Magazine article Liberal Education

Hope, Healing, and Care: Pushing the Boundaries of Civic Engagement for African American Youth

Magazine article Liberal Education

Hope, Healing, and Care: Pushing the Boundaries of Civic Engagement for African American Youth

Article excerpt

THE EXISTING LITERATURE on youth civic engagement presents two challenges. On the one hand, insofar as it fails to account for class and ethnic differences, current theory generally conceptualizes youth civic and political participation too broadly. Much of the focus is on conventional civic engagement, which Westheimer and Kahne (2004) describe as citizenship through individual acts of volunteering and the like. On the other hand, insofar as it does not account for the ways in which historical, community, and social forces shape civic activities, current theory frames civic participation too narrowly. The singular focus on citizenship forms of engagement overlooks other civic activities such as protests, hunger strikes, and civil disobedience. These forms of civic engagement address issues related to injustice and are directed toward social change.

In addition to the challenges presented by the literature on youth civic engagement, a growing body of research suggests that measures used to assess traditional forms of engagement - such as volunteering at the neighborhood youth club or campaigning for a local politician - may be inappropriate for assessing civic engagement among youth in urban communities (Lang 1998; SanchezJankowski 2002). Research also suggests that urban youth have less faith in traditional forms of political engagement and may participate in civic life in ways that go unrecognized by social science researchers. These forms of participation may include activities such as addressing police harassment when traveling to and from school (Fine et al. 2003), encouraging a school to purchase new classroom heaters during cold winters, and advocating for free bus passes for transportation to and from school for students who receive public assistance (Mediratta and Fruchter 2001 ). Moreover, research suggests that "engagement" for urban youth may include unconventional forms such as financial assistance for family survival or artistic expression through music, art, and poetry (Cammarota and Fine 2008). These activities invite questions about what constitutes civic action among urban youth, and about the ways in which the social, economic, and political context of urban communities shapes the contours of civic engagement.

As Sullivan (1997, 241) notes, "in cities ravaged by alcohol, cocaine, heroin addictions, and the nexus of the HIV/AIDS pandemic, networks of care, support, and counseling are some of the strongest, most vibrant, and most visible civic infrastructures existing in poor communities and neighborhoods." Long-term exposure to poverty, violence, and social marginalization threatens aspects of civic life and community well-being. Over time, these forms of oppression can rupture the psycho-social fabric that forms communities of care and that fosters collective and individual well-being and purpose. These issues have in many ways threatened modes of care and justice that historically have played an important role in African American social networks and activism. Increasingly, neighborhood-based organizations in black communities have come to recognize the role that healing, hope, and care play in developing young people as well as fostering strong, vibrant community life.

Civic dimensions of healing, hope, and care

Healing is the process of restoring health and well-being to individuals and communities. Conceptually, healing is an important dimension of civic engagement given the ways in which poverty, racism, and violence have threatened vibrant community life in black neighborhoods. Daily trauma, hopelessness, and nihilism "prevent us from participating in organized collective struggle aimed at ending domination and transforming society" (hooks 1993). Healing requires a critical consciousness, a way of understanding the social world through political resistance that prepares African American youth to confront racism and other forms of oppression. Ward (2000, 50-5 1 ) suggests that it is important to develop intimate spaces where young people "cultivate resistance against beliefs, attitudes, and practices that can erode a Black child's self-confidence and impair her positive identity development. …

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