How can we encourage youth to participate in democracy? | MIT Center for Civic Media

How can we encourage youth to participate in democracy?

Liveblog of the fourth and final panel of the conference Civics Education: Why it Matters to Democracy, Society and You at Harvard Law School, April 1, 2013. Willow Brugh contributed to these notes.

PANEL 4: Engagement: How can we encourage youth to participate in democracy? #vizthink by @willowbl00
(#vizthink by @willowbl00)


  • Meira Levinson (Professor & Co-convener, HGSE Civic and Moral Education Initiative, Harvard Graduate School of Education)
  • Diana Hess (Professor, University of Wisconsin-Madison)
  • Scott Warren (Executive Director, Generation Citizen)
  • Justin Reich (Director of Online Community, Practice and Research at Facing History and Ourselves, Harvard University)
  • Richard Freeland (Commissioner of Higher Education for Massachusetts)
  • Carlos Rojas (Education Policy Associate, Youth on Board)
  • Moderator: Richard Weissbourd (Lecturer in Education, Harvard Graduate School of Education)

RW: I want to start with the big question: How do we motivate youth to become civically engaged? Talk about particular barriers and how to overcome them.

RF: I think one of the most striking things in higher ed in US in last 20 years, is how much civic engagement is going on and how strongly motivated youth are. If we compare it to the 1960s when I grew up... when I was in college, it was largely a classroom experience. Now it’s quite common for young people to go beyond the campus to do some kind of service activity. Campuses make this a point of advertisement. However, there is a problem represented here because that civic engagement is happening outside of government and our civic infrastructure. It is taking the form of working with alternative or nonprofit organizations and projects. It represents a repudiation of traditional politics. I think the impulse to get civically engaged is there, and I see it in higher education, but the relationship between that and citizenship and civic learning is questionable. We need to link it back to a deeper understanding of the structures of American government.

RW: Are their ways you are thinking about overcoming this as the Commissioner of Higher Ed?

RF: There is a movement within my field to reclaim the notion of civic learning and education for citizenship as an essential a part of the educational project -- you can’t read a statement or catalog without seeing language around citizenship. But what universities are actually enacting, that’s pretty thin.

What Justice O’Connor is doing is one of many things to refocus education on that. It’s taking the form of promoting debates among faculty, and the Carnegie Foundation offering seals of approval for taking this issue seriously. What we are trying to do in Massachusetts is develop, at the systems level, a conception of what civic learning and engagement should be, adopt that as a strategy at a state-wide level, and develop metrics to which those institutions would be held responsible against.

SW: I think what you said about young people as not seeing politics as a solution is spot on. The Harvard Institute of Politics survey last year found respondents saying community service was a more effective way of making change than the electoral process. One of the biggest issues we have in this whole field is a divorce from politics due to gridlock and the sequester.

What Justices Souter and O’Connor said is the importance of giving examples of politics that work. And that means focusing on the local. We are always talking about Congress and the federal level. The real change that does occur in this country is in our cities and in our states. Who knows who your senators are? What about state reps? Those are the folks that are actually more accountable to what you want.

We have to conceptualize politics, go back to the old axiom that all politics is local. Youth should talk to state and city officials and not just worry about their congressman and senators.

CR: At Youth on Board, we work primarily with high school and middle school students. Youth are in a context in which they are told what to do. They are not expected to advocate for themselves. It’s a huge problem and barrier to having students grow up to be civically engaged individuals.

How do you model the political system that they live in, in schools? We have been empowering students -- you can’t have a young person civically engaged until they realize they have power, and know their own efficacy.

One thing we focus on is the power dynamic between teachers and students. I think we are helping to change the dynamic, by having the students tell their teachers about how they feel about their teaching. We now have teachers asking students what they think about their teaching? Research has shown that young people can better predict the quality of a teacher than standardized test scores. With that affirmation and our philosophy, we can have classrooms in which young people realize they have power. Students then can take responsibility for their education, which translates to a personal responsibility in their communities and country.

