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.

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