young people of color and “efficacy”

Yesterday, I talked to about 60 high school social studies teachers who are funded by the Annenberg Foundation to conduct an innovative civic education program. After I spoke, one teacher noted a chart in the Civic Mission of Schools report (p. 19), showing how many young people believe they “can make a difference solving problems in [their] community.” The teacher noted that the statistics weren’t too good for any group, but they were particularly low for African American and Latino students. He asked me why.

I said that it really is harder for most Black and Hispanic kids to make a difference, partly because of discrimination against them personally, but mainly because of the difficult problems they are likely to face in their home communities. If you ask an affluent suburban kid whether he believes he can make a difference, he’ll think of a “community problem” and imagine addressing it. Perhaps it’s the lack of a skateboard park; and if he really wanted to do something about that, he could talk to a friend of his mother’s who’s on the town council. So yes, he could make a difference. If you ask an inner-city kid, she thinks, “What are some community problems? Let’s see, there’s unemployment, homelessness, gun violence, drugs, and AIDS. What can I do?” Chances are, she’ll be pessimistic about making a difference.

The problem is, “efficacy” (or more simply, hope and optimism) is a powerful predictor of actual participation. So if people lack efficacy, they don’t vote or organize. Thus we want young people to develop confidence, yet we can’t do it by preaching that they can easily “make a difference.” That just isn’t a plausible message. A lot of the discussion that ensued for the next half-hour concerned practical strategies for increasing efficacy (and persistence) without papering over problems.

1 thought on “young people of color and “efficacy”

  1. Anna

    I sure wish it was easier. Unfortunately, bureaucracy is a large part of the obstacle.

    For any community action with a tangible result (ie. improving the landscape in some manner shape or form), it seems to take far more effort to get the approval than it does to actually do the improvement.

    In large part this is because those in charge have (real or perceived) legal concerns about liability when work is done by volunteers, or when the results of said work are utilized by the public. They may also have concerns about how this work impacts their job performance (or the perception thereof)

    Plus if an organized group volunteer project does get off the ground, the volunteer labor is likely to be inefficiently used (e.g. to do things by hand that would be a breeze with mechanized tools)

    Collecting and disseminating information is about the only “safe” constructive thing they can do, that doesn’t require preapproval. (‘constructive’ in the sense of not just helping with an ongoing effort to apply bandaids to an ongoing community problem by volunteering at food bank, homeless shelter etc)

    I think a lot more could be done in a community to pick the brains of its members about valuable, feasible and cost-effective improvements- and right now this doesn’t happen. Something local, on the order of or the halfbakery or its relatives ( )

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