Why is it Important for Youth to Join Associations?

March 4, 2014 in Research by Liz McKenna

Anyone can join an association. Specifically, why is it important for youth to join? Why start out at an early age, when some members of the youth population have years before they can vote? Scholars argue that youth involvement in associations is crucial. So many members in society become politically active, or unfortunately inactive, beginning in early adulthood when people “become eligible to vote, join political parties, and engage in adult civic organizations.” From there, people continue to be involved in political activities. The key time to become involved in a political association, for example, is in young adulthood because key institutions and initial political activation is found at this time.

A prime example of what happens to people when they join something like an association is in the aftermath of the Summer Project in June of 1964, where volunteers went to Mississippi to register black voters. While this mission was only meant to be a summer mission, with the expectations of returning to everyday life, volunteers could not stop once they returned. 

Volunteers found themselves exhilarated and excited for new political missions. However, there were other volunteers who entered into the 1970s with tiresome feelings, like soldiers returning form the war. There were still active volunteers, such as those in women’s, environmental, and antinuclear organizations. There was actually growth in those organizations and movements. Moreover, volunteers began to change in nature, but they used the organizing techniques they learned in Mississippi that notable summer when they went into the workforce, in terms of protesting workforce conditions and in involvement in their own neighborhoods. Although the type of volunteering in years after 1964 was not as fast-pace and intense as that time, the volunteers continued to be activists in their own activities, and continued to see the importance of the “connection” they received from membership in a community. (Freedom Summer). Most of these people continued to treat life like a set of adventures in missions to better themselves.

McAdam argues that many school-based service learning or community service programs do not necessarily promote long-term civic engagement, but participation in youth volunteer associations does.  He argues against the presumption that youth service encourages longterm civic engagement. Many of us are familiar with the current organization of Teach for America. Young people who have graduated or are about to graduate are very likely to apply to Teach for America. McAdam conducted a study on individuals who applied to and were accepted by TFA in the nineties. TFA’s message is to provide valuable service to students that may be underprivileged, but also is to help the young adults that become involved have long-term civic effects from their experiences. TFA argues that it provides critical educational benefits and helps people turn into lifelong citizens. (McAdam)However, many of the applicants that TFA seeks are already committed to service, so McAdam speculated that those students would go on to lead civic-oriented lives sans the Teach for America experience. Overall, McAdam found that many graduates of TFA lacked in civic service, either due to burnout or exhaustion, and they are having a tough time transitioning to adult life. McAdam saw a bias in the applicants TFA chooses in that they are already biased, so in essence, TFA does not necessarily make them become better citizens. Most of the applicants and graduates in TFA were already active citizens to begin with.

One author, Constance Flanagan, discusses the importance of civic engagement and youth. There is a concern that people are less civically engaged or less inclined to be involved in political associations. But, can youth involvement in membership within institutions help end that apathy? The types of organizations that young people are more apt to become a part of include local community organizations that do some type of “good” for the community because it makes young people more “aware that their goals are realized when the groups goals are achieved.” (Developmental Roots of Political Engagement). They also join and become members of associations because they use it as a sort of trust exercise where they learn how to hold each other accountable. Yet another type of organization with which the youth becomes involved is a non-formal community based youth organization (CBYO), because the youth become exposed to perspectives that are unlike their own and they learn how to negotiate. On the whole, it is a learning experience of which young people take advantage when they join an association and become a member. Youth tend to understand themselves more by being involved in associations with others.

Younis et al. argue that the youth participating in organized groups has a lasting impact because it introduces youth to the basic roles and processes required for adult civic engagement, and it helps youth incorporate civic involvement into their identity during an opportune movement in confusing ages. (Younis et al.) This act of participation promotes civic character. High schools are doing this with civic hands-on training, pushing for involvement in school government, or taking the lead on a community service project. Youth come out of these activities with a feeling of satisfaction that they produced a lasting product and made a difference. These acts at an early stage push youth to be more involved in politics. Youth also join teams within associations, which helps them learn how to coordinate with each other and accomplish so much more than what an individual alone can accomplish. Youth come out of these organizations with questions about inequality and feel the need to “attend to this social responsibility” regarding social justice. Youth come out of associations with a formation of civic identity and knowledge about associations. Youth’s involvement in associations and school groups at a young age pushes youth to become better leaders in the future. They also tend to come out of them with a different outlook on their responsibilities in everyday life.

