Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Engaged youth

A while ago I posted on the subject of "disaffected youth". I don't have a basis for estimating the percentage of the youth population that falls in this category, but surely it's a fairly small number in most places. Here I want to focus on the other end of the spectrum -- the relatively small but meaningful percentage of young people who have a significant level of "civic engagement" in their blood.

You can identify some of these young people in almost every city and suburb in America. They are the high school and college students who feel passionately about community service, civic engagement, and "giving back". They are involved in activities like alternative spring break, Habitat for Humanity, and the United Way. They are involved in community service in a major way -- through mosques, temples, and churches, through social justice organizations such as Amnesty International, Big Brother/Big Sister, and Oxfam, and through organized community service programs at universities and high schools. And they are to be found in a big way in nationally organized programs for community service like AmeriCorps, Teach for America, and CityYear.

I've met quite a few of these engaged young people over the past ten years, and they are truly inspiring. They are idealistic in a thoroughly practical way. They see the impact they can have through service, and they understand the importance of designing and implementing service programs in the most practical way possible. They care about the individual people they help -- children, elderly, impaired, impoverished -- in very specific human terms. They understand the value of working together in collaboration and teamwork to accomplish great things, and they understand deeply the values and rewards of racial and religious diversity. Finally, they have very little of the crass materialism of "youth America" as it was portrayed on Beverly Hills, 90210 or other examples of this genre. So this group of young people gives a truly optimistic perspective on our society for the future.

I don't take these points to lead to a generalization about American youth as a group. In fact, what is striking is exactly how atypical these young people seem to be relative to the population as a whole -- and how similar and compatible they are with each other. But it remains the case -- whether 5% or 25%, there is a meaningful minority of today's generation of young people who give a remarkable level of commitment to social engagement.

My question here concerns the social psychology of this group. This is a question about the circumstances of social development that are in place today: where do these young people and their values come from? How has this wonderful mix of optimism, service, and respect for racial differences come about? And how can it be furthered?

One thing is immediately clear: it seems to be unrelated to affluence, race, or neighborhood. A cross-section of the CityYear corps is instructive: young people with very similar social values are showing up from middle-class suburbs, impoverished inner cities, and towns that are neither urban nor suburban. And it is easy to find white kids, rich and poor, brown kids, African-American kids, and Asian-American kids -- all coming together into a corps of 60-150 young people in a given city. None of these groups seems either more or less concerned about social justice, none seems more readily open to learning from peers from other races, and none seems socially and culturally more ready for a serious commitment to engagement and service. In other words, class, race, and income don't seem to be critical in defining today's youth social engagement.

A couple of factors are probably highly relevant to the degree of engagement and civic values that is displayed by young people involved in AmeriCorps and CityYear.

First, there have to be strands of American culture that are creating a "pulse" of concern about social justice and individual involvement in community among young people. This set of dispositions can't be a totally random result. Whether it's a generation of young people acculturated by Sesame Street and Mr. Rogers, or by the broadening circle of awareness of the injustice of racism and poverty, or a "bounce" from the social activism of the sixties generation -- there must be some cultural currents that are making many of today's young people more ready for social involvement and more concerned about social justice. Somehow our society, our families, our schools, and our media are producing a certain fraction of the youth cohort that possess these values and commitments. (Though crucially, we can ask whether that fraction is greater than years past or is pretty much constant.)

Second, recruitment certainly plays an important role in explaining this observation about the similarity of corps members from very diverse backgrounds. AmeriCorps and CityYear members are by no means a random sample of the general population. Instead, they are young people who have actively sought out the opportunity for service presented by these organizations, and they have responded favorably to the very explicit expressions of value commitments they represent.

Another factor that seems to be operative in generating the value orientation of AmeriCorps and CityYear members is the nature of the training and bonding that occurs within the experience. Young people may come to CityYear with positive attitudes about race relations -- but their understanding, commitment, and concrete skills in working in multiracial teams certainly deepens enormously through their year of service. Likewise, what may have been a somewhat thin "will to serve" at the time of recruitment seems typically to deepen into a robust, life-changing involvement in community organizations. The experience of the organization, its leaders, peers, and the service itself leads to a profound deepening of personal engagement.

It's worth dwelling on the causes of youth engagement, because it seems very likely that many of the social problems we will face in the future will only be solved if we can come together as communities of concern, giving our time and our energy to address the serious challenges that are just over the horizon. And these young, engaged people are demonstrating how it can be done.

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