Civic Youth Work is both a way to name a form of youth work practice and to pay tribute to youth workers throughout history who have sought ways to make real opportunities available to young people; to be citizens, and to be seen as such and see themselves this way. We did not invent this type of practice. We simply recognized the family of practice that has existed but been hidden. By naming this practice, we hope to bring it into view, begin to make it widely available and to have it used by those working with youth all over the world. Civic youth work is thus neither a current invention nor a North and West creation; it has flourished worldwide for at least several decades. Civic youth work are our words, our way of naming and illuminating what we have found to be an important and unique type of youth work practice; one that can be used to better understand and recognize co-creative, participatory community work with young people. It provides a framework for research, practice and training/education for both youth and youth workers.
We begin by focusing on describing civic youth work in practice. To do so, I will draw on several years of research in the US, Northern Ireland and Palestine, and an emergent project on civic youth work in Morocco. Dr. Baizerman provided an overview of the theoretical and philosophical foundations of civic youth work. I will discuss the consequences of this foundation on direct and indirect youth work, especially on the effects, benefits and outcomes of this practice on young people, adults and the community.
Effects and Civic Youth Work
We often want to know what is the effect of a practice. We ask: What does the practice bring about? Implicit in this question is an assumption that youth workers are in control of the process and product and young people can be shaped into what ever we desire. We are encouraged to believe we can “help”, “develop”, or “direct” young people to become better adults, later in their future. But civic youth work might not best be understood in a language of cause and effect, or a language of adult control.
This language is influential and it creates problems; this way of thinking and talking has consequences. This cause/effect mode of thinking keeps us from recognizing that we (too) often have only a limited ability to produce particular ends. The ends arrive through negotiating with others about what they want and what support we can provide. Needed is a way of thinking and talking that emphasizes the democratic nature of civic youth work and the particular and real influence on its practice of local conditions and new situations. Civic youth work is oriented to co-developing processes and these drive group outcomes.
One way to think about doing youth work, of youth work practice, is to imagine a youth worker who comes to each group session as a question: “what are we going to do today?” to this workers, the work is not given priority, nor is the young person’s development; rather the civic youth worker works to create aspace for engagement. The civic youth worker does this by inviting young people to be creative, imaginative, and practical—all at the same time. The civic youth worker invites young people to express what they care about and to figure out if they want to do something about this care.
This is an ongoing and processional outcome because it is not a space that can be created and then forgotten. It only remains as a space of invitation and practice when it is the focus of the group: It is time-bound. Nor is it a space a youth worker can create by herself. Instead space-opening and space sustaining requires the ongoing involvement and support of young people too.
What Is The Primary Effects of Civic Youth Work?
Civic youth work can be thought of as consequential, as having effects for young people, adults, community, family, and worker. It can change how a worker thinks, perceives, acts and evaluates their work. Its most crucial effect is a shift in focus: Civic youth work illuminates the systems (political, educational, community) young people live in and their influence on how youth is defined, on young people themselves, and on youth civic engagement. In this way, civic youth work deepens and enriches our understanding of youth, young people themselves, and youth civic engagement. Let us look more closely at this last point.
Two Perspectives on Youth Civic Engagement
Youth civic engagement is often focused on deficiencies within and between young people. Some agree that young people lack maturity (James and Prout, 1997), and others that they lack political knowledge, skills, and attitudes (Bennette, 2000). A consequence of this deficiency conception of youth is that youth civic engagement initiatives have focused on providing content and program to skill-up young people to meet this deficiency (Butts, 1980; Patrick, 2000). For example, Gibson (2001) describes four typical types of youth civic engagement programs: civic education, service-learning, political action and social change, and youth development. The overall aim of each is to increase young people’s knowledge and skills and change their attitudes. In clear contrast, a few youth civic engagement initiatives begin with an understanding that young people are resources, people who can engage in the “work of democracy” without much further training. When we add a civic youth work perspective to youth civic engagement, attention shifts from the individual young person towards a larger social ecology of civic engagement by a group of youth.
When recent empirical research is added, the argument that youth civic engagement work is about youth deficiencies is weakened further. For example, Yates & Youniss (1999) and VeLure Roholt, Hildreth and Baizerman (2006) show that young people may not be apathetic towards politics and civic action; we found that young people often lack adequate invitation and support to become and stay engaged. As Yates and Youniss (1999) argues: “youth can surmount great odds and make significant contributions, but it is not reasonable to expect them to become civically engaged in communities and societies that fail to support them (pg. 273).” Here too youth civic engagement is a way to enhance the meaningful involvement by young people in issues of interest and importance to them. What if the issue is not about individual deficiencies but is systemic—sociopolitical and cultural? This is what the larger social ecology frame helps us to recognize.
