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Expanding the CCCE Youth Civic Education Mission: Becoming Citizens

There have been some exciting changes in youth civic education programs at CCCE. Seattle Student Voices is now a sustainable program operating successfully in many high school classrooms throughout the Seattle area. This development enabled the staff at CCCE to expand our programming capabilities to include both classrooms and community organizations. Within the last year, this dual-focus emerged as the foundation of our latest project, Becoming Citizens.

In the spring of 2006, CCCE launched a pilot project that provided opportunities for UW undergraduates to work as interns in Seattle high school classrooms. In partnership with the Carlson Center and the Pipeline Project at UW, trained undergraduates joined public school classrooms to assist teachers and help students develop civics projects that addressed specific issues in the community.

Participating interns read the latest research on current issues in youth civic engagement, and attended seminars where they related these texts to their classroom experiences. In seminar discussion, interns also identified important issues in civic education practices based on their experiences, and many pointed to the need for a more experiential civics curriculum in order to reverse the decline in youth civic skills. We continue to develop our programs based on these experiences.

Becoming Citizens: Linking the University of Washington to Schools and Community Youth Organizations

Our experience with Seattle Student Voices, the feedback from interns, and discussions with community youth workers all point to the importance of community organizations that foster youth civic skills. We believe that active participation in civic organizations-from town youth councils to service learning groups-helps create a sense of youth empowerment and lifelong commitment to civic engagement.

In autumn 2006, CCCE launched Becoming Citizens in collaboration with high school civics teachers and community civic organizations. This program began with support from the UW Office of the Provost, and embraces the goals of President Emmert's Leadership, Community, and Values Initiative. Becoming Citizens aims to enhance and assess the capacities of classrooms and community organizations to build youth civic engagement and efficacy levels.

We hope that our dialogue with UW students, Seattle youth, teachers, and community youth workers will illuminate the aspects of citizenship being developed by civics classrooms and community organizations. We will use our observations to develop a handbook of "best practices." This handbook will identify those program elements that prove most successful for increasing different youth civic skills. We will provide this as an updated online networking resource for those who help young people to become more active citizens. We also plan to develop communication networks in the community that give greater voice to young people and those who serve their interests.

Goals of Becoming Citizens

Democratic societies rely on the active and informed participation of their citizens. Several decades of decline in civic engagement and citizen confidence in government force us to ask tough questions of our democracy. Low involvement may make a society less capable of making good collective decisions, or it may allow powerful minority interests to take control. We seek to understand why many citizens, particularly young people, sense that government does not represent them. We seek to find ways to help them find their voices and gain more satisfying representation.

We also note that civic engagement is not equally distributed across society, and declining levels of engagement do not affect all sectors of society equally. For example, in poor, urban communities, where the ability to address collective problems is most needed, young citizens too often lack confidence in their political efficacy and their ability to change the problems they experience every day. Becoming Citizens is particularly focused on civic education in these communities.

The citizenship skills presented to young people in school are crucial to developing an interest in public life. Yet the effectiveness of civic education in schools is not encouraging these days. As we continue to focus on more skills-oriented and experience-based classroom activities, we note that schools are not the only domain that can encourage young people to become citizens. The increasing public school emphasis on the "career" skills of reading and writing, and a commensurate decrease in emphasis on the arts and civics, lead us to look to non-governmental organizations to provide civic education to youth. Today in Seattle, dozens of groups, from the mayor's office to performance arts groups to the YMCA, work with young people to address community problems and build the skills necessary for successful citizenship. It is the goal of Becoming Citizens to understand and contribute to this important civic education environment.

Toward these ends, the Becoming Citizens program has the following key goals:

  • we aim to better understand the role of nonprofit groups in civic education, how they perceive civic engagement, how they work in concert with public schools, what connections are missing, and the skills that young people can learn when they become involved with a nonprofit
  • we will continue working with schools to introduce more community experiences and better communication skills into civics curricula
  • CCCE will offer a unique educational experience for UW undergraduates who participate in the Becoming Citizens internship program. Becoming Citizens interns contribute to the civic development of high school and middle school students, and learn first hand the challenges and importance of civic engagement for young people. Our assessments of these internships will contribute to our understanding of how youth become engaged by working together.
  • Becoming Citizens assessments will add to the body of knowledge concerning how young people become more active democratic citizens, and how civic educators and youth can work together to improve civic engagement for the 21st Century.

Becoming Citizens has several resource documents on civic education that may be of interest to community organizers and teachers. Our "Resources" page contains descriptions of and links to these documents.