Methods: The study draws on case example findings from a five-year participatory evaluation of youth organizing efforts in low-income urban communities. It incorporates multiple source data including evaluation archival materials, community site visits, in-depth semi-structured interviews, participant observation, and field notes. The data was analyzed using memos, open and focused coding, and integrated theme development. The efforts were selected for their diversity and robustness as a case and, while not generalizable, offer “best practice” insight into elements of organizational spaces that facilitate the efforts of young people to organize around neighborhood issues in largely low-income and racially diverse communities of color.
Results: Our results reveal critical elements that create civic opportunity spaces and facilitate and promote civic engagement: a) an intentional organizational strategy that values youth as citizens; b) key adults who can support and facilitate youth participation; c) physical spaces within the organization that are youth-owned and youth-driven; d) a set of interlinked activities that enable young people to learn civic skills, engage in critical inquiry, and develop new knowledge; and e) opportunities to engage in action on important public issues. Our research argues that these elements create environments that facilitate and promote civic engagement by enabling young people to develop a civic identity and by creating meaningful opportunities for young people to build community and challenge social injustices. Based on these elements, we present a broad three-stage practice model for consideration in youth development and civic engagement interventions.
Implications: From a social work research, policy, and practice perspective, the concept of civic opportunity spaces opens many possibilities for thinking about youth civic engagement and the role of organizational and community interventions in strengthening civic engagement. It suggests that youth civic engagement studies should examine not only participation rates but also the structures and opportunities for participation and the quality of participation within efforts. Our study argues that more research should be done to understand the model and its potential for long-term impact, to examine the variations in how such a practice model is implemented, and to evaluate the model as an intervention for future youth development programs interested in strengthening youth civic engagement.