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

By Any Media Necessary: The New Youth Activism, first published in 2016, will be released soon in a paperback edition. As the authors of that book (Sangita Shresthova, Neta Kligler-Vilenchik, Liana Gamber-Thompson, Arely Zimmerman and yours truly) discussed how to celebrate this milestone, we began to talk about all that had changed since the book’s launch — not only the Trump-ing of America but political crisis and Right-ward lurches in countries all over the planet. We asked ourselves whether the concept of participatory politics made sense as we face those sobering realities.

We decided the best response was to launch a large scale conversation involving others we have engaged with through our work in the Civic Paths project through the years — former Annenberg PhD students, members of the Youth and Participatory Politics Networks, other thinking partners including those who have entered our orbit since the book was published, and folks whose work we admire but who we do not yet know well.

We wanted to insure diversity within the American context and beyond that, we wanted to include perspectives from around the world. So, starting today and running into mid-May, this blog is going to be hosting those exchanges. We will combine back and forth conversations with leading scholars, including all of the original book’s authors, as well as interviews, conducted by my current PhD students, with creative activists from a range of different social movements.

I hope that this process generates new scholarship on participatory politics and also provides would be researchers with a roadmap to what’s already out there. And above all, I hope it provides us all with food for thought as we reflect on what feels like a global crisis in the prospects of a more participatory and democratic culture.

I asked Sangita Shresthova, a co-author of By Any Media Necessary, and Joseph Kahne, the fearless leader of the MacArthur Foundation’s Youth and Participatory Politics network, to outline some of the core assumptions behind our work on participatory politics.


A little over 10 years ago, I was approached by Connie Yowell from the MacArthur Foundation about the possibility of launching a “research network.”  And while I knew what those two words meant, I had no idea what she was proposing.  It turns out, she meant something quite wonderful. 

Connie was proposing that a multidisciplinary group of scholars work together for eight years to study the ways young people’s participation with new forms of digital media were transforming their civic and political engagement.  Our charge was conceptual, empirical, and practical.  The hope was that we could develop a conceptual frame (or frames) for these new forms of participation as well as collect qualitative and quantitative data that would enable us to examine how and how much of this activity was occurring.

Of course, we all knew that we were small actors on a big and fast expanding stage -- huge forces including cultural change, technological innovation, corporate power, and government action (and inaction) would dominate.  At the same time, we were excited by the opportunity to watch.  And since it was assumed that these changes opened up important opportunities, challenges, and risks, we also hoped to experiment with varied strategies to try and help youth make the most of these new opportunities.  This effort came to be called the Youth and Participatory Politics Research Network (YPP)


 In this opening exchange, Sangita Shresthova and I will try to offer a brief overview of the work that followed.  But our goal is not to summarize what ten network members and roughly 30  associated researchers did over those 8 years (If you are interested, links to much of that work is housed here).  Rather we want to provide a bit of background regarding the notion of participatory politics, highlight a some of the work we’ve done and what we’ve learned, and then focus on questions related to the troubling and the inspiring aspects of the current political context and what we can do.

Participatory Politics.  What?

It’s important to state from the start that, for us, not all forms of politics are “participatory.”  Our notion of “participatory” reflects Henry Jenkins’ notion of a participatory culture (Jenkins et al. 2009).  As we have written elsewhere,

Participatory politics [are] interactive, peer-based acts through which individuals and groups seek to exert both voice and influence on issues of public concern.  Importantly, these acts are not guided by deference to elites or formal institutions.  Examples of participatory political acts include starting a new political group online, writing and disseminating a blog post…forwarding a funny political video to one’s social network (Cohen, et al, 2012).

To be clear, participatory acts don’t only occur online – people had social networks before Facebook!  And it is key to recognize that much of what drives engagement in participatory politics are broad cultural shifts that have, for example, undermined the legitimacy of elites and of formal institutions and emphasized peer-to-peer learning.  In addition, we’ve found that non-political peer-to-peer social media activity often creates a pathway to political activity.  The affordances of digital media play a role here - having made it much easier to circulate media content or to mobilize one’s social network on behalf of a cause.  In short, the digital revolution has transformed many fundamental aspects of political life including how people learn about political issues, how they are exposed to and discuss varied perspectives, how money is raised, and how people are mobilized.

So, are these changes good or bad?  Both.

Inspiring and deeply troubling consequences of participatory politics are ubiquitous.  There are countless stories in which individuals and groups with little formal initial structure are able to capture the public’s attention in ways that effectively make people more aware or push back against injustices large and small.  Examples of such efforts include the early days of Hollaback, I Too, Am Harvard, and Yarnbombing

And there are also large scale social movements like #Blacklivesmatter, #metoo, #dreamers, and #neveragain that have both shifted public consciousness and helped mobilize for change.  Importantly, many individuals and groups that are often marginal to mainstream media institutions and power structures are able to better tell their own stories and drive narratives through these means.  At the same time, the lack of gatekeepers, when it comes to media circulation, often means that misinformation circulates freely and exposure to incivility becomes more common.  Moreover, the echo chambers facilitated by enhanced choice online may well fuel both increased dysfunctional forms of partisanship and enclaves characterized by racism and other dangerous forms of prejudice and hatred.

