Monday, November 29, 2021

Civic Engagement and Activism in Afterschool Programs: The Importance of Program Staff


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 previous blogs from this series here. We also conducted a webinar on this topic which can be viewed here.


In this blog, we discuss things to think about when preparing adult program staff to lead civic engagement and activism activities.  

Hiring - We know that the effectiveness and quality of youth program activities rests on the competency of the adult leaders that we hire. What traits are we looking for in adults that will lead youth civic engagement and activism activities? 

In numerous studies, the most highly rated characteristics of effective initiatives all involved characteristics of adults who: 1) relate well to youths; 2) care about young people; 3) are honest and comfortable in talking about issues; 4) are sufficiently trained to implement the program; 5) support and understand the program's goals; and 6) have a good overall understanding of adolescent development. Another important dimension is to seek out adult advisors and youth coordinators who reflect the diversity of the community. Equally important, young people need to see adults exchanging ideas, collaborating and having fun with people from different backgrounds. - Wendy Schaetzel Lesko, Maximum Youth Involvement: The Complete Gameplan for Community Action

Staff Training - How necessary is it to prepare and train the staff? According to Youth On Board, “Adults need help learning how to collaborate with young people just as much as youths need help adjusting to their transformed role. Even though we all were young once, it is easy to forget. What a difference a few decades make in widening the proverbial generation gap! Adultism workshops by such groups as Youth On Board are designed to confront negative stereotypes and unspoken fears about teens. Trainings need to permeate the institution from the boardroom on down. Broader diversity training for staff, board members, youth staff and/or volunteers can be another worthwhile investment—especially if sessions go beyond the issue of age to include socioeconomic status, race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, regional background, family history, personality type, etc.”

Staff support for civic engagement and youth activism will look different across different kinds of organizations. Some, for example, are multigenerational political organizations where adults work alongside youth in apprenticeship-type relationships. In these settings, adults should be prepared for a cycle of modeling, coaching, and fading: this involves sharing strategies with youth while also listening and learning from young people as partners in social change. In organizations that are more apolitical or refrain from explicit political activisms, staff should be prepared to facilitate youth decision-making and planning; moreover, staff should not be afraid of situations where youth may “fail” in their campaigns - there is lots to learn from setbacks. – Dr. Ben Kirshner, University of Colorado, Boulder (From an interview published in Youth Civic Engagement and Activism in Expanded Learning Programs).

We asked some program leaders for advice on preparing staff to lead youth civic engagement and activism activities. Below are some of their responses. 

RYSE hosts three separate week-long staff development sessions annually, in addition to multiple training opportunities provided for all staff throughout the year. Training includes, but is not limited to: restorative justice, non-violent communication, adolescent brain development, lobbying rules for non-profits, gender justice, and more. RYSE leverages our partnerships with Power California Alliance and the YO! California Network, for additional training and capacity building support covering youth organizing, campaigns and integrated civic/voter engagement.” – Jamileh Ebrahimi, Youth Organizing Director, RYSE Youth Center


Staff co-participate in Teens Advocating for Civic Engagement (TACA) and the California School-Age Consortium (CALSAC) events to gain experience and receive professional development specific to civic engagement.” - Brad Lupien, Arc Experience


We train teens ages 15-19 in playful learning, facilitation, leadership, and other workplace skills for them to play and lead games with children on the Play Streets, at playgrounds and in early childcare centers throughout Philadelphia. Adults receive approximately 60-80 hours of preemployment training, including data collection training facilitated by Temple Infant & Child Play Lab.”- Rebecca Fabiano, FAB Youth Philly

4-H developed several program guides to support adult leaders:

  • True Leaders: Culture, Power, & Justice is designed to engage youth in critical dialogue and collective action in order to contribute to a more empathetic and just society. This is a Facilitator Guide intended for use with youth in Grades 6-12. Youth have an incredible opportunity to see the world as bigger than themselves. This curriculum offers dynamic opportunities for youth to explore their identities, different cultures, new perspectives, and the histories that have shaped power and privilege within our communities. 
  • Citizenship Adventure Curriculum is designed to engage youth in changing a piece of the public world, discovering the possibilities of democratic citizenship and building a commitment to taking action in new and exciting ways.” – Rebecca Kelley, 4-H


REMINDER! Giving Tuesday is tomorrow and The How Kids Learn Foundation is inviting you to participate. Whether you can give $5 or $5000, your gift will get HKLF closer to their goal to continue their work in 2022! To learn more and donate, click here.

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