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Youth programs can rescue democracy

By Jessica Pierson Russo

When I hear points of view that differ radically from my own, my appreciation of the speaker’s honesty usually outweighs my intolerance of their views. The balance tips when those views collide with the ones I hold most dear. The temptation then is to want to silence those views; but I know that censorship is not the answer. I think our young people deserve a democracy in which people will hear each other out.

The first amendment to the U.S. Constitution guarantees free speech. Psychologists contend that self-expression is important to a person’s mental health. Similarly, quality youth development practice says that youth need to feel safe and to have spaces in which to discuss conflicting values and form their own.  A censored environment limits democracy and it limits youth development.

But what happens when self-expression makes others feel personally attacked? How can we encourage youth to express potentially controversial views without alienating others?

I think we as youth workers can equip youth to tackle the complacency, fear and partisanship infecting our country now. And I believe our democracy needs us to do it. The answer, to me, lies in
  • educating youth about the first amendment to the U.S. Constitution and 
  • giving them opportunities to engage in civil discourse - to actively disagree.

First amendment education

The American Press Institute articulates the importance of teaching the first amendment in a manual for media educators: “Freedom to communicate and to question authority brings with it a clearer practice and understanding of democracy. Creating accurate and balanced news stories helps journalists and their citizen readers know the difference between style and substance, between propaganda and analysis, between opinion and fact.”

Here are some good resources for teaching young people about first amendment rights:

Space for civil discourse defines civility as “the ability to disagree productively with others, respecting their sincerity and decency.” In contrast to the common connotation of civility as mere “politeness,” in the context of youth development, civility brings with it the chance to:
  • Understand and be understood by others
  • Build relationships
  • Uncover multiple perspectives
  • Collectively improve critical and creative thinking skills 
  • Work together to solve problems
  • Let go of the “us versus them” mentality

These benefits tie directly to the basic youth needs. Here are some resources for promoting civil discourse in youth learning spaces.

Youth need safe spaces to discuss conflicting values and form their own. The youth development field offers possibly the best opportunity to take up this challenge. If we do this, we will not only help young people to form their own identities, we will have helped them to become the keepers of our democracy.

-- Jessica Pierson Russo, Extension educator

You are welcome to comment on this blog post. We encourage civil discourse, including spirited disagreement. We will delete comments that contain profanity, pornography or hate speech--any remarks that attack or demean people because of their sex, race, ethnic group, etc.--as well as spam.
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  1. What a timely post! Thank you, Jess, for providing this valuable list of resources and this great framework for the value of instilling citizenship principles in young people. This can be a scary practice to initiate because it opens the door for youth to question and challenge the authority of group leaders. How have you tackled this issue?

    1. Thanks, Betsy. I think one way to tackle it is to insist on whatever ground rules have been previously established. You wouldn't want to enter into it without having those norms established first. The point is to provide a safe space for youth to practice dissent, and norms for behavior help maintain that safety. If youth are challenging and questioning authority--do they have a legitimate point to make, or are they challenging just to defy? The first is OK, and facilitators should make space to have a conversation about what is bothering them. But if the second is true, that's an indication that there's something else going on, and that needs to be addressed separately.

  2. Jessica, this is such a relevant topic! One thing I would add is that when I have had 1st Amendment conversations with American friends who grew up in other countries, they have frequently raised the point about the importance of both the freedom of speech and the RESPONSIBILITY of speech. This is something that I think we all would do well to think about in our society. When I share my views, I certainly have the freedom to do so (at least the freedom from government intervention--nothing limits private intervention). But I also need to be responsible for how I share them, and for the impact that they have on others. I appreciate you stimulating me to think about how we can be setting up supportive spaces for young people to explore their freedom with responsibility, in their speech as well as in all other realms.

    1. Good point, Kathryn. There's another interesting piece of research that I didn't have space to add into this blog post but may be worth mentioning here in the comment section. I'm bringing it up b/c you mentioned having conversations with others who did not grow up in the U.S. The role and importance of speech itself in self-expression differs across cultures. For instance, check out this article:, which is one of several that explains the different role that speech itself plays in Western vs. Eastern cultures. I think the two different philosophies regarding speech can best be described using two quotes, one from Seneca, a Roman philosopher, who said, "Speech is the mirror of the mind," and Confucius, a Chinese philosopher, who said, "The superior man is modest in his speech, but exceeds in his actions." I got this comparison, by the way, from another great article:

  3. Ah, great article! From personal experience I would say this is something youth are hungering for but some adult leaders are leery to tackle. This topic presents another opportunity for youth to truly be change agents for our country… and some days when I listen to the news or read my facebook and twitter feeds, I think they may be our only hope for creating civil discourse! I look forward to diving into the resources and putting them to use!

    1. Yes, change agents indeed! That is a great way to think about it. Thanks, Margo.

  4. Hello, all. Another resource is iCivics, a curriculum by Sandra Day O'Connor. It includes 3 units on media literacy and influence.


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