Moving Past Civic Engagement To Civic Innovation

Every year, without fail, I leave the Digital Media and Learning Conference with a renewed sense of purpose and commitment to my work. While I attribute some of this energy boost to the opportunity to connect with colleagues and share my research, I think its major source is the conference’s commitment to highlighting the power and responsibility of digital technologies to contribute to a more equitable and active civic life.

Too often, when discourses about education and technology converge, conversations focus on the novelty-factor of particular tools in the classroom, opportunities for large-scale data collection, or the potential for academic skill development. DML, through its carefully curated program, consistently guides the discussion back to the more consequential “so what” of amplifying marginalized voices and fostering new forms of expression to improve democracy.

I was fortunate to participate in several of these sessions. Along with Antero Garcia and Danielle Filipiak, I coordinated a full-day pre-conference workshop that helped a group of 25 educators develop youth participatory action research (YPAR) projects with young people across various formal and informal learning spaces. And, I served as the respondent on a session exploring participatory politics initiatives in Oakland, California that highlighted the work of the Youth and Participatory Politics Research Network and Youth Radio.

In both of these sessions, and in many more, I found traditional ideas of the “civic” being re-imagined in new and critical ways that I think highlight how digital media has brought us educators to a moment at which the concept of “civic engagement” is not strong enough to capture the ways young people are advocating for justice and the kinds of learning opportunities they deserve to support their efforts. I saw three shifts represented as teachers and researchers shared examples of youth digital expression:

  1. Citizenship as status or achievement vs. citizenship as practice: In his DML keynote address, Jose Antonio Vargas reminded us how the DREAMer movement is exposing contradictions in how our society conceives of citizenship. On one level, it is defined as a status that you do or don’t have, while on another, it is defined as something to be earned or achieved based on engaging in certain socially prescribed behaviors. Both cases exclude large numbers of young people — those who are undocumented and those who do not engage in outdated, approved forms of civic engagement like contributing to political campaigns. Both cases fail to account for the complexity and possibility that comes with viewing citizenship as a practice that we all continuously engage in across the various spheres of our daily lives — including through technology. DML sessions highlighted a practice-based vision of citizenship that is pushing the field forward.
  1. Citizenship as triumph vs. citizenship as struggle: For many students in Oakland who confront the effects of systemic inequity on a daily basis, the traditional American narrative of constant, triumphant forward progress on all social issues rings hollow. DML sessions highlighted the ways that young people find motivation to participate in civic life not by buying into a colorblind, meritocratic vision of this country, but by recognizing struggle and advocacy as the engines of change and justice in America. Digital media tools are offering new avenues for continuing and expanding that beautiful struggle.
  1. Citizenship as voting vs. citizenship as so much more: DML sessions demonstrated that traditional indicators of civic engagement (voting, belonging to a club, reading the newspaper, etc.) no longer accurately capture the modes of civic expression that digital technologies make available to young people today. Now, young people are starting Twitter campaigns, recording and disseminating podcasts, communicating online with their elected officials, and so much more. Our field needs to find ways to welcome these new forms of participation in order to counter the deficit narrative that defines young people as uniformly civically disengaged.

And so, my experience at DML leaves me with the firm conviction that it is time to move past civic engagement — to find a new conceptualization of civic participation that captures what young people are doing with the help of digital technologies in their communities. Antero Garcia and I, in an article to be published next year in the Review of Research in Education, propose that it is time to move toward a vision of civic innovation. This semantic shift honors the practice-based, struggle-focused, and participatory nature of 21st century civic life and has the potential to transform civic education (and digital literacy education) in ways that honor youth voices. I look forward to the DML community continuing to lead this transformation.

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