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Keeping Hope Alive

The 2008 presidential election saw a surprising spike in voter turnout and campaign volunteer efforts among young Americans. Recent trends more generally, however, have not been as encouraging as 2008. As a result, there is increased interest across the country in educating and preparing youth for a civically engaged life. These efforts were the topic of discussion at the February 25 Askwith Education Forum, "Keeping Hope Alive: Capitalizing on a New Era of Youth Civic Engagement."

The forum was part of a new initiative at HGSE called the Civic and Moral Education Initiative (CMEI). Peter Levine, director of research and director of the Center for Information & Research on Civic Learning and Engagement (CIRCLE) at Tufts University; Miriam Martinez, director of the Mikva Challenge's Youth Education Council; and Joseph Kahne, dean of education at Mills College, participated in the discussion.

The panelists share the belief that youth civic engagement is essential for a successful democratic society and that it is an issue that has been neglected in recent decades. "The political process is not going to be of high interest to students unless you give them the opportunity to learn about it," Martinez said. "At Mikva, we try to empower students and develop them to the point that they feel like they are being heard and are being useful."

In addition to being educated about the government and the political process, it is necessary for young people to have the skills to actively participate. "There needs to be a new focus on teaching kids why certain issues are relevant to them, discussing issues that they say are important to them, and giving them the skills to become actively involved in these issues," Kahne said. Knowing whom to speak to about certain issues and how to speak to them effectively is equally important, Martinez added.

The definition of civic engagement, according to the panelists, is more than just participation in politics and voting. Community service is also a significant aspect of being an engaged citizen, but it is the quality of the service that makes it valuable. "The way to make community service high quality is to offer challenging, educational experiences that are authentic, and to give kids a role in developing service projects," Levine said. "The way to do it wrong is to have kids going through the motions of something called community service; nothing could be more alienating." Furthermore, according to Kahne, it's important to dispel the recent notion that volunteerism is a substitute for politics, and encourage people to engage in both.

The risk of partisanship is a genuine concern among those at the forefront of the civic engagement movement. They want to educate students without imparting a particular political bias, especially because the youth vote was extremely partisan (2-to-1 for Obama) in the 2008 election. "We try to teach our students that politics is about the issues, not about the titles of Democrat or Republican," Martinez said.

Citing studies of both evangelical Christian private schools and inner-city public schools, Levine noted that classrooms are often rich with political and ideological diversity. "There needs to be more professional development opportunities for teachers to help them activate these differences and make them useful in the classroom," he said.

While it is important to start teaching students about citizenship as early as possible, high school represents a critical period for educating and involving them in politics. "It is a stage of development where people are trying to figure out where they fit into the broader society, and asking these types of questions at this time is very important," Kahne said. Role models can also be extremely influential during this period. Providing students access to community figures and people of power, as Mikva does, is an effective tool.

Ultimately, the youth civic engagement movement is dedicated to turning today's young people into good citizens and active participants in their communities. "It is difficult to convince young people that politics is noble," Martinez said. "We tell them that if they really want to see that change, it is up to them to do something about it."