Youth engaging in civic action

Create spaces for youth to be leaders in their communities. Use these examples to learn more about civic action and how to get youth in your community involved.

Too often I hear teens say something like, “Someday I’ll make a difference.” This is a sentiment that is supported when adults limit youth to being “the future leaders” or “leaders of tomorrow.” As a youth development professional, I find these kinds of comments or perspectives are irksome. With the tools and opportunity, I have witnessed youth in Michigan rise up to be phenomenal leaders and make great civic contributions to their communities. So, what exactly is civic action and why do we care if youth engage in it?

The Constitutional Rights Foundation’s Civic Action Project defines civic actions as “all of the things average citizens do to address a problem or issue in their community.” This can be many different things, from attending a public meeting to piloting a service project or leading an initiative. The key is to help youth develop their leadership skillset, connect with the opportunities to engage, trust they can be successful and support them in their efforts. Civic Action Project is one resource that specifically provides tools and lessons to incorporate civic action into classrooms. Other organizations create pathways for youth to engage in civic action as well.

America Supporting Americans is a nonprofit organization that links units of the U.S. branches of military with communities nationwide in an “Adopt-a-Unit” program, where participating communities are assigned to a military unit to correspond with. America Supporting Americans provides tools to engage youth in participating communities specifically to “expand young people's understanding of America's role in global affairs, the role the military plays in the American political system and the experience of American servicemen and women” through their Youth Civic Action and Awareness Program.

For Northwestern University’s Center for Talent Development and Civic Education Project, their CivicAction for Youth Futures program this year focused on service-learning as a mode of civic engagement. This program created space for youth in Chicago, Illinois, to serve their communities, learn about social problems and possible solutions, and practice leadership skills to practice civic action.

Similarly, Generation Citizen helps high school learners become change-makers in their communities through high school-higher education partnerships. The end goal is empowering teens to be problem-solvers and contributors to an active democracy.

There are also examples of organizations that are providing prompts to inspire and ignite communities to engage in civic action more broadly. The Women’s March on Washington, for example, has 10 Actions/100 Days, an initiative that shares a new call to action every 10 days to inspire communities to voice their ideas and concerns with U.S. administration in the first 100 days after inauguration.

Women’s March on Washington also has a youth initiative that engages youth ambassadors. They state, “They [youth ambassadors] are not waiting to grow up to ‘be the change.’ They are the change and deserve a place at the table. They have distinct voices and are exemplary leaders in their communities.”

During April, Michigan 4-Hers—and 4-Hers around the country—are engaging in civic action through service as a part of 4-H True Leaders in Service month. As the National 4-H True Leaders in Service webpage states, “Every day, 4‑Hers across the nation pledge their hands to larger service. And every day, 4‑Hers are rolling up their sleeves and putting their pledge into action—leading positive change that empowers their peers and their communities.”

The first National 4-H Day of Service on April 29 will take place across the country, but 4-Hers will be engaging in action throughout the entire month. If you know of 4-H members, volunteers and alumni in your county or 4-H program who are planning on engaging in action through service this month, make sure to register their project!

Whether you model a routinized call to action similar to that of 10 Actions/100 Days, or you help youth in your community build relationships with local leaders or agencies to implement a service learning project, I am confident that given the opportunity to engage and the tools to feel successful, youth will continue to impress us with their capacity to be civically engaged leaders today. Michigan 4-H creates many spaces for youth to develop their leadership skill sets and practice being active citizens.

To learn about the positive impact of Michigan State University Extension and Michigan 4-H youth leadership, civic engagement, citizenship and global/cultural programs, read our 2015 Impact Report: “Developing Civically Engaged Leaders.” Additional impact reports, highlighting even more ways Michigan 4-H positively impacted individuals and communities in 2015, can be downloaded from the Michigan 4-H website.

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