Itai Dinour -

May 13, 2022

Developing a Generation of Bridgers

A group on generation z youth with signs

High Road Fellow Sherell Farmer (lower right) poses with other fellows rallying for climate justice in Buffalo, NY. Kristin Ksiazek / Cornell University.

In 2019, Rob Manfred, the Commissioner of Major League Baseball (MLB) reflected, “the single biggest determinant of whether a kid becomes a baseball fan for life is whether or not they play.” Not surprisingly, MLB has Play Ball, the NFL has Play Football, the NBA has Jr. NBA, and most professional sports teams have their own version of youth development programs to help the next generation fall in love with the game.

For our democracy to thrive in a pluralistic society, our country needs to invest in similar efforts to develop the next generation of fans and believers in civic participation. And given the racial, ethnic, religious, generational, and ideological diversity of the United States, we must train and motivate these fans to work across lines of difference to advance the common good.

Einhorn Collaborative is excited to play a role in this effort. Our Bridging strategy seeks to develop and equip Gen Z (born 1997-2012) as a “generation of bridgers" — individuals who have the motivations, mindset, and skills to help others navigate divides and work together in the face of civic problems. Over the last two years, we studied the range of ways Gen Z was choosing to engage in their communities and explored how our work could be helpful at this moment. We were inspired by our conversations with young people and their adult allies, and we ultimately decided to ground our Bridging strategy in three areas of focus.

The critical role civics education plays in middle and high school as the foundation for young people to develop the core knowledge and skills needed to participate in a healthy democracy

The power of community-engaged learning (CEL) as a necessary component of higher education by incorporating it into every facet of learning and practice in a student’s experience

The possibility of national service to rebuild our civic bridges and repair our social fabric by increasing the number of young people developing real-world bridging skills through high-quality hands-on service, helping to address our nation’s most pressing problems today

While civic learning happens throughout one’s life, we are focused on opportunities during adolescence (12-25 years of age). This is the ripest developmental stage for identity and values formation, which results in an openness to new people, ideas, and experiences that ultimately shape our worldview and how we engage with others. In short, bridging development during adolescence has both an immediate and long-term return on investment.

As young people transition between several systems (K-12, higher education, community/career), the trifecta above presents opportunities for us to be intentional about the ways in which we prepare the next generation to participate in a healthy democracy.

The good news is our country is filled with great examples of what this looks like in action. As we previously summarized, these experiences usually help young people answer three key questions while they are actively involved in bettering their communities: Who am I? Who am I in relationship with? How do I process the experiences I’m having? By helping young people explore their identities, biases, and relationships, while learning how to practice critical reflection, they are developing lifelong prosocial habits.

Building the Fields

In the coming years, we will support collaborative efforts that grow the number of young people who get to participate in these civic development experiences, while enhancing our own understanding of these ecosystems. Fueled by a vision that one day all young adults will have the opportunity to participate, we are looking to build the fields and systems that make this possible. We believe investing in collaborative efforts that bring together a cross-section of stakeholders and perspectives is the best way we can advance this vision.

Here is a brief rationale for why we chose these areas and the opportunity they present to elevate cross-system learning. In future posts, we will reflect on the grants we are making and the relevant insights that emerge.

Civic Learning in Middle and High School

Civic learning is foundational for young people to develop the core knowledge and skills needed to participate in a healthy democracy. School-based and out-of-school-time experiences, especially during the middle and high school years, can result in a shared understanding of how our government functions and our individual and collective rights, responsibilities, and opportunities to advance the common good.

There is a greater appreciation in many communities for the role of civics, and we have admired existing, bi-partisan collaborative efforts (e.g., CivXNow, Educating for American Democracy, and 50x2026) to advance a shared vision. We also recognize that in some communities, civics education is under attack and that the polarizing 2022 elections may make the situation more volatile as schools remain a lightning rod for partisan engagement. Ultimately, the growth of civic learning will be dependent on state governments who establish learning standards and can deploy resources to support implementation and on districts who establish the local policies which educators follow. We also believe there are opportunities for the federal government to resource this work and signal the vital role civics education plays in preparing students for future roles in society.

Over the next two years, our approach in civic learning seeks to drive concrete gains in New York State as a bright spot of quality implementation that can inform and inspire other states and the federal government to act while we will also nurture other bi-partisan, collaborative efforts to grow civics throughout the country. In recent years, the New York State Department of Education launched the Civic Readiness Initiative which creates the regulatory framework for more students to participate in and benefit from high-quality civics education. Next school year (2022-2023) all NYS high schools will be eligible to offer a Seal of Civic Readiness on diplomas to students who demonstrate proficiency in civic knowledge and civic participation. One way to earn a Civic Seal is by completing a capstone project, which is very similar to the community-engaged learning pedagogy described below.

Our work in this space will support a variety of collaborative tactics that help answer the following questions:

  1. How do state and federal policies/regulations lead to increased, equitable implementation of civic learning?​
  2. In what ways does the potential politicization of civics impact implementation across ideologically-diverse learning environments?​
  3. What tools/resources/supports do educators need to implement civic learning, especially the development of bridgers?​
  4. How can the civic learning field attract or unlock more significant public sector and philanthropic funding? ​

Community-Engaged Learning in Higher Education

Community-engaged learning, or service-learning as it is known in many schools, colleges, and community organizations, is an effective pedological tool that has four elements.

