Are our schools preparing young people to be informed, active citizens of a democratic society? Are we instilling in our young people the dispositions and values needed to be civic actors in their communities? Is our educational system giving them the skills and knowledge needed to responsibly participate in decision-making in their communities? This week the SEMIS Coalition is discussing youth civic participation and exploring what youth civic engagement looks like.

Civic concepts are inherent in environmental work. Interdependence, human impact, collective action, and civic agency are all concepts that young people tell us come out of work they do with SEMIS to address issues in their communities. When young people are involved in direct, active citizen approaches to addressing ecological issues in their communities, they are able to see themselves as civic actors who can apply their learning to issues of public concern and effect change in their communities.

We began a discussion about youth civic participation last week at the EcoJustice and Activism Conference with members of the SEMIS Coalition, including community partners, teachers and elementary and high school students. We would love to broaden this conversation and hear your thoughts. What does youth civic engagement mean to you? What does it look like? What are the characteristics, skills and knowledge young people need to participate in active citizens in their communities?

Among the many things SEMIS Coalition members mentioned are that civic engagement requires are a strong voice, determination, willingness to hear other perspectives, strength to work hard, collaboration with others, care for the community, knowledge of what is happening around them and a commitment to making change.

The SEMIS Coalition strives to involve students in direct action to address ecological issues in their communities. We believe this can help to realize public education’s civic mandate and deepen civic identity. Students see themselves as civic actors and tell us that they see value in:

  • Applying learning to public issues
    • “People should do something instead of just learning about it.
  • Collective Action
    • I never could do this by myself, groups are better.”
  • Civic empowerment
    • Don’t just go to people with power, go to the citizens. The more citizens, the more people are together, the more power we have. You don’t have to sit around and wait for the big man to come around. We can do it.”

The SEMIS Coalition is beginning to frame thoughts around what we hope will become guiding principles and practices for youth civic engagement. We see the following as important ideas as we build these principles. This is our current thinking:

  • Civic engagement goes beyond the narrow framework of electoral politics.
  • It is made up of experiences that prepare young people to author their lives in a democracy.
  • The practice of working collectively in community partnerships with fellow citizens nurtures the civic commitments of students.
  • It is important to address issues of public concern.
  • Young people can be active citizens now.  They don’t have to wait until they can vote or solely tell government representatives what they think should be done, they can also participate by engaging in community action.
  • It is important that the process is student generated and driven at various levels. They can come up with ideas, create plans and put those plans into action.
  • There are multiple entry points for civic engagement. It takes place in the context of the school and community where it is happening, so each example will look different.
  • Youth-adult and peer-to-peer interaction are important.
  • Presenting in public forums helps students to grow and build efficacy.
  • Civic engagement includes engaging with the natural community. Civics includes all species and all living systems.
  • There is a lot of civic and community life that is outside of politics. Civic actions include that which is outside of interacting with governmental bodies, like formal and informal civic groups, environmental groups, social movements, advocacy in media and the arts.
  • Policies, practices and shifts in mindset or mind frame are all action spaces.

There are also many questions that accompany civic engagement education, including:

  • Is there a civic component to developing a relationship with nature, the more than human world? If we recognize that animals, plants and places are part of a community, is developing this relationship an act of civic participation?
  • Is changing your mindset a form of civic action?
  • Is civic action something directed to do something for the common good?
  • What do you think? Do you disagree with any of the above ideas? Are there other things you think should be principles of youth civic engagement?

Please help the SEMIS Coalition continue to hone these guiding principles. Share your voice!