DML2013, the fourth annual gathering of those working to creatively use digital media to foster deeper learning, which was held in Chicago last week, kicked off this year with a theme of civic participation. Actually, the theme could have been “social activism” because the focus of many of the three days of panels and talks was focused heavily on mobilizing youth voice using social media.

DML

Zuckerman argued that we’re using an eighteenth or nineteenth century model of electoral politics in a 21st century world. Our legislators, he noted, get elected on a twentieth century broadcast model when today’s younger citizens want to interact on a one-to-one model common to our twenty-first century lives.

For young adults immersed in the online social worlds, the model of electoral politics is particularly foreign. Unless you’re rich or famous, you don’t get a face-to-face, more immediate relationship with elected officials. Instead, we get a “heavily mediated” relationship through television. “That’s a profoundly homogenizing experience,” Zuckerman said.

(But how else, I wonder, does he want us to engage in a representative government, a form that we’ve take centuries to build, for the better it seems? And for that matter, while we might not engage face to face with the President, we certainly do with our local alderman, that is, if we make the effort.)

Zuckerman also said that young people today want to pull levers of change, but not necessarily legislative or policy levers. They want “cause” politics, certainly a lot more fun and sexier.  Yet, while social activism is critical to a democratic society, we can’t ignore the fact that the policy levers are at the core of governing, in its fullest sense of the word.

Zuckerman, whom Foreign Affairs in 2011 listed as one of the 100 top global thinkers, agrees that “clicktavism” is not enough. He urged the audience to find ways to move from that “thin” form of activism

—clicking “like” on Facebook for example—to a “thick” form of participation—actually taking action, boots on the ground change.

We must ask young people today, he says, not for just donations of money (thin actions) but for their “creativity; we want you to think about how we solve this problem”—that will get them hooked. “That’s where people want to work in, and they get frustrated when they’re just asked to do thin work,” Zuckerman said.

Indeed, much of the remainder of the conference was filled with examples of how to encourage those thick connections and inspire change.

  • Students in Los Angeles and Oakland are becoming filmmakers and bloggers to agitate for social justice, or as one of the students said, to get youth “out of their victimized minds” and allow them to take action for their own education. They’re using social networks to break down geographical barriers and reach audiences they might never have before, while learning about life outside their own cities.
  • The UIY movement (undo it yourself), or its cousin, “hacker literacies,” that is, learning that technology is malleable and that the web is a designed space–can empower youth to resist, revise, and reconfigure problematic value systems embedded in the technology. (Meanwhile, Evgeny Morozov has other ideas.)
  • Using pop culture as a gateway for youth to find their voice, especially on issues such as race, gender, and sexuality. The Harry Potter Alliance is an example, which has advocated for gay rights and immigrant rights. Their latest effort is about fair trade chocolate. “Change makers today,” as the organizer called them. Not just passive audience members but to engage as actors.
  • Facing History and Ourselves is helping young people grapple with issues that are unique to their heritage or situation as a way to give them voice in their destinies.
  • Choosingtoparticipate.org, for example, is an initiative that, according to its website, “focuses on civic choices—the decisions people make about themselves and others in their community, nation, and world. The choices people make, both large and small, may not seem important at the time, but little by little they shape us as individuals and responsible global citizens.”

Despite these examples of engaging youth, I still worry that civic participation as social cause or encouraging youth voice is akin to the same complaint that Pamela Paul had in a recent Sunday Review in the New York Times, when she worried that not all learning can be fun.

Quoting Bill Gates, who said, “Imagine if kids poured their time and passion into a video game that taught them math concepts while they barely noticed, because it was so enjoyable,” Paul wondered, “Do we want children to ‘barely notice’ when they develop valuable skills? Not to learn that hard work plays a role in that acquisition? It’s important to realize early on that mastery often requires persevering through tedious, repetitive tasks and hard-to-grasp subject matter.” (What Paul Tough in his book, “How Children Succeed” calls for as well.)

One might ask the same of civic participation—that boring kind, that requires you to follow a candidate’s position, go out in the rain to vote, or volunteer at the local food pantry or community meeting (or even just attend!). Do we want citizens to lose sight of that process, that sense that small, nondescript acts matter? Sure, those things are hardly changing the world, and there are few opportunities for self-expression in a community meeting (other than speechifying perhaps), but it is joining in and it is giving back, and it is necessary for a vibrant, healthy democracy.

But of course, one must start somewhere, and building a sense of empowerment and agency in young people by allowing them to build and express their voice for causes they feel matter is the first step to engaging them in “thick” participation that will hopefully last a lifetime.

And it seems important to also note the strong role that adults can play in this transformation. That’s one (of many) things that the Hive Learning Networks (Pittsburgh included) have going for them: they’re combining the golden duo of youth-driven programming (voice) and strong mentors who can make the connections for young people after that initial spark of passion-driven interest. It’s that kind of passion coupled with mentoring that might lead to a generation committed to social change and to ensuring the street lights stay lit.