Why Is It Important?
Our communities and our democracy become more just and equitable when all people—individually and collectively—get involved and take action. One reason to focus on youth civic engagement is that such participation is a habit like any other: starting early can form a habit of civic engagement that will last a lifetime. When all young people develop healthy civic habits, skills and commitment, our democracy will prosper. We believe this will happen when more and more diverse young people have access to opportunities that build their skills and knowledge, and that empower them to effect change, decision-making becomes more representative and communities benefit.
In fact, youth civic engagement is critical for a variety of reasons. Young people, while not a monolithic group, share certain characteristics that have the potential to make them powerful civic actors, and their participation carries benefits. They have unique perspectives on local issues, they often bring new ideas to the table, and they can be an inexhaustible source of energy and passion for social change.
Young people have a massive stake in the decisions that shape the country. Nearly all issues affect youth, and many affect youth differently or uniquely: education, healthcare, the environment, immigration, housing, gun violence, and foreign policy that may send them or their peers to war. When young people vote and participate in civic life, they can bring valuable perspectives to these issues and play an active role in shaping their future. If youth are excluded or do not participate, our democracy is not truly representing all people and not meeting its full potential.
Youth are integral to their local communities: they help shape its culture and they have extensive social connections. Just as young people experience a community's problems firsthand, they are often on the front lines of activism and other efforts to help address them. Communities are stronger and more resilient when youth participate; our research previously found that higher levels of civic engagement can help communities weather economic downturns and lead to lower unemployment rates.
Research has consistently shown that participating in communities and being a part of groups working together on an issue has numerous benefits for young people themselves. Youth engagement can lead to increased academic performance and improved social-emotional well-being. It helps young people build skills and networks that are valued in the workplace, and can thus be a source of economic mobility. When youth feel empowered to take action, and when they see their efforts achieve positive change, it can have a profound and lasting impact.
There are troubling opportunity gaps and inequities—by race, gender, education, socioeconomic status, and many other factors—that prevent individuals and communities from thriving. One source of this inequality is underrepresention in civic and political life as a result of marginalization or oppression, particularly among non-white, immigrant, and/or low-income communities and individual. Too often their voices go unheard, their problems go unaddressed, and a vicious circle of disengagement and neglect perpetuates injustice. These already intractable gaps can become more entrenched with time; thus, focusing on youth civic engagement is a critical task in the work to promote a more just and equitable society.