In 1999, the Ford Foundation and the Innovation Center for Community and Youth Development set out to explore how young people benefit from involvement in civic activism and to discover new strategies and practices for youth development organisations. As part of this Youth Leadership for Development Initiative (YLDI), the Ford Foundation supported the participation of 12 United States community organisations in a 3-year learning collaborative whose purpose was to strengthen civic activism among young people. Communication strategies were varied, but mostly involved face-to-face interaction and capacity building.
Communication Strategies: 

YLDI was constructed as a learning network of organisations in which young people got engaged in civic activism. Specifically, YLDI organisations (please see Partners section, below) recruited and retained older youth (average age: 16) that traditional youth development organisations might have had a difficult time reaching. Some of these youth were referred to YLDI organisations by the courts, foster care, and through group homes. (Youth interviewed said that they struggled with negative public perception of their abilities, limited options for employment and support, ready availability of gangs and drugs, premature adult responsibilities, and financial pressures).

These organisations then worked to help participating youth develop high-quality relationships with adults and peers within the organisation. The organisations also provided young participants with what organisers describe as "consistent opportunities for participation and leadership." Examples of strategies or approaches used to engage youth include:

  • Engaging youth in organising - a focused strategy for achieving community change. Youth organising practices included political education, campaign development, and direct action.
  • Creating safe spaces for youth to develop positive identities, such as those based in race, ethnicity, immigrant status, and/or sexual orientation. Practices to support identity included engaging adult community members as mentors; critical education on the history of the identity group in question; celebration of culture and identity through art, dance, spirituality, and other forms of expression; workshops on power and oppression, and community education and advocacy on identity-specific issues.
  • Involving youth in civic activism, characterised by an emphasis on group processes and consensus building. Youth and adult leaders within YLDI organisations reinforced the idea that leadership is embodied in the ability to listen, empathise, and cooperate. Examples of civic activism projects these organisations engaged in include:
    • Popular education sessions whose purpose was to foster connections between young people's day-to-day lives and larger social issues, centering on issues such as racism, policing, school quality, environmental justice, and immigrants' rights.
    • Intensive "immersion" workshops designed to engage youth in history. Through "visualisation" and "role-play" workshops and exercises, young people were exposed to what it was like to live in another time or place; this strategy was an effort to help them understand, in a visceral way, history and/or social issues and roles. Organisers point out that "These types of workshops depend upon a high level of emotional and physical safety within the group, but when done well, they help open up avenues of discussion that more didactic approaches would not."
    • Political and/or critical education that exposed youth to social movements, political processes, and current events. Through political and critical education, civic activism groups hoped to support critical thinking skills and develop values and attitudes that would help youth deal with and take action against injustice.
    • Art forms like rap and hip hop music and poetry as mediums for discussion, critique, expression, and to help create a shared sense of identity. "These mediums were useful because they have meaning to young people, they chronicle life stories, and they often highlight the dynamics of social class and race in the United States. The use of music and art as a medium for resistance was particularly powerful."
    • Engagement of youth in education, advocacy, and direct community action. Youth presented at conferences, spoke in front of city councils, and contacted community leaders. "These efforts not only built young people's knowledge, they contributed to real community change."

Face-to-face contact was a central programme strategy. The Innovation Center facilitated annual learning group meeting for the grantees, as well as conducting annual site visits to provide individualised technical assistance on organisational development. A multi-year evaluation process (July 2001 - December 2003) conducted by Social Policy Research Associates (SPR) explored civic activism as an approach to youth development and assessed the needs and practices of civic activism organisations. Click here to access this evaluation.

This programme had an international focus, as well. The Ford Foundation funded 4 international fellows from Kenya and South Africa to participate in YLDI learning. According to organisers, these fellows shared perspectives on youth development and activism from their countries and took new ideas and practices with them when they returned home.

Development Issues: 

Youth, Justice, Political Development/Civic Activism.

Key Points: 

The 12 organisations chosen to participate in YLDI (please see Partners section, below) reflect the diversity of the United States. They represent a broad spectrum of youth constituencies, including African American, Latino and Latina, Native American, Asian Pacific American, low-income white suburban, young women, gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender and questioning, faith-involved, and low-income Asian immigrant women and children.Their selection was based on several factors, including:

  • a focus on addressing community and social issues;
  • having been established or run by young adults; and
  • a recognition of the relationship among youth leadership development, civic activism, and positive youth development.


The Ford Foundation and the Innovation Center for Community and Youth Development - and: Asian Immigrant Women Advocates (AIWA), C-Beyond, Coalition for Asian Pacific American Youth (CAPAY), Joint Enrichment Project (Marshalltown, South Africa), Kibera Community Self Help Programme (KICOSHEP) (Nairobi, Kenya), Leadership Excellence, Mi Casa Resource Center for Women, Inc., National Youth Advocacy Coalition, OUTRIGHT, Slums Information Development and Resource Centres (SIDAREC) (Nairobi, Kenya), Tohono O'odham Community Action, 21st Century Youth Leadership Movement, The Young Women's Project, Youth Ministries for Peace and Justice, Youth Development Network (Marshalltown, South Africa), Youth United for Community Action.