Empowering Students for Social Change and Civic Engagement Using Digital Technology
Whenever I talk about young people, politics, civic action, and the internet, I always find some version of the same two common misconceptions about youth and civic action.
1. Youth are not politically engaged.
While some youth are not yet of voting age, and it is true that young people are often disengaged from electoral or traditional politics, it is not true, that young people are not civically engaged. Young people are very passionate about “issue politics” and extremely active in digital spaces, engaging in diverse political practices such as blogging, petitioning, mobilizing using social media, and raising awareness about issues that matter to them.
For example, in 2015, grade eight students Tessa Hill and Lia Valente launched a petition on change.org to include consent in the Ontario elementary health education curriculum. The petition gathered over 40,000 signatures and the teenagers met with Premier Kathleen Wynne when the decision was made to change the curriculum to include consent.
The second misconception about young people and civic action is:
2. Youth are emerging leaders. Youth will lead sometime in the future when they are ready.
Writer Donna Lesko refers to an “ideology of emergence” that is common in conversations about teenagers. This ideology says that youth are training to be leaders of tomorrow. It says that only adults can be leaders. It says that the contributions of youth are not as meaningful as the contributions of adults. Can you imagine if Craig Keilburger or Malala Yousafzai had believed they were not old enough to try and change the inequity they saw in the world?
In his first speech after being elected Canadian Prime Minister, Justin Trudeau addressed not world leaders or Canadian politicians, but 16,000 young activists at a We Day event in Ottawa. The Prime Minister told the youth “I don’t want you guys to think of yourself as leaders of tomorrow. This is about you being leaders today.”
As teachers, we might ask how we are to support our students in becoming the leaders of today. One way is to be knowledgeable about the many ways in which young people are trying to change the world right now using the tools of digital technology. Many youth are part of social justice organizations that support youth leadership initiatives in impacting upon the world and addressing issues that are important to young people. Many of these organizations already have an active presence in schools as well as providing safe and supportive digital spaces for young activists to learn and become inspired. Some of these organizations are:
The Harry Potter Alliance
The Harry Potter Alliance (HPA) has mobilized millions of young fans of the books to engage in social justice initiatives ranging from book donations and fundraising for Haiti earthquake survivors to supporting fair trade and net neutrality. The HPA has both an online program and chapters around the world in schools and other learning spaces.
Project Free Child
The mission of Project Free Child is to support critical democratic engagement in all young people. For teachers, the Free Child Project offers resources and the possibility of connecting students to a large social justice network.
The Born Brave Foundation is a research organization that supports youth empowerment in enacting change in the world, and in particular, supports marginalized youth and builds anti-bullying awareness by sharing the stories of youth through artistic projects and a travelling bus tour.
TakingITGlobal (TIG) has over 500,000 members and 2,000 youth-led initiatives all over the world. It has an enormous database of lessons, resources, games, creative projects and real-world projects on issues such as poverty and the environment and provides scholarships and mentoring to young activists. TIG is affiliated with powerful social justice organizations such as the United Nations and has a comprehensive education section, TIGed, designed for use in schools, including virtual classrooms, professional development and global networks to help teachers support their students in social justice action.
Me to We/WE365
We Day attracts hundreds of thousands of young activists, all of whom have to earn their ticket into the event through social justice change actions in Me to We programs. We365 is a challenge based app that encourages young people to get involved in social actions in their community and world.
Consider bringing some of these programs into your classroom as part of your digital citizenship, social sciences, character education, or literacy curriculum, and provide the mentoring, resources, and critical understanding students need to become active, ethical global citizens.