Liberal Education

What I Learned as a Participant in Community Dialogues

I still remember being surprised when Barry Checkoway, a professor at the University of Michigan, asked me to speak at a Bringing Theory to Practice (BTtoP) national conference on civic engagement in Washington, DC. After all, my image of civic engagement was of Peace Corps members, Teach for America volunteers, and New Deal workers planting trees for the Civilian Conservation Corps. Despite my active involvement in the Michigan Youth and Community Program (see sidebar on page 58) during both high school and college, I wasn’t sure what I could contribute as a panelist. Barry told me to sit down, reflect, and write from my own experience. I did. And while the conference went well, it wasn’t until months later, while writing this article, that the lessons finally clicked.

For five years, the Michigan Program’s Youth Dialogues on Race and Ethnicity in Metropolitan Detroit involved me in intergroup relations and taught me about segregation and diversity. However, the changing nature of my role within the program, from participant to evaluator, also affected my understanding of civic engagement.

As a high school student, I initially participated in the dialogues program, learning about metropolitan Detroit, the changing nature of my own identity, and how to communicate with others on sensitive issues of race and ethnicity. Building on this experience, my role quickly transitioned into that of a civil rights advocate. Specifically, I became a member of the Youth Leadership Team, analyzed issues such as affirmative action and educational disparities, and—after two years of work with neighborhood leaders, parents, and other adult allies—went to Lansing, Michigan, and Washington, DC, to meet with elected officials and policy makers.

My role in the program changed once again after graduation from high school, when I began to evaluate the program. For three summers, I worked as a youth evaluator to assess the changes that participants experienced as they progressed through the program. This not only allowed me to gain formal insight into how campus-community dialogues affect the well-being of young adults, but it also gave me a chance to reflect on my own experiences.

Summer dialogues program

During the spring of my freshman year of high school, I was approached by the adviser of my school’s Asian-Pacific American Club and asked to join the University of Michigan’s summer program that facilitates dialogues about race and ethnicity issues between students of different social identities throughout metropolitan Detroit. I had recently become acquainted with issues concerning Asian Americans, and participation in the program seemed like a good bridge to learning about issues in metropolitan Detroit as a whole.

As a summer dialogues participant, I was placed in a group of five students with similar racial backgrounds from my community. For the first few weeks of the program, we focused on discovering and coming to terms with our own racial backgrounds and identities, and only later did we interact with young people from another part of the metropolitan area.

My group was paired with a group of African American students, all of whom belonged to a youth theater troupe in Detroit. Despite not knowing anything about the other group at the beginning of the summer, we all soon became close friends with the help of our college-aged facilitators. We delved deeply into such issues as stereotypes and segregation, and got to know each other on a personal basis.

Without doubt, the structured curriculum and trained facilitators enabled us to learn how to talk about difficult issues. My group’s college-aged facilitator had just graduated from the same high school that I myself was attending, her background was similar to mine, and because of this, we had a close connection. She easily introduced me to unfamiliar concepts, helped me to learn about the history of Detroit and its role in race relations in the United States, and played an important role in piquing my interest in the subject.

About the Michigan Youth and Community Program

Based in the University of Michigan School of Social Work, the Michigan Youth and Community Program enables young people to create community change, especially in economically disinvested and racially segregated areas. The program works with young people and adult allies to build capacity and create change through research, evaluation, teaching, and training. It promotes collaboration with community partners, formulates best practices, facilitates training workshops, and publishes practical workbooks and scholarly papers.

Projects of the Michigan Youth and Community Program include:

  • youth organizing and community change;
  • youth participation in public policy;
  • youth dialogues on race and ethnicity;
  • community-based participatory research and evaluation.

More information about the program is available online at public/currentProjects/youthAndCommunity/.

Youth Leadership Team

My enthusiasm for the dialogue process did not stop when the summer program came to an end. Because I wanted to continue to play a role, I, along with a few other participants, decided to help create the Youth Leadership Team for those who wanted to take the knowledge and skills learned from the dialogues and apply them to the community as a whole. For three years, we met at the University of Michigan’s Detroit Center in the heart of the city and worked together on long-term projects, including community action projects and reaching out to local and state elected officials.

