Though Minnesota has some of the highest rates of civic engagement nationally, young adults age 20-24 are the least civically engaged. About 1 in 4 report volunteering in the last year, compared with about 40 percent of middle-aged adults. Far fewer young adults voted in the most recent national election than adults age 45 and older.

How can we promote civic engagement in young adults? A recent long-term study I conducted of Wilder Foundation's Youth Leadership Initiative (YLI) found that by building youth’s confidence and skills, they are more civically engaged as they move into young adulthood.

First, a little about the initiative

YLI posterNow in its 10th year, the YLI program is an intensive, year-long leadership program for young people age 14-18. Throughout the program year, youth are actively involved in community action teams to address a community issue that they themselves identify, research, and develop strategies to address. They take turns practicing meeting facilitation, talking to key stakeholders, and presenting to each other, skills they can take with them into adulthood.

YLI strives to serve a racially diverse group of youth. Since its inception, over half of those served (61%) have been Asian, and African and African American participants make up about a quarter (22%) of all past participants. Participants primarily come from the following five Saint Paul high schools: Central Senior High School, Highland Park Senior High, Harding High School, Johnson Senior High School, and Como Park High School.

Here’s what we learned

In a recent web survey of alumni who have participated since the program’s inception, former participants (now young adults) report positive outcomes in two key areas.

  • Personal Growth. Youth who participate in the program report gaining self-confidence and becoming more aware of their personal strengths. As a diverse group of youth, they gain awareness and pride in their own culture, as well as cultural understanding of others. As one alumni noted, “Because of YLI I am more confident in my ability to be a leader and an activist in my community.” Another reported that the program helped her change “from being a chicken to being an eagle.”
  • Civic Engagement. Two-thirds of graduates reported voting in the most recent national election, and 40 percent have volunteered in the last year, a higher proportion than other young adults in Minnesota.

YLI alumni comparison

What makes the initiative effective

While there are a myriad of possible reasons, one result of the long-term study is that youth embrace the program. The intensive, year-long program is quite a commitment for teenagers, but an important part of gaining the skills, knowledge and experience to be a leader in their community. On average, youth engage in the program twice a week, and a quarter go on to participate for multiple years in leadership roles, serving on the program’s youth leadership team.

As it starts its 10th year, I’m thrilled to be able to continue working with the staff and youth to determine what additional impacts we may uncover.

Reprinted from the Wilder Foundation blog published October 28, 2015.

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