By Sam Piha
We know that supporting young people in civic engagement and activism helps them to build both character and social emotional skills. In the lead up to the mid-terms and the response of young people to gun violence, we have all become more aware of youth activism and civic engagement. On this election day we were curious about how youth have been involved historically in social movements, and the impact of social media. We interviewed Gordon Alexandre, a historian and activist, about these issues. You can see below some of his responses.
Q: Can you distinguish between social activism and social movements?
A: This is an excellent question. Many confuse social-political activism with participation in a social-political protest movement (SPM). The two are not the same. Being politically active may mean simply voting yourself and getting others to vote. These are important but minimalist and conventional activities well within the bounds of establishment politics.
Voting is designed to support the system and often leads to the absorption of the activists into one or the other established political parties. For example, the student led ‘Never Again’ gun control activities has as its goal the passage of ‘common-sense’ gun control legislation and urging folks to get out and vote for Democrats. Their goals and their urgings seek modest changes in the status-quo and well within the bounds of what is acceptable. ‘Never Again’ is not radical nor does it threaten many of those who are in power. It does not call for repeal of the 2nd amendment, a plan for getting rid of the millions of guns already out there in our society, or in tying the gun control folks in with other social protest movements.
A social protest movement, on the other hand, is an organized movement of ‘outsiders’ designed to pressure those in power to do what they would not otherwise do. The goal is fundamental change and SPMs often use unconventional methods to achieve their goals like acts of civil disobedience. They operate outside the two established political parties.
The Civil Rights Movement of the 1950’s is a good example of this. It challenged the white power structure of the South and forced the South to desegregate and the federal government to pass civil rights laws it did not want to do. They used ‘direct-action’ including sit-ins, marches, Freedom Rides, and directly challenged the regular Democratic Party of Mississippi in 1964 to fundamentally change the policy system.
Q: Can you comment on the youth organized activities in regards to the shootings in Parkland and Chicago and the Black Lives Matter movement?
A: There is no question that young people are becoming more politically active in places like Parkland and Chicago. But how universal is this? Students at Santa Fe High School in Texas, also victims of a mass shooting, did not respond by becoming politically active.
We will also see after the midterm elections whether the push to get young people to vote will be realized. I think that youth activism and the eventual formation of an SPM will not be based on some kind of national ‘wave’, but rather on the specific set of socio-economic, cultural, and political circumstances communities find themselves in.
Black Lives Matter (BLM) started to emerge after the murder of 17-year old Trayvon Martin on Feb. 26, 2012 in Sanford, Florida. In the summer of 2014 it became an important force as the number of young unarmed African-American men and boys (Eric Garner, Michael Brown, Tamir Rice, and others) seemed to be reaching epidemic proportions.
It is a social protest movement made up mainly, but not exclusively, of young African-Americans. The movement seeks to expose the murder of unarmed young black men by the police and bring pressure on local, state, and the federal government to put an end to it. Their goal is not to encourage people to vote for democrats, but much like the Civil Rights and black power movements of the 1960’s they use ‘direct action’ to bring pressure on those in power to do the right thing. I see BLM as a continuation of those two previous movements. Unlike ‘Never Again’, they do not see common-sense reforms and voting as the-be-all-and-end-all.
How BLM evolves in the future is yet to be determined. They may remain outside the two-party system, join with other social protest movements, and build a more broadly based movement or they may decide the best way to foster change is to work within the system or they may fade away.
Q: Are there other contemporary social movements that have attracted the participation of young people?
A: When one looks at political activism right now, young people are not the primary movers. The #MeToo movement has eclipsed all other, for the moment, and it is not primarily youth driven. The labor movement has also had a resurgence lately and it, too, is not youth driven.
In addition, much emphasis has been placed on getting young people to vote in the 2018 midterms and neither those getting young people to vote nor young people voting is, in and of itself, a sign of social activism. Voting is an institutional response within the bounds of expected behavior and not an ‘outsiders’ response of social activism. This is not to say that the spotlight won’t return to youth activism. It’s just not there right now.
Q: What do you believe are the pros and cons of technology-driven social movements?
A: I do not believe social media drives social justice movements. Technology can assist social movements - spreading the word, capturing events in real time, encouraging folks to get out and protest, and the like. What drives social movements are causes themselves being fought for and the personal relationships developed between those involved.
Technology is not a substitute for the bonds developed during political struggle and the movement culture that results from that. To do this, people need to be brought together whether it be the union halls of the 1930’s, the black churches of the civil rights movement of the 1950’s and 1960’s, and the anti-Vietnam War movement on college campuses in the 1960’s. Also in the 1960’s we saw the importance of gay night clubs of the gay rights movement and women’s consciousness raising groups of the women’s empowerment movement. More recently, we have seen activism around the issues of gun control and “get out the vote” efforts on high school campuses in 2018.
