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Involving Youth in Research on Youth Civic Engagement

With support from CIRCLE experts, youth researchers with 18by Vote conduct Groundbreaking Youth-Led Civic Engagement Research 

Authors: Xol Aceytuno, Ava Mateo, Ruby Belle Booth, Sara Suzuki, Mahnoor Hussain


Research on youth civic engagement is often conducted without meaningful input and leadership from youth. In direct opposition to this practice, 18by Vote, a youth-led civic engagement organization, hosted a cohort of six young researchers, ages 17-20, in an innovative fellowship program conducting research on youth civic engagement. With the support of 18by Vote staff and program partners like CIRCLE and Emerson College Polling, these research fellows led a nationwide, collaborative, mixed-methods research project exploring what impacts young Americans on their journey of civic engagement. 

The Exploring Youth Engagement (EYE) Research Fellowship equipped youth with the knowledge and tools needed to conduct research on youth civic engagement. Fellows gained a new understanding of both quantitative and qualitative research methodologies, and their learning took place within a pedagogical practice that centered youth liberation, civic education, and social justice.

Civic Engagement as Part of the Research Process

The EYE Research Fellowship was designed so that fellows were simultaneously engaging in and investigating youth civic engagement. For example, fellows participated in civic assemblies as part of the data collection process. Civic assemblies were community spaces where a given topic or question was discussed, providing opportunities for young people to engage in dialogue and deliberation.

During participant recruitment, fellows intentionally contacted youth who were already involved civically, but also connected with young people who had not engaged in the past. For many youth, a first step in their civic engagement journey is having an initial experience with, or meaningful connection to, a civic engagement organization or a peer that is deeply engaged in civic life. Thus, fellows were stimulating collective increased participation as part of their research by introducing peers to civic engagement. In addition, the fellows expressed that having a deeper understanding of their peers’ relationship to getting involved supported their own civic engagement.

To further propel civic engagement in their communities, fellows were asked to utilize their research findings to create recommendations for facilitating youth civic engagement. In this manner, the fellowship directly contributed to increased collective engagement by promoting data-driven methods of getting youth more involved. The integration of civic engagement within the EYE Research Fellowship’s research process meant that it was being strengthened both at the individual and collective level. One fellow shared that they had been interested in civic engagement but had not been heavily involved until participating in the program. They are now a leader in their local community, using the research evidence to facilitate the civic engagement of others and sharing their experience to inspire others to become more involved.

Conducting Research with Intergenerational Mentorship

A key strength of the Research Fellowship program is its adherence to key principles of effective youth-adult partnership. As a youth-led research program that is uniquely situated within a youth-led civic engagement organization, the program benefited from being designed by young leaders in the civic engagement space. Fellows were recruited who had strong interest—and often experience—in the research area of focus: civic engagement. Additionally, a cohort model enabled youth to learn from each other and engage in a collective process that strengthened professional skills beyond those directly related to research.

The program also incorporated elements (also often found within Youth Participatory Action Research) that supported youth in thinking critically about the research process and the issues that they were considering. Fellows were encouraged to problematize dominant norms within the research process, discussing topics such as research ethics, motivations for doing research, and how research is disseminated and made accessible. Fellows also interrogated their topic—youth civic engagement—using their lived experience to challenge stereotypes.

The program also took advantage of intergenerational mentorship, bringing together youth fellows with professionals within the research community. Innovative Research Mentors, composed of graduate student researchers and professional civic engagement researchers, provided direct support and mentorship to the youth during research design and execution. Under the guidance of the staff of 18by Vote, mentors shared their expertise with the EYE research fellows, helping them to learn about the research process and craft their own research. Whether presenting on how to conduct research or participating in small group discussions, the mentors’ work was made easier by the abundant curiosity and enthusiasm of the fellows. Discussing issues related to both research and youth civic participation with the fellows offered new perspectives to mentors, highlighting the bidirectional benefits of intergenerational collaboration.

Discover the Research Findings in the 18by Vote EYE Research Report

The 18by Vote EYE Research Fellows uncovered fascinating insights on the civic engagement journeys of young people through their research. Their findings explore the impact of different sociopolitical influencers such as friends, parents, and educators on the civic engagement of youth, as well as the role that identity plays in shaping the civic involvement of Gen Z. 

You can find more information on the EYE Research Fellowship and read the EYE Research Report at this link.