As I watch high school students around the country enter the fight over gun control, I feel proud of their civic spirit but also worry on their behalf. Without doubt, young people have invaluable insight into where our society is healthy and where it is not, and we have for too long overlooked the important contributions they can make to setting our political agenda. Happily, the new tools of the digital environment give them unprecedented opportunities to convert voice into influence. Yet those same tools bring challenges that can sink young people new to the intensities of civic and political work.
For eight years, as a member of a research team funded by the MacArthur Foundation called the Research Network on Youth and Participatory Politics, I and other scholars studied the impact of new media and the digital environment on youth civic experience. The new powers and possibilities available to young people were clear to us, but so were the dangers.
One example: An interesting organization called Invisible Children sought to bring Joseph Kony, head of the Lord’s Resistance Army in central Africa, to justice. In the days after its advocacy video went viral, the organization’s leader suffered a nervous breakdown that a family statement reported was “brought on by extreme exhaustion, stress and dehydration.” Similar cases abound of young people whose civic agency exposes them to cognitive overload, because of the volume of incoming communication to process or the stress that results from unanticipated and often hostile responses to their efforts.
In the digital age, anyone can change in an instant from a private to a fully public person, from being a kid doing homework to a celebrity. Whereas child and teen actors have whole teams of people to help them think about their public persona, and how celebrity distorts one’s personal life, young civic agents who experience this phenomenon are infrequently prepared for it.
Out of concern about these dangers, my colleagues and I developed what we call a “Reflection and Action” framework. This is a set of 10 simple questions that we think can help young civic agents — and civic agents of any age, for that matter — prepare themselves to endure the rigors of civic work. (Our website provides further resources for helping people make use of these questions.)
1. Why does what I’m pursuing matter to me?
2. How much should I share?
3. How do I make it about more than myself?
4. Where do we start?
5. How can we make it easy and engaging for others to join in?
6. How do we get wisdom from crowds?
7. How do we handle the downside of crowds?
8. Are we pursuing voice or influence or both?
9. How do we get from voice to change?
10. How can we find allies?
The goal of these 10 questions is to help people become equitable, effective and self-protective civic agents. They take one through a process of personal reflection and guide planning for one’s civic engagement.
You begin by clarifying your commitments so that your actions are always well motivated. You need to be clear about how your public or online persona will interact with your offline persona, as they are unlikely to stay separate from one another. You reach for equity by challenging yourself to extend your own passions, commitments and interests with reference to what is good for a broader community. This is a move from “I” to “we.”
With some basics of self-preparation laid in, which support motivation over the long haul, you turn to the question of how to be effective. The first step in broadening your influence involves spotting places where your peers are already engaged in participatory culture and then building on that preexisting engagement to connect to new purposes. The Harry Potter Alliance, which “turns fans into heroes,” is an interesting example of young people who converted shared love of Harry Potter, and fandom, into a collaborative social justice mission. One can start where one’s peers already hang out, for instance, by engaging on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram or Snapchat.
This isn’t “slacktivism,” as some have charged, but rather a savvy way of giving people easy entry points into the work you are trying to do. Of course, engaging in social media platforms requires learning both about how to get the wisdom out of crowds and how to counter and mitigate their downsides: bullying; excessive self-exposure to hostility and attack; misinformation; and the like.
Then, as you seek to build efficacy, you also need to know if you mainly seek voice — that is, an opportunity for self-expression and to say what you stand for. Or do you mainly seek influence? If the latter, then you need to know how to pull the levers that drive change: how to see to it, for instance, that a bill becomes a law. And for those who pursue influence, one of the most important resources needed is allies, including members of older generations.