Monday, December 20, 2021

Civic Engagement and Activism in Afterschool Programs: The Benefits of Youth Participation


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

In this blog we discuss the benefits of youth participation in civic engagement and activism activities. 

Research and experience tell us that involving young people in civic engagement and activism activities brings benefits to youth participants. Some of these are detailed below. Benefits are also accrued by the organizational partners and the larger community, as well as adult program staff. 

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 

Benefits of Civic Engagement and Activism for Youth Participants

  • Helps them make new friends and contacts and increases their social and relationship skills
  • Helps them build social capital
  • Increases self-confidence and promotes a positive sense of agency and empowerment
  • Combats depression and helps them stay physically healthy
  • Supports healing from trauma
  • Provides a sanctuary
  • Opportunities to serve others and give back to the community
  • Prepares them for leadership roles
  • Opens their minds to new ideas and people
  • Fuels passion and purpose
  • Teaches collaboration
  • Brings fun and fulfillment to their lives
  • The happiness effect: Helping others kindles happiness, as many studies have demonstrated
  • Learn valuable job skills and can offer career experience
  • Increases connection to the community
  • More likely to remain civically engaged as adults

Contributing provides adolescents the experiences they need to complete the key tasks of this life stage: building autonomy, identity, and intimacy. Making meaningful contributions to others allows adolescents to see that they can have a positive effect on the world, giving them the confidence necessary to build autonomy and agency. When their contributions are recognized, young people come to understand their place and value in the world, developing their sense of identity. Having the opportunity to provide meaningful social support to friends and family builds the intimacy they’ll need to form positive, long-lasting relationships in adulthood. - Meghan Lynch Forder, What Teens Gain When They Contribute to Their Social Groups

Source: Greater Good Science Center

In economically distressed communities who are the targets of structural racism, we have seen how youth benefit from the opportunity to reflect critically on the world — to ask questions and denaturalize what feels like “normal” by visiting neighboring communities and imagine radical futures and 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.– Dr. Ben Kirshner, University of Colorado, Boulder (from an interview published in Youth Civic Engagement and Activism in Expanded Learning Programs).


They gain job experience, something to put on their resume, and they learn how to and create a resume. They report feeling that they can make a difference in the lives of children in their own neighborhood as well as in other neighborhoods other than their own. They broaden/deepen their social capital. They benefit from caring relationships with adults and other teens.- Rebecca Fabiano, Fab Youth Philly

Students build social capital, a valuable skillset they can apply in virtually any career and in civic life, a highly-attractive college, career, and civic portfolio, opportunities to collaborate vs. compete with their peers and opportunities to effect the change they want to see in the world.- Rachel Belin, Kentucky Student Voice Team
Youth empowerment and a sense of engagement at all levels. Youth gain a sense of self in the larger world and political environment. They gain a sense of being a part of the system with the ability to affect vs being passive members of a community where things happen to them.” - Brad Lupien, Arc Experience

Youth have an understanding of the country’s democratic process and understand how to navigate the barriers to participation. Youth are able to form their own opinions and political ideology. Leadership skills like public speaking and collaboration are key to success in the program. Lastly, it is essential for youth to walk away with the experience of creating community with youth of different backgrounds and identity.- Jenifer Hughes, YMCA of San Francisco

The concrete skills youth develop through the project-based approach we use have different types of real- world applications. They learn to conduct hands-on research like site visits, interviews, and surveys. They learn to think critically about why disparities persist and are challenged to do innovative problem solving. They become more comfortable with public speaking and with speaking to legislators and other stakeholders. Many students do go on to major in political science, join civic-oriented clubs on campus, pursue careers in politics, etc. But I’ve seen that even students who go on to do things in other fields report that what they learned here has prepared them for the “real world” in more ways than one.- Laura Jankstrom, YOUTHACTION NYC

4-H empowers youth to practice and recognize the importance of civic and social responsibility by strengthening their leadership and citizenship skills. It prepares them for life, inspiring them to be invested, informed and accountable for generating the change they want to see in the world—and to create their own success in the future. 4-H participants are four times more likely to actively contribute to their communities and two times more likely to get better grades in school.- Rebecca Kelley, J.D., 4-H 

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