Some would say that today’s social media is the equivalent to yesterday’s black churches or college campuses. It is not. Communicating with someone on social media is ‘virtual’ and you cannot have a ‘virtual’ social movement and movement culture.
Q: Looking back in our history, are there other social movements that have attracted the participation of young people?
A: Let’s define “young people” to include young adults. They have been the main participants in social justice movements since, but not before, the 1960’s. Most of the activists in the civil rights movement were young. MLK was in his mid-twenties when he burst onto the scene in 1955.
The feminist movement and gay empowerment movements were also led by young people. Later on, the environmental movement of the 1970’s and after, the anti-World Trade Organization movement of the late 1990’s and early 2000’s, and Occupy Wall Street of 2011 were all youth driven, with varying degrees of success.
Q: What do you believe are the pros and cons of young people participating in social movements? Does it matter what age the young people are?
A: The advantages of youth driven social protest movements are varied and many. Young people have passion, energy, time, and not much to lose. They often possess the idealism and optimism that accompanies youthful inexperience. They can take more risks with fewer consequences.
On the other hand, they often lack the virtue of patience, wisdom, and experience, all of which are necessary for success in the long run. Obviously, the best recipe for a social movement is to combine the advantages of youth with the advantages of those who have engaged in social movements in the past. But this much easier said than done.
Let me be clear: age does matter. Those involved in social movements of the 1960’s were mostly college age, while the Parkland students are of high school age. This doesn’t sound like much of an age difference, but it is. Most college students don’t live at home and by not living at home can develop their own autonomous movement culture. High school students still live at home and under parental supervision, no matter how supportive the parents may be. This mitigates against the development of an independent and autonomous culture. In addition, high-schoolers will be dispersing in a year or so, going off into the larger world, dissolving whatever community they had built in high school.
Finally, I am trying to answer these questions as a social scientist and progressive historian, trying not to project what I wish onto what I actually analyze. I do not want to exaggerate hopeful signs and read too much into events we see. We need to keep fighting, organizing, and resisting, building the kind of movement that can move us past the evil and danger we are now in.
Gordon Alexandre taught U.S. history and political science at Glendale Community College (outside Los Angeles) from 1985 to 2015. His main area of interest was on social reform movements of the Twentieth Century. While at GCC, Gordon was either chief negotiator or president of their American Federation of Teachers chapter for twenty years. Prior to his teaching, Gordon was a labor organizer and activist. Since retiring in 2015, Gordon has delivered several lectures to graduate students at Antioch University on “Trumpism: A Historical Perspective” and “Student Protest Movements: 1968 to 2018".
By Sam Piha
Deborah Lowe Vandell has been a leading researcher on expanded learning programs since 1985. Dr. Vandell agreed to respond to our interview questions regarding her research on the field of afterschool. Below are some of her responses.
Dr. Vandell appeared in our video on the Learning in Afterschool & Summer learning principles and our documentary on the History of Afterschool in America. She will also be sharing her thoughts in a plenary presentation, and a workshop alongside fellow researcher, Milbrey McLaughlin at the upcoming How Kids Learn VIII conference on December 6th, 2018 in Oakland, CA.
Q: You have been studying and researching afterschool programs for many years. Can you cite/list what you think are the most important lessons?
A: For me, the most important lesson is that the quality of children’s daily experiences at programs is critically important. Research, my own and the research of others, has demonstrated repeatedly the central role of caring, supportive relationships with adult staff for children’s well-being as well as their academic and social competencies over time.
Lesson 1 is that the quality of staff-child relationships is front and center. Research also has shown that these supportive staff-child relationships typically occur in the context of activities that are engaging to young people and that build on the interests of the young people, a second important lesson. A third lesson, I think, is that we need to be doing more to support adult staff in their work. Staff training is critical as is planning time. Developing and retaining staff who have caring, supportive, and respectful relationships with young people is central as is staff who can provide rich opportunities for learning and engagement. Staff turnover is a big problem.
Q: Civic engagement and youth activism is an increasing part of afterschool youth programs. Can you comment on this trend as a part of positive youth development?
A: I just returned from a meeting that convened 250 researchers and practitioners who focused on this very issue. A recurrent theme across many presentations (by both researchers and practitioners) was the ways in which afterschool programs can foster civic engagement and youth activism. The connections between positive youth development, social-emotional learning (SEL), and character development were another recurrent theme. It is exciting for me to see connections being made across areas that are too often in separate silos.
Q: Over the years, there has been much discussion on the indicators we should use to assess the effectiveness of afterschool programs. What are your thoughts on this?
A: This is a BIG question. A critical first step is we have to specify effectiveness with respect to what end - effectiveness with respect to:
Q: Can you share what you are or will be studying in regards to afterschool?
