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America’s Civic Renewal Movement: Implications for Youth Engagement

A report co-authored by CIRCLE Director Peter Levine draws important conclusions from the insights of top leaders in American civic life.

On April 16, Tisch College released “America’s Civic Renewal Movement: The View from Organizational Leaders” by CIRCLE Director Peter Levine and Eric Liu, the founder and CEO of Citizen University and executive director of the Aspen Institute Citizenship and American Identity Program.

At Tisch College, the home of CIRCLE, we define “civic renewal” as efforts to increase the scale, impact, and equity of civic engagement in the United States. With support from the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, Levine and Liu interviewed 20 leaders from large, national organizations that organize civic engagement about strategies for civic renewal.

The focus of this report was not youth, nor were many of the interviewees young people. Nevertheless, the key findings are applicable to efforts to increase the scale and impact of youth civic engagement, which is CIRCLE’s core focus.

First, several of the organizational leaders interviewed for the paper lamented the lack of youth in formal settings, such as public hearings or lobbying efforts. They suggested that youth are interested but are not invited or encouraged to participate in these ways. Bill Muse from the National Issues Forums Institute said that younger people are rarely enlisted as moderators of community conversations, but when they do moderate, they do a fantastic job. Lenny Mendonca of McKinsey & Co., who serves on several influential nonprofit boards concerned with democracy, said that most of his peers are “people like me, middle-aged white men who want to help.” He wants to see younger people, people of color, and non-English-speaking people in leadership roles.

Second, the paper makes the case that the grassroots activists who enable civic participation are essential for civic renewal. Large and powerful institutions such as the federal government, school systems, political parties, and the mass media lack incentives to support civic engagement; and average Americans have had too little civic experience to demand more. But there are grassroots civic leaders who are deeply invested in civic activities. They have the skills and motivations to create new opportunities for others.

The paper finds that civic organizations as diverse as Citizens for Self-Governance, Ducks Unlimited, MoveOn, Student Veterans of America, and United We Dream (all included in the study) work on civic renewal—although without using that term—but do not yet form a coherent network. Among the twenty organizations, some have reasonably compatible political agendas, but few work together. The paper makes a case for network-building in the cause of civic renewal.

The paper also proposes a taxonomy. Groups can be large (reaching many people) or deep (helping their members to achieve profound personal change). Groups can be ideologically and philosophically diverse, or they can be focused on a shared agenda. The authors find a lack of organizations that are large and also diverse; this appears to be a gap not only among the interviewees’ groups but in the whole current landscape of American civil society. And they find that the large groups struggle to be deep, and vice-versa.

For instance, Scott Reed of the faith-based PICO network said that his organization “invests lots and lots of time to connect with people and develop relations.” But “scale is what we are trying to figure out … because we are nowhere near where we want.” Meanwhile, Anna Galland of MoveOn acknowledged that the online organization has “tremendous scale and little depth.” MoveOn’s goal, she says, is to “move from a list of 8 million to horizontal connectivity.”

Young people are coming of age at a time that the interviewees described as highly polarized, unequal, and corrupt. They are also developing their civic identities when there is not yet a robust network for civic renewal, although there are many impressive groups that could form such a network.

For people primarily concerned with civic education and civic engagement, the paper poses questions about how to build a base of active supporters, how to connect them into more effective networks, and how to offer young people organizations that are deep as well as large, and diverse as well as focused.