Could people become more political after joining an association? Rosenblum argues that “association precedes expression” and that political expression is an outgrowth of associations organized for other things. That is, an association that is not political in any way could turn into political lobbying and advocacy. Associations could define a message. When members join an association, an association’s message becomes defined by the communication of all of the members. Thus, people come out of associations with a sense of community, rather than a sense of individualism that they experienced prior to joining an association.

Many schools and communities present a variety of organizational memberships to the youth that actually correspond with adult political activities. It is important for youth to become involved in these opportunities because it prepares them for adulthood. For example, organizations that heavily engage youth include the National Honors Society, drama clubs, vocational associations, and debate clubs. Organizations that do not do an adequate job of engaging youth include academic clubs that do not promote collaboration, book clubs, and computer clubs. Scholars see civic engagement and joining associations as a key part of the transition “between adolescence and mature adulthood.” 

In essence, we do not have all of the answers to what happens to people after they join an association. Some of them stay involved in that association while others move on to different ones. Some become tired, exhausted, and drop out, and others become more passionate to do other civic activities for the world. What we do know is that each individual has a different experience about being involved in associations, and research does show that becoming involved in one does lead to more amounts of civic participation.

Below is a selection of research that focuses on what happens to youth in associations, and why it is important for youth to join associations and each article discusses where people go when they leave associations, and how associations affect one’s life post-joining.

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Flanagan, C. (2003). Developmental roots of political engagement. Political Science andPolitics, 36(02), 257-261.

Flanagan discusses how engagement in extracurricular and community-based organizations helps contribute peoples’ civic engagement later on in adulthood. Young people essentially become aware of their own goals when they see the group’s goals.

Flanagan, C., &Levine, P. (2010). Civic engagement and the transition to adulthood.The Future of Children, 20(1), 159-179.

These authors argue that civic engagement is important amongst young adults and for functioning democracies. They also argue that young adults are less likely than those in earlier generations to exhibit the important characteristics of citizenship, and thus they survey differences in civic participation for youth from different backgrounds.

McAdam, D., & Brandt, C. (2009). Assessing the effects of voluntary youth service: The case of Teach For America. Social Forces, 88(2), 945-969.

McAdam argues that Teach For America does not necessarily make people want to become more involved in civic engagement because many of the people that applied to Teach for America were already involved in voluntary organizations prior to applying to Teach for America. He also argues that although school-based service learning programs do not necessarily promote long-term civic engagement, participation and certain types of youth voluntary associations do so. 

McAdam, D. (1990). Freedom summer. Oxford University Press.

McAdam tells the story of the summer of 1964 called the Freedom Summer Project,where volunteers went in large numbers to register black voters to vote. Some of the volunteers were beaten and killed, but many of them learned a great deal about organizing techniques and continued to use those in the workplace and future organizations with which they would become involved. 

McFarland, D. A., & Thomas, R. J. (2006). Bowling young: How youth voluntary associations influence adult political participation. American sociological review, 71(3), 401-425.

The authors discuss how voluntary activities at a young age have a large influence on how involved a person will be in a membership association later on in their lives. These voluntary activities include speaking in public, community service, and extracurricular activities.

Rosenblum, Nancy. (1999). Membership and Morals: The Personal Uses of Pluralism in America.The Good Society, 9(1), 66-72

Rosbenblum discusses voluntary associations in the U.S. and paints a vivid picture of the association life. She ultimately argues that it is a mistake to reduce the moral role of associations to habits and beliefs that undergrid responsible citizenships, and argues that there is more to moral life than this.

Youniss, J., McLellan, J. A., &amp; Yates, M. (1997). What we know about engendering civic identity.&nbsp;<em>American Behavioral Scientist</em>,&nbsp;<em>40</em>(5), 620-631.

Younis et al discuss the developmental process in forming citizenship in society. They argue that there is a link between youth’s participation in activities and civic behaviors in adulthood. They also argue that youth tend to see a kind of social responsibility in sustaining the community’s well-being.&nbsp;