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Teen Reading Lounge participants at Free Library of Philadelphia--Greater Olney took part in a 5k to raise money for clean water in Kenya.
The Power of Youth-Driven Civic Engagement

PHC's Teen Reading Lounge has run in 79 libraries across the state of Pennsylvania. In addition to the original program structure, PHC has also launched special Teen Reading Lounge pilots that focus on engaging youth from diverse and low-income backgrounds, as well as providing ways for teens to meaningfully contribute to their communities and participate in civically focused activities. Through our efforts to continuously improve programming, PHC has built relationships with expert consultants such as Valerie Adams-Bass.

Valerie Adams-Bass is a developmental psychologist who earned her PhD in Interdisciplinary Studies in Human Development from the University of Pennsylvania’s Graduate School of Education. She focuses on adolescent development. Dr. Adams-Bass is an Assistant Professor of Youth and Social Innovations in the Department of Human Services at the University of Virginia Curry School of Education. She is a faculty affiliate with the Youth-Nex Center to Promote Effective Youth Development in the Curry School of Education at University of Virginia and an affiliate faculty member of the Racial Empowerment Collaborative with the University of Pennsylvania’s Graduate School of Pennslyania.

Valerie has helped PHC understand how the humanities and the higher order thinking skills associated with the humanities can prepare underserved youth to participate in a larger civic and political arena. She shares some thoughts on these topics in the following post.

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When youth are involved in projects in which they have an expressed interest or identified as important, they are excited about the initiative and are willing to take the lead; they are invested in the vision and the final project or product. This is defined as a youth-driven initiative--a hallmark of PHC's Teen Reading Lounge program. Take a minute to imagine how you feel when you are working with a team of colleagues or classmates and your ideas are central to the project. How much effort do you put into the project? What if you are in charge of planning a family reunion, how would you describe your efforts?  Most likely, you were willing to work diligently towards a successful project or reunion. Youth often respond similarly when they are involved in youth-driven civic engagement, and with the support of adults, a dynamic project will emerge. As co-chair of this year’s annual Youth-Nex Center for Positive Youth Development at the University of Virginia’s Curry School of Education I am excited about researchers, practitioners and youth coming together for our theme of Youth Civic and Political Engagement.

Teens at Allen F. Pierce Free Library hosted a vendor fair to benefit a peer who needed medical treatment. Photo By Carrie Geer.

Civic engagement provides an opportunity for young people to become actively involved in their communities. Commonly referenced definitions of youth civic engagement focus on traditional activities that correlate with citizenship through political and community involvement. More comprehensive definitions of civic engagement for children and youth include a range of activities such as participation in food drives, an annual walk or run fundraiser, serving as a youth representative on community boards, involvement with local political organizations, participation in community preservation activities, or developing an agenda to address or bring attention to social inequities such as public education, gentrification-community displacement, police brutality or health disparities.

For urban youth who are often racially/ethnically diverse, labeled at-risk, and silenced about issues that directly impact their lives, civic engagement projects allow them a platform to express their voice collectively and respond to challenges from a first-person perspective. Through their work, scholars such as Ginwright, Flanagan and Noguera provide examples of urban youth organizing using a Positive Youth Development framework. Positive Youth Development is an asset-based approach to supporting the healthy development of youth through the 6 “Cs”; Character, Competence, Confidence, Connection, Caring and Contribution (i). Youth who exhibit the first 5 Cs are more likely to be civically engaged, and providing them opportunities to contribute (civic participation) leads to further positive youth development (ii). Essential to supporting youth who are involved in, or developing youth civic engagement projects are caring adults who can help make connections to community resources.

Public libraries are a rich resource for youth civic engagement. Connecting with youth who are involved with a project or providing an opportunity for youth to develop a civic engagement project is an ideal opportunity for librarians to introduce youth to the wealth of knowledge freely available to them and for libraries to gain new patrons who may become active supporters of the library. A few of the most valuable resources that libraries offer are caring adults, free safe space, free access to digital resources, free access to newer technologies, free access to a world-wide web connection, free access to thousands of books, videos, music, photographs, magazines, newspapers, maps, digital archives and in some cases microfiche--yes microfiche!

            Teenagers are at a stage in their lives where they are experiencing increased autonomy and decision making. Allowing them to take the lead is a perfect opportunity for them to practice and develop leadership skills and make decisions. Whether gathering support for involvement in an annual fundraiser of their choice or a social justice initiative, youth today are tuned into media more than any other generation and can likely put together a publicity campaign better than many adults, knowing where and how to target multiple audiences across the variety of social media platforms that are available today. Depending on the project, youth may develop a sustainability plan that includes recruiting additional youth and community partners as collaborators for the project and for the library. Youth civic engagement fosters the 6 Cs-Character, Competence, Confidence, Connection, Caring and Contribution. More and more practitioners and researchers are acknowledging the value of youth civic engagement. What are you waiting for? Make the connection!

-Valerie N. Adams-Bass, PhD

 

(i) Sherrod, L.R., Torney-Purta, J., & Flanagan, C.A. (2010). Handbook of Research on Civic Engagement in Youth. Hoboken, NJ: Wiley & Sons Publications.

(ii) Lerner, R. (2004). Liberty: Thriving and civic engagement among America’s youth. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications. 

 

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