Panel Paper: Youth Civic Engagement and Social Inequality: The Potential of Municipal Youth Councils

Tuesday, June 14, 2016 : 2:20 PM
Clement House, 3rd Floor, Room 05 (London School of Economics)

*Names in bold indicate Presenter

Mary Collins, Astraea Augsberger and Whitney Gecker, Boston University
Youth participation in government has the potential to benefit both youth and the community.  Yet, some forms of youth civic engagement are related to social class and race (Flanagan & Levine, 2010; Kahne & Middaugh, 2008).  In particular, Wyness (2009) reported that youth councils “reinforce existing inequalities among young people and are less likely to incorporate the voices of disadvantaged and socially excluded groups of young people” (p.535).  Hence the benefits may accrue to some youth and some communities – but not to other youth and communities, thus influencing a longer term trajectory of privilege or marginalization. 

The proposed study is informed by theories of social capital and civic engagement. Social capital has been defined as the acquisition of resources that result from membership in a social network or access to relationships with certain people (Bourdieu, 1984). Investments into these networks of relationships will result in dividends just as economic investments in human capital through education and training result in economic benefits (Lin, 2008). The more social connections that people have, the more likely it is that their social capital will grow (Portes, 1988). Unfortunately, the opposite may also be true; those who begin with few connections start at a disadvantage.  Because social capital involves social connections, it also has a conceptual relationship to engagement with civic issues and government systems.

This presentation will present results of a research project on municipal youth councils in the Boston (U.S.) metropolitan area.  The study examined the scope, structure, functioning, and impact of youth councils in city government in several communities in the Boston area.  A total of 24 existing youth councils were identified and representatives were interviewed by phone.  Additionally, in-depth data collection was conducted with one youth council operating in a major city in the area.  This component of the study involved qualitative interviews with 50 youth, qualitative interviews with adult stakeholders in city government, observations of 12 council meetings, and review of key program documents.    Data were then analyzed using techniques of thematic analysis. 

Key findings identified some successes in the sustained operation of youth councils attributable to factors such as leadership, connection to the mayor, resources, group composition, and clear focus of activity.  Several examples of successful impact on policy, programming, or practice were identified.  Findings indicated that membership on youth councils, while inclusive in some respects, might also perpetuate social inequalities.  We identified academic excellence, family involvement, and social networks as factors related to youths’ involvement in municipal youth councils.  Social networks were clearly identified as providing entrée to this experience of civic engagement.  With this opportunity, numerous youth reported forming additional beneficial networks with other youth, with key adults, and to potential job networks.  Moreover, benefits such as positive impacts on college and employment access were noted.

The findings have relevance to municipal governance and efforts aimed to include youth in civic opportunities.  These efforts, while a fairly common practice, require critical appraisal, when aiming to enhance opportunities for youth.

Full Paper: