Youth and Civic Engagement

UPDATE ON THE SECOND MEETING OF THE SAGUARO SEMINAR

Note: this is only a description of some of the issues and ideas considered. For our official set of recommendations, see our BetterTogether report.

Our second meeting, Saguaro II, was held in early September, 1997 outside of Boston, MA. It focused on adolescent youth – a primary issue to philosophers from Aristotle to Rousseau to William James which compelled them to ask: "What virtues and skills are essential for citizenship in a democracy, and how can they be inculcated?"

The Seminar focused on the more pragmatic issue of what practical innovations can raise levels of civic engagement and social capital among the next generation of Americans beyond levels prevailing among our own generation.

Our shared purpose in Saguaro II was to identify possible avenues for improvement in the civic engagement and social capital of American communities, not to dwell on the details of our problems. In that spirit, we considered three domains of possible solutions:

  • Schools: Even more than most societies, ours has invested heavily in formal education, believing that what and how we teach our children matters mightily. "Civics education" is a noble goal with a distinguished history in American political discourse, but the term itself has come to refer to a musty melange of dubious relevance to today’s young people. We discussed some interesting alternatives to the traditional "how-a-bill-becomes-a-law" approach.
  • Outside the schools: Recent research confirms our own intuition—that what happens to kids outside schools is at least as important as what happens inside. Facing broadly comparable challenges to our own, civic and religious reformers a century ago created an array of youth activities—from the Boy Scouts to 4-H to Campfire Girls to the innovations of the Social Gospel—that combined genuine fun with experience in community-building. We discussed and read about possible contemporary counterparts, including the important new role of initiatives undertaken by youth themselves.
  • Broader social conditions: No one can doubt that the development of youth is directly affected—in some cases, desperately so—by trends in the wider society, including economic conditions, the state of the family, the mass media, and so on. While we avoided widening our discussion of youth and these "enabling [or disabling] conditions" so much that it turned into a discussion of all that ails America, we believed it was foolhardy to discuss youth without attending to the broader environment within which they live.

The problem: There is healthy debate about what is up and what is down with respect to civic engagement and social capital in America; however, most agree that the data show significant generational differences – the generations coming of age in the last 30 years (especially in the '80s) are generally less engaged than their predecessors, even controlling for the perennial fact that older people are almost always more engaged with their communities than younger people. For example, comparing the values and self-reported behavior of successive classes of high school seniors and college freshmen over the last 20-30 years, one detects declining interest in community affairs and politics and rising interest in material goals. Similarly with respect to voting turnout, most of the aggregate decline over the last 20-30 years is explained by a steadily decreasing turnout among each new cohort of 18-21 year-olds rather than current voters deserting the voting booths. In addition, while levels of trust have always been lower among adolescents than older people, this gap is widening (relative to adolescent cohorts in the 60s and 70s).

This disengagement matters greatly over the long-term. Evidence suggests that the maxim "as the twig is bent, so grows the tree" applies to civic engagement. One’s life-long propensity to engage civically is generally forged in the coming-of-age years, even though the levels of engagement tend to rise over the life cycle for any given cohort. Recent cohorts are starting at a lower level, so that even as they move along the life cycle of increasing engagement, they are unlikely to offset the losses caused by the very involved elders at the end of their lives simultaneously departing the civic stage.

At Saguaro II, we sought strategies to increase the long-term civic engagement of the "baby echo" generation, a timely issue since they are now swarming elementary schools. Despite the widening gap between adolescents and older generations in trust and political action, the Saguaro group saw a large opportunity for adolescent civic connectedness. We considered three, successively broader, concentric circles: schools, out-of-school activities, and broader enabling conditions. A youth focus group enabled us to hear how young people are civically engaged and challenges they face. Each session was facilitated by one or two Saguaro participants to broaden the Seminar’s leadership.

Useful ideas surfaced which we will report in greater clarity down the road as we have not yet gained group consensus on these ideas (nor may we ever on some). Below are listed a few of these, part of a civic "tasting" menu, culled from a much longer list:

  • Fleeting encounters. The group felt that rather than only focusing on long-term stable relationships of trust and reciprocity, we should not discount too heavily the potential power of electric, transient encounters. These encounters are not likely to disappear – if anything they are on the rise. We should use them to our advantage and explore how they can have power in expanding our collective sense of "we" and shrinking our sense of "they."
  • Teen entrepreneurial ventures. Many in the group felt teen entrepreneurial ventures showed promise, especially if retired business leaders served as mentors and trainers and if the ventures were fun for young people to run. This could couple the undertapped skills of retirees with young people who often long for meaningful responsibility and a meaningful relationship with an adult, and want to learn hands-on skills.
  • Community service. The group was very interested in how more adolescents could be exposed to meaningful community service. While the last several decades have been watered down by anemic community service requirements (even where babysitting for a sibling can qualify, in the experience of one of the youth panel participants), community service that truly involves the community in planning and evaluating the service, that gives students time for reflection and that is integrated with academic learning can have real power in developing leadership skills and catalyzing learning. Peer tutoring was a prime example of meaningful community service that would simultaneously strengthen the school community, whether it be a strong 9th grade history student tutoring a weak one, or a weak 9th grade math student tutoring a 6th grader in math.
  • Strengthened physical communities. We live in an era when more and more relationships and communities are interest-based rather than place-based. Nevertheless, as long as problems, such as crime, education, or infrastructure improvement, remain geographic, not knowing one’s neighbors and being able to work with them has strong societal costs. Thus, the group is exploring fun ideas of strengthening our interpersonal relationships with our geographic neighbors.
  • Size. This is a theme that has recurred in Saguaro. In many cases, building stronger civic and community ties may depend on creating communities (or sub-communities) at a smaller scale, where individuals feel it is easier to know their fellow community members and where they see the success of the community inextricably tied to whether they make such efforts. "Size" might reinvigorate community within schools by creating smaller "schools within schools" where students are ensured that there is at least one teacher who knows who they are and is looking out for their development.

The BetterTogether report has the group's more final thinking on adolescent approaches that have power to strengthen our bonds of trust and reciprocity.

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Readings

We have created a list of related readings and links, available via the link below.

Related Readings: Youth and Civic Engagement

Meetings

MEETINGS:

Meeting I – General Introduction/history
(Cambridge, MA, April 17-19, 1997)
Background meeting focusing on social capital and lessons from the Progressive Era that could apply to the current crisis.

Meeting II – Youth and civic engagement (Boston, MA, September 8-10, 1997) Our second meeting focused on adolescent youth and civic engagement.

Meeting III – Government and social capital (Indianapolis, IN, December 7-9, 1997) Hosted by Indianapolis Mayor Steven Goldsmith (a Saguaro participant) this meeting focused on the inter-relation between government and community engagement: both how government can affirmatively boost civic engagement and how to minimize any harm that government does to civic engagement.

Meeting IV – Politics and social capital (Los Angeles, CA, February 13-14, 1998) The fourth meeting addressed the relationship between and issues surrounding politics and civic engagement.

Meeting V – Faith and social capital (Washington, DC, June 12-13, 1998) At this meeting we examined faith-based efforts which weave a stronger community fabric.

Meeting VI – Work and social capital (Tarrytown, NY, October 16-17, 1998) Our sixth meeting focused on work and civic engagement.

Meeting VII – The arts and social capital (Santa Fe, NM, June 11-13, 1999) The seventh meeting focused on the arts and civic engagement.

Meeting VIII – Technology and social capital (Cambridge, MA, March 31-April, 2000)