“That’s Not Democracy”: How Out-of-School Youth Engage in Civic Life and What Stands in Their Way
CIRCLE (The Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement) released a new study in August 2012 on how out-of-school youth engage in civic life, and what stands in their way. Many practitioners informed this project, which was produced in collaboration with the Charles F. Kettering Foundation.
A vibrant and thriving democracy requires a deeply engaged and active citizenry. “Civic engagement” encompasses all the ways we identify and understand common problems in our communities, nation, and world. Robust civic engagement not only creates healthy societies; it benefits the individuals who engage, through the development of skills and knowledge, networks and relationships, and feelings of purpose and meaning.
However, survey data show that civic engagement is highly unequal among young Americans. One of the primary divisions is between young people who have ever attended college and those who dropped out of high school or did not continue their educations beyond high school (about 42 percent of the resident youth population in 2012). National survey data show that a majority of non-college youth are basically disengaged from traditional civic life, with 37 percent completely disconnected, and only 13.5 percent engaged in forms of conventional civic leadership.
But standardized survey questions may not capture the contributions and opinions of poor and working-class youth, who may find words like volunteering and civic engagement inapplicable or confusing, even though they engage in their communities. Also, survey research is not ideal for determining why young people do or do not participate.
Thus we conducted semi-structured conversations with non-college youth to we explore why they do or do not participate. In all, we interviewed 121 non-college youth in 20 focus groups in 4 cities between fall 2008 and June 2010. Compared to the national population of non-college youth, participants in our study were much more likely to be urban and African American. Here are some of our findings:
- Most participants saw concrete barriers to civic engagement. For example, they perceived that institutions did not want their engagement, that their communities provided few positive role models and that they lacked the money and connections to contribute.
- Many participants believed they had skills to make a difference in their communities, but they lacked opportunities to use those skills.
- Nevertheless, many participants served or helped other individuals in their own families and neighborhoods, although they did not think of these forms of helping behavior when asked about community-level change.
- Participants were highly aware of social and political issues, concerned about them, and likely to discuss them critically in their own social networks, even if they did not see how they personally could address such issues.
- A small minority of participants had been recruited into civic organizations, and they generally expressed strong support for these groups. Most other focus group members believed that such institutions were missing in their communities and reported never having been asked to participate.
Overall, this study finds that non-college young people lack organized and institutional opportunities to address large-scale social issues—reinforcing previous research. They often report helping individuals, and they discuss social issues in their own networks, but generally they do not connect these activities to making systemic or society-wide changes.
We offer insights into promising strategies for reengaging poor and working-class young adults. Many respondents expressed interest in education for younger people (most often their own children or siblings), including both K-12 schooling and community-based opportunities. Recruiting non-college youth into organizations that assist and improve education would be worthwhile. They felt that they owed the next generation help and guidance, and they personally valued making contributions. Opportunities to move from critical talk (which is common in their circles) to constructive collective action is the key to transforming both these individuals and their communities.
In addition, the new report offers:
- An overview of national demographic and participation data for non-college youth
- Findings from focus groups with a sub-set of non-college youth
- Information about many of the leading organizations that civically engage non-college youth
- Profiles of four organizations and their models for engaging and developing youth
- Summary of other important research about what influences youth civic engagement and development
- Recommendations for several constituencies, based on the above and conversations with stakeholders
Download the full report: www.civicyouth.org/wp-content/uploads/2012/08/CIRCLE_ThatsNotDemocracy_WebFinal.pdf