Monday, September 27, 2021

Four Things You Can Do Right Now to Promote Meaningful Participation in Afterschool

By Sam Piha

Research tells us that if we hope to make a difference in young people’s learning, we need to provide opportunities for learning that is meaningful. This is especially important as youth return to afterschool programs after a year of isolation.  

If young people are engaged in meaningful participation, they are empowered to be self-directed, make responsible choices about how to use their time, and participate as group members in making decisions that influence the larger program and what they learn about. 

Four more things you can do right now to promote meaningful participation:

1. Leadership: Learning is more meaningful when young people have opportunities to act as leaders in the learning activities. This includes eliciting the prior knowledge that youth already have and building in opportunities for youth to act as leaders in other ways – passing out materials, leading activities, etc. 

2. Youth as helpers: Young people can be trained to effectively assist peers during homework time and during other activities. Try to give every child or young person an opportunity to help another, so that some aren’t always in the helper position and others always in the position of being helped. Newcomers to the program can be assigned buddies to show them around the room, explain ground rules, and help them learn the routine. You can also teach a skill to a small group, and then “deputize” them to teach others. Older youth are also excellent helpers for younger children, and the helper role often brings out the best in them. Duties can include serving as “reading buddies,” homework helpers, escorts, or making informational presentations to the younger groups. Providing service to the larger community is also an excellent way for young people to apply their planning and leadership skills, while experiencing how their efforts impact others. (For ideas about engaging youth as helpers within high school afterschool and summer programs, see Engaging Youth as Workers Within High School Afterschool Programs: A Briefing Paper and other resources.  

3. Use portfolios to help participants reflect on their progress and accomplishments: If your participants have consistent enrollment over time or if participants engage in long-term projects where they increase their skills on- going, consider how you might collect their work over time. You can create a portfolio or personal file with your young participants to serve as an on-going record of their work. After several months or at the end of a project sit down with them to review their record of accomplishments. What do they think about it? What does their portfolio reflect back to them? What kinds of records can be stored? For younger children, it might be a portfolio of self portraits that were done monthly, or simply their own file they use over time to store things they have done that they are proud of. For older youth who might be developing a set of skills over time, say in the arts or technology, communicate your project learning goals and ask them to develop personal learning goals, if appropriate. Assist them in assessing which goals they have met over time.

4. Plan a project that will benefit the community: Clean up or plant trees or flowers at a local park, speak out at a public forum on a youth or community issue, visit elders at the senior center, serve snacks at a neighborhood fair, design and paint a mural… the possibilities are endless! Try to match projects to the interests of the young people, and look for existing programs that can help you prepare young people for a meaningful experience. 

Below is a good program example of meaningful participation:
Summer Bridge Program; Valley High School (Grades 9 – 12); Santa Ana School District; Santa Ana, CA; Operated by THINK Together 
This Summer Bridge program targets incoming high school freshmen and operates 5 hours a day for 4 weeks. Participants choose their first activity in their high school enrichment class. A goal of the program is to give freshman information and skills that prepare them to manage their first year in high school. These participants are particularly engaged when they learn that the High School Life Lessons component is designed and led by high school age Youth Leaders. 

Youth Leaders are trained prior to the start of the Summer Bridge program. They learn how their participation in the program will impact incoming freshmen along with trainings on class management, lesson planning and relationship building. In the summer, they are responsible for choosing the information and lesson plans they believe will best prepare their incoming freshmen for high school life. They also choose the themes and field trips for the program, with their students’ best interest in mind. Other Youth Leaders choose to serve as student teachers, teacher’s aides, tardy sweepers, and lesson planners. They also serve as mentors to the incoming freshmen. 

To learn more see our Youth Development Guide 2.0. This 165- page guide is available as a free download or can be ordered as a spiral bound, hard copy.

We are hosting a webinar/ Speaker's Forum on Wednesday, October 6, 2021 from 10:00am- 12:00pm (PST) entitled, Youth Civic Engagement and Activism in Afterschool. The purpose of this webinar is to inform and encourage expanded learning programs to offer youth opportunities to be civically engaged. It is our intention to capture and share valuable and intriguing ideas and information.

Discussion Topics:
  • Importance Of Youth Civic Engagement / Activism for Youth Development
  • Benefits To Youth and the Program
  • Challenges
  • Legal/Regulatory Issues
  • Tips For Program Leaders
  • How Best To Prepare Staff/Youth
  • What Would Help Afterschool Leaders Going Forward? (Guidance, Models, Policies, etc.)

To learn more and register for this Speaker's Forum, click here.

