When we talk to young people about civic engagement, the messages often sound like this:
“One day you will be old enough to vote, and it’s your civic duty to do so.” “Bring in that extra coat for our school drive!”
“When you are older, you’ll be able to do more.”
So, our students dutifully bring in the coat or the canned good and drop it in the brown box. They fulfill their service hour requirement with a couple of hours at a local nonprofit. They have a vague sense that one day they can check the final box of their “full citizenship to-do list” when they show up at the polls.
We’re trying to teach the next generation about citizenship, but we’ve allowed service hours and volunteering to become the default tactics for engagement, with predictably shallow results.
At the Kentucky YMCA Youth Association, we firmly believe that civic life does not start or stop at the voting booth or with logging service hours; civic life is everything we do to engage as a citizen and member of our community. It is not something separate, more sacred, or more complicated than any other basic life skill. Respect for our civic processes is the shared understanding that connects and maintains our society. Citizenship is a skill that must be learned and honed — the earlier, the better.
Since our nation’s founding (mostly led by people under 40, by the way), our country has been energized and challenged by the relentless push from younger generations to form an ever more perfect union. But at some point, active civic education and engagement began to slip away from our young people. Developing youth into civic-minded adults turned from a strength into a liability — just another tick mark on a long list of educational goals to achieve before age 18. Now, students are taught to focus on individual development, academic learning, financial literacy and textbook lessons, and they’re getting the implicit message civic engagement is something only grownups do.
Somewhere along the way, we forgot that lifelong civic learning and engagement from childhood on is as critical a skill as science or language arts.
Our communities can no longer afford to have civic engagement and education be a luxury item. (I’d argue they never could). In a world that is increasingly polarized, we must double down on teaching and modeling what it means to be a member of a community. Currently, one in five Americans cannot name a single branch of government. Two in three Americans would fail the U.S. citizenship test. How can we expect our youth to successfully take the reins of leadership if we don’t even understand the foundational systems of our society?
There is good news. We see evidence every day that youth are eager for leadership, civic engagement and volunteer experience. The Kentucky Youth Assembly, one of the KY YMCA’s largest programs for the past 75 years, serves more than 7,500 Kentucky teens annually. Through this program, middle and high schoolers from across the Commonwealth draft hundreds of pieces of legislation and run a fully youth-led state government — complete with senators, representatives, lobbyists, media, cabinet members and campaign staff. Another 3,000 teens participate in local, national, and international programming of similar rigor and purpose. In all, more than 10,000 Kentucky YMCA youth stand up each year to assert their desire to be change agents for civic good — and that’s just a fraction of the youth in our state who are banging on the doors to be opened for them.
Despite our small-state population, the KY YMCA’s youth and government programs are the nation’s largest — beating out the second largest program by well over 2,000 students. Of our participating youth, 80% are likely to volunteer throughout the year and over 50% are likely to reach out to an elected official to discuss legislation. Even during a pandemic, the Y’s teens have registered hundreds of first-time voters through virtual voter registration drives and have completed over 1,300 hours of community service. Oh, and Kentucky’s youngest current public office holder is a Kentucky YMCA Youth Association member: a county soil conservation officer at the ripe old age of 17. Teens are hungry for the opportunity to roll up their sleeves and get to work. Are we ready to let them?
I, alongside the entire community of the Kentucky YMCA Youth Association, challenge our communities and leaders to consider youth as invaluable and uniquely qualified assets, rather than liabilities — to invest in their journeys and start supporting their development from their youngest ages. We must prioritize civic education. A democracy is only as good as those participating in it, and in the end, we all suffer the results of falling farther and farther behind. The KY YMCA Youth Association is leading the way in civic education in Kentucky. Let’s commit to doing even more to develop our youth leaders.
Beth Malcom is president and CEO of KY YMCA Youth Association.