Teaching to Change LA > Youth Voices > Vol. 5, Issue 1 > Electoral Politics
Electoral Politics > Features > East LA Group Paper

PhotoCivic Engagement

At the beginning of the UCLA/IDEA Summer Seminar most students were not fully aware of the definition and/or the different forms of civic engagements. People with diverse educational and personal backgrounds (e.g. theorists, students, activist, teachers, and artists) have arrived at different definitions of civic engagement. After five weeks of critical research our group has come up with its own definition of civic engagement. Civic engagement is being politically involved in your school and/or community.

What Theorists Say

Most schools don’t encourage civic engagement in low-income communities. The lack of civic education is the primary reason for the apathy and absence of youth civic engagement in these communities. Schools are supposed to raise responsible citizens who care about their lives and communities. In order to do so, they must educate students on how to become critical thinkers. Yet, as Macleod argues, “schools serving working-class neighborhoods are more regimented and emphasize rules and behavioral control. In contrast, suburban schools offer more open classrooms that "favor greater student participation, less direct supervision, more student electives, and, in general, a value system stressing internalized standards of control." Macleod concludes that students in low-income communities are not receiving the proper education necessary to obtain higher education and improve their socio-economic status in life.

...schools in working-class neighborhoods place too much emphasis on rules and behavior. In contrast, the middle and upper class neighborhoods offer a learning environment that stresses less on supervision and more on participation in their studies.

In a similar way, Bowles and Gintis argue that schools in working-class neighborhoods place too much emphasis on rules and behavior. In contrast, the middle and upper class neighborhoods offer a learning environment that stresses less on supervision and more on participation in their studies. The inequality in their education helps middle and upper class students develop leadership skills and gives them an advantage over working class students. Bowles' and Gintis’ argument points to why low income youth are not civically engaged.

The students we surveyed and interviewed offered an in-depth analysis of their everyday lives. Some of these students participate in their communities in different ways. However, most of these students lack the tools/skills necessary for political participation.

We interviewed three different types of students at North High: student government representatives and regular students. The student government representatives seemed to know more about civic engagement and how to be involved in different activities. Most of the students in student government were in North High School’s magnet program which emphasizes academics. In contrast, regular students said they had no idea what is going on in their school. Teachers and counselors are not informing these students about the different electives their school has to offer.

Student government representatives reported that, “our teachers put up signs and the clubs come and tell us about how to get involved.” It seems that they are already involved and getting more support and information for different activities. In contrast, a ninth grade non-magnet student said, “I haven’t heard about any clubs in my school, not even student government or leadership." It seems that there’s a pattern that students that already are involved benefit more than the other students who are not involved. These students are just receiving the basic skills necessary for them to head into the working force. Bowles and Gintis argue that the schools reward that way of life because they are preparing the next work force and those skills are necessary. The regular students are pushed aside and not encouraged to become civically engaged.

We surveyed seventy-seven students at East High and the results show most students want to be civically engaged. However, the surveys show that teachers and the administration don’t encourage civic engagement since it is not a skill needed by the minimum wage work force. Activists interviewed expressed that this pattern is constant in every low-income community.

What Activists Say

Activists Lester Garcia, Abdi Soltari, and Oscar De La Torre had different opinions about the causes of these problems. They argue that not only individual schools, but the Los Angeles Unified School District as a whole, fails to encourage youth to become politically involved in their communities. Lester Garcia stressed that schools are not giving students the equal opportunities to navigate through high school to graduate, or to enter into higher education, which in turn could lead to living wage jobs and effective engagement in their communities. Students need to be aware and then organize to create change in their lives. He also points out how the LAUSD Board members aren’t doing anything to help these student’s navigate through school. It has to be up to the students to create some change.

The first step for students to create change is to understand what inequalities they are facing. One of Lester Garcia’s old teachers told him, “Not everybody can be a chief.” Lester explained that his teacher meant that not all students can be leaders since only a select few will actually be given the opportunity and make it. Lester proved him wrong by becoming one of the leaders at Inner City Struggle where he is able to help others develop their leadership skills.

In order for youth to practice the organizational skills they have learned, they need to become critical thinkers. Students must learn to become critical researchers and analyzers in order to process the data being collected and studied. They must have critical ownership of their beliefs and ideas in order to overcome the barriers that are depriving them from political participation in their communities.

