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.