There is a wealth of research on youth civic engagement, which researchers from the University of Ottawa have deftly summarized in this report exploring where engagement and media intersect. For compassionate communities to grow and thrive, we need youth to develop the skills and qualities that make strong leaders and citizens, but in an increasingly digital age we face new challenges as community and connection take on new meanings.
Fight apathy, build social capital
Right now, youth aged 18-24 are the demographic least likely to vote in Canada. Traditional civic education has been criticized for focusing too much on imparting formal political structures and processes. This has been shown to have a negative impact on future civic engagement, and has not worked to prevent the sense of disenfranchisement many youth report feeling.
Supporting youth in building effective civic skills has a critical window: research by the University of Ottawa points out that interventions to combat apathy should begin years before a person reaches voting age. Peer-reviewed research for The American Behavioral Scientist shows that youth who develop a strong civic identity are more likely to stay engaged as adults.
To help youth develop their civic identity, a best practice from our youth philanthropy initiative is to provide time, resources and support for teenagers to explore real civic issues, in their own community, with the responsibility and right to choose the issue and service that they will focus on for an active project.
Working in teams on a positive community project, and building relationships with community actors – executive directors, frontline staff, people accessing services, volunteers, board members – also develops the social capital that research shows to be predictors of future civic engagement.
Why does skill development matter?
For educators, experiential community projects offer their students an engaging way to develop and put to use the skills required by active citizens: research, organization, idea synthetization, and communication – both in the real and digital worlds. Of course, these skills are sought by employers too, and with youth thinking about careers as early as grade 7, the demand is high for experiential learning and job experience.
For organizations interested in social change, providing a platform for young people to develop and practice critical skills like these will help youth to stay engaged in civic issues as they become adults. When building on the opportunities your organization offers youth to help them develop skills and better engage with your work, consider these takeaways:
The entry point to youth civic engagement is helping young people to develop an emotional stake in real issues. From here, the skills and processes needed to produce impact can be developed and taught, making way for a lasting connection.
Holly McLellan is the International Director of Programming for the Youth and Philanthropy Initiative, a multi award-winning secondary school program that strengthens the social sector by engaging youth in social issues, local charities, and grant-making. You can contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.