Other Youth Topics

Civic Engagement

Youth participating in civic engagement activities

Civic engagement involves “working to make a difference in the civic life of one’s community and developing the combination of knowledge, skills, values and motivation to make that difference. It means promoting the quality of life in a community, through both political and non-political processes.”1 Civic engagement includes both paid and unpaid forms of political activism, environmentalism, and community and national service.2 Volunteering, national service, and service-learning are all forms of civic engagement.

According to the 2006 National Civic and Political Health Survey, seven percent of 15- to 25-year-old Americans participated in 10 or more community engagement or political activities within the previous year.3 When compared to their peers who report no civic engagement activities, this group was more likely to be African-American, urban, attend church regularly, from a family with parents who volunteer, a current student (in college or high school), and from college-educated home.4

The Corporation for National and Community Service (CNCS) is a federal agency established in 1993 that engages Americans in service through its core programs: AmeriCorps, and Senior Corps, as well as national volunteer efforts through Serve.gov. CNCS serves as the nation’s largest grantmaker for service and volunteering and harnesses the energy and talents of citizens to solve problems. Everyone can make a difference and should try, regardless of age.

Participation in civic engagement activities can help youth become better informed about current events. For example, according to the 2006 National Civic and Political Health Survey, approximately a quarter of youth who had not participated in civic engagement activities within the last year did not answer any questions regarding current politics correctly.5

Definition and Constructs

Youth civic engagement is defined as working to make a difference in the civic life of one’s community. It also involves developing the combination of knowledge, skills, values, and motivation to make that difference.6 These activities enrich the lives of youths and are socially beneficial to the community. Four interrelated constructs have been identified in the research literature as necessary for civic engagement (see Figure 1).

FIGURE 1: FOUR CONSTRUCTS OF CIVIC ENGAGEMENT

Four Constructs of Civic Engagement: Civic Action, Civic Commitment or Duty, Civic Skills, Social Cohesion

Volunteering is only one form of civic engagement included, as defined above, in the construct of civic action and civic commitment or duty, but research has also shown a connection between youth who volunteer and other forms of youth civic engagement. Findings suggest that “among youth, volunteering plays a valuable role in shaping how youth learn to interact with their community and develop the skills, values, and sense of empowerment necessary to become active citizens.”7

While many youth volunteer, most young people do not see a connection between volunteering and political engagement or activism. In the 2006 National Civic and Political Health Survey, the majority of young people said that they volunteered in order to help others, not to address a social or political problem. Only six percent of youth believed that their volunteering was a means to address social or political problems.8

Another possible form of civic action and civic commitment and duty is service-learning. According to the American Psychological Association,9 service-learning and civic engagement can be related but are not the same thing. Service-learning does not have to include a civic dimension and all forms of civic engagement are not service-learning. Civic engagement is a broader concept that may encompass, but is not limited to, service-learning. Service-learning differs from community service or volunteerism in two distinct ways:

  • The service activity is integrated with academic curriculum and content.
  • Students engage in reflection activities after their service experience and apply their learning in real-life activities.10

Resources

Character and Civic Education
The U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Safe and Drug Free Schools’ Character and Civic Education group administers various programs in character and civics education. These programs include providing financial assistance for character and citizenship education activities in elementary and secondary schools and institutions of higher education, and reporting on issues and programs, disseminating information, and providing technical assistance to state agencies and state and local correctional institutions.

Corporation for National and Community Service (CNCS)
CNCS was created as an independent agency of the United States government by the National and Community Service Trust Act of 1993. The mission of CNCS is to “support the American culture of citizenship, service, and responsibility.” Currently, CNCS delivers several programs that are designed to help communities address poverty, the environment, education, and other unmet human needs. From 1993-2013, Learn and Serve America provided funding and other resources to support school-based, higher education, and community-based service-learning.

Helping Your Child Become a Responsible Citizen (PDF, 43 Pages)
This resource from the U.S. Department of Education provides information about the values and skills that contribute to character and good citizenship, including guidance on what parents can do to help their elementary-, middle-, and high school-aged children develop strong character.

References

1 Erlich, 2000
2 Michelsen, Zaff, & Hair, 2002
3 Lopez, Levine, Both, Kiesa, Kirby, & Marcelo, 2006
4 Dávila & Mora, 2007
5 Dávila & Mora, 2007
6 Erlich, 2000
7 Corporation for National and Community Service, 2005
8 Lopez, Levine, Both, Kiesa, Kirby, & Marcelo, 2006
9 American Psychological Association, 2010
10 College of Southern Maryland, 2010

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