Seeding the Garden: Civic Transformation and Youth of Color Stepping Into Their Power

More than four hundred years ago, on July 30, 1619, the Jamestown Colony in Virginia opened its General Assembly. A few weeks later, in August, the first enslaved Africans arrived in the colony. These events marked the beginning of both representative government and slavery in English-speaking North America. That both events occurred as part of the founding of the United States is evidence that the nation’s democracy has not served all equally.

Despite or because of this, the commitment to the construction of a diverse and equitable democracy is even more imperative than ever given our changing demographics, growing inequality, and the eroding of gains of the civil rights movement. For instance, we’ve seen the criminalization of communities of color, with Blacks imprisoned five times more than Whites, and Hispanics nearly twice as likely as Whites to be imprisoned, according to the US Census.1 Since the 2013 Supreme Court decision in Shelby County v. Holder, which invalidated the coverage formula in the Voting Rights Act and limited the law’s enforcement tools, voter suppression has been on the rise.2 In 2018, according to the FBI, hate crimes hit a sixteen-year high.3 All of these examples indicate the need for drastic change if we are to reconstitute a nation that embodies its ideals. The most direct path to that is through community empowerment and civic action—especially for communities of color.

The conversation about democratic engagement is often reduced to voting rates. News reports on voter participation in communities of color and among youth too often employ a narrative of apathy and disengagement and attempt to shame people into voting. While it is true that people died for our right to vote, it is also true that people of color have died for just existing and that these narratives are neither accurate nor consider the entire picture. In the 2018 midterm elections, for instance, all major ethnic groups saw a historic increase in voter participation, with the voting population the most diverse, both ethnically and racially, ever for a midterm election, according to the Pew Research Center. The turnout rate for black voters was 10.8 percentage points higher than in the 2014 midterm elections. The 2018 rate of participation among Asian voters, at around 40 percent, increased from 2014 by 13 percentage points. The Latino voter turnout went from 6.8 million in 2014 to 11.7 million in 2018, nearly doubling.4 The youth vote was also up in 2018. Voter participation among college students (with an average age of 24) was 40 percent in 2018, up from 19 percent in the 2014 midterms.5

This momentum challenges the notion that people of color and students are apathetic to voting. It also strengthens the ability for institutions of higher education to become realms of democratic practice that develop civic leaders and an informed and engaged citizenry. There are many ways beyond voting to take part in democratic action, and educators can, for example, motivate young people to participate in social activism and serve as election poll workers. A study looking at how the youth of different racial and ethnic backgrounds become civically engaged found that providing students with the opportunity to engage in democratic activities offers them tools and examples on how to challenge the systemic and structural racism in their lives and communities.6 Pathways to civic engagement, according to the study, vary between youth of color and their White counterparts, and most models for civic engagement are structured around White experiences. To increase civic participation among youth of color, the study recommends that educators include content and curriculum that speak to structural racism in communities and issues youth face in their own communities. Organizations like Mikva Challenge and Generation Citizen empower youth to identify challenges in their communities and to learn about civic strategies to address those challenges. Educators at colleges and universities can tap into the community cultural wealth that students of color bring into the classroom, connecting community experiences to structural racism and policy issues.

Educators must also create spaces for students to lead and personalize civic engagement—everyone cares about something, so how can we use that to reimagine what civic participation means? As an educator, community activist, and higher education professional, I, Marisol Morales, have witnessed the sort of transformation I experienced with my own students. Jacqueline Perez Valencia was one of the first students I met when I began at the University of La Verne as the founding director of the Office of Civic and Community Engagement. In working with Jacqueline, I watched the process of awareness, agency, and action occurring within her. We remained in touch after she graduated, and it has been fulfilling to see her civic transformation, passion, and love for her community continue to develop.

While our paths to civic engagement had different beginnings—mine, academic, and Jacqueline’s, cocurricular—the critical frameworks showing discrepancies between our lived experiences and prominent narratives about American democracy, as well as mentorship and opportunities to practice engagement, were all crucial for our success. Below, we share our own stories of civic transformation and how they are seeds in a garden that cultivates and harvests the fruits of a diverse democracy.

Marisol’s story

Community engagement as a tool for civic transformation

My involvement in civic and community engagement began the spring quarter of my sophomore year at DePaul University, while I was taking a course on the US colonialization of Puerto Rico. That class changed my life. It transformed me from a disconnected student on the verge of dropping out to an engaged student and community activist. It sparked my intellectual curiosity, exposed me to people in the community who were challenging systems of oppression, and gave me a better understanding of my own family history. This class also exposed me to the history, culture, politics, and economics of Puerto Rico, something I had never learned in all my years of schooling.