Monday, September 20, 2021

Civic Engagement and Activism in Afterschool Programs (Part 3): Why Youth Participate

By Sam Piha

We are continuing to post a series of blogs to inform and encourage expanded learning programs to start today infusing civic engagement and activism in their afterschool program. NOTE: There are many program resources on the topic, some of which are detailed in our paper, Youth Civic Engagement and Activism in Expanded Learning Programs. You can view part 1 of this series here and part 2 here. We also held a webinar on this topic which can be viewed here.

Below, we explore why youth participate in civic engagement and activism activities.

Urban youth collectively respond to community and school problems through youth organizing, spoken word, volunteering, and participation in civic affairs. Organizations in urban communities can provide youth with opportunities to and develop critical civic praxis through engagement with ideas, social networks, and experiences that build individual collective capacity to struggle for social justice. This view of youth acknowledges structural constraints in their communities, but also views young people as active participants in changing debilitative neighborhood conditions.”– Shawn Ginwright and Julio Cammarota 

There have been many studies examining the reasons why youth participate in civic engagement and activism activities. Below we offer some highlights from selected studies focusing on why youth participate.

From Reasons Youth Engage in Activism Programs: Social Justice or Sanctuary?

Participants attend youth activism programs for social justice work, but also for sanctuary and peer/adult relationships. Youth defined sanctuary as a protected space but also a place that celebrates aspects of identity. Sanctuary and social justice work were intertwined as reasons for attending. Both sanctuary and social justice motivations should be considered in designing youth activism programs.” 

From Researchers Study What Motivates Rural LGBTQ Youths to Take Part in Activism 

Helping others and reducing discrimination for future generations were the top concerns. Many respondents indicated the issues they care about affected their friends, so they fought on their behalf as well. Others said they had lived or are still living through various forms of discrimination or harassment, and they want to ensure future generations of LGBTQ individuals do not face the same problems. Generativity, or working across generations, was a key issue. Some respondents indicated they had an older mentor who helped guide them through difficult times. Others did not and wanted to ensure they could act in that role for younger individuals.

It's great that we have marriage equality, but there are many other forms of oppression still happening. I think these young people weren't just worried about what was happening to them but issues that affected others as well.– Mike Krings 

From What Teens Gain When They Contribute to Their Social Groups 

Adolescents, it turns out, are remarkably well adapted to contribute to others. Adolescence is a time of massive restructuring in the brain, creating a faster, more efficient system. Neuroimaging studies show that the neural networks that change most significantly during adolescence are the same networks activated by contributing to others.  For example, the “social brain”—the intricate network of areas in the brain that activate in social interactions—matures rapidly during the adolescent years. This development increases young people’s ability to understand the feelings and perspectives of other people. Adolescents’ advancing cognitive maturity allows them to consider the complex dynamics of other people’s competing perspectives and needs to determine whom and how to help. 

Another area changing during these years is the “reward system,” which increases the positive feelings teens get from new and exciting experiences. This is the brain area most commonly implicated in adolescent risk taking, which strikes fear in the hearts of many parents. But evidence suggests that the same brain changes involved in adolescent rebelliousness and risk taking also drive kind and helpful behaviors, such as contributing.

From Youth Civic Engagement and Activism in Expanded Learning Programs 


Most recently, I think youth have been invested in gun violence, given the many incidents that have rocked our nation. Following Parkland, many young people created groups and organizations that are still doing meaningful work in their communities. Some other areas of interest for youth, I think are: criminal justice reform, sexual assault and harassment, and education (especially in places where schools are underfunded and under resourced).” - Ivan Garcia, Youth Activist (We interviewed Ivan in 2019. Read the full interview here).

Right now, a lot of youth have been interested in learning more about issues on police brutality, racial injustice, environmental injustice, broken healthcare systems, along with other systemic issues, food insecurity, and more. Activities that can tie into these issues can be a workshop for Know Your Rights, learning about systems and how it leads to the Prison Industrial Complex, and more. Other activities can also include ways youth can develop leadership skills and individual skills they want to have or improve, anything that can support their growth and self-power.” - Ann Guiam, Youth Activist 

We are hosting a webinar/ Speaker's Forum on Wednesday, October 6, 2021 from 10:00am- 12:00pm (PST) entitled, Youth Civic Engagement and Activism in Afterschool. The purpose of this webinar is to inform and encourage expanded learning programs to offer youth opportunities to be civically engaged. It is our intention to capture and share valuable and intriguing ideas and information.

Discussion Topics:
  • Importance Of Youth Civic Engagement / Activism for Youth Development
  • Benefits To Youth and the Program
  • Challenges
  • Legal/Regulatory Issues
  • Tips For Program Leaders
  • How Best To Prepare Staff/Youth
  • What Would Help Afterschool Leaders Going Forward? (Guidance, Models, Policies, etc.)

