Participatory Politics in an Age of Crisis: Sangita Shresthova and Joe Kahne (Part 2)


I think you are right that educators’ need for resources related to these sizable changes is enormous right now.  The basics are clear - there are huge and new opportunities for youth to learn about issues and perspectives, voice their views, mobilize others, and work to shape the conversation.  At the same time, of course, considerable challenges confront everyone when it comes to new digital dynamics.  In schools, concerns range from cyberbullying, to the spread of misinformation, to dysfunctional and toxic exchanges between those holding differing political views.  And, of course, as the blogs in this series will detail, these kinds of dynamics have implications that extend far beyond education.  But since my work is centered in education, I’ll dive in there.  A couple of points:

  • Schools are not the solution. Many look to education to solve social problems.  That’s understandable, they are such a convenient access point.  But it’s also clearly problematic.  The problems with our politics reflect deep cultural and structural dynamics.  The idea that teachers and schools can be the solution is clearly unrealistic.

  •  Education is likely part of the solution (and of course, at times, part of the problem):  Though not a solution, schools can help.  They do provide an access point - one with funding - and one that reaches, depending on the grade level, almost all youth.  Moreover, education occurs both in and out of school - and institutions that work to support youth outside of school can clearly also help.

  • Digital media learning can help advance an equity agenda.  Looking back, I think if there’s one place where we were surprised by the survey data, it was with respect to the notion of the digital divide.  We started, in many respects, assuming that kids of color and youth from lower income families would be subject to the digital divide and that’s not what we found.  There are some sizable inequalities when it comes to certain kinds of technology (owning desktop and laptop computers, for example).  But young people’s levels of engagement in digital forms of participatory politics are relatively equitable across race and socioeconomic status and it is definitely not the case that white youth are leading the way (Details see Section 4  here).  Indeed,  those supporting participatory politics have many opportunities to promote an equity agenda.

  • There’s a need to transform civic education for the digital age. Educators and, even more, school systems, have been largely caught flat footed when it comes to the digital revolution and its participatory possibilities.  There are technical challenges, to be sure.  Just getting youth and teachers access to the right equipment and connectivity is hard and expensive.  And there are lots of very real problems associated with online activity ranging from cyberbullying to inappropriate content being accessed and shared.  It might be tempting for some to say, “don’t worry about it,” but few school leaders have that luxury.  This doesn’t mean policies banning cell phones or severely limiting online access in schools are warranted.  But it does mean recognizing that some very bad things can happen online, being respectful of parental concerns, and thinking carefully about how best to support young people. 

These concerns, while relevant, aren’t the biggest problem.  In our work, we’ve found that the biggest need is for a clear vision of powerful models for leveraging the power of new digital media.  Educators have not received much time and support and are only just beginning to identify age appropriate goals, craft plans, develop skills, and leverage the potential.  Helping educators inside schools and out feels crucial.

At the same time, one limit of the “learnings” noted above is that they say more about the potential of this direction than they do about how to get there.  Realizing this potential is hard.  Along those lines, Sangita, I’m wondering if you could say a bit more about the Digital Civics Toolkit that you mentioned above -- Feels like it provides a tangible sense of what educators both in and out of school can do.


Yes, for me working on the Digital Civics toolkit with Carrie James and Erica Hodgin was really such a great opportunity to think through the ways in which the findings of the network could operationalized through a more comprehensive, but still very flexible, framework. 

As we tossed around our ideas about how we could organize it, we zeroed in on the dilemmas that people of all ages, not just youth, face when they think about the ways their civic and political lives move between online and in person contexts and the tools we need to approach the decisions we make. For example, considerations about what to share and what to keep private are painfully familiar to many of us. On one hand, we may want to express our support for social issue or cause; on the other hand, we may worry about the unintended consequences that our actions might have for us, our community. So the approach we took in the toolkit very much stresses that these dilemmas are real and that there are very few simple, black-and-white answers to the questions we face. The risks of digital civics are real, as are the opportunities. We can’t just put our head in the sand and pretend that these things aren’t happening. Rather we need tools that help us navigate the decisions we will inevitably make (dismissing digital media is a decision we make) in ways help us understand and grasp both the potential opportunities and the risks involved. 


Our Toolkit is set up through 5 modules that help educators approach these topics in and outside schools. Drawing on the work of YPP, the modules are: participation (inviting folks to identify issues of shared concern), investigation (sharing tools that can help them learn more and discern what is realiable), dialogue (advice on how to approach conversations about sensitive or divisive topics), voice and action (thinking strategically about how to use media to express views and mobilize others for a cause).