If the problem of minimal youth civic engagement goes beyond individual deficiency and at least includes none or minimal invitation and also a lack of systemic support for young people to be civically engaged, then the response must address these larger issues as well. Who and what else may require attention if the goal is to enhance youth civic engagement? Other community members, politicians, teachers, neighbors, parents, etc are among those who must be attended to. How they view young people, what they invite and support them to do and what and how they indicate what is legitimate and appropriate as ways of being a young person around here, now, also may be foci of intervention. This moves us from attention primarily on youth to including sociopolitical structures and the culture about youth as citizens. This is often why civic youth work supports young people to publically present their work. In doing so, their present skill and depth of knowledge is made clear and visible to the larger community, hopefully challenging the everyday, taken-for-granted assumptions and pre-judgments adults members of society often make about youth. In this and similar ways, youth civic engagement, fostered by civic youth work, illuminates and challenges the communities definition of youth person engagement and, specifically, young person as citizen.
Put simple, if the community continues to refuse to see potential and actual talents of young people, as civic workers, citizens, this renders the young people invisible. Civic youth work serves to make young people and their talents visible.
When invited and supported young people’s accomplishments go beyond what most adults expect. They build libraries, work to enhance human rights, educate peers and community about important issues, and make improved changes to the local community (e.g. building a rain garden, cleaning up a local park, etc.). Civic youth work contextualizes and minimizes the perceived “deficiencies” of young people as active citizens.
Civic youth work practiced as we propose does not promote individual projects or accomplishments. Rather, civic youth workers facilitate and support groups of individuals to develop, plan and undertake a civic project. It is unlikely that such projects could have been accomplished by a single individual in these groups. Instead, these accomplishments are possible because a group of young people worked together.
Rarely is youth civic engagement as group work studied as group work. When researchers measureimpact of civic youth work on the level of individual change, they miss the crucial actor—the group. Hence, it is logical that young people studied might not have much change with regard to civic engagement outcomes (Circle, 2007). Research design must recognize this if it is to be valid. It must get at the full range of civic knowledge, skills, and attitudes, not just select (and individual) outcomes. Because the work of democracy is not an individual effort and is instead group work, research and evaluation must study youth civic engagement as a group accomplishment. Civic youth work promotes this view by working with groups and not single individuals alone.
What Are The Benefits of Civic Youth Work?
There are clear benefits of this work for young people, adults and communities. Evaluation and research show this: young people in youth civic engagement are likely to be doing non-violent, legal civic work; they contribute to their communities by educating others on important issues, engaging in systemic change efforts, and working to support local public efforts; they develop, often, in-depth and nuanced understandings of the community, citizenship and democracy. Who benefits from these? As seen by adults: young people! A silly, obvious answer, no? But the true answer is more complex: The community too benefits.
What do young people see as benefit, and to whom? Youth civic engagement carried out by civic youth workers has three benefits, from young people’s perspective. First, it supports them in “getting something they care about done.” This is often more that task completion. Getting something done also means they learn how to get something done, around here, now and then later, again. Whether they are working in their community, school, or in an after school program, they learn how to navigate these institutions and contacts (e.g. they learn who and by when in order to bring about a particular change). To young people the benefit is enhanced understanding of where they are and how they can be effective in achieving their goals. Thus, this is about their civic project, and also about their lives at school, home, and at work.
Second civic youth work provides rehearsal time and open space where they work at developing their political and civic voices. In these spaces, they are supported while they investigate and discuss civic and political issues. This is a space where mistakes can be made and intuition and ideas said and responded to: They are invited into dialogue (Burbules, 1993) or civic discourse (Arnett & Arneson, 1999). By having enough group rehearsal time, they are able to speak on political and civic issues, to use their voice. The group provides a safe space to give and receive critique on their ideas and how to express these. When they have to speak publicly, they are ready to.
This is a benefit to young people because they have the time to improve their argument and delivery. This prevents their appearing immature in public. They become skillful in presenting the issue they care about and what they have or intend to do about this issue; they can speak intelligently and logically about their issue. They don’t just have opinion; they speak from evidence, too.
Finally, civic you work benefits young people by providing an avenue to develop and improve interpersonal skills. They learn how to work well with others-even those who are not friends. They are not always asked and supported in working with people different from them, both within their age group and especially those that are younger or older, with different interests, talents and capacities.
Civic youth work has benefits to young people and others. It raises awareness about the value and contribution of young people to their communities, now.
All reasonable youth programs and initiatives have intended outcomes, goals, results that they work towards. These too must use the larger social ecology of civic youth work. Outcomes must be at three levels: institutional/community, group and individual.
At the individual level, civic youth work creates the space where young people can experience citizenship. Here the focus is not on a particular set of skills or knowledge, but rather is on young people experiencing themselves as citizens: They begin to live citizenship, not merely to learn about it (Velure Roholt, Hildreth, Baizerman, 2008). The completion of a high quality group project is another intended outcome of civic youth work. This work, in an evaluation logic model joins output to outcome: The goal is for groups of young people to design, create, develop and complete a civic action project. Outcomes here on the group level is the work completed.
Finally, on the institutional/community level, civic youth work is assessed by how well young people take on and live as citizens in their everyday lives in their communities—i.e., how communities invite and incorporate youth, how, in turn, communities become more active and democratic and also over time, how there is an increase in the democratic practice of that communities institutions.