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The Development of Civic Purpose among Diverse Populations of American Youth

This study, funded by the Spencer Foundation, examines a timely educational question: What can motivate young Americans from all backgrounds to become active and informed citizens in our democracy? It explores the development of “civic purpose," defined as a sustained intention to contribute to one’s society through participation in civic and political action.

Using a longitudinal research design, we will examine the development of civic purpose during the late high-school years and beyond. The study has a special interest in young people who are at risk of being marginalized with respect to civic participation. The sample will include immigrants, disadvantaged and non-college-bound youth, and young people from minority communities that have experienced persistent discrimination.

We will explore the role of national and cultural identities in fostering civic purpose by examining young people’s attitudes concerning American citizenship and the ideals associated with the American tradition, such as equal opportunity, liberty, democracy, and the “American Dream.”

A goal of the study is to discover what motivates civically-active young people from populations that have not shown an inclination towards participation – and, in addition, to indentify factors that inhibit civic action among non-involved youth in such populations. Findings regarding how engaged and non-engaged young people from diverse populations relate to citizenship will be essential for addressing the study’s overarching question of how all young Americans can learn to participate constructively in the democratic process.