“Third time’s a charm.” It’s one of those family sayings that I have found to be not only colorful, but equally applicable in child rearing, home repair and public policy analysis. If, in the course of a month or two, the same challenge pops up in three different situations, I take note.
Which is what I did when, in three separate meetings with Capitol Hill staffers, local and regional funders, and city planners, two concerns repeatedly worked into the conversations: out-of-school time programs and youth civic engagement.
It’s hard enough to work around one elephant in the room, let alone two. Regardless of how these subjects arose – as already-made commitments, competing alternatives, or seemingly complementary strategies – the challenge was the same: how to link ever-growing interest in out-of-school time programs with building interest in civic engagement.
The underlying question was: Are these concepts linked, or are they parallel? The desire to think of them as closely linked is quickly outweighed by the frustration of figuring out exactly how they are linked. The compromise is to claim that they are both in the same family: They both help youth.
We can do better than that.
The nationwide push for more after-school programming is as close as youth advocates have come in a long time to having a new universal right to promote. After-school programs have been sold as the cure for everything from lagging work force productivity to sagging achievement scores to delinquency. The economic downturn has slowed the pace of funding, but it has not stopped the call for planning and expanding.
Youth civic engagement is getting increasing attention as a universal responsibility on the brink of collapsing. Deep concerns have been raised about the exodus of young people from traditional forms of civic engagement, such as voting, party politics and issue awareness. Long-neglected strategies are being dusted off and assessed. Young people are being wooed to join boards; mayors and governors are creating youth councils; school-based civic education is being revamped; youth vote initiatives are multiplying.
How do we link a rights-based movement to create tangible programs for elementary- and middle-school youth with a responsibility-based movement to secure tangible participation by teens and young adults? The key is not to link the specific agendas, but to link the ideas behind them.
The ideas revolve around questions: How do youth rights relate to youth responsibilities? What are young people and their families responsible for? What rights do they have to the services, supports and opportunities needed to prepare for and execute their responsibilities?
The fundamental question about rights and responsibilities language does not come up often in American youth policy debates, but it is central to these debates in other countries. Our concerns about youth engagement in the United States focus on civic engagement. Like other countries, we expect our young people to be engaged in education, the work force and family life.
There are penalties for truancy, limits on welfare and restrictions on independence.
In the United States, we convey these expectations almost exclusively through the family. Anyone who watches TV sitcoms knows that it is the family’s job to make the children go to school, get a job, do chores, monitor their friends and, eventually, move out on their own. Anyone who sees public service announcements knows that it is young people’s responsibility to stay out of trouble.
In other countries, I have listened to children as young as 8 talk with pride about their responsibilities to their family, community and country. I have listened to them juxtapose that responsibility with razor-sharp analyses of their rights and the extent to which those rights are supported or violated. I have listened to them plan for change.
We must do better at linking these ideas of rights and responsibilities. Out-of-school programs are opportunities for expanded engagement, not just supervision. Youth civic engagement is not just about shadowing elected officials or voting for candidates but about assessing and advocating for basic rights.
Families, schools, communities and governments need to talk directly to young people about their responsibility to be absolutely ready by 21 for all that lies ahead; to partner with young people to ensure that communities offer ample and appropriate opportunities for learning and engagement; and to expect and encourage young people to exercise their right to get these opportunities and to support and challenge the systems that create them.