The class assignments included a community service component. I was tasked with volunteering at the Puerto Rican Cultural Center’s Dr. Pedro Albizu Campos Puerto Rican High School in Humboldt Park, Chicago. I provided classroom support to a teacher and tutored students in writing. I also learned about alternative education, Paulo Freire, and culturally relevant curriculum. The high school was created to address the high drop-out and push-out rates affecting the Puerto Rican community. It affirmed our Puerto Rican culture and taught students their history as a matter of pride and empowerment. I also learned about how communities that engage in institution building to meet their self-determined needs develop resilience and civic power.

The classroom and community components of the course opened my eyes to my own identity and ignited a deep appreciation of what people coming together could do. It was my first real exposure to the power of democracy. It helped me see the differences between what was happening in the United States and in my community and what I was told to believe about the United States. The class and the community experience allowed me to better understand my family’s need to migrate and their subsequent encounters with racism and housing discrimination. The class exposed me to the injustice of colonialism and how it continues to affect Puerto Rico. It also taught me about the discrimination and racism that Puerto Ricans faced when first migrating to Chicago, as well as about Puerto Rican political prisoners and campaigns for human rights.

The class gave me the knowledge and tools to exercise my own agency in shaping the world I lived in—the point of democracy and democratic participation. I joined campus Latino student leadership programs, created cultural programming, and worked with other Latino students to push the university to create a Latino cultural center. Although we did not succeed in our bid for the Latino center, the university did create a multicultural center, which still exists today, and dedicated funding for student organizations to offer cultural programming.

I also became active off campus, taking part in efforts for immigrant rights, affordable housing, the release of Puerto Rican political prisoners, voter registration, and get out the vote campaigns. I gained confidence and grew as an activist as I learned to organize, lead, and speak publicly. Along the way, I had powerful mentors—professors, community leaders, elected officials, nonprofit leaders­—who were some of the most hard-core and committed Puerto Rican activists in Chicago.

As I became more involved, I saw that a career in education and community engagement was my calling. It was my ikigai, the Japanese concept that speaks to the intersection of your life’s purpose and what you are good at.7 Working for community-based educational programs like the Lolita Lebron Family Learning Center, where I served as director for five years, allowed me to partner with higher education to create transformative service-learning experiences like the one I had in college. When I became a higher education professional, I sought to take the lessons I’d learned as a community partner to engage authentically with communities to create meaningful experiences for them and for our students. Community as co-educator should be about relationships and real voice and decision-making. Both the community and the educators need a clear understanding of the restraints and possibilities that can make the partnership fail or thrive. Conversation and communication are incredibly important for creating real and sustainable partnerships. I was able to take seeds of social awareness and civic action that were planted in me and share them with students, especially students of color, to realize their own agency.

Jacqueline’s story

How do we activate civic engagement?

When I was younger, I never raised my hand in class even when I knew the answer. At the thought of speaking in front of an audience, I would turn tomato red. When I entered college, I knew that I had to lose the imposter syndrome no matter how scared I was in order to get as much out of my higher education experience as I could. I couldn’t afford to fail. The pressure
as a first-generation student to walk across the stage with my degree in hand was always present. The sacrifices made to get me there were a constant reminder to keep going, because there was no other option for me.

During my first semester at the University of La Verne, I decided to join as many clubs and organizations as possible. I challenged myself to break away from my shyness and try new things. No longer could I live in the shadows and be voiceless. Even though my hands got sweaty and my legs trembled, I approached the leadership of organizations that interested me. I began to attend meetings for the Interfaith Club, Latino Student Forum Club, and College Democrat Club. They were all welcoming and challenged me to be a student activist and ambassador. A semester later, I was serving as director of fundraising on the board of the Latino Student Forum and as secretary of the College Democrats. I was eventually elected president of the Latino Student Forum due to my love for the organization and commitment to its members. I collaborated with the organizations’ boards to create and run programming, present at conferences, and research scholarships and internships for students. I helped run civic-engagement events like a Cesar Chavez community day. I never took my positions in either club for granted. I was tasked to bring heritage and voter engagement to campus and knew that I had to be creative to fight against student apathy. In the Latino culture, breaking a pinata brings a sense of pride and joy, and so I decided to combine a voter registration drive with a piñata-breaking celebration.

I also took part in organizing a rally of support for the forty-three students from a teacher-training school in Ayotzinapa, Mexico, who were abducted in September 2014 and have yet to be found. In December 2014, the media exposed the fact that, after two months, no progress had been made on finding the students. When this news broke, it was a campus “dead week,” which meant that because of finals we couldn’t schedule any events. This also prohibited us from using any school chairs, speakers, or other resources and equipment. Although I agree that students should focus on our studies during finals, as campus leaders, members of the Latino Student Forum and First-Generation Club had the social responsibility to not let such a heartbreaking moment pass unnoticed. In less than forty-eight hours, we organized a rally in honor of the missing students and invited the media, students, faculty, and staff. Despite initial push back to host an event during dead week, nothing stopped us from sharing space to express the pain we felt. After multiple conversations with different administrators, we garnered support for the event and made it happen. We learned an important lesson: when advocating for change, we need to understand that we will face opposition but must continue to fight for what we believe in. When people see why what you are doing matters, they will support you.

