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  • Youth Civic Engagement in Practice:The Youth VOICES Program
  • Barbara Ferman (bio)

For one full week in June 2004, over 65 people, mostly between the ages of 14 and 24, attended the Philadelphia Community School for Community Organizing. The goal of the Philadelphia Community School was to create a space where youth and adults could engage in critical dialogue around key social justice issues. Workshops, reflection periods, neighborhood tours and social activities were used to stimulate intense discussion around issues such as institutional racism, militarism, youth oppression, sexism/homophobia, poetry and art for social change, and the like. Facilitated by youth, community organizers, artists and teachers, the various workshops introduced participants to ideas and tools for organizing in their communities to combat the various forms of oppression that often go unnoticed in their daily lives. Representing a cross section of Philadelphia's population, workshop participants and facilitators were African American, Latino, Asian and white.

For a six week period in July and August 2004, 10 high school aged youth, under the guidance of 4 Temple university students, designed, administered and then analyzed the results of a survey of youth in Philadelphia to learn what kinds of services, programs and activities they would like to see in their neighborhoods and in the city. These survey results were combined with results of focus groups, brainstorming sessions, workshops and retreats conducted over a several month period prior to the summer activities. This work was used to develop the first citywide youth philanthropy program in Philadelphia. Under the auspices of the Philadelphia Foundation, Youthadelphia, a name selected by the youth, features a youth board that develops the Request For Proposal, markets the program to youth around the city, reviews proposals and makes funding decisions. This board has $100,000 a year to allocate for youth programs in Philadelphia.

These two projects are part of the Youth VOICES program, a youth civic engagement initiative of the University Community Collaborative of Philadelphia, housed at Temple University.1 Serving approximately 150 youth, aged 14–21, per year, in after-school, community-based settings and in an intensive 6 week Summer Academy, the Youth VOICES program is but one example of how universities can effectively engage the larger community. It also illustrates how young people, when provided with the appropriate mix of supports and opportunities, will take on challenging projects with the hope of improving their communities and their worlds. VOICES will be discussed in more detail, but first, let's take a cursory look at the larger context of youth civic engagement — what are the concerns commonly expressed? What are some of the alternative perspectives on the topic? The article will conclude with a discussion of why the university as an institution is, in many ways, ideally situated to develop the kinds of youth civic engagement programs that we believe will be the most effective for developing the skills, values and attitudes that genuine civic engagement requires.2

Alarm Bells Sound

During the last decade we have been bombarded with cries of alarm about our civic health; we are told that high school students are not well informed in the ways of American government, that college students are volunteering more but voting less, and that Americans of all stripes are "bowling alone."3 This alleged crisis in our collective civic psyche has been met with a plethora of policies and programs designed to develop the requisite knowledge and qualities for living in a democratic society. Programs like Service Learning and Character Education, to name two, have grown like forests on the educational and policy landscapes. But do these programs and policies address the alleged crisis in civic and democratic values? Is there a crisis in the first place? And, if so, whose crisis is it?

There is a wealth of data demonstrating that Americans are more turned off to government and politics now than in the past, a predisposition that is particularly acute among younger cohorts. A series of recent surveys revealed the following: sixty-eight percent of 18–34 year-olds felt completely disconnected from government; a mere 26% of 15–24 year-olds rated "being involved in democracy and voting" as extremely important; and, the...


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