In 2011, we brought a policy to the state level in which students in K–12 classrooms get to evaluate their teachers. Kindergarten students are going to be asked what they think about their teachers, which will have profound positive effects.

DH: I’m intrigued by this. I was a high school teacher. I’m not sure what I think about this move to have students evaluate teachers. Unless it’s about helping teachers be more responsible to what matters to young people. In this test-filled context of contemporary education, it worries me a bit. I think what’s interesting about Youth on Board is not using Ron Ferguson’s work, since he was thinking about evaluating the value of test scores, but what if we could have kids predict what would be valuable in the classroom.

We hear remarkable similarity across many students and schools. “My teacher knows a lot.” A lot of students like that. “My teacher cares about what I say.” My teacher wants us to talk about things that matter to us and is true to what we are living now, not just about the past. Good history teachers are not just teaching the story but focusing on the controversy.

How do we help teachers engage in the kind of instruction that works? This is a fundamental challenge. Teachers need to engage in nonpartisan political education in a political climate which is very partisan. We don’t want schools to engage in partisan political education. Parents get upset, and should be, in these cases.

I think this is hard to do well, and requires providing a whole lot of support around teachers that we are not currently providing. Professional development is not controversial, but we can’t even do that. Things we should work on are the noncontroversial, basic supports like professional development.

RW: Civic education is not just about skills but also values. How do we get kids to value this?

DH: I think kids get inspired by learning about inspiring people. I think it matters to put these people in front of them especially those that did not have support when they worked for change. And I think we need to give kids real experiences trying to make a difference. This is hard to do.

We shouldn’t imagine kids agree on what’s important to do. It makes me suspicious. Kids can agree to things that aren’t going to have any effect. How do we give kids opportunities to make change, without treating them any different from adults?

JR: Putting on my Facing History hat, we work with communities and students to look at historical case studies. One of the things Margot Strom found was that issues of identity were important. “Identity is our video games.” Kids respond to it. “Would you like to play video games?” Yes. “Would you like to talk about yourself?” Yes.

What we need to learn, what we need to learn about the past, what entry points we have -- kids are interested in who we are as individuals -- how we define membership, our connections to society, how we create inside groups and outside groups. One sort of universal interest is in ourselves.

Putting on my Berkman hat, I totally agree with the Commissioner’s point that young people are very engaged in new and different ways that we don’t recognize as old folks. In the past wee, 2.5 million people have changed their image to support gay marriage; 2.5 million people taking some kind of action is a lot of people. Dismissing it as clicktivism or slacktivism might be warranted. But for many of those people, they’re indicating their preference in a community which may not support them in that. Even as a non-significant act, at 2.5 million it’s significant.

We should have our students work more with politicians on the local level, engage in civic activities that we know pretty well. We also need to look at things we aren’t as comfortable with and exploring those.

I spent the past weeks with video game team at League of Legends. Five million people play every day. People are assigned at random, four people per game. Playing any kind of game with four people you haven’t played with before is really hard. People treat each other poorly, and you get frustrated by working with people who may be bad at the game. You are stuck with them, stuck with those three other people for another 29 minutes. However, things are built in to keep people playing nice. They use The Tribunal to report other people. Players look at logs from people being rude to each other. If inappropriate over time, indicating a history, they remediate or ban them.

There are more young people participating in that kind of judicial system than in any other judicial system in the world. The people who are playing this game and reporting each other, are doing this with incredible scale and passion and are totally uninformed about it.

To me it’s so easy to say that what young people are doing with their time and say, “Oh, what a loss.” Or we could be looking at these things as civic games with potential to inspire good civic behavior. Just classifying what they do as not what we did, and therefore not as valuable, is wrong.

