This blog post is the third in a series of posts linked to the Evidence & Policy special issue (Volume 16, Issue 2) on Opening up evidence-based policy: exploring citizen and service user expertise. Guest Edited by Ellen Stewart, Jennifer Smith-Merry, and Marc Geddes.
I am the co-founder and chief executive officer of Generation Citizen, a non-governmental organization in the United States of America that seeks to empower young people to become engaged and effective citizens, and the author of the 2019 book Generation Citizen: The Power of Youth in Our Politics. At Generation Citizen, we are deeply committed to closing the civic engagement gap. We offer school-based action civics programming, which provides young people with the opportunity to learn how to affect policy change and work together to take action on a local community issue. Thousands of Generation Citizen classes have completed these action projects since our founding over a decade ago, and so I have witnessed firsthand the importance and influence of citizen and service user knowledge– in this case, youth knowledge– in informing policy and school decision-making. When students work together to generate relevant evidence and offer evidence-informed ideas of possible solutions, decision-makers should listen. Sometimes students’ lived experiences can uncover outdated regulations that need updating, or work to better support their most marginalized classmates and their families. Yet, too few decision-makers are listening to youth, especially youth from marginalized backgrounds, and we must do more to facilitate incorporating lived experiences into policy. This is one of the reasons why Generation Citizen has worked to support efforts around the USA to lower the voting age to 16, to create an additional incentive for political leaders to listen to youth.
So I was keen to read Cohen et al.’s Opportunities for youth participatory action research to inform school district decisions, which explores the promise and challenges of Youth participatory action research (YPAR) to inform education policy decision making in California. At Generation Citizen, YPAR is part of the action civics process, but we focus on building skills for taking effective action rather than focusing primarily on research, since research does not always lead to action. In the case of California’s Stockton Unified School District, though, the YPAR work that students undertook directly informed district-level decision-making, which was exciting to see. This required the work not only the school-based YPAR program but also district-level support for YPAR and for using YPAR evidence, as well as state-level legislation that encouraged stakeholder engagement. The confluence of these three forces is a great example for thinking about how to scale YPAR and youth engagement in policy processes, and more governments should be building in prioritizing stakeholder engagement into their decision-making. I note that the California state policy described (LCAP/LCFF) does not mandate youth engagement (they instead talk about stakeholder engagement more generally), and so it is a credit to the school district that they opted to engage youth as part of the process.
Looking to the future – an uncertain education future in this current moment – means that a lot is happening to students, without hearing from students themselves. I’m hopeful that this research demonstrates how critical it is that students give voice to whatever uncertain future may await them.
Scott Warren, CEO of Generation Citizen.
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