Where do we go from here?

Of course, there are many options.  I come to these issues as an educator – my goal is to find ways to support youth civic and political development and action.  At the moment, as we’ll discuss below, the opportunities for this kind of work are expanding rapidly and the need is clear. 

But before diving in to some of that I want to hand the blog to Sangita Shresthova so she can introduce herself and can flesh out some additional dimensions of the changes afoot and their implications.


Thank you for that introduction, Joe. Looking back, the work that we collectively did through YPP seems both prescient and in need of updating given the realities that have shaped our civic and political lives since the network adjourned in 2016.  Hopefully, this blog series will help us start a process that allows us to both reflect on what we found and what we think about all this now.

My entry into participatory politics came through the Media Activism and Participatory Politics (MAPP) Project based at the University of Southern California. Working with Henry Jenkins and other colleagues, MAPP became the homebase for our explorations of new forms of political activities and identities that have emerged from the practices associated with participatory cultures and are impacting how American youth think of their civic and political identities. Tasked with elaborating and detailing such activities, we conducted five in-depth case studies of youth-driven communities and networks that each bridged between cultural and political participation in their own ways.   MAPP’s contribution to the work of the YPP Network, summarized in the 2016 book, By Any Media Necessary, focused on the following five ‘exemplar’ case studies of innovative networks and organizations that recruit, train, and mobilize young activists: Invisible Children (the organization behind the infamous Kony2012 video), the Harry Potter Alliance (a nonprofit that translates Harry Potter stories into real world civic action), the DREAMer movement (made up of youth mobilized around immigration reform), Students for Liberty (a college organization that supports college-aged libertarians), and a range of projects supporting the American Muslim community.


While MAPP’s work did recognize the challenges faced by the groups we studied (surveillance concerns about American Muslims, failure of voice to  translate into political influence in immigration reform, and the damage done to young people involved in the Kony2012 debacle to name a few), our efforts focused mostly on observing, describing and ultimately valuing the activities undertaken by youth through practices associated with participatory politics. We saw our work as providing  a counter-argument to the then popularly prevalent “clicktivism” and “slacktivism” critiques of activism through new media. We wanted to recognize and engage the efforts of these young people as they took action to improve their everyday realities. Here is how we described our findings in By Any Media Necessary:

Young men and women are tapping into the potential of new forms of communication such as social media platforms, spreadable videos and memes, remixing the language of popular culture, and seeking to bring about political change — by any media necessary. In a series of case studies covering a diverse range of organizations, networks, and movements involving young people in the political process — from the Harry Potter Alliance which fights for human rights in the name of the popular fantasy franchise to immigration rights advocates using superheroes to dramatize their struggles — By Any Media Necessary examines the civic imagination at work. Before the world can change, people need the ability to imagine what alternatives might look like and identify paths by which change can be achieved. Exploring new forms of political activities and identities emerging from the practice of participatory culture, By Any Media Necessary reveals how these shifts in communication have unleashed a new political dynamism in American youth. (book description)

As we put our work on MAPP into dialogue with The Good Participation Project, the Youth Activism Project, Black Youth Project and other projects under the YPP umbrella, a complex picture of youth’s engagement with civic and political issues through cultural practices and and digital media emerged as some young people. Some young people were able to tap their peer networks for learning opportunities related to participatory politics. Many others felt they would benefit from more guidance as they navigated these spaces. Looking across the projects we identified the key practices associated with participatory politics as:

●       Investigation - Members of a community collect, and analyze online information from multiple sources, and often provide a check on information circulated by traditional media outlets.

●       Dialogue and feedback - Commenting on blogs, or providing feedback to political leaders through other digital means is increasingly how young people are joining public dialogues and making their voices heard around civic and political issues.

●       Circulation - In participatory politics, the flow of information is shaped by many in the broader community rather than by a small group of elites.

●       Production - In addition to circulating information young people increasingly create original online digital content around issues of public concern that potentially reach broader audiences.

●       Mobilization - Members of a community mobilize others often through online networks to help accomplish civic or political goals. (sourced from YPP website)

These practices then informed our  Educating for Participatory Politics initiative in which various projects developed educator facing materials to support participatory politics in-and out-of classroom settings.  These efforts in turn led to the development of the Digital Civics Toolkit,  a collection of resources for educators to support youth to explore, recognize, and take seriously the civic potentials of digital life. The launch of the toolkit in 2018 felt especially timely.