This work helped me to clarify my definition of “civic engagement.” At the time,
affirmative action was an important issue, and there was a ballot proposition to ban it in Michigan. Because the issues relating to the ballot proposition were intricate and resulted in confusion for some of the people who supported it, I decided to hold a community workshop to educate family, friends, and neighbors on the subject. I facilitated the meeting by using the tools and modeling the discussion in ways we had done during the summer dialogues program. I felt pride and a sense of accomplishment in my ability to apply the knowledge that I’d gained and connect with community members—and be taken seriously.

As my participation with the group grew, we began to branch out into other forms of communication and dialoguing. Some of my best memories from the Youth Leadership Team are of the conversations we had with each other and with prominent adult leaders. I learned that adults will listen to young people, if we speak knowledgeably and with passion. Our mentors emphasized that, especially with civic engagement projects, support from adult allies is crucial to successful action. Since the program was part of the University of Michigan, we had the additional benefit of interacting with people on campus, and they provided advice, time, and other resources.

One of my favorite projects was Down Woodward, an art exhibit that resulted from several long discussions on segregation and the changing structure of the suburbs. From our extensive travel in the inner city and outer suburbs, we noticed the changing face of the whole metropolitan area. As we traveled down Woodward Avenue, which extends forty miles through the area, we noticed a significant difference in the quality of buildings, the types of shops, and the overall atmosphere of the communities. As a result of this observation, our group decided that by doing a visual display we could have a significant impact on the differences in people’s quality of life.

With mentorship and resources from our facilitators, we completed the art installation at the Detroit Center and held an opening reception for members of the community. While this project might not be considered a traditional form of civic engagement, it was still a way for young people to start dialogues and to engage with the surrounding community. Although I was aware of the socioeconomic differences among Detroit neighborhoods, the implications did not fully hit me until I had viewed the exhibit as a whole. To me, civic engagement not only implies interacting with the community, but also a thorough understanding of what people in the community are trying to accomplish. When young people are passionate about an issue, their civic engagement may be especially effective.

Evaluation team

After a few years as a youth leader, I again changed roles within the program. I was particularly fascinated by the evaluation process. As a member of the evaluation team, I facilitated focus groups and survey questionnaires, and began to understand the effects of civic engagement on the psychosocial well-being of young adults.

Although I had personally experienced the effects of participation in the dialogues, I was fascinated to gather quantitative data showing the effects on the group as a whole. From our research, we learned that through the dialogues, young people increased their knowledge about their own racial and ethnic identity as well as about that of others. They increased their awareness and understanding of racism and racial privilege. More importantly, they were able to “find their voice” and to feel competent enough to talk about these issues, build relationships, and work across differences. That young people learned to develop leadership and increased their actions to address issues of racism in their community suggested that young people had also developed an increased sense of civic responsibility. Post-test surveys showed that a significant number of young people were more likely to object vocally and to take action in response to racist statements or jokes. As young people decided what positions to take on certain issues, their active involvement in the community became more likely.

While I was working on the evaluation team, it became apparent to me that there are numerous forms of civic engagement. My interviews with each of the groups about their community service projects led to a wealth of ideas about how young people can become more actively involved within their communities. The participants were essentially establishing long-term relationships with their respective communities. I have also come to realize that my own growth in the dialogues program is a result of my own civic engagement. While my role as a youth evaluator was not directly connected to improving the community, the fact that I had stayed involved with the program as a whole is a sign of the impact the dialogues had on me.

College and beyond

Although my involvement with the program decreased once I got to college, I have not forgotten the lessons learned. My interest in race relations has remained strong, and I have made it a priority to become involved with my university’s surrounding community. Although my time in the community has decreased due to the constraints of college, I supplement my hands-on education with sociology and urban studies classes, campus organizations, and other activities.

However, the dialogues program affected me so strongly that it has remained my conviction that all students should have this learning experience. After speaking at the national BTtoP conference, I was inspired by the optimism of university administrators and professors around the country and their commitment to improving the lives of college students. So, recognizing the need for campus-community dialogues at my own university, I urged administrators in the Office of Multicultural Student Affairs to establish a version of the dialogues on our campus, and we initiated a pilot class in the 2010–2011 school year.

Sarah Yu is an undergraduate student at the University of Chicago.

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