Last spring, the Institute for Citizens and Scholars (formerly the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation) jumped into action to support community-based organizations that would help young people to address the crisis of the pandemic. Their Civic Spring Project funded Groundwork Elizabeth (NJ); The Institute of Engagement (Houston, TX); Kinston Teens, Inc (NC); the Prichard Committee for Academic Excellence (KY); Youthprise (MN), and the Newark (NJ) Youth One Stop and Career Center. Along with funds, these organizations received in-kind support and were included in a professional learning community.
Now CIRCLE has published a detailed evaluation. (I did not play any role in it, although at an earlier stage, I was one of many colleagues who had advised on the design of the project and then helped to select the grantees.)
Almost all the youth in these projects said they learned the kind of content that they would learn in a civics class, which demonstrates that hands-on, out-of-school projects can teach the facts and skills that we also value in an academic context.
Sixty-one percent felt that they had made their communities better places to live. For instance, “the Kentucky Student Voice Team members extensively documented the experiences of Kentucky students during the pandemic and used those findings to inform policymakers. … Minnesota Young Champions recruited young Minnesotans to engage in advocacy work to extend unemployment benefits to young people.”
CIRCLE also presents nuanced findings about the conversations that included youth and adults or that convened people from various programs and roles. They report some challenges: power dynamics, lack of clarity about roles, and some issues with communication. For instance, “The same behaviors regarding [the Community of Practice] were interpreted differently–the CoP planners intended for flexibility and responsiveness, but CoP participants perceived this as unclear purpose and lack of intentionality in the planning, schedule, design, and implementation of the CoP. Different stakeholders held different goals and they were communicated at different times and through different fora.”
Collaboration is hard, especially when people come from different walks of life; and we’re not very good at it these days. (See my recent Medium post.) A classic problem is permitting flexibility while also giving clear direction. We get better at these tasks with practice and reflection, which is exactly what this project offered.