The Positive Effects of Youth Community Engagement
Researchers have begun to study the interaction between youth engagement and positive development (Brennan and Barnett 2009; Brennan, Barnett, and Baugh 2007; Brennan, Barnett, and Lesmeister 2007; Brennan, Barnett, McGrath 2009; Crooks, Chiodo, Thomas, and Hughes 2009; Ludden 2011; Pearrow 2008). Youth engagement is defined as "meaningful participation and sustained involvement of a young person in an activity, with a focus outside of him or herself" (Crooks et al., 2009). For the purposes of this article, a community refers to the geographical boundaries established by municipalities (e.g., city or town), a neighborhood, and/or a school environment encompassed within larger geographical boundaries (e.g., a campus or a district).
Past research on youth engagement has been grounded in two theories: 1) youth development theory and 2) attachment theory (Brennan, Barnett, and Lesmeister 2007; Brennan, Barnett, and McGrath 2009). First, youth development theory is based on building resilient communities where youth are surrounded by adult support. The idea is that resilient communities will have the capacity to support youth in times of need whereas non-resilient communities may lack such a capacity. In addition, creating communities where youth are encouraged to be engaged allows youth to adapt to and overcome adversities. By developing positive relationships with adults in the community, youth will value the community and the relationships they have developed (Brennan, Barnett, and Lesmeister 2007).
“It is clear from the current political and social landscape that youth today crave recognition as equal contributors in shaping a just society.”
- Helgeson & Schneider, 2015
Research on youth engagement has also been based in attachment theory (Brennan, Barnett, and McGrath 2009). Attachment theory attempts to explain the function and need of long-term meaningful relationships. Historically, attachment theory has been used in the field of psychology to explain the relationship needs of an infant and a caregiver (usually the mother). This relationship is important because it ensures the proper social and emotional development of the child (Kaye, Lynne, and Murphy 2011). Youth attachment to the community can be viewed in almost the same light. As youth get older, they will look for other attachments in addition to the relationship developed with their caregiver(s). Youth who have developed meaningful positive relationships with other adults in the community have demonstrated better social and emotional development (Brennan, Barnett, and McGrath 2009). In addition, they also demonstrated increased social participation and community action. Meaningful positive relationships help to transform the community from a shared space to a set of psychological bonds between its members.
Empowering youth and allowing them the opportunity to participate in the community has shown to benefit their development greatly (Brennan and Barnett 2009; Brennan, Barnett, and Baugh 2007; Brennan, Brennan, Barnett, McGrath 2009; Crooks et al., 2009; Ludden 2011; Pearrow 2008; Wilson, Minkler, Dasho, Wallerstein, and Martin 2008). When youth become engaged in community activities they develop the skills needed to be an effective leader. When youth realize they have the power to influence decisions at a community or school level they will rise amongst their peers and begin to show signs of leadership. Youth feel as if they have an obligation and set of skills needed to represent a certain sub-section of the community population (i.e., youth) in the larger community context. Brennan and Barnett (2009) concluded that youth who are engaged in community efforts at a young age show better problem-solving and decision-making skills when compared to those youth who are not engaged. Similarly, Brennan, Barnett, and Lesmeister (2007) reported that youth who have been empowered by the community are likely to be future leaders. The development of such vital skills (e.g. problem solving and decision-making) at a young age will serve the youth well in a variety of life endeavors. Empowering youth and engaging them in community activities allows them to interact with adults and have guidance as they develop the skills needed to make decisions and solve complex issues (Brennan and Barnett 2009).
“When youth become engaged in community activities they develop the skills needed to be an effective leader.”
In addition to building leadership skills, engaging youth in the community also creates a sense of belonging and purpose for youth (Brennan, Barnett, and McGrath, 2009). When youth realize their voices and opinions are being considered, they will feel that they are a true part of the community. The community then becomes a place where youth and adults share the common interest of making their shared space a better place. Youth will increasingly become more comfortable with sharing ideas and suggestions because they now see themselves as vital members of the community (Brennan, Barnett, and Lesmeister 2007). Overall, youth internalize the idea that they are making a meaningful contribution to the community and have done so by working productively with other members of the society (Pearrow, 2008).
Finally, empowering youth to be engaged in the community has shown to decrease traditional problem behaviors. Some have hypothesized that problem behaviors actually emerge as a result of youth feeling disengaged, and under-valued in their community (Helgeson & Schneider, 2015). Consistently, research has shown that youth who are engaged in their communities are less likely to use drugs and alcohol, less likely to drop out of high school, and less likely to be involved in criminal behavior. Specifically, Crooks et al. (2010) concluded that youth community engagement is connected to a wide range of positive outcomes such as higher academic performance, lower rates of pregnancy, and lower rates of marijuana use. Some programs have even begun to incorporate youth engagement aspects into intervention/prevention efforts (Altman and Feighery 2004; Wilson et al., 2008). These interventions are based on making youth feel their status and well-being matter to the community. Youth who benefit from these interventions tend to shy away from anti-social activities (e.g., drug use and criminal behavior), and more towards pro-social behaviors because of the relationship that have with the community (Altman and Feighery 2004). Youth internalize responsibility for their actions and will not only be held accountable by their family, but also the community and school as a whole (Ludden, 2011).
“Empowering youth to be engaged in the community has shown to decrease traditional problem behaviors.”
Noting the benefits of engaging youth, communities should look for meaningful ways to include youth in programs/activities. Often the engagement of youth in the community can be incorporated in the school environment. Ultimately, the involvement of youth will facilitate stronger communities and future leaders.
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Crooks, C. V., Chiodo, D., & Thomas, D. (2010). Strengths-based programing for first nations youth in schools: Building engagement through healthy relationships and leadership skills. International Journal of Mental Health and Addiction, 8 (160), 160-173.
Helgeson, S., & Schneider, D. (2015). Authentic community-based youth engagement: Lessons from across the nation and through the lens of violence prevention. National Civic Review, 104(3), 16-23.
Kaye, C., Lynne, R., & Murphy, P. (2011). Attachment theory and primary caregiving. Journal of Early Childhood, 8 (4), 16-20.
Ludden, A. B. (2011). Engagement in school and community civic activities in rural adolescents. Journal of Youth Violence, 40, 1254-1270.
Matthews, T. L., Hempel, L. M., & Howell, F. M. (2010). Gender and transmission of civic engagement: Assessing the influence of youth civic activity. Sociological Inquiry, 80 (3), 448-474.
Pearrow, M.M. (2008). A critical examination of an urban-based youth empowerment strategy: The teen empowerment program. Journal of Community Practice, 16 (4), 509-525.
Wilson, N., Minkler, M., Dasho, S., Wallerstein, N. & Martin, A. (2008). Getting to social action: The youth empowerment strategies (YES!) project. Heath Promotion Practice, 9, 395-403.