To learn more and register for this Speaker's Forum, click here.

Monday, September 13, 2021

Youth Voice and Self-Expression in Afterschool: Art Projects

By Sam Piha


Providing opportunities for youth to reflect on and express their thoughts and feelings are a critical strategy for any afterschool program. This is especially important as youth return to afterschool programs after a year of isolation.  

These opportunities are essential to promoting youth voice, healthy youth development, social emotional skills and resiliency, especially those who have experienced trauma. Strategies and activities include sharing circles, poetry and spoken word, journaling, videography, art and the theater arts.

Practicing art is a transformative experience that not only gives each student the ability to objectively look within but also critically look at the world. Through various media, art teachers are able to teach the core values of  perseverance, community and belonging, respect, and critical thinking on a daily basis." - Bryan Stanton, Alamo Heights High School, "Building Character Through the Arts"

We interviewed Martha Peña (Coordinator, Expanded Learning Programs Community Schools & Student Services, Oakland Unified School District) on the importance of using art projects to promote youth voice and self- expression. Below are some of her responses.

Martha Peña, OUSD
Q: Why is it important to provide youth with opportunities to reflect on and express themselves and their feelings?
A: It's essential to give students the opportunity to express themselves and their feelings in a safe and supportive environment. It's through these experiences that help a child grow and develop. This is why afterschool programs are so important to youth. Afterschool programs provide a safe and supportive space for students to experience new things, reflect on their experiences, and express themselves without the stress of grades, testing, and judgment. Afterschool staff are supportive caring adults that reflect the community and therefore are able to connect with youth.

Q: Do you think that art projects are a good way to provide these opportunities? Why?
A: Art projects provide youth opportunities to express themselves in ways that inspire and spark their creativity. They also help youth process and interpret their feelings and the world around them. It's through these projects that students are able to reflect on their own personal experiences through a variety of mediums from digital storytelling, music, painting, or dance.


Q: Do staff need special training?
A: Providing professional opportunities to staff is crucial to ensure the success of the program. Instructors not only need to know how to teach the content but how to connect with youth and encourage them to take risks and feel comfortable in their own skin.

Q: Can you provide one example of an art project that you did that provided youth with good opportunities for self- expression? What age were the kids?
A: In one of the afterschool programs, the site leader supported students as they created a video about their community. Youth share their experiences and how they use Yoga and SEL to help them manage their feelings and stresses. Students were able to reflect on their own experiences and provide advice and support to other students experiencing the same things.

Q: For programs that plan to continue working with their youth through distance learning, can art projects be done virtually? If so, can you give an example?
A: Yes, afterschool art programs can be done virtually and successfully if you have a strong plan. Many afterschool providers distributed materials to students during the Grab & Go meal distribution sites. Each bag contained several art supplies and instructions on when and how to sign on to their virtual classroom. At the end of the lesson, students and instructors held a virtual showcase, where students and their families could log on and see their artwork. This gave grandparents and families the opportunity to be a part of the experience. 

Martha Peña is a coordinator for afterschool programs for Oakland Unified School District. In her role she manages grant requirements and applications for all ASES and 21st CCLC grants, builds systems that ensure equity and sustainability across all afterschool programs, manages city-wide partnerships, and supports the implementation of Social Emotional Learning in all afterschool programs.

Monday, September 6, 2021

Civic Engagement and Activism in Afterschool Programs (Part 2): Important Terms and Definitions


By Sam Piha

According to the Afterschool Alliance, “The afterschool field is an essential partner in ensuring that all children have the ability to participate in immersive, relevant, and hands-on civic engagement opportunities.” Not only are civic engagement strategies participatory strategies, they contribute to the positive development of youth and the health of our democracy. 

We are continuing to post a series of blogs to inform and encourage expanded learning programs to start today infusing civic engagement and activism in their afterschool program. NOTE: There are many program resources on the topic, some of which are detailed in our paper, Youth Civic Engagement and Activism in Expanded Learning Programs. You can view part 1 of this series hereWe also held a webinar on this topic which can be viewed here.

In part 2 we offer definitions to a number of terms that are commonly used in relation to youth civic engagement and activism. 

