Teens are leapfrogging over old modes of civic participation which translates into an opportunity for organizations to collaborate with this rising generation.
With the start of a new school year, it’s the norm for students to advocate for change in the real world – outside of school. This snapshot of the past two decades reveals this trend away from the classroom. These trends are relevant for community-based groups and coalitions, nonprofit organizations, and government agencies to collaborate with this rising generation of problem solvers.
Estimates of youth civic engagement – which is challenging to describe and define – hover around 25 percent, according to the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning & Engagement. The figure is lower for young people of color and those living in rural areas, which may be closer to the level of participation by many other age groups.
Twenty-Year Trends and Where They Lead
TRADITIONAL VOLUNTEERISM – Established activities such as clothing drives and “Make A Difference” campaigns remain popular, reflected by the movement popularized by Thousand Points of Light.
COMMUNITY SERVICE PROJECTS – Propelled by passage of the federal law establishing the Corporation for National Service, high schools began to integrate community service into the K-12 curriculum in the late 1990s.
“SERVICE LEARNING” – Some states require students to perform a certain number of hours in order to graduate. In many school districts, a student’s project monitoring stream pollution or volunteering at a shelter may lead to sustained community involvement.
“ACTION CIVICS”– Massachusetts and Rhode Island are the first two states to enact legislation mandating civics for graduation that ask school districts to encourage student-initiated real world projects.
YOUTH JOURNALISTS – Before cell phones, cheap disposable cameras proved to be a powerful tool. Organizations like Critical Exposure introduced “photovoice” where students document the good, the bad and the ugly in their schools and neighborhoods.
SOCIAL MEDIA INFLUENCERS – When cell phones with cameras arrived, the digital revolution crowded out many traditional volunteer activities and accelerated the movement towards “teen power” and “agents of change.” Social media platforms enabled young people to operate outside school-sanctioned activities.
EXTRACURRICULAR CLUBS – The growth in volunteerism and activism has led to dozens of clubs at large high schools, many of which experiment with non-hierarchical structures unlike traditional organizations such as student government. To increase their autonomy, some students move off campus to pursue their projects and campaigns.
YOUTH-LED, ADULT-SUPPORTED ACTIVITIES – Steady growth continues among local community-based organizations to promote positive youth development and provide many opportunities for aspiring change makers.
AUTONOMOUS YOUTH-DRIVEN CAMPAIGNS – Another path is those teens, who regard their school culture or a community-based organization as too confining or hierarchical, strike out on their own. Real world action is overtaking mock leadership programs that have been around for many decades. With the constant development of new digital tools, many teens are leapfrogging over old modes of participation and inventing new ways to exercise their civic muscle.
Another clue of this trend 0f teen civic leadership beyond the school walls is20 Years of Youth Power: The 2020 National Field Scan. This report shows that 70 percent of organizations surveyed identify as “intergenerational.” One explanation for this trend is an increasing number of adult-run organizations that serve children are heeding the call of “Nothing About Us Without Us” and engaging with their beneficiaries and youngest constituents.
Other reasons for thIS SURGE . . .
Teens who have participated in “entirely youth-led campaigns,” often for 4-6 years, decide to see if they can achieve more impact by teaming up with adult-run organizations and coalitions.
Camaraderie can blossom naturally because frontline and mid-level staff, who became civically active as teens and remember being ignored, tokenized or controlled by older folks, want to stop this cycle and know the value of including teens into the heart of an organization.
Nonprofits and government agencies operate youth advisory councils, internships and one-off projects which serve as a pipeline for these teens to continue to advance in different capacities within these organizations.
These trends represent an opportunity for organizations and agencies to expand their outreach to the entire community by collaborating “with” teens as peers. Having grown up prioritizing diversity and inclusion, many Gen Zers possess unique skills to recruit marginalized and underrepresented youth. This paradigm shift requires radical anti-ageist mindsets by all age groups but the onus is on senior staff to adapt necessary policies and practices to make the organizational culture that respects teen know-how and perspectives.
The term “intergenerational” is gaining traction. Will this approach replace “youth-led adult-supported” programs or “youth-adult partnerships” which typically preserve traditional hierarchies? Will this paradigm shift become the new norm in another decade when Millennials and Gen Zers take over from the old guard?
Young people have played decisive roles in nearly every major social movement. Similar to previous generations, many teenage activists operate with autonomy. Their sense of urgency and distrust of being co-opted even by potential allies persists. This independence can build crucial solidarity that can exert unique power.
Clues of Change
While many youth stick to mobilizing exclusively with their peers, a significant segment of Gen Zers opt to collaborate with adults.Here are a few possible explanations for this new trend.
Teens who have participated for several years with “entirely youth-led campaigns” decide to see if they can achieve more by teaming up with adult-run organizations and coalitions.
Camaraderie can blossom naturally because frontline and mid-level staff, who also became civically active as teens, remember being ignored, tokenized or controlled by older folks and are ready to stop this cycle.
Nonprofits and government agencies operate youth advisory councils, internships and one-off projects that introduce teens to these organizations, however, these engagement programs keep teens on the sidelines that contrast with the Youth Infusion process.
I have been immersed in youth-led activism for decades and surprised that the term “intergenerational” seems to be gaining traction. Will this approach replace “youth-driven adult-supported” programs or “youth-adult partnerships” which typically preserve traditional hierarchies? Will this paradigm shift become the new norm in another decade when Millennials and Gen Zers take over from the old guard?
Evidence of Change
Two important reports reveal this trend.
The Funders’ Collaborative on Youth Organizing (FCYO) published its 20-year national scan based on data provided by community-based organizations in every region of the country.
“Intergenerational” is the description of a whopping 70 percent of organizations in this survey of over 300 groups.
Younger youth are increasingly active: a doubling of those between the ages of 11-13 since 2013 which means a growing pool of potential collaborators.
Intentional outreach by youth to build alliances with older generations. In the words of one immigrant rights activist:
Young people that were doing their own thing and then realized, wait a minute, we don’t want our parents or other family members who aren’t DREAM Act eligible not to be organizing with us. They were working with adults or even younger, bright young people who weren’t DREAM Act eligible either. But they were doing multigenerational organizing.
The Center for Information & Research on Civic Learning and Engagement (CIRCLE) assessment of six community-based grantees described as “intergenerational partnerships” focuses on significant adult attitude adjustments, including:
Rethink age binaries and one suggestion – drop the label “youth” altogether;
Redefine “adult allyship” that reflects adults’ individual assessment of their ability to listen to, respect and support young people – regardless of the participants’ own age;
Build rapport through informal exchanges with youth outside of meetings even though these interactions may feel “unprofessional” to adults; and
Recognize that knowledge transfer is mutual and evaluate both youth and adult civic learning.
Intergenerational interdependence is in its early stage of development. It is a complex process because it hinges so much on relationships. Instead of asking youth to conform to established modes of operation and prevailing practices, staff must be genuinely curious and actually reliant on perspectives of those not represented or misrepresented. If youth know their role is not to be cheerleaders or clones but co-designers and yes, even critics, serious collaboration can actually make history.