In fall 2012, I was selected to attend a conference in Washington, DC, as an ambassador of the La Verne Interfaith Club. I was invited to have lunch with Marisol and the president of La Verne, who were also attending the conference. I told them what I was passionate about, and they believed in me so much that they offered me a work-study position at La Verne’s new Office of Civic and Community Engagement, where Marisol was the director.

I wasn’t really interested in politics or policy before entering college, but Marisol encouraged me to apply to programs and take a chance on learning something new. During my junior year, I was selected to be one of twenty-two students from around the country to represent my community as an intern at the US Capitol for the Congressional Hispanic Caucus Institute (CHCI). That semester was the most enriching of my undergraduate career because I learned and experienced firsthand how federal legislation is created and passed. Living 2,292 miles away from home, being surrounded by people that didn’t always understand my culture, taking up space in places like the Capitol where you don’t see many Latinos, all taught me to be comfortable with being uncomfortable. Unfortunately, interning in DC isn’t something that many people of color can afford to do. If it hadn’t been for the paid internship through CHCI, I could never have afforded to move cross-country. I learned how privileged I was and took it as a responsibility to be brave and take a seat at the table.

After graduating, I moved back to DC to begin my journey into the politics and policy world. Fast-forward to three years after graduating with my bachelor of science in sociology and business management: I have worked on congressional and mayoral campaigns, taught civics and government to middle school students, worked at an affordable housing unit as an administrative assistant, served as a full-time volunteer immigrant rights organizer, and managed programs that expose more Latinx students to careers in technology.

Recently, I was selected to be part of the Women’s Foundation of California’s 2019–20 Women’s Policy Institute. This will give me the opportunity to work on a state assembly bill with colleagues from throughout California. With the goal of increasing access to noncustodial checking and savings accounts for working minors, this bill sets baseline requirements for financial institutions to offer quality checking and savings accounts paired with financial education programming at a school or youth agency.

Going to college, participating in clubs and organizations, and taking internships and job opportunities all allowed me to hone skills in the policy, political, and nonprofit worlds. These experiences set me up to be a lifelong, civically engaged learner. It isn’t easy entering the predominantly white male field of policymaking, but it is crucial to defy the odds and ensure that our policies are reflective of a diverse democracy. Mentors like Marisol, my supervisors at Solidarity Strategies (a Latino-owned and operated political consulting firm in DC), and a family that keeps me grounded in my culture have encouraged me to take risks. Without the guidance and encouragement of other powerful Latina women, I wouldn’t be in the rooms I am privileged to stand in, and I take that with great honor and responsibility to represent mi comunidad


1. Leah Sakala, “Breaking Down Mass Incarceration in the 2010 Census: State-by-State Incarceration Rates by Race/Ethnicity,” Prison Policy Initiative, May 28, 2014,

2. “The Effects of Shelby County v. Holder,” Brennan Center for Justice, August 6, 2018,

3. Adeel Hassan “Hate-Crime Violence Hits 16-Year High, F.B.I. Reports,” New York Times, November 12, 2019, ; “2018 Hate Crime Statistics,” Uniform Crime Reporting Program, Federal Bureau of Investigation,

4. Jens Manuel Krogstad, Luis Noe-Bustamante, and Antonio Flores, “Historic Highs in 2018 Voter Turnout Extended across Racial and Ethnic Groups,” Fact Tank News in the Numbers, Pew Research Center, May 1, 2019,

5. Nancy Thomas, Adam Gismondi, Prabhat Gautam, and David Brinker, Democracy Counts 2018: An Analysis of Student Participation (Medford, MA: Institute for Democracy & Higher Education, Tufts University’s Jonathan M. Tisch College of Civic Life, 2019).

6. Joshua Littenberg-Tobias and Allison K. Cohen, “Diverging Paths: Understanding Racial Differences in Civic Engagement among White, African American, and Latina/o Adolescents Using Structural Equation Modeling,” American Journal of Community Psychology 57, no. 1–2 (March 2016): 102–117.

7. Thomas Oppong, “Ikigai: The Japanese Secret to a Long and Happy Life Might Just Help You Live a More Fulfilling Life,” Medium, January 10, 2018,

Marisol Morales is vice president for network leadership at Campus Compact, a national coalition of colleges and universities supporting campus-based civic engagement. She was previously director of civic and community engagement at the University of La Verne. Jacqueline Perez Valencia, a University of La Verne alumna, is a code as a second language coordinator at the Hispanic Heritage Foundation and a state fellow at the Women’s Policy Institute.

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