Nearly two decades ago we began to see what many considered an alarming trend. After two generations of increasing educational attainment, we began to see drops in college attendance and even further drops in actual college completion. The trends were across all demographic sectors of young folks*. This was alarming not only to families and schools, it was also very disturbing to the major players of the U.S. economic sector.
One of the only sectors of U.S. society that was not hollering like a hit dog was the political system. Although advocates and activists constantly set off alarms regarding voter engagement, most major players in the political arena are not calling for more voters. Candidates may push for activating registered voters; motivating blocks of folks, that they can “read” in the numbers, decipher how to pander to, encourage to “do their civic duty.” Often, as a society we will lament voter apathy, yet it is important that we don’t conflate apathy with disengagement and disenfranchisement. Apathy characterizes a blocks of voters that were once and will be active again - if you speak to their passions. Disengagement and disenfranchisement characterize groups of citizens that actively experience economic, cultural and political suppression and oppression.
Why, might you ask, would I start talking about drops in college going rates, and then shift to discussing active systemic citizen disenfranchisement and disengagement from the political process?
Because about eight years after we began to see drops in college enrollment, and then stagnant trends in high school graduation rates (that later also began to drop), the research into the trends began. That was about the time that I got the research bug. Remind you to tell you the story of how I got bitten, but my ignited passion resulted in my very first publication; and my research uncovered a critical key to increasing college going among some of our most vulnerable youth.
What was my first foray into sociological research you might ask, if was essentially, why do the kids that end up going to college, that folks say don’t normally go to college, end up going to college?
To be more blunt, why did the Latino, black, asian and poor students that typically wouldn’t seriously consider college because of all of the various social reasons that have been articulated ad nauseous make it to college?
Do you know what the answer was….
…not innovative academics.
…not scholarship money.
The thing that pushed them over the top more than any of these things was…
Civic engagement refers to the ways in which citizens participate in the life of a community in order to improve conditions for others or to help shape the community's future. Particularly for younger people, civic engagement means working to make a difference in the civic life of our communities and developing the combination of knowledge, skills, values and motivation to make that difference. It means promoting the quality of life in a community, through both political and non-political processes.
So Dallas, if we want to improve the future outcomes of our neighborhoods, let’s literally make good citizens. If we want to improve the quality of the outcomes of our schools right now, and truly focus on college and career readiness, let’s literally make good citizens.
The bottom line is, we must, as a city, as a community, do the thing that the established politicians and municipal bureaucrats will not actively attempt to do. We must engage new and future voters. We must engage young people, ALL of our youth, in civic engagement.
WE MUST BE ABOUT THE BUSINESS OF MAKING CITIZENS, ABOVE ALL ELSE.
This is the pillar that will strongly hold all the rest of our aspirations for our youth, and ourselves.
*The exception to this trend was black women - who’s exceptionalism has been written about extensively so we won’t go in to that issue here.