What Teachers Say

Two teachers at East High School defined civic engagement as their involvement in their community and school organizations. Both teachers saw how their school is not helping students become civically engaged. The school does not support organizations that help students become civically active because they emphasize other things like controlling student’s behavior. This produces students who rebel because they’re tired of being tied down and feeling like they can't do anything about it, so they decide not to do what their school asks of them.

What Artists Say

Artists define civic engagement as taking action on inequalities in order to create justice. Organizing is not only necessary to create change but also to develop leadership skills, which prepare you to become successful. Joining an organization will help you to take strategic action in order to cause an effective impact. The music group F.I.L.T.H.E.E. (Forever In Love Thanking Highest Eternal Existence) Immigrant said “schools in most low-income communities aren’t giving you the right tools to prepare you for the high position jobs.” Not only are students not being encouraged to participate politically, but they are not being provided with the tools and knowledge to do so.

What Tools Do Youth Need?

Through the readings, research, surveys, and interviews, we discussed and analyzed the different tools/skills that are associated with the forms of civic engagement in which youth get involved. We studied how these tools/skills are essential to the continuous involvement of youth in their community. Providing youth with the tools and teaching them the skills necessary is essential for their political participation.

Critical Analysis is the basic skill associated with civic engagement. Youth must be able to analyze and critique data in order to arrive at their own conclusions. Unfortunately, most students are not learning this basic skill in their classrooms. They are not being challenged in their social studies classes and are not encouraged to question what they are being taught. Students are not receiving, according to Freire; “a reading of the word in order to apply and relate it to their reading of the world.” This means that students are not learning how to use literacies and use them in order to explain their struggles in life.

Inner City Struggle (ICS) focuses on developing leadership among the students in East L.A. Their goal is to have informed youth in order to fight the social injustices in their community. They reach out to students in the different high schools throughout East L.A. and encourage them to become civically engaged in their communities.

Political participation in the classroom leads to political participation in the community.

Most of the outreach is done by the youth members of the organization and by the members of United Students, the ICS student group inside high schools like East High. Once these students join the group and/or the organization, they go through a series of workshops to learn outreach and organizational skills to develop their leadership skills. Through presentations and announcements to their fellow classmates they share the skills they have learned and the importance of promoting political participation of youth in the community.

In order for youth to practice the organizational skills they have learned, they need to become critical thinkers. Students must learn to become critical researchers and analyzers in order to process the data being collected and studied. They must have critical ownership of their beliefs and ideas in order to overcome the barriers that are depriving them from political participation in their communities.

Once students are informed about the different ways they can get involved in their communities, the actual participation will increase. Students can express their political opinions, thus, participating in a form of civic engagement, through different literacies. By simply reading newspapers, magazines, and/or pamphlets they can get informed about the problems facing their communities. But not only will they be learning about the problems, as critical thinkers they will be able to arrive at conclusions on how to solve these problems.

One of the most useful skills for youth to be politically active is public speaking. Once youth develop strong public speaking skills it is easier for them to express their ideas and create an effective impact. Another useful literacy is learning how to be critical of the media. Knowing how to use the media for your own benefit will help youth get the message across to a broader audience and gain their support.

Our Theory

Our critical research led to a grounded theory on civic literacies and youth civic engagement. We define civic literacies as influential public ideas that are presented in different forms (such as texts, murals, art, music, poetry, etc.) that allow youth to develop a deeper understanding of society. These literacies compliment and make up the base for civic engagement. Community activist Maria Brenes said, “We use different tools to attract people to become aware and politically engaged.” Using critical civic literacies to create awareness among youth is powerful since it connects to their daily struggle in life.

Theorists and activists focus on taking action in order to address the failure of schools to civically engage youth. However, in order to take action, youth need adequate training in productive civic engagement. In order to encourage students to engage civically in their communities, the curriculum of their social studies classes, especially government, must be updated and improved. When students are engaged in class, they will feel motivated to participate in their communities. Political participation in the classroom leads to political participation in the community.


Teaching to Change LA is an online journal of IDEA, UCLA's Institute for Democracy, Education, & Access