Activism in Youth: It’s a Good Thing

Silhouettes of youth holding signs

Activism in Youth: It’s a Good Thing

Whether it is the latest hashtag trending on Twitter or a gathering of protesters in the nation’s capital, signs of political and civic engagement are all around us. When looking closely, it is often easy to find young adults and even teenagers participating – and sometimes taking the lead – in such efforts.

According to Nancy Deutsch, professor and director of the University of Virginia Curry School of Education’s Youth-Nex Center to Promote Effective Youth Development, this is a good sign.

Youth-Nex will host a conference, “Youth Act: Social Justice, Civic and Political Engagement,” on Thursday and Friday.

Deutsch, who studies youth development, youth programs and identity, has explored how engagement in meaningful activities can promote positive and more connected identities for young people.

UVA Today spoke with Deutsch about the scope of youth civic and political engagement and efforts to increase that engagement.

Q. How are youth participating in civic and political engagement?

A. Youth are not only our future, they are actively shaping our world today. Young people have a long history of being on the vanguard of social change movements. Across the globe, young people are on the front lines of social change. This can be tremendously positive.

For example, great forward movement in our society around issues of race, gender and sexuality have been driven by the activism of youth. Think, for example, about the current efforts of trans youth, whose activism is pushing schools to look at their policies surrounding issues related to gender identification and access to bathroom and locker rooms. Similarly, the push for democracy in many countries, as seen in the Arab Spring, came from the young.

Nationally, from the Black Panthers to the Young Americans for Freedom, youth activists have long shaped our national conversations, both ideologically and politically. And today more than ever, with the rise and impact of social media, the power of youth to make their voices heard and shape political debates is great.

In 1992, Bill Clinton was the first presidential candidate to appear on MTV, signaling a push by Democrats to win over young voters who had been voting in decreasing numbers. By 2008, about half of voters ages 18 to 29 voted, with young people helping elect Barack Obama as the nation’s first black president.

But young people’s role in society begins long before they can cast a ballot. Many young people engage in their communities and our society in ways that are not captured by traditional civics markers. And such activity is developmentally important to teens.

Q. Why is this kind of involvement so positive?

A. For one, we all want to feel a sense of purpose in our life. We also have an innate human need for connectedness and belonging. Civic and political engagement can meet both those needs – providing young people with a sense of meaningful contribution to, and connection with, society. 

In addition, civic and political activity provides youth with opportunities to use, develop and stretch a number of important skills, including communication and critical thinking, among others, and to do so in a real-world context with real-world impact. It also exercises youth’s citizenship muscles, putting into places habits of civic engagement that are more likely to continue into adulthood.

And finally, as a society we are better off if people of all ages are contributing to making our society a more just one. We know from the business world that teams that are more diverse perform better. Having youth actively engaged in civic activity and social justice movements opens us up to see and address issues from angles that adults may be blind to.

Q. What keeps some youth from participating in more efforts around social justice or civic and political issues?

A. Not all youth have access to schools and programs that truly give youth a voice and a role in their communities. For example, we know that in the after-school realm, families with lower levels of income and from historically marginalized racial and ethnic backgrounds report having less access to high-quality after-school options for their children.

Because of schools’ curricular demands, many of the opportunities for engagement in social and political activism have come through after-school and youth development programs. Unequal access, then, can thwart opportunities for greater engagement.

I also think that we have not always recognized the ways that young people engage, especially youth from marginalized backgrounds. We tend to place blame on youth for not being civically engaged. Instead, we should ask ourselves what we have done as a society to invite youth into meaningful civic engagement opportunities.

What excites me is how many examples we currently see, some of which will be on display at the Youth-Nex conference at the end of the month, of young people who are civically and politically engaged in myriad ways.


Nancy Deutsch headshot

Nancy Deutsch is an education professor and director of the University of Virginia Curry School of Education’s Youth-Nex Center to Promote Effective Youth Development. (Submitted photo)

Q. Why is there a need to actively work to engage youth in this kind of experience? 

A. Adolescents need to experience a sense of belonging and purpose – both things that can come from feeling tied to our social fabric in some way. When a young person’s connection to that social fabric is torn, they will look for other ways to meet those needs. And as recent events have demonstrated, across the globe, extremist groups are all too happy to bring young people into their folds. 

This week, Youth-Nex will host its annual conference focused on critical questions around youth civics activism and political engagement.

Q. What is the goal of the conference?

A. The “Youth Act” conference brings together researchers, practitioners, policymakers and youth in a single space to engage with each other about how young people are already engaged civically and politically and how youth-serving settings like schools and after-school programs can better support and foster that engagement.

It is rare for the academic and practice and policy sectors to share information this directly, and even more rare to involve youth directly in those conversations. So this issues of youth civic and political engagement to learn from each other.

Q. The topic of the conference was selected months ago, but seems to have an increasing relevance on both the national and local levels. How have recent events impacted the conference planning?

A. While we chose this topic last spring, the events in Charlottesville this summer recommitted us to the conference’s vision and aim. Indeed, it emphasized just how important this topic is.


Charlottesville was indeed a tale of two youth: young people seduced by a message of hatred and young people dedicated to protecting their community from that very hate. We have shaped some of the content of the conference to speak directly to these events.

Some panelists are explicitly shaping their talks to address topics relevant to those events directly, such as one panelist who will focus on an international survey that foreshadowed the rise of populism through the number of disengaged youth. We also added a healing workshop onto the end of the conference, co-sponsored by the Curry School and led by the Association of Black Psychologists Student Circle, as a direct response to the events and to our community’s need to both heal and continue to take action.  

Q. How will this conference lead to new thought or action?

A. As I mentioned earlier, it is well-established that diverse groups perform better. This conference brings together people who think about youth civic and political engagement in a wide array of ways – from research to policy to practice.

I should also note that a number of our panels feature young people – from youth activists to young community leaders.

Our hope is that by bringing together a diversity of people who care about these issues, we can spark new insights and commitments that people will bring back with them into whatever sectors they are working in.

Specifically, local young people have been working with conference co-organizer Chauncey Smith to develop the “call to action” for the conference’s first day and other calls to action are planned for the end of both days.

I hope that attendees will walk away with a sense of awe at the tremendous power and potential of youth to make social change. I also hope that individuals will recommit themselves to finding ways to collaborate with and support young people in their communities in working toward social justice.

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