  1. Addresses a specific community interest, problem, or public concern
  2. Includes working with and learning from a community partner
  3. Connects and integrates community-engaged experiences with educational content
  4. Includes structured, documented critical reflection

Together, these four practices help students develop the life-long skills, mindsets, and behaviors to become empathic, engaged members of their communities who are capable and motivated to work together across lines of difference to address local issues and opportunities.

There is growing interest in community-engaged learning across Gen Z. In March 2021, a nationally representative survey we commissioned revealed that 71 percent of college students are interested in community service opportunities, including 68 percent who are interested in course-based community-engagement.

As I wrote in October of 2021, our partnership with Cornell University, which seeks to provide all Cornell students with high-quality community-engaged learning, is the anchor of our work in higher education. We are working closely with the university and the recently named David M. Einhorn Center for Community Engagement to explore ways in which their progress can help other institutions make a similar commitment. We are open to ideas and suggestions from our community for how best to leverage Cornell’s work to support the broader higher-education ecosystem.

Our partnership with Cornell is guided by the following questions:

  1. What does it take to provide all undergraduates at Cornell with at least one high-quality community-engaged learning experience?
  2. What resources are needed to sustain this engagement?
  3. How can Cornell’s CEL journey inform, inspire, and catalyze other higher-education institutions (and those that resource them) to embrace CEL as an effective pedagogy?

National Service

By design, national service is an effective way to rebuild our civic bridges and repair our social fabric by allowing Americans to develop real-world bridging skills through high-quality, hands-on, sustained service (between 300 and 1,700 hours per year) that addresses our nation’s most pressing problems. Approximately 65,000 Americans of all ages serve as AmeriCorps members, the largest concentration (about 84%) of which are 18-29 years old.

In recent years, the federal government has deepened its investment in national service, increased the living stipend and education award, and launched new interagency collaborations like Public Health AmeriCorps, a partnership between AmeriCorps and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Bipartisan, bicameral coalitions in Congress continue to advocate for the growth of national service, the creation of the Civilian Climate Corps, and dedicated resources to leverage AmeriCorps members as bridge-builders. AmeriCorps’ recently completed strategic plan identifies “unit[ing] Americans by bringing them together in service” as a major priority. A 2021 Service Year Alliance field landscape study identified several opportunities to enhance the development of bridgers through national service programs.

At the same time, we recognize there is less demand from young people to apply to AmeriCorps, likely because of competing labor opportunities, inadequate stipends, and a muddled value-proposition statement (issues AmeriCorps and the national service field are addressing).

Over the next two years, we want to help grow bi-partisan support for increased federal investment in AmeriCorps that results in higher-quality experiences for a larger, more socioeconomically and racially diverse corps. In addition, we believe there are opportunities to demonstrate the evidence of the role national service plays to develop bridgers and repair our social fabric. Lastly, we want to help more AmeriCorps programs gain expertise to support bridging skills development.

Our grants will support a variety of collaborative tactics that help answer the following questions:

  1. How can AmeriCorps increase participation with greater socioeconomic and racial diversity?
  2. How can national service attract new catalytic funding to grow, both within and beyond AmeriCorps?
  3. What is the current state and opportunity to strengthen national service capacity to develop bridgers and advance social cohesion?

Working across systems

As we developed this strategy, we were reminded about the silos that often exist between systems. Well-intentioned practitioners, academics, policy leaders and funders are often too busy to share their struggles, insights, and wins with others in the broader youth development ecosystem in ways that can avoid duplication of effort and maximize learning and impact. To that end, we are committed to creating opportunities for cross-system collaboration and mutual learning.

As an example, in 2020, we funded a joint exploration between City Year and Cornell that cuts across national service and community-engaged learning. This project seeks to help us understand how participation in CEL and national service lead to alumni who can work with others, engage in civic and community issues, and find meaning and satisfaction in career and personal life. While the programs are different in delivery, the outcome goals are the same. By doing a joint analysis, each organization will be able to strengthen their programs with insights that are informed by their alumni and others who have had similar experiences.

We also believe the lines between these sectors are beginning to blur. Many colleges already utilize AmeriCorps resources to mobilize students. For example, a new initiative in California, #CaliforniansForAll, has integrated community-engaged learning into 40+ campuses throughout the state. Nearly 3,000 undergraduates will serve their communities with a goal of becoming “a generation of civic-minded leaders with the ability to bridge divides and solve problems.”

Developing a farm team for democracy

While most young people who join tee-ball or a recreational basketball league won’t turn pro, that’s ok, because that’s not the goal. The hope is that by participating in youth sports, young people have gained some valuable skills, have had fun, and have developed a lifelong affinity for the sport and their personal wellbeing. The same is true for our work in developing the next generation of bridgers. We don’t expect every young person who participates in civic learning, community-engaged learning, or a term of national service to become civil servants or political leaders; however, we do hope that they will become ardent fans of and robust participants in democracy. They will be what you might call “active citizens.”

"We don’t expect every young person who participates in civic learning, community-engaged learning, or a term of national service to become civil servants or political leaders; however, we do hope that they will become ardent fans of and robust participants in democracy. They will be what you might call 'active citizens.'"

We know that meaningful civic participation at an early age leads to future civic involvement. By investing in high-quality civic experiences, we seek to find young people where they are and give them opportunities that will help fuel a lifelong participation in their communities and our democracy.

We believe that’s what it will take to ensure every student gets off the sidelines and gets in the civics game.

Itai Dinour leads Einhorn Collaborative’s Bridging strategy. You can learn more about our work in Bridging here and more about Itai here. Sign up here to receive our monthly newsletter and be the first to read Itai’s blog posts.

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