SW: Giving young people the tools to show them what the root causes of problems are, we call this “movement-action civics.” We learn science by doing science, why not the same for civics? Example: in Boston at Boston Arts Academy, several students realized they cared about climate change and recycling. In a typical class you might do a recycling project. They realized there was a larger reason kids weren’t recycling. In every class, you had to have separation of glass, aluminum, etc. It wasn’t working because: 1) it’s hard to get bins in every class, and 2) kids weren’t paying attention to it. The students talked to Boston City Councilor Felix Arroyo about single-stream recycling. Councilor Arroyo introduced it, and it passed, and now single-bin recycling is in every public school because of this one student Nadia. That’s local activism. There was a cost involved, but let’s think a level deeper.

I tend to push back on social media. One thing I see with social media is older generations thinking social media is important. I’m younger. I was in a class in Staten Island, NY, where we [Generation Citizen] also work. The teacher proposed starting a Facebook group as an action. The kids said, “We don’t use Facebook anymore.” They are using Twitter now. I bet those 2.5 million users [changing profiles on Facebook], most of them are 25–30+.

Is Justice Kennedy on Facebook? The Supreme Court likely isn’t paying attention to public opinion. My argument is social media is only effective if you can get people offline. Older generation thinks it’s important but doesn’t quite understand its use.

JR: I think some of that is absolutely right. We need to build connections between online and offline actions. Tracking over time is important. I don’t think any of those points diminish that there are lots of ways that young people are engaging in acts of civic media production. The other thing that was coming to mind was the “Needed Response” video to the Steubenville rape scenario. You bring her a glass of water and a blanket -- that is the appropriate response. The video has been viewed millions of time. That is an example of one person, the capacity of a sophomore at the University of Oregon, to participate in an act of civic media production that reaches thousands of people.

Let’s talk about the most effective methods of engagement. There must be thousand of those videos which reach a state stage, or a local community, i.e. a smaller group of people. There are possibilities in this space. We know that young people are engaging in these spaces, the engagement can be thin or remarkably deep. It’s up to us to learn more about them.

I think there are some compelling reasons... this comes back to the Commissioner’s point... to what extent do we want to encourage people to go into a political system that is more and more inaccessible? The numbers of people represented by Congressmen over the years has gone up and up. We do in fact have less access to people in government. We have less capacity to influence the political system. Afraid of diminishing their ability to engage in those systems.

How can we find hooks to engage people where we can find success to engage and influence people at scale, especially when we do have ways to do that outside of traditional political processes?

RW: This brings it back to the original question.

ML: I want to pull out a couple of common strands. Something that should be explicit: there is a whole continuum/landscape of civic actions. It’s not always government and political vs legal, or online vs offline. There is question about the level at which action takes place: local, school, state, federal, global. We haven’t talked much about disruptive actions, which some people think as being anti-civic.

Things that are much less in-your-face. With respect to the Facebook profile change thing, the conversation in the papers has been about how important it is for people to see who else supports an act. It’s important to know what our children and neighbors identify as. The stage was originally set for this with actions of ACT UP, which produced horrific violations of privacy. But it’s only because of those horrific actions of invasion, that we get these later actions. There is a continuum of what seems acceptable vs invasive, and what students might take on.

We have talked also about a whole variety of pedagogies. Things that aren’t civic at all but have civic consequences: Youth On Board with student feedback up to internships with public officials, discussing controversies, mock trials, school governments and newspapers, civic media production -- a whole range of things we’ve talked about. Think of this as a range of opportunities for schools. Because we are so bad at this and there is no money, we don’t expect every teacher to do each one of these well, nor each school.

Some schools or teachers won’t take the more ambitious things on. But it would be utterly transformative if each school respected each student’s integrity. It is so common as CR said, that young people enter spaces every day in which their social-cultural integrity is under attack. They are told not to speak a home language and their opinions are not valued. We ask them to spit back what they memorize. They are in physical facilities that are decrepit. We are asking them, oftentimes, “we respect you as citizens and expect you to do great things, but we will not show you the most basic forms of respect.”

Anywhere we can get teachers to fall on this whole range of things we have talked about is better than where we are at. We then as adults can motivate these kids who are otherwise problematic or disengaged, give them opportunities to engage. They TRULY are bettering society.

