Educating for Democracy in a Digital Age in Oakland

June 22, 2013
By Elyse Eidman-Aadahl

What would fill this cafeteria at McClymonds High School in Oakland with so many teachers at the start of summer vacation? The answer turns out to be a fresh vision of  civic engagement and action for youth.

Though a partnership between Educator Innovator’s Educating for Participatory Politics (EPP) and Oakland Unified School District, high school teachers are designing new curricula and an enriched vision of senior projects with a focus on civic engagement and community action. Their effort, called Educating for Democracy in a Digital Age (EDDA), is focused on designing and researching new approaches that take up the expanded civic opportunity structures that digital media afford and doing so while still maintaining a focus that builds on the basics to support youth to develop strong academic skills. They have already worked with the district to develop a graduate profile that expands on college and career-readiness to include community-readiness. Now, with support from the S. D. Bechtel, Jr. Foundation, teachers in English language arts, history, and government classes throughout Oakland’s high schools are working with colleagues, community-based organizations, and scholars from Mills College and the National Writing Project to create pathways for youth to engage directly in civic action and to to use digital media in ways that lead to powerful participatory political life.

EDDA is an effort to respond to new research and developing understandings about how politics has changed in the digital age. Much of this research comes from the Youth and Participatory Politics (YPP) research network sponsored by the MacArthur Foundation. Just prior to the 2012 election, YPP released results of a national survey that questioned 3,000 young people, ages 15-25 on how they use the Internet, social media and engage in politics. Unlike any prior study on the topic, the YPP survey included large numbers of black, Latino, and Asian American respondents, allowing for unique statistical comparisons across race. The data present one of the most complete pictures to date of how young people are using new media in new ways to engage politically, providing relevant insights on the long-term political picture in America.

The study report, Participatory Politics: New Media and Youth Political Action shows that contrary to the traditional notion of a technological digital divide, substantial numbers of young people across racial and ethic groups are engaging in “participatory politics” — acts such as starting a political group online, circulating a blog about a political issue, or forwarding political videos to friends. Like traditional political acts, these acts address issues of public concern. The difference is that participatory acts are interactive, peer-based, and do not defer to elites or formal institutions. They are also tied to digital or new media platforms that facilitate and amplify young people’s actions.

The research pointed out how young people, especially youth of color, are using new media to amplify their voices in the political realm. According to researcher Cathy J. Cohen, “Not only did we find that large numbers of youth take part in participatory politics, but, defying conventional expectations, black and Asian-American youth are the most avid users of new media for friendship and interest-driven activities. Moreover, black youth participate in online forms of participatory politics at rates equal to or slightly higher than white, Latino and Asian-American youth.”

For Oakland schools, which serve a population that is approximately 90% students of color and includes over 30% English language learners, the larger participation of youth of color in new media activities was significant and suggested important ways to build on their interest and friend-driven online activities to open up pathways to more significant learning opportunities connected to digital literacy and digital activism. “Anyone who cares about democracy needs to pay attention to this important dimension of politics for young people—participatory politics spread information, mobilize individuals to act, and provide many ways for youth to voice their perspectives,” said Joseph Kahne, who co-authored the study with Cathy Cohen. “But there are challenges. These politics also spread misinformation, and they may promote voice more than influence. When we asked young people if they thought they and their friends would benefit from learning more about how to tell if online information was trustworthy, 84% said, ’Yes!’ In massive numbers, youth are saying they need help with digital media literacy.”

But how do we respond to these aspirations while still navigating the challenges and demands of school systems and, in many cases, of communities themselves? Paul Oh, an Oakland-based educator, thinks the answer is in the youth themselves. See his remix that layers educators’ questions onto to a youth-made music video about Oakland. “The young people are showing us the way they want to go,” he said.