Journal Issue: Transition to Adulthood Volume 20 Number 1 Spring 2010
Institutionalized Opportunities for Civic Engagement
Several leading American institutions already engage substantial numbers of people under the age of thirty in civic activities. These settings, though, could provide more effective and equitable civic opportunities. We explore the most common forms of institutionalized engagement in the following sections.
Community Volunteer Work
Organized volunteering activities—typically arranged by schools, colleges, religious congregations, or nonprofit organizations—represent common institutionally supported opportunities for civic engagement and learning. Today's young adults grew up during a period when community service was becoming almost a normal part of growing up. Since the early 1990s, a steadily increasing number of middle and, especially, high schools have been offering some type of community service or service-learning courses as an option or, in some cases, a mandate for high school graduation. Trends in the Monitoring the Future study of high school seniors show that volunteering in the community has become more common. Between 1976 and 1990, rates were fairly steady, with 22 percent of young people reporting that they had participated in community affairs or volunteer work at least once or twice a month or more. Between 1990 and 2000 there was a steady increase, with 35 percent in 2000 reporting such involvement, and the trend has held steady since that time.27
According to the Corporation for National and Community Service's national study of public school principals, between 1999 and 2008 the share of middle and high schools offering opportunities for students to serve rose from 64 to 68 percent, with the share of high schools growing from 83 to 86 percent. Schools in low-income areas, however, were 26 percent less likely to have opportunities for service learning.28
Adolescents also get engaged in community service through community-based youth organizations and religious congregations. According to a national survey of youth aged twelve to eighteen, those who regularly attend religious services are nearly twice as likely to volunteer as are those who never attend services. Of the 49 percent who attend weekly services, 64 percent report that they regularly volunteer in their community, although not necessarily with their congregation. The religious congregation is the main avenue through which youth from disadvantaged backgrounds volunteer.29
Colleges and universities are also offering more opportunities for, and expecting more students to engage in, community volunteer work. A comparison of a large student cohort attending more than a hundred universities between 1985 and 1989 and another cohort attending those same universities between 1994 and 1998 showed substantial increases in community service across time.30 Population-based studies of American adults also show that the share of college students who have done some kind of volunteer work rose from 27.1 percent in 2002 to 30.2 percent in 2005, surpassing the 28.8 percent rate for the general adult population.31
Although only 11 percent of non-college young adults reported volunteering in 2008, that figure nevertheless represents millions of volunteers, most of whom served through institutions. Thirty-seven percent of young-adult volunteers without college experience reported serving through churches or other religious congregations; 27 percent, through children's educational, sports, or recreational programs. In both cases, volunteers without college experience were more likely than their college-educated peers to have named these organizations as their main site of volunteering. About half of non-college youth who volunteered reported being asked to serve by someone in the organization.32 Although institutionalized opportunities for community service are fairly rare for young adults who do not attend college, about 5 percent of this population reports serving as a result of being recruited by someone in a service organization. This institutional infrastructure could be expanded.
The benefits to the volunteer in terms of motivations and skills depend on the quality of the service project itself. But some evidence suggests that engaging in volunteer work generally during the high school years causes young people to pause and reconsider their vocational priorities. For example, one panel study of a representative community sample found that taking part in community service strengthens intrinsic work values, leads youth to rethink their vocational priorities, and encourages a less individualistic focus on careers.33 The potential civic benefits of time spent in community work during the late adolescent and young-adult years may be especially important because trends over the past three decades indicate that youth may be adapting to an unpredictable labor market by considering stable paid work less central to their identities.34 As the transition to adulthood lengthens, community volunteer work may allow youth to become more relaxed about finding the right job, at least right away, and may help them to reevaluate what they are looking for in a job.
Youth Organizing and Activism Projects
Over the past twenty years, scholars have begun paying closer attention to youth organizing and activism projects.
Activism as a form of civic engagement is distinct from service or volunteer work and from political advocacy on behalf of youth in that young activists themselves define the political targets and lead the projects. Adults are involved as partners and train the younger generation in community organizing, analyzing power, developing skills, and devising strategies for institutional change. But the young people are the agents of change. And, typically, youth organizing and activism attract young people in marginalized communities who, collectively, are addressing issues that concern them. Prominent themes in youth activist projects include reform of public education and the poor quality of urban schools, community development projects to include marginalized youth and challenge gentrification, the criminal justice system, police brutality and racial profiling, and gender and sexual equality.
Youth activism also differs from service-learning and mainstream youth development programs in that it empowers young people to redress perceived injustice rather than to provide a community service. The model borrows heavily from community organizing, typically involves a critical analysis of social, political, and economic power, and emphasizes collective concerns identified by and actions led by young people to improve their everyday lives. Many projects draw from youth culture and educate the young people about the history of civil rights activism of their racial/ethnic group.
Both the practice and the study of youth organizing and activism have grown over the past several decades and focus on issues of school reform, incarceration, and community safety. Youth activism offers unique opportunities for political growth for youth whose interests and needs are too often marginalized by traditional youth organizations.35 According to a two-year study of twelve community organizations—as part of the Youth Leadership for Development Initiative of the Ford Foundation—activism tends to engage late adolescents and young adults, reframes personal problems of everyday life into political issues shared by a community, and provides challenge, leadership, and personal support comparable to or greater than that provided by conventional youth organizations.36