A: I am in the midst of three afterschool projects right now:
I have been studying effects of afterschool programs and organized activities (their quality, duration, type) on adolescent outcomes at age 15 and the end of high school. My colleagues and I have now extended that work to ask if after school activities are linked to adult outcomes at age 26, including educational attainment, employment, civic engagement, physical and mental health, as well as positive social relationships. Results at age 15 and end-of-high-school are pointing to links between sustained participation and positive academic and social outcomes. Analyses of the age 26 data on 815 participants are underway.
My second project is a series of research syntheses. This project is a collaboration with Professor Sandra Simpkins at UC Irvine and a wonderful team of graduate students. One of the papers that we are working on examines conceptualizations of program quality and links between different aspects of program quality and youth outcomes. A second paper focuses on the challenges and opportunities of programs that serve Latino and African-American children and youth. In preparing the data base for these syntheses, we scanned more than 2000 papers and are focusing our analyses on 200 papers published since 2007.
The third project, is also in collaboration with Professor Simpkins. In this study, we are conducting secondary data analyses of two large data sets, the National Institute of Child Health and Youth Development (NICHD), Study of Early Child Care and Youth Development (SECCYD), and the Study of Promising Afterschool Programs with a focus on character development during childhood and adolescence. In this work, we are examining individual aspects of character such as persistence and work habits as well as inter-personal aspects of character such as prosocial behaviors and helping others.
Q: Any thoughts on what the future of afterschool will hold, either in regards to policy or practice?
A: I am of two minds about the future of afterschool. The good news is that there is now widespread recognition of the role that afterschool programs (and out-of-school time more broadly) play in children’s development and well-being. Many parents, educators, researchers, and policy makers now endorse investments in afterschool as necessary and important. This is very different than when I did my first study of afterschool programs in 1985!
The bad news is that there are still serious inequities in children’s access to high quality afterschool activities. Children from low-income families have less access than their more affluent classmates, and this lack of access is undermining their life opportunities. Relatedly, I worry that the funding for programs that serve low-income children remain precarious.
Deborah Lowe Vandell, Ph.D., is the Founding Dean of the School of Education at the University of California, Irvine, where she is a Professor of Education and of Psychology and Social Behavior. The author of more than one hundred fifty articles and three books, Dr. Vandell studies the effects of afterschool and summer programs on children's academic, social, and behavioral development.
By Sam Piha
Heather Malin, Ph.D., is the director of research at the Center on Adolescence at Stanford University. Her new book, Teaching for Purpose: Preparing Students for Lives of Meaning, caught our attention. We believe that afterschool programs serving older youth are well positioned to nurture youth and their sense of purpose. Below we share some of Dr. Malin’s responses to our interview questions.
Q: What drove you to author this book on "purpose"?
A: I’ve been doing research on how young people develop purpose in life for over a decade, conducting interviews and surveys with adolescents to understand what matters to them and why, what goals they set for their lives and how they act on those goals, and what social conditions support them as they create purpose in their lives.
I knew that there were people out there creating programs based on our research, so this book was an opportunity to connect with those people and share their work with others who are looking for ways to support students to develop purpose.
Q: Can you briefly describe what you mean by "purpose"?
A: In our research lab, we specifically define purpose as “a generalized and stable intention to accomplish something that is meaningful to the self and of consequence to the world beyond the self” (as defined in Damon, Menon, & Bronk, 2003). This is a mouthful, but it basically means that we see purpose as a driving and enduring goal to contribute to something larger than the self. It’s understanding your own strengths and values and connecting them with something that the world needs. It doesn’t require changing the world. Purpose can be found in helping a family member just as easily as it can be found in working to end global poverty.
Q: How does one teach "purpose"?
A: That’s a big question. From what I’ve seen, I think we create our own purpose, and conditions around us can make that easier or more difficult. That doesn’t mean more affluent and well-resourced people have better access to purpose. In fact, we find that challenging life conditions and negative experiences can lead some people to develop purpose as a response. So, how do we provide the conditions that will enable more young people to create or develop their purpose? I think it requires starting with an environment of compassion and encouragement, with adults who act as mentors and role models of prosocial activity and who prioritize an authentic relationship with their students. In that environment, students can openly explore their values, strengths, and the things that are meaningful to them.
Next, they need to translate those values and meaningful things into aspirations for their life and learn how to plan and take small steps toward accomplishing those big goals. Then, they need opportunities to act on their goals, to see that they’re capable of taking action and doing things that can have a positive impact in the world. That’s a nutshell version, but there is more detail in the book.
Q: How is this applicable to those who "teach" young people in community and school based afterschool programs?
A: This book was specifically aimed at educators who work in schools, with hopes of contributing to the ongoing movement to re-invent schools. However, the fundamental ideas can be applied by anyone working with young people, including those working in community settings. In fact, practitioners in out-of-school programs are at an advantage for supporting youth purpose. There is more opportunity to mentor young people in activities that are meaningful to them, provide them with real-world responsibilities that matter, and create a sense of community and belonging that might be harder to come by at school.
