Christens: Engaged Social Action = Youth who do well and do good

Brian Christens

Madison desperately needs more efforts to support the growth of powerful, healthy, young leaders of color fighting devastating inequities plaguing communities of color. The Lussier Community Education Center (LCEC) and UW-Madison Center for Community and Nonprofit Studies (the CommNS) are working together to develop the Youth Action Project (YAP) into a powerful learning and organizing community for youth leaders of color. Thanks to funding from the Ira and Ineva Reilly Baldwin Wisconsin Idea Endowment, Youth Action Project will directly impact hundreds of young people during the course of this grant, and the work done during these three years will lay the foundation to launch young people into lives of civic engagement, leadership, and organizing for years to come.

Need & Impact

The glaring issues making Dane County the worst place to live in the United States for African Americans are dramatically laid out in the Race to Equity report. For example, in 2011 the unemployment rate in Dane County was 4.8 percent for whites and 25.2 percent for Blacks, and the rate of child poverty was 5 percent for whites and a staggering 75 percent for Blacks. Living in poverty in Dane County typically means living in neighborhoods that are relatively disconnected from civic institutions, services, and the amenities and numerous recreational opportunities that the city has to offer. Four times as many Black women receive insufficient prenatal care as compared to the proportion for white women, and Black teens living in Dane County are more than four times more likely to be arrested than their white peers. The disparity in arrests across races is even greater for adults.

As a center that works with children from kindergarten through high school and into adulthood, the LCEC sees talented young people who fall prey to these disparities, and those who achieve success despite the injustices they face. The LCEC’s observation that one path to beating the odds is involvement in youth organizing is borne from emerging research. Such research indicates that youth activists show greater civic development, psychological wellbeing, and academic engagement (Kirshner & Ginwright, 2012).  According to another study, youth organizing alumni are over 2.5 times more likely to pursue postsecondary education, over 3 times more likely to enroll in a 4 year university, 1/3 as likely to be both out of school and out of work, and over 5 times more likely to have worked on an issue that affects their community when compared to randomly selected youth from similar backgrounds (Terriquez & Rogers, 2012).

Building On Success

The Youth Action Project is growing out of a history of youth organizing and leadership development. Teen Build Up, the LCEC high school program, was founded in 2001 by a group of high school students coming out of the middle school program. They ran it as a weekly youth leadership organization until the opening of the new LCEC facility allowed it to evolve into a multifaceted, daily youth program.

In 2014, the LCEC piloted the Youth Action Project with an eight-week Youth Action Summer Internship for twelve high school youth and continued leadership and social action opportunities through the school year. Participants have explored social issues, completed identity and leadership development workshops, met with local social issue leaders, and began conducting participatory research on issues on which they would like to take action. The summer experience culminated with a youth delegation to Atlanta, GA, where interns met with local youth organizations, visited Civil Rights sites, and toured Morehouse, Spellman, and Emory universities.

During the academic year, youth continued to take action and learn about social issues. They participated in post-Ferguson actions organized by UW-Madison’s First Wave and the Young, Gifted, and Black Coalition, social actions related to the shooting of Tony Robinson, a UW-Milwaukee Youth Social Justice Conference, the national Color of Violence Conference and more. Four served on a local By Youth For Youth funding board, a group is planning for next year’s YASI summer experience, and the YES youth are studying school-to-prison pipeline issues.

Developing a sustained culture of youth action/citizenship requires us to create a cycle of learning that youth can enter at multiple points, that builds over multiple cycles, and that is felt by young people not directly involved in the action itself. The YAP will give youth concrete opportunities to learn, grow, and act in powerful and visible ways.


For more information email:

Brian Christens, Faculty Director CommNS
Associate Professor, Civil Society and Community Studies

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