What Is It?
CIRCLE studies and works to advance "youth civic engagement"—but what do we mean by that phrase? As you explore our work and as you consider your role within the ecosystem of youth civic engagement, we believe it's important to share our understanding of the term and how it informs of our research and advocacy.
What Is Civic Engagement?
We intentionally define "civic engagement" broadly to encompass a wide range of actions and behaviors that improve communities and help solve problems. Because youth are so diverse, as are the contexts in which they participate and the issues they face, civic engagement will necessarily mean different things to different groups of young people.
As a result, there are many ways to be civically engaged. That includes political participation; we have long focused on youth voting because elections happen everywhere and provide valuable opportunities for young people to use their voices and have a tangible impact—and because voting can serve as an entry point to other kinds of participation. But young people have political lives beyond the ballot box that meaningfully influence everything from consumer decisions to media and culture. Some youth (especially, for example, young people of color and/or LGBT youth) may see and experience their daily lives as "political" in ways that shape their views and their engagement in civic life.
Beyond politics, many other activities can also be acts of civic engagement: volunteering, working with neighbors, serving in community organizations, participating in social movements, discussing issues, reading the news, etc. Civic education is also a major focus of our work because it can and should help prepare young people for participation in their communities and in democracy; it may also incorporate civic engagement as a pedagogical approach through which students learn while doing.
How Do We Define "Youth"?
Different researchers and data sources use varied age ranges to describe "youth" or "young people". In our work, unless stated otherwise, we define youth as ages 18-29; that is the age range used, for example, in major exit polls. In certain analyses and projects, we may define youth differently (for example, our 2018 poll of young people ages 18-24) and we will always explicitly say when that's the case. In addition, as part of our CIRCLE Growing Voters framework for strengthening civic education and engagement throughout a young person's development, we're increasingly focused on youth before they turn 18. We believe it is critical for young people to build civic skills and attitudes as early as possible, and we're committed to learning more about under-18 youth's civic engagement when data is available.
In some cases, we refer to various 'generations' that include young people—such as Millennials or Generation Z. However, because there is not always broad agreement about when a given generation 'begins' or 'ends' we prefer to specify precise age ranges in most of our research.