Thursday, June 30, 2011

Youth engagement as a social change strategy

The Forum for Youth Investment sends out a periodic "Ready Thoughts" email blast from its "Ready by 21" campaign. Today's email was about involving students in decisions about their own education.

The Forum is encouraging communities to use the Gallup Student Poll as a starting point for conversations with students about how their schools could be improved. According to poll results, only 50% of students report that they are engaged in school, and engagement declines with each grade.

The Forum article argues that while youth engagement is important for individual student achievement, it can also serve as an important strategy for social change because engaged students become engaged adults. A study by the Funders Collaborative on Youth Organizing indicates that engaged students are more likely to become effective advocates for change in their communities by volunteering for political organizations, canvassing, contacting public officials, holding meetings about issues that are important to them and attempting to solve community problems.

This is an important argument for engaging young people in decision-making. When dealing with youth-serving nonprofits and educators, I've often heard the argument that "I'd like to do this but there are just too many other things to get done." Things like helping drop-outs get back in school and helping disadvantaged youth get job training and graduate are clearly important. But these are challenges that exist disproportionately among poor and working-class youth, and they will never really be met unless we think bigger.

Young people need to learn how to advocate for their own needs and those of their families and communities. But if we don't ever allow them to identify problems and recommend solutions--especially in an area like education, in which they have daily, firsthand experience--they may never develop the skills to effect change and the confidence to do so. Affluent communities stay that way because their members know how to advocate for their own needs. Deliberate efforts to engage disadvantaged youth in problem-solving and decision-making can help them become engaged adults who can advocate for their communities' needs too.

Youth Engagement = Student Success

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