first three words of the Constitution—an answer they are likely to remember after seeing Nari Ward's We the People installation, which he made of donated shoelaces. Nari Ward, We the People. New-York Historical Society, Gift of Diana and Joe DiMenna, 2017. Photo courtesy of the New-York Historical Society.

Much more than rote memorization, the program aims to be a true learning experience about American history and our democratic institutions.

The New York City Metro Area has approximately 1.1 million lawful permanent residents who are eligible to become American citizens—more than any other city in the nation. The United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) Naturalization Test, a rigorous oral and written exam, can be grueling, and preparation courses throughout the five boroughs regularly fill up immediately. Of those who are able to access courses locally, many find that their community-based organizations can only provide legal services and English language support—leaving prospective citizens to learn the test’s required civics and history content on their own.

Against this backdrop, applications for US citizenship have dramatically increased across the country during the last year, as green card holders—increasingly concerned that their status may no longer provide adequate protection from deportation or other government action—seek a path to citizenship.

The New-York Historical Society responded in April 2017 by launching the ambitious Citizenship Project, a major initiative supported by the Mellon Foundation as part of an ongoing commitment to promoting the vital role the arts and humanities play in shaping durable democracies. The Citizenship Project prepares green card holders in the New York region for the naturalization test with a personal and dynamic learning experience using objects and artwork from the Society’s collection to put US history in context.

“Much more than rote memorization,” the program aims to be “a true learning experience about American history and our democratic institutions,” said New-York Historical Society President and CEO Louise Mirrer.

August Saturday class.JPGNew-York Historical Society educator Camilo Godoy leads a Citizenship Project class on a gallery tour. Photo courtesy of New-York Historical Society.

The naturalization test is administered orally—an added challenge for test-takers who are still learning English—and asks questions that many native-born Americans could not answer:  How many amendments does the Constitution have? What stops one branch of government from becoming too powerful? Who makes federal laws? How many voting members does the House of Representatives have? If both the president and the vice president can no longer serve, who becomes president? 

While studying these and more than 90 other questions in the areas of American government, American history, and integrated civics, Citizenship Project participants visit New-York Historical’s galleries to examine treasures of American history. They view the painting Return of the 69th Regiment, which depicts Irish immigrant Union soldiers returning to New York from the first Battle of Bull Run; examine the draft wheel that survived the New York City draft riots of 1863; and touch real cotton to feel tangibly the product that contributed to complicated alliances during the Civil War. 

“We believe our collection is a wonderful vehicle to transform lives," says Executive Vice President and Chief Operating Officer Jennifer Schantz, who oversees the Citizenship Project. "Class participants learn the backstory of American history while supporting a new generation of citizens to be active, thoughtful stewards of democracy.”

New-York Historical also created a scavenger hunt that focuses on objects related to test questions. This hands-on approach to learning—inspired by other programs the institution has used to prepare New York City high school students to pass the US History and Government Regents examination, and which has proven highly effective through independent evaluation—is designed to help prospective citizens truly understand the structure and purpose of the government that will represent them. 

“I knew I could learn better by making close contact with objects that were part of our history,” says Melissa Mejia about her decision to sign up for the Citizenship Project when she realized her naturalization interview was quickly approaching. Mejia was 21 years old when she moved to the United States from the Dominican Republic with her brothers in 2012. “This class made it easier for me to remember the answers during my interview,” she says. “It made me feel confident.” Mejia was among 201 new citizens who attended a naturalization ceremony at the New-York Historical Society in April 2018 that was presided over by Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg, whose own father immigrated to the United States at age 13.

Updated Mija for site.pngCitizenship Project participant Melissa Mejia was among 201 new US citizens who attended a naturalization ceremony at the New-York Historical Society presided over by Justice Ginsberg. Photo courtesy of New-York Historical Society.

At a time of profound political, social, and cultural divide in the United States, New-York Historical believes that a deep understanding of and engagement with our history and democracy is essential to informing citizenship, shaping constructive debate, and promoting civic participation. As Mirrer points out, “No less a figure than American founder Alexander Hamilton was pilloried in his day on account of his Caribbean birth. The question of what it means to be an American, central at our nation’s inception, continues to give rise to discussions and debates about immigration today.”

New-York Historical worked closely with CUNY’s Citizenship Now! program and community partners around the city to ensure that the program was accessible to a broad and diverse audience. Free civics and history workshops are made available on weekdays and weekends, both in the museum galleries as well as off site at community centers throughout the five boroughs.

In just one year, 688 immigrants from 75 different countries of origin, speaking a total of 40 different languages, have participated—and another 212 people have already registered for future courses. Since the naturalization process currently takes between nine and 12 months, most Citizenship Project students have not yet had their naturalization interview. But of the students who have reported back with interview dates, 100 percent passed their exam.