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Concepts Of Citizenship

Before we can assess young Americans' civic engagement or recommend ways to improve it, we must agree on the attributes of good citizens. CIRCLE will collect and support work on this question.

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Hampton, VA: A City-Wide Effort to Institutionalize Civic Engagement

In the early 1990s the civic and political leaders of the city of Hampton, VA began a process of including youth in their efforts to reinvent the city government and their town. This process represents a rare instance where a city itself has taken responsibility to help institutionalize youth civic engagement. A new Working Paper by Carmen Sirianni examines the city's efforts and provides suggestions for other cities who wish to embark on this type of government reform. Lessons from Hampton, VA include: develop a robust agency infrastructure, provide training for citizens and agency staff, and develop appropriate federal policy designs to support this work.

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A useful typology of perspectives, "culled from a review of the literature and from personal interviews," is contained in Cynthia Gibson, "From Inspiration to Participation: A Review of Perspectives on Youth Civic Engagement" (The Grantmaker Forum on Community and National Service, 2001).

As the NACE Webpage states, there is some disagreement about exactly what makes a "responsible citizen":

  • Some stress the importance of knowing and respecting our nation's social and political history, founding documents such as the Declaration of Independence, the Federalist papers, and the Constitution, and the visions of freedom that our country was founded upon.
  • Some prize a willingness and ability to think critically, to deliberate with others, and when necessary to challenge authority and to make society more just.
  • Some see "responsible citizens" as people who provide direct, voluntary care for others in need.
  • Some emphasize the need to create public goods through collaborative work and are especially interested in the civic and democratic potential of employment and professional practices.
  • Although there are interesting and even fruitful differences of emphasis among these models of citizenship, they are not mutually exclusive. Indeed, a citizen in the twenty-first century should be comfortable acting in several different ways - upholding laws or protesting, voting or forming new organizations - as the situation demands. Citizens need an overlapping set of knowledge and intellectual skills for all of these tasks. They also need the participation skills that are necessary to monitor and influence civic life, such as the ability to work with others and express ideas.