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Margaret Post from HFRP examines the emerging practice of youth civic engagement and describes current research efforts to promote quality in this area.

Youth civic engagement (YCE) is an emerging area of practice and knowledge development that seeks to engage young people in democracy through in-school and out-of-school time (OST) learning opportunities. As the field has developed, there has been debate as to what constitutes effective youth civic engagement programming. With the overarching goal of building a more engaged citizenry, Gibson (2001) argues that a hybrid approach to YCE theory and practice is needed, one that “transcends institutional and ideological silos.” Gibson further calls for a “thoughtful dialogue about how to enrich youth civic engagement.”

For the out-of-school-time field, this is a critical challenge, as more and more emphasis is placed on building youth participation for an active citizenry. Effective quality programming in youth engagement is essential, as is rigorous research about effective strategies that cut across disciplines.

Through youth civic engagement initiatives, young people can make valuable contributions to social change efforts in schools and communities across the nation. Activities and programs vary depending on the setting: some are school-based civics education and service learning programs; others exist at the community level, taking place in the out-of-school-time hours. Across these settings, young people work on community action projects, participate in leadership development, and contribute to legislative advocacy efforts and electoral politics. It is evident from this range of activities, as well as from the extent of current foundation support for them, that youth participation in strengthening democracy has become a critical component of new efforts to renew the civic fabric of our communities for the 21st century.

Recognizing that activities range from community service to formal political activism, the challenge before us is not only to determine what programs are the most suitable and effective mechanisms by which young people can be involved in civic work, but also to develop a shared understanding of what is necessary for quality YCE. There are now several efforts by researchers and foundations to begin filling this void in empirical research through an investment in longitudinal evaluation research of specific programs and through an investigation of youth development outcomes related to civic involvement (Gibson, 2001; Michelsen, Zaff, & Hair, 2002; Winter, 2003; Pearson & Voke 2003).

Particularly relative to youth development and OST, this research begins to explore the relationship between nonacademic competencies for youth and the community-based (OST) activities in which they participate. In addition, it points practitioners toward a greater understanding of the range of effective strategies for engaging young people in democratic participation.

YCE can be an integral component of any positive youth development experience. When done well, YCE activities build on the best of what we know about youth development outcomes, especially in the OST hours. Research can serve as a mechanism by which the practice of YCE can be strengthened. Currently, evaluation and longitudinal research efforts investigate the following:

  1. Individual youth outcomes (Michelsen, Zaff, & Hair 2002; Winter, 2003)
  2. The best in youth civic engagement practice (Michelsen, Zaff, & Hair, 2002; Pearson & Voke, 2003)
  3. The impact of youth involvement in local community change initiatives (especially the recent work of the Innovation Center, which in part examines community-level impact of youth involvement)

Moving forward, continued work in each of these three areas will lead us to a more sustainable and integrative approach to building a stronger YCE movement in out-of-school-time learning.

References and Related Resources
Gibson, C. (2001). From inspiration to participation: A review of perspectives on youth civic engagement. New York: Grantmaker Forum on Community and National Service.

Innovation Center for Community and Youth Development. (2003). Lessons in leadership: How young people change their communities and themselves. An evaluation of the Youth Leadership for Development Initiative. Takoma Park, WA: Author.

Michelsen, E., Zaff, J. F., & Hair, E. C. (2002). Civic engagement programs and youth development: A synthesis. Washington, DC: Child Trends.

Pearson, S. S., & Voke, H. M. (2003). Building an effective citizenry: Lessons learned from initiatives in youth engagement. Washington, DC: American Youth Policy Forum.

Skelton, N., Boyte, H. C., & Leonard, L. S. (2002). Youth civic engagement: Reflections on an emerging public idea. Minneapolis, MN: Center for Democracy and Citizenship

Winter, N. (2003). Social capital, civic engagement and positive youth development outcomes. Washington, DC: Policy Studies Associates, Inc.

A more extensive listing of youth civic engagement resources is available on our website. Click here to see our list of non-HFRP out-of-school time publications and resources.

Margaret Post, Consultant, HFRP


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