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Why civic engagement & youth voice belongs in every afterschool program — including STEM programs!

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Why civic engagement & youth voice belongs in every afterschool program — including STEM programs!

By Robyn Lingo, Chief of Strategy & Impact, Mikva Challenge.

This blog is part of the Afterschool Alliance's new “Collective for Youth Empowerment in STEM & Society” (CYESS) initiative. This series of blogs highlights examples of programs working at the intersection of STEM and civic engagement. We are excited to showcase the systemic change young people can make in their communities when their afterschool programs support them to layer action onto their STEM learning. If you would like to know more or submit a blog about your youth action program, please contact us.

Mikva Challenge is a national youth civic engagement organization that develops youth to be empowered, informed, and active citizens who will promote a just and equitable society through both in and out of school programming.

Last winter, I attended a Municipal Candidate Forum led by a group of Mikva Challenge middle school students from across Chicago. The youth leaders ran the event, from beginning to end. They established community norms, generated the questions for the candidates, and facilitated small group conversations with the candidates. A few months later, our Mikva Challenge high school students in Washington, DC, presented local elected leaders with their policy recommendations to address key community issues such as gun violence, youth mental health, and police and community relations.

This is what we do at Mikva Challenge. We create opportunities for young people to be civic leaders in their communities now, and for their voices to affect how decisions are made about the issues that matter to them and their communities. We do our work through a process we call “Action Civics.” Action Civics is hands-on civic learning that is built around youth expertise, youth voice, learning by doing and reflection. The young people identify issue(s) that are important to them, speak out on those issues, analyze root causes, conduct research, and then develop and implement solution(s).

But you don’t have to be a youth civic leadership organization to incorporate these practices into your work. Civic engagement and youth voice can be incorporated into all varieties of afterschool programming, and have a natural place within STEM-based afterschool programming. Like STEM learning, Action Civics is based in problem solving – identifying the problem to be solved, researching different approaches to solving the issue and testing them out.

Consider engaging in some community mapping about the assets and challenges in your community. Give young people the support and space to envision how STEM tools could help address one of the community challenges.

Do students have trouble getting to your program on time? Invite them to analyze the root causes of those issues, use mathematical and/or engineering questions to research what barriers they and other youth face to getting to and from afterschool programs, and support them in implementing a possible solution.

How could young people use their STEM knowledge to speak out on an issue that is important to them in their community? Consider inviting some key community leaders to come listen to the students’ presentations, and then create space for youth to engage in dialogue with the adult leaders that is driven by the youth’s advocacy and questions.

There is so much skill building that happens through civic engagement. Each year, over 85 percent of our participating students show significant growth in their civic knowledge, attitudes and behaviors. They grow in their critical thinking, problem solving, and communication skills. And their socio-emotional skills grow, as well - over 96 percent of our Mikva students improve their self-efficacy, self-management, positive identity, and/or contribution skills through our programming.

But incorporating Action Civics into after school programming just doesn’t benefit the individual young people. It makes the community better too.

Over the course of my time working with Mikva Challenge, our students’ advocacy helped contribute to the creation of Kids Ride Free, providing free public transportation for young people in DC to get to and from school. This change immediately reduced transportation costs for thousands of families across the city and helped reduce a key barrier to school attendance. Mikva youth continue to advocate for improvements to make this system more accessible and equitable for all students. Mikva youth advocacy also helped lead to a new law in DC requiring every school to provide free menstruation products to students. And, this school year in Chicago, our youth leaders will be helping to lead a citywide campaign to increase awareness of the new elected school board – educating their peers, their families and the wider community through youth friendly platforms.

The possibilities are endless if we intentionally cultivate spaces that value youth voice. All we have to do is create the space for young people to share their voices, investigate the world around them, and lead.

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