Growing Change Agents

As part of the 2019 SSSP Annual Meeting, I had the pleasure of convening a panel of four scholars exploring the role community-based organizations play in engaging, developing, amplifying, and connecting youth to the larger world as social actors and agents of change.  The four presentations by Lauren Dent (University of North Texas), May Lin (University of Southern California), Jessica Sperling, (Duke University), and Wendall Wallace (University of the West Indies) shared research that included multiple contexts from youth police clubs in Trinidad and Tobago (Wallace) to a national orchestral music program targeted to youth (Sperling) to racial justice youth organizations in Southern California (Lin) to tribal youth engaged in emergency preparedness (Dent).  

With methods from deep participant observation to randomized control trials (RCT), the four scholars side-stepped the traditional take on social change that tends to examine the skills, strategies, and tactics of youth to mobilize and exert political power. Instead, these presentations collectively told a more humanistic and developmental story.  With foci on opportunity provision, social-emotional learning, building of collective identity through culture and safety, and leveraging of youth as leadership assets, these scholars highlighted that social change efforts targeting youth need to dig deeper than simple leadership skill development or issue campaign work.  

The intrapersonal and interpersonal attitudes and dispositions to affect change don’t just materialize. They are developed over time, through multiple experiences and in multiple contexts. Wallace shared how the police clubs create contexts where youth can start to see themselves in a different way — as confident and able to achieve.  Sperling’s work with Kidznotes, an orchestral music program, highlighted the importance of not only measuring traditional markers of success like academic achievement, but capacities such as executive function, prosocial behavior, and dispositions like persistence that allow youth to move into collaborative work with others. Lin’s research further stressed the need to create spaces for active listening, reflection and emotional sharing in youth change work.  This sort of healing culture is especially critical for youth of color whose often traumatic experiences in school and society benefit from being unpacked as sources of strength and collective identity. Finally, Dent’s exploration of youth in disaster preparedness efforts spoke to the real gaps and needs youth can fill in much change work if given the space to lead. In fact, their contributions can transform the work as they bring their skills and perspectives to endeavors. 

Over the last decade and a half, the growing body of work on the sociopolitical development of young people, especially as agents of change, has grown. I thank these four scholars for their contributions to this body of work.

The Act of Responding

As I am reflecting on my dissertation research about youth engagement and my experiences with community-based engagement efforts, it is not lost on me how important it is for individuals and groups to be responded to. The response acknowledges that they exist and have a voice.

But it seems for true engagement and ownership to happen the response needs to one of openness and support. The “that’s a great idea how can I help” or “that’s fantastic, do you know what might make it better” or “You have something there, you might want to consider these challenges or barriers so you don’t get stopped.” What is not helpful or empowering is the “We’ve tried that and it won’t work” or “You can’t do that” or “You are not doing that right” or “Others are already doing that.”

The best response is not only open and supportive but also helps to connect and build — the “That’s a great idea, let’s see who else is one board” or “X,Y, and Z are also working on that — let’s talk to them too.”

So, how responsive is your group, organization, community, or political processes?

Learning for Long-term Success

In November of last year, I shared a list of seven principles that our spaces for learning and development need to address in order to create young people (and ultimately a society) with strong civic capabilities.

This is the first in a series of blog posts that will explore each principle within the context of my work at JFF’s Student-Centered Learning Research Collaborative.  My ultimate goal is to integrate my thinking around civic capabilities and student-centered learning. Clearly, this is an effort to rationalize my day to day work more fully.

PRINCIPLE ONE

Organizations and individuals should be able to develop capacities to sustain and grow themselves for long-term success. 

 All good learning environments should “grow” leaners for “long-term success.” But what does long-term success mean and what should one grow? 

One marker of long-term success is meaningful work. This suggests learning environments should allow individuals to develop skills and knowledge that lend themselves to practical application in work-oriented pursuits.  To this end, competency-based learning (one of the four student-centered learning tenants) and by extension, learning that can happen anytime and anywhere (another student-centered learning tenant) are well aligned with building work skill mastery. In other words, learning should be experiential a la John Dewey.  

Experiential learning is well suited for the skills needed for successful work, what are often referred to as deeper learning competencies, soft skills or 21st century skills.  So what does growth for long-term success in the work life have to do with civic capabilities?  It is not hard to draw links between the skills developed for work-oriented pursuits (e.g. communication, collaboration, creative and critical thinking) and their applicability to civic-oriented realms such as grassroots organizing, volunteering, or issue advocacy.  Civic work is work.  It is a type of social production with different sorts of goods resulting, civic goods (e.g. collective action to improve the environment, increased understanding of important issues, stronger bonds between neighbors).

At the same time the idea of learners sustaining and growing “themselves” suggests that there is an individual value to learning.  This leads easily into the idea that learning is lifelong and never ending.  Therefore, long-term success could be found in any learning endeavor that is personally fulfilling.  Here, personalization and ownership of learning, or learner agency, are key student-centered learning ideas at play. Personalized in that every person will have a unique set of learning motivations and goals they will want to pursue.  Owned, because the motivation to engage comes from the individual who is driven in pursuit of their learning own goals and objectives.

With this frame, one would want to “grow” the ability of individuals to understand what interests them and how to choose the correct action to take to maximize that interest.  A constant assessment of whether or not one is actually achieved one’s end goals in their learning pursuit would be critical.  So here, skills like critical thinking, reflection, metacognition, problem-solving, decision-making, and host of other executive order skills are demanded.

What does this framing of long-term success have to do with civic capabilities?  To know one’s self and to act on one’s own interests is agentic.  To have agency or to act in an agentic manner, is core to civic action. But what is really important about the idea of learners sustaining and growing “themselves” is the idea that learners “should be able to develop” themselves.  It is the idea of having the ability that enforces the concept that learners have agency.  It is not that “individuals must develop” (which is prescriptive) or we “must develop individuals” (which is paternalistic). Rather, individuals “should be able to develop”, if they so choose. They are not being forced to sustain and grow, they are simply being afforded the opportunity to do so. And assumed in this principle is that ALL learners should be afforded this opportunity.

Connecting “ME” to “WE”

Image result for self-organizing teams

A few years ago, my former teammates at CIRCLE worked on a set of civic capabilities that every person should be afforded.  Adapting Amartya Sen and Martha Nussbaum’s  human development and capabilities framework, we came up with a pretty great list of 10 civic capabilities.  I share this background, because out of that work myself and the other CIRCLE team members thought through our own extensions and modifications that we would add.  I came across my list of 7 principles that connect the individual (me) to a larger collective world (we).  I share them here as I start to contemplate what it means to connect student-centered learning to the development of civic capabilities:

  1. Organizations and individuals should be able to develop capacities to sustain and grow themselves for long-term success.  (Related values:  knowledge, education, investing)
  2. Opportunities for involvement in civic and political life should be equitable and accessible. (Related values:  justice, fairness)
  3. We should strive to create compassionate and tolerant environments that support a diversity of views, opinions, skills and talents. (Related values:  empathy, love, openness, generosity)
  4. Our civic and public spaces should allow for the development of respect, trust and connection. (Related values:  belonging, community)
  5. Those who hold power should be accountable to all members of society, especially those who are most marginalized. (Related values: justice, fairness, trust)
  6. We should work in solidarity with others to promote fairness and work always towards positive change.  (Related values:  community, cooperation, belonging, hopefulness, impact)
  7. Fearlessness and courage are needed when confronting those who curtail the freedom, happiness, and lives of others. (Related values:  liberty, integrity, duty,  ethics)