We’ve found that structured youth programs are wonderful for supporting purpose development when they provide an integrated web of purpose support. That web is made up of a social network that offers encouragement, access to information and knowledge needed to develop an interest and reflect on how their values relate to real-world issues, and opportunities to take authentic action in response to an interest or concern.
Q: Is the notion of "purpose" applicable to adults who work with young people or only the young people themselves?
A: Absolutely. One of the most important social resources for young people to develop purpose seems to be adults who model purpose in their own lives. An educator’s purpose doesn’t have to be teaching, but if it’s something they can share with their students, that is a gift they can offer that will make it more likely their students will develop purpose.
Youth organization leaders are likely to be very purpose-driven people, but even those with a strong sense of purpose can lose sight of it over time. I believe, and other youth purpose researchers agree, that helping youth practitioners reflect on and be more aware of their own purpose is key to supporting young people to develop purpose. Aside from that, practitioners who show up with a stronger sense of their own purpose for being there are probably going to create the compassionate environment that will enable young people to express and explore their purpose. This is why the book begins by asking readers to explore their own purpose – so they understand what I mean by purpose and so they can bring that sense of purpose to their work with young people.
Q: In your work, did you notice any important distinctions regarding different audiences of youth?
A: The most important finding in this area is that there is very little difference in the level or amount of purpose experienced by young people from different backgrounds or with different identities. We don’t have thorough data available on this, but findings are fairly consistent that purpose scores don’t vary much by ethnicity, socioeconomic status (SES), or gender. There are small differences that practitioners might pay attention to. For example, girls usually report a greater sense of purpose than boys, and girls are more likely to have beyond-the-self goals for their lives, but be less likely than boys to act on those goals to have what we consider engaged purpose.
In analyses of ethnicity and SES, the effect sizes of these differences are so small that I’m hesitant to say it has implications for practice. I think that there can be qualitative differences in purpose that are worth paying attention to: we can have the same level of purpose but in very different areas of life, or experienced in very different ways. The content of our purpose is shaped by our context, family, upbringing, and other social factors that are related to our ethnicity and social class.
The takeaway for practitioners, I think, is that exploring purpose with young people is an opportunity to get to know them better, and to connect better with them, their families, and communities.
Q: The concept of "purpose" joins other new concepts that have entered the afterschool conversation including "SEL", "agency", "civic engagement", "growth mindsets", etc. How do you see "purpose" aligning with these?
A: I see purpose as strongly interconnected with SEL, civic engagement, and “agency”. I advocate for purpose as a framework for SEL that integrates some of the goal pursuit strengths (self-regulation, agency) with moral strengths (empathy, compassion, social awareness).
Teaching for purpose ideally means providing young people with opportunities for values reflection that strengthens compassion and social awareness along with opportunities to develop important goals and take action. These efforts can help youth exercise self-regulation and agency. Civic engagement is an important way for young people to act on beyond-the-self goals that really matter to them.
By Sam Piha
Many afterschool leaders describe their programs as using “disguised learning”. I always cringe when I hear this term. Why you ask?
1- Definition of “Disguise”
According to the dictionary, disguise is defined as “to change the appearance or guise of so as to conceal identity or mislead, as by means of deceptive garb; to conceal or cover up the truth or actual character of by a counterfeit form or appearance; misrepresent”. Why do we need to conceal learning or mislead the learners? How is this related to children, their learning, or our role as teachers?
2 - Assumptions about Learning
This term assumes that you have to hide learning. I always found this offensive because through my experience as a classroom teacher and youth worker, children love to learn. They have an innate drive to learn and master, thus why the need for disguise? “Disguised learning” is like “candy flavored medicine” - it assumes that learning is foul tasting but good for you.
3 - Assumptions about Play
“Students think they are merely playing, but they are simultaneously learning.” This assumes that children only learn through play when adults sneak it in. We know that play is an important form of learning and that children are always learning.
The problem is that adults have managed to make learning a negative thing by making it boring and divorced from the real world and young people’s interests. In this way, we have suppressed children’s drive to learn and master.
Instead, we need to ensure that learning experiences are challenging and engaging. In the LIAS project, we name five attributes that promote young people's learning: Learning needs to be active, collaborative, meaningful, support mastery, and expand horizons. We can even be transparent about our learning objectives of the activities.
I believe that those touting “disguised learning” are well intentioned. We just need to do away with this term. Instead we can talk about being intentional about the learning objectives, informal learning, using clever ways to introduce learning objectives through non-traditional tools, such as games, to encourage students to have fun while they learn.
Sam Piha is the founder and principal of Temescal Associates, a consulting group dedicated to building the capacity of leaders and organizations in education and youth development.