Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Many ways to influence policy

My goal in writing about youth participation in decision-making has always been to encourage the involvement of young people, especially disadvantaged youth, in public policy. My theory of change is that if we provide young people with training and create opportunities for them to work with adult decision-makers, such as school board and city council members, they will learn how to exert their own power and advocate for the needs of their communities.

Last weekend, however, I was reminded that we don't always need to create formal programs for young people to have an influence on policy. Scott Simon, the host of NPR's Weekend Edition Saturday, offered a commentary about the growing support for gay marriage among politicians. Republican Senator Rob Portman of Ohio, who co-sponsored a law to prevent same-sex marriage in 1998 when he was in the House of Representatives, now supports it because his son is gay. President Obama has said that his position on same-sex marriage is "evolving" because his daughters have friends with same-sex parents. In 2009 Dick Cheney came out in support of same-sex marriage because his daughter Mary has been in a committed same-sex relationship for many years.

While the Defense of Marriage Act (DoMA), which defines marriage as a union between a man and a woman, is still on the books, Portman's change of heart brings us one step closer to a change in that policy. It also shows us that even without formal structures such as youth advisory councils, young people can and do influence adults who are close to them in important ways. Personal relationships are powerful.

One way we can help young people develop confidence in their own ability to influence powerful people is to remind them of their influence among the decision-makers they already know--their parents--and encourage them to pay attention to what works and what doesn't work when they are attempting to exert that influence.

By reminding young people that they have power, we help them learn to use it effectively. We also remind ourselves to listen.

Tuesday, March 19, 2013


I came across a LinkedIn post last week from Bill Drayton, a former MacArthur Fellow and founder of Ashoka, an amazing organization that supports social entrepreneurs around the world, including young entrepreneurs through its Youth Venture program. In the post, Drayton explains that when he was a child he wasn't a good student, but he liked to create things, such as a school newspaper. He sometimes missed class because of these projects, which worried his mother. He was not always where he was "supposed to be."

Drayton's school principal, however, advised his mother to trust him: "Don't even show him that you're anxious."

Can anyone imagine a principal saying that to a parent today? Even without the fear of being sued if the child got hurt after the principal said it was OK for him not to be in school, we simply don't trust young people to take ownership of their own learning. Drayton had to organize fellow students, make sure articles were written and the paper edited, and he had to get it out to readers beyond his own school. He didn't learn how to do this in the classroom. In fact, he had to miss class in order to learn it!

Drayton's mother, like any mother, was uncomfortable allowing him to not follow the rules. But it is only in allowing young people the freedom to experiment that they develop the ability to choose between alternative courses of action, solve problems and learn from their mistakes. These are critical civic competencies, and they only come when we begin to trust young people.

Monday, March 11, 2013

The real challenge to youth civic participation, Part 1

It's been ten months! Guess it's time for another post. 
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When we in the U.S. speak of civic education we usually focus on preparing young people to participate. The assumption is that if we provide young people with the right knowledge and skills, they will go out and participate.

There are some problems with this assumption, most of which have to do with applying skills and knowledge in the real world. For example:
  1. Schools and community-based youth programs don’t generally spend much time on local government and helping students understand how to influence local policy, such as decisions made by the school board, and they don't really encourage young people to get involved or provide clear direction on how to do so.
  2. Although we try to teach young people skills we believe are universally useful (e.g., persuasive writing, public speaking, conducting research, etc.), we rarely teach them how to combine these skills in a civic context, such as identifying a local problem, researching the causes and potential solutions, building support, and offering recommendations to the city council.
  3. Schools don't teach young people about collective action—working with others to solve real problems.
Clearly we need to do a better job of preparing young people to participate in politics and civic affairs, and many groups and individuals are working on this. But there's a bigger problem.