Over a 12-month period, our research team conducted research to better understand the factors that inhibit or encourage civic engagement among youth of color in the Inland Empire region of California. Past research has often focused on a narrow understanding of civic participation, studying only individual acts of citizenship such as voting and volunteerism. Building from this research, we studied a wider array of civic participation strategies that included community organizing, school walk-outs, political use of social media, policy advocacy, and direct action. Through interviews with key informants engaged with young people of color in community-based organizations, we identify the issues that spur young people of color’s civic engagement and examine the relationship between civic involvement and opportunities for political education. We aimed to better understand the influence of racial/ethnic identity on youths’ civic engagement.
There is a Growing Infrastructure to Support Youth Organizing
Organizations in the Inland Empire point to the challenges and pains of growing an infrastructure to support young people’s civic engagement. Infrastructure, which involves strong and sustainable organizations, peer networking, financial support, solid communications, and learning opportunities are grossly lacking. For example, there is a lack of funding available in general to support youth organizing. Moreover, when funding is available, it is project based and goal-oriented; there is virtually no general operating funding sources for organizing groups, which is where funding is most urgently needed. An ongoing challenge is that movement work is happening in isolation and can feel fragmented given the lack of infrastructure to support collective efforts.
Geography and Transportation are a Significant Barrier to Civic Engagement
Poor access to affordable public transportation presents a significant obstacle to young people’s capacity to participate in civic engagement opportunities. Too often, young people of color have no access to public transportation and/or limitations/constraints around transportation coordination to attend civic engagement opportunities. As a result, most rely working around the schedules of their parents or relatives who can help with transportation. The geographical isolation of the region combined with the lack of public transportation presents an even greater challenge when attempting to organize young people across various high schools.
There is a Lack of Centralized Place for
Coalition Building and Movement Work with Young People
Organization leaders point to the need for a centralized space in order to support collective youth organizing and strengthened multi-racial youth alliances among Latinx, African American, and growing Asian and Pacific Islander immigrant communities. Despite the geographical divide in the region that further reinforces the racial divide among communities of color, young people are looking for ways to connect across communities. There are an estimated 1 million undocumented residents in the Inland Empire, yet there is not much data on how many undocumented youth are present in the region. More recently, a new wave of young people who do not have Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) status are much more fearful about their legal status and often avoid political or civic activities.
There is Need for Greater Support For Overall Capacity of Youth Organizations
In order to keep young people engaged yearlong and sustain their political engagement, more funding is needed to increase capacity. When opportunity is given, young people will engage and organize around the issues they care about. However, foundations are hyper focused on wanting to see “product” and not as interested in funding the “process” necessary to lead to desired outcomes.
Some of the key elements identified by organization leaders that would help increase young people’s civic engagement are as follows:
- It would have to be a grassroots and youth led movement
- Increased capacity: at least 2 organizers per school to help mobilize a youth power base
- Paid internships and/or stipends for young people
- A robust leadership pipeline to build the capacity of the next generation of leaders in the areas of electoral campaigns, organizing, and policy reform
- Investment in their professional development (bringing in guest speakers, fieldtrips to give young people more exposure)
- Capacity to keep track of young people who have gone through their programs