Activism - “Youth activism is used to describe youths which are engaged in community organizing for social change. Young people engaged as activism planners and leaders in the environmental movement, social justice organizations, as well as anti-racism and anti-homophobia campaigns.”1

Adultism - “Adultism is the assumption that young people are inferior to adults simply because of their young age. Adults often act on this assumption by limiting our access to decision-making, information, resources, human rights, and opportunities to voice our thoughts.”2

We've all heard adults tell kids, you have no reason to be stressed. You don't pay bills. You don't go to work. That's what I like to call toxic adulting. Although we might not pay bills or go to work, we go to school, and we deal with other issues. Just because we're younger does not mean our issues should be minor compared to adults.3            -  Jakeelah Blacknell, grade 8

Agency - “Youth agency is the desire and ability of young people to make decisions and drive change—in their own lives, in their communities, and in their larger spheres of influence. Agency allows young people to become the architects of their own future.”4

Here’s what young people need to unlock their agency: 5 


Authentic Learning - “Authentic learning is an instructional approach that places students at the heart of real-life experiences. Armed with a challenge to address, a task to be handled, or content to explore, students develop academic and problem-solving skills in a context that is relevant to the learner.”6

Civic Engagement - Civic engagement encompasses a wide range of actions and behaviors that improve communities and help solve problems. “Civic engagement means working to make a difference in the civic life of our communities and developing the combination of knowledge, skills, values and motivation to make that difference. It means promoting the quality of life in a community, through both political and non-political processes.”7

Community Service - “Community service is work done by a person or group of people that benefits others. It is often done near the area where you live, so your own community reaps the benefits of your work. You do not get paid to perform community service, though sometimes food and small gifts, like a t-shirt, are given to volunteers. Community service can help any group of people in need: children, senior citizens, people with disabilities, English language learners, and more. It can also help animals, such as those at a shelter, and it can be used to improve places, such as a local park, historic building, or scenic area as well. Community service is often organized through a local group, such as a place of worship, school, or non-profit organization. You can also start your own community service projects.”8 

Equity - Equity is often confused with equality. “Equality means each individual or group of people is given the same resources or opportunities. Equity recognizes that each person has different circumstances and allocates the exact resources and opportunities needed to reach an equal outcome.”9   


Healing Centered Engagement - “A key component of Healing Centered Engagement, is taking loving action, by collectively responding to political decisions and practices that can exacerbate trauma. By taking action, (e.g. school walkouts, organizing peace march, or promoting access to healthy foods) it builds a sense of power and control over their lives. Research has demonstrated that building this sense of power and control among traumatized groups is perhaps one of the most significant features in restoring holistic well-being.”10

Meaningful Contribution - “When we talk about contributing, it’s not just about being kind or volunteering here and there (although both are important). It refers to “contributions of consequence”—actions that have substantial benefits to others that help to reach a shared goal. This type of contributing involves not simply taking a single action but playing an important role within a group—whether it’s a family, school, or community.”11  

Sanctuary - “Youth descriptions of sanctuary often went a step beyond what is commonly referred to as psychological safety, which is defined as feeling comfortable enough to take interpersonal risks; that is, a state in which people feel confident to express their views or make mistakes. A protected space may be considered psychologically safe, and this may be an important component of sanctuary. However, an affirming space does not simply lack physical or psychological danger. Rather, youth were often quick to note that aspects of their identity are celebrated (not just tolerated) in these spaces.”12

Service Learning - According to Vanderbilt University, service learning is defined as: “A form of experiential education where learning occurs through a cycle of action and reflection as students seek to achieve real objectives for the community and deeper understanding and skills for themselves.”13  

Social Capital - “The central premise of social capital is that social networks have value. Social capital refers to the collective value of all “social networks” [who people know] and the inclinations that arise from these networks to do things for each other [“norms of reciprocity”]. The term social capital emphasizes not just warm and cuddly feelings, but a wide variety of quite specific benefits that flow from the trust, reciprocity, information, and cooperation associated with social networks. Social capital creates value for the people who are connected and – at least sometimes – for bystanders as well.”14  

Social Justice - Social justice promotes fairness and equity across many aspects of society. “Social justice is the view that everyone deserves equal economic, political and social rights and opportunities.”15 

FOOTNOTES:, Youth Activism,

Youth on Board, What is Adultism?,

NPR, How Indiana Teens Find Resilience During COVID Pandemic,

International Youth Foundation, What is Youth Agency?,


Lexia, Creating Authentic Learning Experiences in the Literacy Classroom,, Civic Engagement,

Christine Sarikas, Definition: What is Community Service?,

Milken Institute School of Public Health, Equity vs. Equality: What’s the Difference?,

10 Shawn Ginwright, The Future of Healing: Shifting from Trauma Informed Care to Healing Centered Engagement,

11 Meghan Lynch Forder, What Teens Gain When They Contribute to Their Social Groups,

12 Thomas Akiva, Roderick L. Carey, Amanda Brown Cross, Lori Delale-O'Connor, Melanie R. Brown, Reasons Youth Engage In Activism Programs: Social Justice Or Sanctuary?,

13 Heather Wolpert-Gawron, What the Heck Is Service Learning?,

14 Robert D. Putnam, Bowling Alone,

15 The San Diego Foundation, What is Social Justice?,

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