Guest Post: Q&A with Peter Levine of C.I.R.C.L.E.

 

Peter LevineMany thanks to Peter Levine, an expert on youth civic engagement, for answering some questions for the YVC blog! Peter is Director of C.I.R.C.L.E. (The Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement) and Research Director of Tufts University’s Jonathan Tisch College of Citizenship and Public Service. We’re excited to feature him in our first-ever YVC Blog interview!

How did you become interested in studying youth civic engagement?

My core concern is the condition of American democracy, and I began by working on the reform of our political institutions. I served on the staff of Common Cause, which lobbies for clean elections, and I wrote a book called The New Progressive Era, about political reform. I gradually decided that we will never have good institutions until we have more active citizens. And then I learned that the best way to get more active citizens is to engage people while they are young.

What is your personal experience with volunteering?

I have often volunteered, starting when I was a kid. But I am actually more interested in trying to make my day job, my paid work, as socially valuable as possible. I feel privileged to hold a job that has positive social impact and that involves collaboration with citizens outside my own organization. If I could wave a magic wand, more people would have careers that involve civic participation. That is more important than the volunteering rate for adults.

Why do you think it’s important for young people to be involved in
their communities?

Young people thrive or flourish better when they are involved in their communities. They gain skills, knowledge, satisfaction, social networks, a sense of purpose—many benefits. They also improve their communities by contributing their distinctive enthusiasm, ideas, and knowledge of youth issues. Finally, they need a political voice, or else adults will make decisions that are against their interests.

Does the quality of programs affect the impact on the youth who participate as the volunteer workers?

The answer is absolutely yes. In fact, the quality of service programs ranges so widely that some are actually harmful. The State of Maryland has a universal service mandate for public high school students. The preliminary research suggests that it may reduce young people’s civic engagement, and I suspect that is because many of the required service experiences are demeaning or pointless. On the other hand, the best programs can have powerfully positive effects. For example, youth who enter YouthBuild programs estimate their own life expectancies at 40 (on average), whereas upon completing the program, they have raised their estimate to 72–evidence that they have gained a sense of opportunity, optimism, and purpose. (See Andrew Hahn, Thomas D. Leavitt, Erin McNamara Horvat, and James Earl Davis, “Life after YouthBuild,” Somerville, MA: YouthBuild USA, 2004, via www.youthbuild.org) I would attribute those gains to the quality of YouthBuild programs.

Do you have any anecdotal and/or quantifiable information about the impact that diversity has on the success of youth volunteer programs? (Diversity being defined not only as variety of race and gender but economic status, physical and mental abilities, education institutions, political perspectives, religious affiliations, etc.) and  (success is defined as expanding the perspective of participants and increasing life skills, like cooperation, teamwork, empathy, understanding, communication, etc.)

There is some evidence that students learn more when they work together with people who are different from themselves on community projects. There is also some evidence that it is harder to have frank discussions of pertinent issues when the group is diverse. In this paper for CIRCLE, David Campbell reports, “as the percentage of white students increases, black students are less likely to report that their teachers encourage political discussion in class, and as the percentage of black students increases, white students report less discussion in schools with a larger black population. In other words … teachers appear to shy away from the discussion of political and social issues in schools where students have divergent views.” That is a problem that requires constant and skillful attention. The best scenario may be a diverse group led by a skillful person (either an adult or a youth) who knows how to support frank yet civil discussions. But that situation appears to be rare.

Do you have any anecdotal and/or quantifiable information about how the “spirit” of a youth project impacts its success? (“Spirit” meaning what a project is about – i.e., a project that unites a group around service, like planting trees, playing games with kids in homeless shelters or battered women’s shelters, projects at senior centers, etc. versus a project that unites a group around fighting for a cause, like protesting polluters, supporting funding for the arts in public education, expressing concerns about budget cuts, etc.)

I think it is very important for the spirit of the program to match the real needs of a community and the values of the young people who serve. In this paper for CIRCLE, Michelle Charles finds that many African American teenagers from the inner city of Philadelphia are unmotivated by projects that involve street cleaning and graffiti-removal (to which they are frequently assigned), because they “see first-hand how the clean-up sites repeatedly become trash-strewn after all their organized efforts,” and because such work may seem to deserve pay by the city government. On the other hand, in the same study, African American youth were observed “thriving in their mentoring roles with younger children,” which they regarded as a path to long-term and fundamental change.

What is the most interesting thing you’ve learned about civic engagement through your studies?

The usual pattern is not that someone develops civic motivations and then finds an opportunity to serve or be an activist. Instead, people are recruited to join organizations. Organizations and programs offer them tangible benefits, invite them to socialize, or just twist their arms to join. Once they are in organizations, members start to serve and develop habits that last for a lifetime. Because this is the usual pattern, it is especially troubling that the kinds of organizations that once recruited large numbers of young people—unions, politically active religious congregations, identity-based groups like the NAACP and the Knights of Columbus, political parties, and local newspapers—have all fallen on very hard times.

What are some mistakes you see people making that if you had a magic wand you would fix?

I would focus on quality and equality rather than quantity. It is not good news that most kids are volunteering if their volunteering experiences are counter-productive. We should strive to provide high-quality, rewarding civic engagement opportunities, especially for young people who are most “at risk.”

How can people learn more about your work?
We try to put all our research online at www.civicyouth.org. I blog every weekday (since 2003) at www.peterlevine.ws/mt/.