Teenagers in America are inheriting a society rife with social injustice and inequality. Discrimination, police brutality, high rates of violence, substandard educational opportunities, and under-resourced communities are among the many barriers to their future health and happiness.

a group of young people participating in a protest © John Englart via Wikimedia & Creative Commons.

Understandably, young people may feel their futures look bleak, making them anxious, depressed, or apathetic. Fortunately, some research suggests that when young people understand the societal factors affecting them, they are more apt to want to take action to change things—which, in turn, can empower them and improve their mental health.

Now, a new study suggests that youth organizations have an important role to play in positive teen development and social justice.

How activism sharpens minds

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In the study, researchers assessed how a diverse group of students involved in youth organizations around the country develop elements of critical thinking, motivation, and action to effect change in their surroundings—all related to what Brazilian educator and philosopher Paolo Friere called “critical consciousness.”

The youth organizations that students participated in were designed to teach them about historical underpinnings of inequality relevant to their lives, such as why high schools with predominantly Black versus white students have fewer college prep courses or why communities of color tend to have harsher policing. The organizations also pointed students toward past group activism that had addressed these issues successfully, while providing them the tools necessary to create change themselves in their communities, like learning how to participate on a community board.

At several points over a two-year period, researchers surveyed youth about their levels of “critical reflection” (understanding factors outside of themselves that affect their lives, such as discrimination and fewer opportunities), their motivation to challenge existing barriers to their well-being, and actions they’ve taken to effect change (such as joining a protest march or attending a political meeting). The researchers wanted to understand how these various elements of becoming more politically engaged emerge over time.

After analyzing the data, they found that the teens increased in their critical thinking skills gradually over their two-year involvement and were also more apt to take direct action to address issues of concern. These gains were made even though many students started the study with fairly high levels of critical consciousness.

For researcher, Andres Pinedo of Vanderbilt University (who conducted the study with colleagues while at the University of Michigan), these changes were impressive, particularly since youth activism tends to dip rather than increase over time.

“The growth in engagement in critical action in this study is larger than we’ve seen in any other study,” he says. “There’s something about these contexts [youth organizations] that help youth become more and more committed to engaging in action.”

How action sustains motivation

One surprising finding was that youth motivation stayed constant over the two years, even though the teens grew in other dimensions. Pinedo thinks this is probably due to their having high motivation from the start—there wasn’t much room for change. Still, he sees the teens’ consistency as a positive sign.

Gun violence activist Emma González speaking at the March for Our Lives on March 24, 2018. © Credit: Mobilus In Mobili

“Even though we don’t see growth, maintenance is important in its own right, because other studies have found that young people sometimes decrease in their motivation over time,” he says.

Why does growing in critical consciousness matter to teens?

Pinedo points to a body of research suggesting that young people who develop higher levels of critical consciousness in supportive environments experience positive developmental outcomes, such as greater school achievement,  physical well-being, and happiness, as well as later occupational success. In particular, youth who understand how social and institutional contexts affect their opportunities and take action to correct social injustice are less likely to consider personal factors (like intelligence or work ethic) as solely responsible for their achievement, says Pinedo. This helps them feel better about themselves and engage more in their communities.

This research provides some of the first empirical evidence of how critical consciousness fostered through youth organizations benefits students, says Pinedo. He hopes his findings will encourage more schools and communities to provide financial and institutional support for youth activist organizations, he says.

“Young people are very much prepared to handle the difficult histories that they’ve been given, but also empowered to improve things,” he says. “By respecting young people as experts of their lived experiences, youth can appreciate and take advantage of opportunities to lead and partner authentically with other youth and with adults in ways that make practical differences in their community.”

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