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UPDATE ON THE SECOND MEETING OF
THE SAGUARO SEMINAR:
CIVIC ENGAGEMENT IN AMERICA and adolescent youth
[List of related readings and links]
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
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 civicly 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 civicly 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 oftenlong for meaningful responsibility
and a meaningful relationship with an adult, and want to learn hands-on
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
4) 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
5) 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.
Resources and Readings:
Information on Adolescent Youth and Civic Engagement
CIVIC ENGAGEMENT AND ADOLESCENT YOUTH
We have created a list of related and readings which is available either as a direct link or a downloadable PDF document. Please note that while we have tried to maintain the links to most of these readings, some of the links might not work.
[List of related readings and links]
Note: this is only a description of some of the
issues and ideas considered. For our official set of recommendations,
see our BetterTogether