In their 2018 report, Let’s Go There, Cathy Cohen, Joseph Kahne and Jessica Marshall argue for the importance of “Lived Civics,” an approach to civic education that is centered on “attention to race, identity, and the lived experience of youth.” They review research evidence that youth of color are less likely to have civic learning experiences in school. Even when they do, they experience a “disconnect between civic ideals they learn in school and the social and political realities of their lives compared to wealthy white youth” (Cohen et al., p. 5). They also review evidence that youth of color realize a wide range of positive social, emotional and academic outcomes when they do have civic experiences that recognize their lived experience and include critical understandings of race, ethnicity, and power.
Asset and Action-Based Approaches to Civic Learning: A Review of Frameworks, Evidence and Approaches takes inspiration from this earlier report. It reviews civic learning approaches and outcomes that align with a Lived Civics orientation, as well as related research theories and frameworks. The report recognizes how experiences of contributing to communities, and movements for racial and social justice, can have profound and wide-ranging influences on life outcomes for youth. It was commissioned by the Gates Foundation as part of a broader effort to develop more holistic and equitable approaches to assessing student success. It also builds on ongoing work at the Connected Learning Lab in reviewing and synthesizing research on ways that education and youth work can center programs on the culture, identity, and assets of diverse youth (Callahan et al., 2019; Ito et al., 2020).
What are Asset and Action-Based Approaches to Civic Learning?
Rather than conduct an exhaustive review of civic education and learning programs, the report focused on experiences that align with an asset-based, Lived Civics approach, and also have an experiential, action component connected to communities and institutions that matter to youth. Specifically, our review centered on experiences and programs with the following characteristics, which must be intertwined and integrated to be effective:
- Critical civic learning, which develops knowledge of political and social inequalities and systems, and cultivates critical consciousness, positive ethnic identity, and academic agency
- Civic projects and action that develop organizing and leadership skills and lead to, or enhance, civic self-efficacy
- Developmental social supports, which cultivate positive relationships with school and community, and lead to a sense of belonging in community and civic institutions
What Are the Impacts of Asset and Action-Based Civic Learning Experiences?
Asset and action-based civic experiences support the sociopolitical development of minoritized youth as well as a wide range of learning and life outcomes. It is important to emphasize that asset-based approaches differ from more traditional forms of civic learning in developing critical consciousness alongside civic self efficacy, skills, and developmental relationships. We review a growing body of research that documents both long term like outcomes such as political participation, and educational and career outcomes, as well as near-term outcomes including the development of critical consciousness, ethnic identity, civic skills, self-efficacy and connections to school and community. Solicia López, Director of Student Voice and Leadership at Denver Public Schools has seen these impacts firsthand. “We have students that have gone into politics, or activism for themselves, or thinking about going to college for the first time and how they can come back and contribute.”
What Are the Essential Elements of Asset and Action-Based Civic Learning Programs?
This report also describes some of the key dimensions of programs that support these types of experiences, including:
- Integrating learning, action, and community connection
- Using culturally relevant frameworks in youth development
- Centering on youth interests, identities, and leadership skill development
In-school programs guided by an Action Civics approach, as well as community-based programs in the Youth Organizing tradition, exemplify these key dimensions. These approaches’ focus on equity, youth engagement, and racial and ethnic identity have placed them at the forefront of developing research, programs, and assessments that center on outcomes for minoritized youth broadly valued by educators, parents, and community members. In the words of Eric Braxton, Executive Co-Director of the Funders’ Collaborative on Youth Organizing, these opportunities represent “a triple benefit with individual young people developing leadership and social emotional capacities, communities benefiting from campaigns that promote equity and justice, and finally the long term benefits of more active and engaged community leaders.”
The report includes case studies of programs that embody these elements, including Generation Citizen, Student Voice and Leadership, and youth organizing groups Ryse and Californians for Justice. The report concludes with a recognition of some of the challenges and headwinds that this field encounters, as well as a call to expand research and programmatic supports.
This report was enriched by an advisory panel of researchers and program leaders:
Executive Co-Director, Funders’ Collaborative on Youth Organizing
Professor of Teaching, Learning and Sociocultural Studies, University of Arizona
Elizabeth Clay Roy
Chief Executive Officer, Generation Citizen
Professor in the School of Education, University of Michigan
Professor in the School of Education and Human Development, University of Colorado Denver
Professor in the School of Education, University of Colorado Boulder
Assistant Professor of Psychology, University of Virginia
Director of Student Voice and Leadership, Denver Public Schools
Professor of Education, UCLA, and Director, Institute for Democracy, Education, and Access
Professor of Chicana/o and Central American Studies and Urban Planning, UCLA, and Director, Chicano Studies Research Center