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How Developing Civic Skills Can Translate to Broader Youth Development

An evaluation by former CIRCLE Director Peter Levine underscores the value of a developmental approach to youth civic engagement.

As part of CIRCLE’s focus on closing civic learning and opportunity gaps among youth, we form partnerships with youth-serving and youth-led groups to help build knowledge and increase our impact. The following research highlights one such partnership. It focuses on skill development for college, career, and civic life, and involves sustained programming, respect, and youth voice.

Points of Light’s ServiceWorks program engages thousands of disadvantaged1 teenagers and young adults (known as “Scholars” in the program) across the United States. The young people, ages 16-24, participate in a series of about five educational modules designed to enhance their skills for work and higher education. Of those who completed the exit survey as part of the learning partnership, almost all were either in high school (77 percent) or held jobs (33 percent). They receive support from AmeriCorps VISTAs (Volunteers in Service to America), other adult volunteers, and/or professional program staff and teachers at sites including, among others, a juvenile detention facility, a community-based program for teen mothers, a full-service community development corporation connected to an important church, and several large urban school systems. Scholars conduct community service projects, including a capstone project that they choose and design.

Tisch College Associate Dean and former CIRLCE Director Peter Levine recently conducted an evaluation of ServiceWorks based on original interviews, review of pre-test and post-test survey data from Scholars and VISTAs, and a close review of the program’s documents. The evaluation has now been published.

Key Findings

  • The program’s design is consistent with previous research that shows that giving disadvantaged youth opportunities to serve their communities also strengthens skills, habits, and dispositions that help them in school, college, and careers.
  • Numerous former participants report highly concrete benefits, from support for college application and enrollment to obtaining specific jobs thanks to contacts in the program. They also describe subtler shifts in their core values and expectations for themselves.
  • The meetings and events that occur through ServiceWorks feel to many participants like islands of purposive, constructive, and focused work amid chaos and dysfunction that prevails elsewhere in their schools and neighborhoods.

Lessons for the Field

  • Scale vs. Depth: Programs that aim to provide compelling positive experiences for young people must weigh the competing goals of reaching many youth and deeply affecting the participants, particularly those who are highly disadvantaged. ServiceWorks sought to reach 25,000 youth over three years with a medium-dosage program (more sustained than a one-time service project, but less intensive than a full-time opportunity lasting months such as YouthBuild, City Year, or the National Guard’s Youth ChalleNGe program). Although ServiceWorks has found a reasonable balance between size and depth, this demonstration project reinforces that trade-off. Pushing for large numbers may have shifted at least some ServiceWorks sites toward enrolling not-as-disadvantaged youth or lowering expectations for how much each Scholar would accomplish. Focusing resources on fewer youth might produce higher impact and increase the proportion of participants who are particularly disadvantaged.
  • Demonstrating Skills for the Labor Market: Although the evidence collected here shows that ServiceWorks Scholars gain skills, particularly project-management skills that would help them in the workforce, prospective employers may not always recognize the value of these skills. ServiceWorks and similar programs should consider offering reliable certificates or credentials for participants who demonstrate job-relevant skills (and not automatically for those who complete the program). The challenge of connecting youth who have 21st century skills to jobs will require shared understanding and partnerships between youth-serving nonprofits and employers.
  • Incorporating Youth into Diverse, Intergenerational Teams: At least some ServiceWorks sites bring youth of diverse backgrounds together with adults to collaborate on social issues. Youth contribute distinctive knowledge and talents, as do the VISTA members, unpaid adult volunteers, program staff, and professional educators. The atmosphere is one of mutual respect, shared learning, empathy, and collaboration. Scholars value that atmosphere and find it atypical in their lives. ServiceWorks and similar programs should give explicit attention to creating such climates.
  • Youth Voice: ServiceWorks encourages Scholars to choose issues and strategies for their service projects. Scholars often identify very difficult issues, discuss these topics with sophistication and nuance, and then struggle to implement projects that would address the underlying causes that they have identified. Although giving young people choice and voice is important, asking them to plan and implement a whole social change initiative in a short period may produce frustration. Possible solutions include structuring deliberations so that young people are more likely to choose successful projects, connecting youth to ongoing initiatives, or recognizing that they have natural talents and affinities for awareness-raising, media-production, and policy advocacy, and highlighting those activities (along with conventional community service). That would mean viewing programs like ServiceWorks as a potential space for youth-driven media-literacy education or Action Civics (a recent movement that emphasizes youth voice in policy) as well as examples of service-learning and workforce education.