Each toolkit module contains curated activities that educators (and anyone interested in this space) can easily use. The idea is that the educators can pick and choose what works for them; they can also use the toolkit in its entirety.  We have been delighted (and a little amazed!) by the positive response the toolkit has generated since we released it. We have seen social science teachers adopt our materials in their teaching. I have also been excited by the interest that our toolkit generated when I shared it with educators working media literacy.  We see as evidence that there is a real need for resources like this.


You know, the interest in media literacy is interesting.  Often, when I talk about participatory politics and participatory media I feel like I can connect well with people who are very interested in media and with some of the academics who are doing cutting edge work, but I lose many teachers - the focus seems marginal to their main priorities.  And when educators focus on the aspects of civic education that they see as central, it feels like the reverse often happens.  So what’s interesting about media literacy is that it does feel like a place where a bridge between these communities can be built.  And, of course, there are many scholars doing innovative work at this intersection like Paul Milhailidis and Renee Hobbs.  There’s also great work done by Sam Wineburg and the Stanford History Education Project on Civic Online Reasoning.  Some additional academic work I really like includes this piece by Ellen Middaugh and Chris Evans that looks at online public voice and this paper by Nicole Mirra and Antero Garcia  that looks at ways digital media has created new opportunities for youth civic expression and action.  And if you want to see what efforts to develop civic literacies can look like in a classroom, check out this video of Chela Delgado teaching her class how to do infographics tied to social issues. 

The other thing I’d say about these kinds of curricular efforts is that there are some strong indications that they work.  For example, we found that young people who received media literacy learning opportunities related to judging credibility were 26% more likely to judge an evidence-based post as “accurate” than one that contained misinformation.  We’ve identified a number of educational strategies that promote this outcome. 

In short, media literacy work, broadly conceived, has much to commend it.  But my foccus here has been centered on schools. And Sangita, you’ve been doing such great work connected to community based education efforts.  What lessons do you take away from that work?  And what are you currently wondering about? 


Though we work with educators, we also spend a lot of time engaging with communities outside formal educational settings where we we see a lot of the practices we described through YPP continuing to play out in even more fraught ways. Even though the arguments that civic and political action through digital and social media is essentially ineffective and dismissable as “clicktivism” or slacktivism” seem to have lost some steam, we do encounter many questions about what the peer-based practices we associate with participatory politics mean for democracy.  I am eager to continue to work through how the thinking, researching, and doing we did through YPP on participatory politics can help us understand and ultimately navigate the current civic and political moment. This is why I am so excited about this series on Henry’s blog as I hope it will help us start to discuss, chart and otherwise engage with the understanding the promise and challenges of participatory politics.

Since YPP, we at Civic Paths@USC have been engaging with these questions through the concept of the civic imagination, which may at first glance appear to be one step removed from the media centric practices we associate with participatory politics. In reality, they are very closely connected. The core premise of the civic imagination is this: “Before you can change the world, you have to be able to imagine what a better world would look like, and across histories and cultures, people have adapted a range of different images and narratives to envision and communicate with others the perceived alternatives to their current condition.”  For us,  the civic imagination is very much situated at the intersection of political engagement and cultural participation in ways that help us better understand how  people are able to tap, mobilize, and sustain the practices we associate with participatory politics.  In fact, the civic imagination was a key observation that grew out of the MAPP exemplar youth community case studies that revealed how groups were able to tap participatory practices to collectively create, debate and deploy inspiring narratives that would sustain their movements over time.

But returning to what I was starting to say earlier, I think there are many questions about participatory politics in 2019. The YPP Network officially ended in 2016, at a moment when politics in the United States, and indeed in other places in the world, took a decisively regressively populist, xenophobic, racist (insert other relevant descriptors here as you see fit) turn. Arguably, some of the practices we associated with participatory politics were very much part of this pivot as were other issues, among them platform vulnerabilities. At the same time, the last few years have allowed us to witness the emergence of movements that truly inspire and potentially expand the scope of what we thought might be accomplished through participatory politics. Here, the #NeverAgain movement started by the Parkland youth and their network of allies immediately comes to mind. So, where are we today when it comes to participatory politics and democracy?


I think the point you are making here is so important.  It’s amazing how much the national focus has changed.  Initially, much of the discussion surrounding the kinds of engagement we associate with participatory politics focused on debates between those who worried that such engagement was often a distraction (slacktivism) and those who saw great potential as a new form of engagement - one that blurred with popular culture and was not dependent on elites or institutions.  It was clear that participatory dynamics created space for misinformation or racist ideas to circulate.  But while we were concerned about these, to be sure, I don’t think we realized how deep a problem such dynamics could pose or how powerfully these dynamics could be mobilized by those with particular interests, by institutions, and even by nations in ways that seriously compromise the health of our democracy.  Clearly, going forward, finding ways to respond to these risks will be enormously important  -- something I know commentators in the upcoming blogs will address.  And something I’m very much looking forward to reading.