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Youth Expertise and Leadership Crucial to Intergenerational Civic Spaces

Our work supporting and evaluating the Civic Spring Project underscored powerful lessons about providing valuable civic opportunities for youth.

All around the country, youth leadership shone in 2020 during a difficult year amidst the COVID-19 pandemic, crises of racial injustice, and a polarizing national election.

One of the brightest spots of youth leadership was the Civic Spring Project. In the summer of 2020, six youth-centered organizations across the United States worked to provide young people (ages 14-25) with civic and leadership development opportunities, to advance community-based civic work to address pandemic-related needs, and to promote voter engagement in the 2020 election. In partnership with the Institute for Citizens and Scholars (C&S), CIRCLE provided technical assistance and evaluation support for the Civic Spring Project, and we’re pleased to join C&S in releasing a full report on the project.

Partnering to support focused capacity-building, CIRCLE helped the Civic Spring organizations develop concrete theories of change and implement strategies for measuring impact. In our evaluator role, we assessed the overall reach, depth, and sustainability of each initiative, triangulated across diverse qualitative and quantitative data to identify findings, key lessons learned, and implications for future civic projects.

Our work with the Civic Spring organizations also influenced our understanding of youth leadership and expertise. Grantees showcased a diversity of contexts in which civic learning can occur, from advocating for policy change to media creation. In addition, the young leaders of these organizations challenged and compelled community members and Civic Spring stakeholders to grapple with power dynamics and acknowledge privileges of age, race/ethnicity, and gender. These tensions were especially salient within the Community of Practice, a series of meetings during which participants could reflect upon their experiences, engage in cross-cutting dialogue, and acquire civic skills through co-learning. By highlighting the power of intergenerational partnerships and the nuances of youth leadership, Civic Spring contributed to our understanding of civic learning, broadly defined, and will continue to inform our efforts to reduce barriers to equitable civic access and build sustainability in the civic engagement field.

Image of Civic Spring grantees

The project also revealed opportunities for improvement: future civic spaces must interrogate power and equity in intergenerational spaces; invest in sustainable community-building; and broaden conceptions of where, how, and when civic learning occurs. We believe communities of practice in the civic learning space hold the potential to build stronger and more equitable communities when they are allocated adequate resources and designed in partnership with youth. Overall, Civic Spring demonstrated the vast promise of intergenerational spaces and communities of practice, and it points toward a path forward for equitable civic spaces that fortify youth power.

Some of our key findings and recommendations based on this work:

  1. Embrace how the time, flexibility, and depth of out-of-school civic learning experiences advance equity and optimize impact. The time and space for exploration that Civic Spring afforded the grantees enabled them to teach concrete facts about the ways in which governments and community organizations and leaders operate, helping young people gain deep working civic knowledge.
  2. Build a Community of Practice (CoP) in youth programs to create bonding, linking, and bridging social capital from within. The Civic Spring CoP served as a “proof of concept” for intergenerational communities of civic practice in which participants holding different structural power, authority, and perspectives came together. The field of civic learning should consider creating more opportunities for young people and their adult partners to develop and participate in communities of practice, providing a unique opportunity for both adults and youth to learn and reflect alongside one another. But the field must also recognize and grapple with the power structures inherent in such partnerships.
  3. Embed cross-organization collaboration and community-building among youth into the work of Community of Practice. The time together in a CoP can be leveraged further as an opportunity to expand civic skills, cross-organizational ties, and authentic peer connections. Many youth valued opportunities to work directly with peers and expressed a desire for more informal communication avenues, more consistent attendance, or meetings in smaller, more intimate groups. Future communities of practice should integrate opportunities to develop authentic social and professional connections between members and encourage implementing clear rules and expectations about connecting on a personal level.
  4. To work toward equity in access to civic spaces: pay young people—especially young people from marginalized backgrounds—for their time spent on civic work. Most “professional” civic workers get paid for the work they do, but often opportunities for youth like summer internships are unpaid because they’re seen as an enrichment opportunity. However, this type of opportunity is not accessible to many young people unless they are being paid for their time dedicated to civic work. It is imperative to provide stipends for young people.
  5. Create infrastructure and funding for longer-term communities of practice to support youth-driven civic work. The short time that Civic Spring grantees spent in a CoP revealed its profound potential, and our findings offer lessons for how to make future CoPs more effective. For this potential to be realized, we recommend a greater investment of time, resources, and emphasis placed on designing and facilitating communities of practice lead by young people who are supported by advisers ranging in ages and expertise.

Our complete findings and recommendations can be found in the full report.