"Our generation understands difference more.... Our generation has started to ask, 'What are your problems? What are my problems? How do they intersect?' ...Adults need to understand that kids can handle [these] uncomfortable conversations."
—Makieda McKenzie, 17, Next Generation Politics Civic Fellow, New York City
Just as previous generations of young people rebuilt our nation after the Great Depression, spoke up and fought against genocide in World War II, and formed coalitions across race and religion to advance civil rights in the 1960s, Gen Z has an insatiable appetite to shape our society (and repair a planet) into one that fosters individual and collective well-being. Even before the global pandemic, mainstream racial reckoning, and the lead up to the most divisive election of my lifetime, Gen Z had already earned the reputation for being vocal advocates for social action.
I therefore wasn’t surprised to see the many ways in which members of this socially conscious generation are creatively bringing their talents and skills to this moment in American society. There are many remarkable examples of Gen Zers meeting the moment, representing the best of humanity: organizing their peers to deliver groceries to the vulnerable, providing virtual tutoring to students struggling with remote instruction, and coming together in the streets to protest police brutality and advocate for racial equity.
Inspired by these stories and emboldened by a belief that we often under-value the role young people can play in addressing society’s challenges, I’ve been taking advantage of every opportunity to get (virtually) proximate and hear from members of Gen Z directly. By listening to Gen Z, and reflecting with scholars, practitioners, and civic leaders, I strive to understand: How can we support a rising generation of leaders to address immediate community needs while also nourishing a long-term commitment to working together across difference to rebuild the social fabric of our increasingly diverse nation?
What I learned from my conversations with members of this generation and their adult allies has fueled my conviction that we have an opportunity to resource and nurture young people today in ways that will ignite a new generation of “bridgers” or bridge-builders. If we respect and invest in them accordingly, we will develop young leaders poised to repair, rebuild, and heal our country.
Gen Z is willing to serve their communities, but they need to be supported
According to the recent CIRCLE/Tisch College 2020 Youth Poll, roughly 1 in 3 young people found informal ways (e.g., make masks, bring food, translate health materials) to support a family member or neighbor to help navigate COVID-19. A July CIVIS poll found 18-34-year-olds were the largest age cohort of individuals who said they participated in a protest, rally, or demonstration to advance racial equity. In a recent Panetta Institute for Public Policy survey, 1 in 3 college students, including an equal share of Democrats and Republicans, are interested in pursuing full-time national service experiences—the highest response since the poll started in 2015. The data confirmed what I was hearing in my conversations with young people: this generation is ready and willing to serve their communities.
And yet, given persistent income inequalities exacerbated by a challenging economy, young people are often not in a position to simply volunteer their time and talent – nor should we expect that of them. If we are to maximize the contributions of this generation, at the very least, we need to make sure that we meet their basic needs (e.g., stipends, health care). If we can do that, we have a great opportunity to harness the time and talent of young people, especially older teens whose college or career plans are significantly disrupted and who may be open to new kinds of opportunities to contribute to the public good.
There is a growing movement to provide Gen Z with civic opportunities
Even as college campuses are navigating the complexities of operating during COVID-19, we are seeing more institutions offering their students community-engaged learning opportunities like our partnership with Engaged Cornell, which seeks to provide every undergraduate with a meaningful way to partner with community members to address global problems. It’s also exciting to see the energy behind a new bi-partisan coalition in Congress that is pushing to dramatically grow AmeriCorps to 600,000 participants over the next three years to mitigate the spread of the virus and address the economic, educational, health-related, and environmental challenges our country is navigating. And recently, more than 100 communities applied to the Civic Spring Initiative with projects to mobilize young people to address COVID-19-related needs in their local cities.
We have an opportunity to harness this critical moment in young people’s lives to instill a commitment to civic participation and bridge-building
Research suggests that adolescence (12-25 years of age) is the ripest developmental stage for identity and values formation, along with an openness to new people, ideas, and experiences that ultimately shape our worldview and how we engage with others. And while these civic opportunities are powerful and necessary, we know that on their own they are not sufficient to create the life-long commitment to embracing differences for the common good. Serving or advocating side-by-side with people who have different backgrounds and worldview than our own — and taking the time to reflect on what we hear and learn — reinforces our ability to better understand who we are, empathize with others, and build lifelong skills of perspective-taking and bridge-building.
Across my recent conversations with organizations that support youth organizers, AmeriCorps members, and college students, I’ve identified some common ingredients that help young people develop a positive orientation towards others, a commitment to working with people of different backgrounds, and an appreciation for their role in shaping a better community for all. Such work requires a commitment to deeply explore the following:
Who am I? Opportunities to reflect on the multiple identities each of us has, ways in which we showcase or hide who we are, ways in which others project identities onto us, and ways in which we intentionally or unintentionally do the same to others.
Who am I in relationship with? Relationships are at the heart of this work. When we work with others, we need to recognize and disrupt power imbalances and create a spirit of mutuality. I’ve always appreciated the clarity of the Search Institute’s Developmental Relationships framework for navigating and understanding the depths of high-quality relationships.
How do I process the experiences I’m having? In a culture that favors action, too often we don’t make the time to step back and reflect on the experiences we are having. Reflection allows us to better understand our own values, points of view, and identities, develops appreciation for and understanding of others, and informs how we approach future interactions. Fortunately, there are several easy-to-use approaches to get started – the key is to remember to always add time for critical reflection. At Einhorn Collaborative, our team is using the “What? So What? Now What?” protocol for reflection to process our own learning as an adaptation of the Emerging Learning Framework.
Believing in the power of young people to ignite social change is foundational to who I am, as I’ve been fortunate to spend most of my career working with and learning directly from young people. While several high school teachers first sparked my civic curiosity, my social justice nerve was tapped as a Cornell Tradition Fellow when I was an undergrad and I was given opportunities to work with my peers and the broader Ithaca, New York community to address local needs. This was also my first real exposure to the ways in which philanthropy, seeded by Chuck Feeney’s transformative vision, can support communities and young leaders at the same time. During my 12 years at City Year, I saw how public-private partnerships can provide such opportunities at a larger scale, and that’s where I first learned the transformative power of critical reflection as a tool for leadership development. Over the last six years working with our grantee and funding partners, I’ve developed a deeper appreciation of both the opportunities and challenges of taking a systematic approach to support the prosocial development of young people. Throughout these experiences, I saw how service and advocacy catalyzed a broader sense of purpose, belonging, and contribution for myself and the young people I interacted with.
My experiences fuel my drive to continue to learn from young people and their adult allies. As Gen Z does their part, we must all ask ourselves: what can we do to support them? How can we learn from them? And how can we harness this youthful energy, idealism and spirit of contribution to strengthen the fabric of our country for decades to come?
At Einhorn Collaborative, we believe this is a vital moment for civic renewal. Over the coming months, through our Bridging strategy, we will continue to explore ways we can partner with our peers in philanthropy and organizations in the field to meet this moment of opportunity.
We look forward to sharing what we learn along the way, our reflections on what’s possible, and the opportunities for collaborative action as we continue on the journey and seek to seize this moment of reckoning, repair, and healing.