I still remember the phone call from my then 14-year old daughter one Saturday morning years ago. She wanted to do her part for the presidential election and was volunteering her services in the local headquarters. "Mom, there’s a street person (probably homeless) in here eating the stale doughnuts. What should I do?" "Are there other volunteers with you?" "No."
My daughter was and still is very engaged politically, but why did the adults assume they could leave her in charge of the headquarters downtown? However, her experiences as a teen helped to fashion her ongoing interest in policy and politics.
My children have observed me as a volunteer (4-H club leader, Sunday school teacher) and they have been teen volunteers themselves (historic museum docents and 4-H camp counselors). Their father volunteers his time regularly to help political candidates get elected.
Of course, politics is sometimes a dinnertime conversation. One memorable time we discussed the United Nations at dinnertime when, I discovered later, every other family with a fourth-grader in the township was quizzing their youngsters about geology for a test at school. And we have always taken our children to our polling place to observe democracy in action during elections.
Today one of my children volunteers at the Center for Wooden Boats and has been active with a group advocating for a subway in that city. The other has been campaign manager for a legislator and now is working with legislators and other decision-makers crafting a policy proposal to support expanded technical education in her state.
How have you encouraged your children, grandchildren or the neighbor children to engage in civic and political action? Can you be effective mentoring youths in civic engagement?
What role do schools play? There is concern among some folks that No Child Left Behind has squeezed social studies out of the curriculum as we test for reading, math and science skills. In the beginning public education was promoted initially so that our youth would have the tools and knowledge to participate effectively in our young democracy. Civic education was one of the principle subjects of 19th and early 20th century education. Reading primers often had stories that focused on positive character development and helping one’s family and community. History class included biographies of social and political leaders.
How is civic and political engagement promoted today? A number of schools do encourage or require community volunteer experiences. They are especially valuable when service learning is incorporated. This means that before volunteering, students learn about the agency and its mission. They learn how the tasks they will do help the agency meet its mission. After performing the volunteer tasks, the students meet again to discuss the experience, ask questions, and decide what more they want to do, either as individuals or as a group.
Volunteerism among young people is strong, probably due to these school or faith-based experiences. But among Millennials, born after 1980, civic and political engagement may also look a little different from what their parents and grandparents did.
Today’s Millennials engage with their communities via technology. They donate money online. They hold meetings via technology. A few create neighborhood newspapers online to keep everyone abreast of neighborhood news. They volunteer to do specific work with a group of their friends - for the day.
Civic and political engagement is still alive and well. What do you do to generate civic and political engagement among the next generation in your community? I’d love to hear from you. Email me (check the right side column) with your ideas and thoughts. I’d like to share through this blog what is being done in other communities.