Monday, November 8, 2021

Civic Engagement and Activism in Afterschool Programs: An Interview with a Youth Development Researcher

Source: NHP Foundation

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.


Now I’m very confident in myself. I know that I can make changes. Sometimes I used to think that our lives were kind of pointless. And now, it’s like, you can make real changes. Now it’s the school and maybe in my career and my adult life, I could actually do something with a lot of determination and will.”  – Rosalinda, 12th grader 


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 ProgramsYou can view previous blogs from this series here. You can also view a recent recording of our webinar we held on this topic here.

In this blog we interview a youth development researcher. Dr. Ben Kirshner is a Professor in the School of Education at University of Colorado, Boulder.  Ben's research examines youth organizing, critical participatory action research, and new forms of digital media as contexts for learning, development, and social change.

Dr. Ben Kirshner
Q: You have studied why youth activism and civic engagement are important avenues for youth development. Can you share some of your findings?

A: In my initial research I wanted to challenge dominant frameworks for youth civic engagement and community service, which were based on middle class and affluent assumptions about “service”, and were not capturing the kinds of community resilience and youth activism happening in communities of color. 

My research carried out with multiracial youth organizing groups in the Bay Area showed how youth participants developed a capacity for critique and collective agency to challenge unjust systems and negative stereotypes. These developmental achievements, it turned out, also spoke to unique elements of learning environments in youth organizing groups. Through peer to peer mentoring, apprenticeship learning, and commitments to young people’s dignity, these settings offer great promise for learning environments in and out of school.

Since then I’ve developed more strategic research collaborations with youth organizations and schools, in which we use research to understand and address compelling challenges jointly identified with youth or organization leaders. For example, I was part of a participatory action research team to study the impact of a high school closure on students, which showed students’ creative and resilient adaptations but also the stressors that displacement added to their lives. More recent work extended core findings about youth organizing groups as developmental settings and tested out their relevance for classroom learning in collaborative work with high school educators.

Q: How should we prepare staff to lead civic engagement and youth activism activities? 

A: 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.

Q: What is the best age for these activities?

A: There is no best age. Elementary age children can participate in various forms of community-building and activism just as older youth can. Of course, as skilled youth workers will know, young people’s maturity levels may shape the kinds of roles played by staff and how they support youth voice and engagement.

Source: Play Captains Initiative

Q: Why do programs offer these activities and why do kids join?

A: Organizations that invite young people to participate in social change do so because they know that youth are key agents of making the world better; young people are agents of change throughout the world! Many organizing groups are motivated more by their desire to build power for social change than by the goal of offering a learning experience for youth. But, consistent with what we know about learning and development, young people end up learning a great deal by participating in social change movements. In other words, sometimes the best learning experiences are those that are not designed with learning as the primary aim. 

Q: What benefits do kids accrue?

A: Benefits really depend on the type of program you are talking about and who is participating. I have done research about youth organizing groups that engage young people of color growing up in economically distressed communities who are the targets of structural racism. In these settings, we have seen how youth benefit from the opportunity to a) reflect critically on the world — to ask questions and denaturalize what feels like “normal” by visiting neighboring communities and imagine radical futures and b) the opportunity to generate solutions through policies or public narratives. These experiences contribute to a sense of agency and belonging that prepares young people to navigate the world with confidence and critical analysis; in some cases it can also offer a context for “healing” that involves personal and social transformation.

Q: Please describe any challenges programs should be aware of.

A: I would say the biggest challenge has to do with preparing adults to share power and become skilled at the delicate dance of guidance of and deference to youth leaders - to act in solidarity with young people.

Q: Can you offer any tips to others?

A: For staff and leaders of programs, I think the first place to start is to get clear on what you are comfortable doing and getting behind; if you are inviting young people to participate in an activity, be prepared to act in solidarity with them as they pursue it. Be transparent about the premise of your activities with youth and what they are signing up for.


Dr. Ben Kirshner moved to the San Francisco Bay Area in his twenties, where he was a youth worker. These experiences motivated him to study educational equity and the design of learning environments, which he pursued at Stanford's Graduate School of Education. Ben is now a Professor in the School of Education at CU-Boulder and serves as Faculty Director for CU Engage: Center for Community-Based Learning and Research. In his work with CU Engage Ben supports programs and people who develop and sustain university-community research partnerships that address persistent public challenges guided by values of social justice and grassroots democracy. 

Ben's research examines youth organizing, critical participatory action research, and new forms of digital media as contexts for learning, development, and social change. His 2015 book, Youth Activism in an Era of Education Inequality, received the social policy award for best authored book from the Society of Research on Adolescence. Ben is Editor for the Information Age Press Series on Adolescence and Education. His new projects involve collaborations with youth organizing groups that use research to build organizational capacity and campaign strategy, and partnerships with school districts that promote transformative student voice.


We are hosting a webinar/ Speaker’s Forum on Wednesday, November 17, 2021 from 10:00am- 12:00pm (PST) entitled, Afterschool as a Teacher PathwayThe purpose of this webinar is to inform and encourage OST leaders on how best to develop/join and promote an afterschool to teacher pathway. It is our intention to capture and share valuable and intriguing ideas from educational and OST leaders. To learn more and register, click the banner below.

We have also released a new briefing paper on this topic, which can be viewed and downloaded here.




Throughout the month of November, we'll be promoting The How Kids Learn Foundation Giving Tuesday fundraiser. During the pandemic, HKLF made sure that youth workers could continue their professional development. They did this by quickly pivoting from face-to-face events to virtual/ online webinars. Help them continue to deliver quality professional development to your afterschool leaders in 2022. To learn more and donate, click here.


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