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Harnessing Community Engagement and Civic Spirit to Help Young People

Of all the recommendations to accelerate progress for young people in Our Work—including building relationships and creating more pathways—the third and final may seem like the most esoteric of all: engaging the community and renewing our collective civic spirit.

The research in Our Work shows that young people are more likely to reach developmental milestones and move up the economic ladder when the people, organizations, and systems that surround them believe in them and act with a sense of collective responsibility for their success.

It’s a combination of active support and subtle messaging, which both send powerful signals to young people that they matter. How exactly can organizations and systems create those structures and signals?

Here are a few suggestions from Our Work:

Find leaders who address community need alongside organizational goals. Our research showed that leaders who are inclined toward service, learning, and humility are more likely to succeed. Leaders should be more adaptive than rigid and must be identified and cultivated more intentionally. They are more responsive to the voice of all members of a community, not just those in traditional organizational roles of power and influence.

Embed youth voice, empowerment, and capacity building into planning and implementation. The voices of young people are valuable in informing and evaluating programs, and systems that explicitly serve young people should harness that power. Organizations can build youth capacity and agency to advocate and serve—ultimately, this equips young people to better influence their own positive outcomes.

5 Programs Cultivating Youth Voice

Recognize the role business must play. Businesses are increasingly paying attention to their interaction with society, demonstrated through an increased focus on corporate social responsibility, family-supporting practices, and sustainable business practices. These practices can and do affect individual young people every day. Business can enhance the pathways available to young people by identifying opportunities to give young people the chance to experience work and connect it to their education.

Bob Harvey of the Greater Houston Partnership told us, “One thing that is so powerful in our community—and should be in all communities—is the civic mindset, an ethos and expectation that business will show up and connect with its neighbors, customers, employees, and beyond.”

Identify and work to overcome the historic barriers to trust in a community. Trust is the foundation for collaboration between organizations, and between organizations and the individuals they serve. Through their actions, organizations and systems can create a sense of welcome and belonging—or a sense of fear and mistrust. People can overcome mistrust thought the hard work of recognizing and correcting explicit and implicit discrimination and disenfranchisement.

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Offer opportunities for various types of service, for both adults and young people. Service in its many forms—volunteering, national service, and informal acts of neighborly care—builds awareness and empathy. While the use of personal technology has created new opportunities for engagement, a text message cannot replace a conversation when it comes to creating trust, connection, and civic identity.

Organizations in communities can signal the importance of active citizenship by creating more opportunities for young people to serve throughout their development and more opportunities for adults to serve alongside them.

As Dr. Michael Lomax from the United Negro College Fund said, “This must be the era of collaboration and partnership. There is no single organization that can do this work alone.”

This story is part of the #Recommit2Kids campaign, marking the 20th anniversary of America’s Promise Alliance and calling the nation to recommit to action on behalf of children and youth.