We treat children as black holes of need and we get resentful about throwing resources into that black hole. Then we feel relieved when we get them graduated. If we can just change our thinking and realize that these youth have an amazing amount that they can do for us, that they can make society better. Like the BAA students and single-stream recycling, it’s not just affecting those schools but also the households and city.

It’s the kind of thing that if you can get young people -- we don’t just motivate them but we get them engaged -- then millions and millions of citizens are now contributing to the betterment of society at all levels.

RF: We are also talking about ways to empower them through social media or some other means. The question I’m wrestling with is... that is a critical step, but how do we connect the dots from that sense of personal engagement back into some sort of socio-political structure is another level of the problem? What holds us together is us buying into a system in which things are decided, conflicts are resolved.

All of that depends not only on engagement in some way. If we can’t connect that impulse of young people to have influence and take power in the structures that are embedded in constitutional and legal structures, we are only getting half way there. That is the job we have to think about as educators.

We can have great conversations about how to empower young people, and the pedagogical practices that promote engagement. How do we do that in service to helping young people understand the larger social and political systems at hand? How do we connect those dots for young people?

DH: I do think we have an obligation to engage politically and I don’t want to give up on that. I know there are teachers that are good at doing that. Young people have a lot at stake, arguably more than we have. If they are engaging politically than their points aren’t going to be heard. How often do we hear about social security rather than student loan debt?

That’s not to suggest that these other things we talked about aren’t important. I saw my Facebook light up last week -- and I have a pretty diverse group of friends -- and that influenced me. But I’m not saying that’s enough for people to get their stake in the American political system. I have a strong response to people saying we don’t need to vote. One of the things we have seen in the recent past was the argument that it really does matter if people vote. We have an obligation to let young people see value in the political system even when it’s not working as well as we want it to. How well was the political system working during Jim Crow?

“We are going to influence the political system.” I hear this from the DREAMers. Teachers that are very intent on doing this can do it. We have lots of evidence that certain forms of civic education work well. We also have lots of evidence that the bigger problem is inequality. We see this in CIRCLE’s and Joe Kahne’s work. The goal should be for people to think that the political system is theirs to influence and not just be influenced by.

CR: I want to think about the inequality piece a lot more. From my perspective it goes beyond the inequality in the civic education, to the structures that people go to school in everyday. What happens in some of the Boston Public Schools is absolutely horrendous. Young people are harassed by police officers meant to protect them, handcuffed because they are having trouble in the classroom, suspended for minor offenses. What really need to happen is young people going through structures that model exactly what we are teaching them in the text books.

ML: Engagement in politics came quite late to the Civil Rights movement. Facing History’s Civil Rights curriculum is really good at showing all the individual levers of power used collectively and simultaneously to affect change. It’s about organizing, protesting, lobbying, etc. What Carlos is saying, these civic micro-assaults might be used as levers of power that are pretty close to home and may also be about certain forms of speaking out and collective action.

Diana is right that we don’t want to limit engagement in the direct political process to only those that are privileged. But we want to talk about a whole range of civic activities that move the country forward.

SW: Let’s call ourselves [those at the conference] for the purposes of today: a movement. Civic education is not happening in America as a should. I think there needs to be a bigger question about why aren’t people doing it. I think there needs to be more self-reflection about why this isn’t a wider tent. Why aren’t more people here?

RW: Are civic values really living and breathing in the institutions students are in every day? Carlos raised really important questions about BPS. I ask people at Harvard every year what values are embodied by Harvard? And I get privilege, connections, etc. I don’t get civic and moral values. So where are we with the universities on this?

RF: The observation you just made reflects a shift from higher education, in particular, as something society does to make itself stronger to something individuals do for their own benefit. President Obama is focused on the financial payoff to you for attending college. Historically, education was viewed as a privilege that carried with it the role of social engagement and leadership. That is why this society supported education and why these institutions existed. I think we have lost that or maybe we have lost that in the way we look at ourselves. Every college catalogue you read says that “preparing citizens is what we do.” But if you examine those colleges, you won’t find a shred of them doing that.

Antana Jacobi (sp?): I’m curious what you think about encouraging teachers to highlight things that students are already doing that is civic engagement -- student government, lacrosse captain, etc. -- with competitive student government elections. Teachers aren’t recognizing the skills that are being developed in these spaces and they are devalued compared to academics.

RF: I agree with you those are some of the most powerful places to develop these skills. I was President of Northeastern. We were there training students for careers, and used part of their time on campus to help students reflect on their co-op experiences on what they mean in the larger context. This is something we could be doing more of in supporting civic education. One thing would be to have coaches/mentors for students to help them think about this.

ML: I think your experience of having robust elections in public school is great and rare. You asked about how can we make this value more transparent to kids, but really you're asking how we can make this value more transparent to teachers? I don’t have a good answer for that.

Extracurriculars are incredibly valuable as places for this. We have way too few extracurriculars, especially for underprivileged kids and schools. And often what we offer them are extracurriculars that meant to offset inequalities.

Alex Osado, KIPP for College: How can I inspire my youth to become more civically engaged? And how do we talk about the fact that we are in capitalistic society, which seems at times to butt heads with what we are trying to do?

DH: I asked KIPP If they know anything about the political engagement of the kids coming out of your schools. Would it make a difference if you were to find out that kids were more likely to vote, stand up for justice, etc.? Would that matter? “Yes,” they said but they are holding schools accountable to a narrow set of outcomes. They want schools to have young people do well on low-level standardized tests, that don’t even come close to what we know really matters. If kids don’t graduate from high school, the likelihood they will be engaged citizens is zilch. So the first thing we need to do is get kids through high school.

What does it mean to be educated? Get a job? If that’s all we focus on, that’s all we’re going to get. I think we should hold schools accountable for outcomes that are much broader. Big data lets us measure this. We can tell what schools are up to, what students get to it after school. Not to monitor, but for us to say what matters. How well you do on a test, how compliant you are. It’s a rational response to the incentives we’ve set up. I think we need to change the structure of how we communicate what matters. I want KIPP to track the political engagement of their graduates.

Elizabeth Guckenheimer: My experience growing up in Wisconsin in 1960s was that students felt disconnected from establishment. What I’m curious about is the 60s being a period of change, how the young people (maybe high schoolers) have a sense of disconnect. How do we build a connection, especially for us who were there in the 60s?

CR: I can speak to high school students. That disconnect is still there if not exacerbated. Young people from groups of people that have been historically disenfranchised: huge disconnect.

SW: I think you are right, but there is a tendency to constantly blame our leaders. Young people blame leaders and then say they won’t get involved in politics. The system works because politicians respond to whom elect them, so they don’t respond to youth issues. I think the answer is to this “blame culture” is to get more political. That’s a hard thing to do. I know it seems hard, but try harder. They’re paying attention to the people who vote for them. Right now, income and education indicate who you will vote for.

ML: I want to throw something in about the 60s. We make the mistake of teaching the 60s as a few larger than life individuals: Martin Luther King, Rosa Parks, rather than talking about collective action. If we taught that accurate history, there would be less of a disconnect between that earlier moment and now about regarding what it takes to make change.

[Name missed], HGSE Student: I’m not from the states, but no one has talked about how engaged the teachers are. Can a disengaged teacher, who doesn’t feel they are heard, actually engage with their students?

JR: That directly connects to our professional development conversation. Schools are embedded in communities. This is a problem of having civic education taught by teachers who aren’t familiar with it. We need to make these civic practices visible in the community. WE can change incentives from the bottom-up. I.e., in Boston we want to make our schools accountable for teaching civil rights. Facing History has had some success with this.

Let’s think about what kind of civic education we want our communities to have, not just our schools. What we need to do is broaden the need for civic education. How do we get the support and involvement of the administrators and teachers and parents, even without the federal government saying you have to do something, to do still do it for the sake of doing it?