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Creating Good Citizens

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Today, educators and young people from around the country are meeting in Chicago for the first National Action Civics Conference. These are people who know that teenagers become good citizens -- and improve their schools and communities -- when they are given the chance to contribute.

Chicago is a natural site for the conference because it is a hotbed of constructive youth engagement. Consider the Gage Park High School students who successfully lobbied for a digital memorial -- a public touch-screen kiosk -- to commemorate Dr. Martin Luther King's 1966 march through their neighborhood. Those students were participants in the Mikva Challenge, a Chicago nonprofit that Education Secretary Arne Duncan cites as a leading example of "cutting-edge civics."

Similarly, as a result of a grant from my organization, CIRCLE, teenagers in the Cabrini-Green area documented their neighborhood in public videos through a grassroots organization called Cabrini Connections.

Neutral Ground is a multimedia center in Humboldt Park, operated by yet another nationally recognized nonprofit, Street-Level Media. Young people between 8 and 22 meet at Neutral Ground to create journalism, music, animation, and photography for their communities.

These programs and many like them take advantage of young people's creativity, media savvy, and knowledge of their own communities. They help the kids by giving them creative outlets, skills, and networks. These are important at any time, but crucial today. In the Chicago metro area, according to the Chicago Urban League, 84 percent of teens (age 16-19) were unemployed in 2009, and summer jobs programs have been cut since then.

The prominent Knight Commission on the Information Needs of Communities in a Democracy, which issued its national report in 2009, called for greater public engagement with the information resources that they have. They particularly called on AmeriCorps to support young people as media producers.

Imagine if thousands of young volunteers served community organizations by producing videos, news websites, research archives, photo essays, online discussion forums, and other forms of media. Imagine if they also met regularly as representatives of their separate organizations to discuss the information needs of Chicago as a whole. They could collaborate to build city-wide websites, discussion forums, archives, and video channels.

In the Chicago Public Schools, according to a careful study by professors Joseph Kahne and Ellen Middaugh, students who discuss and work on current issues gain skills and commitments to be active citizens when they graduate.

Engaged youth also help the city by producing valuable news, discussion, and culture. With professional journalism in crisis, newsrooms cutting staff, and many neighborhoods and communities barely served by the mass media, we need groups of citizens to share news, information, and ideas. Young people can be leaders in that work.

In 2009, Congress authorized up to 250,000 AmeriCorps community service positions, mostly for young people who are paid modest salaries to work in grassroots organizations across America. You may recognize the ones who wear City Year-Chicago jackets, or the Public Allies workers who are placed in Chicago nonprofits.

These young volunteers could work with major institutions like the Chicago Public Library, which recently opened its YOUmedia Center to teach young people media skills. A signature program of the YOUmedia Center is the Digital City Planner project, in which young Chicagoans use cutting-edge technology to develop visions of the city's future.

Other partners might include Chicago's universities. For example, the University of Illinois-Chicago has long recognized its responsibility to be a source of information and ideas for the city, and its Institute for Policy and Civic Engagement recently launched CivicSource as an online portal. AmeriCorps volunteers could be the glue that holds these important but disparate efforts together.

To realize this dream will take some modifications in today's "service" programs, which range from the Chicago Public School's community service requirement to AmeriCorps. "Service" is not all about picking up trash or tutoring children. Media creation should be a central component. Media-creating kids are some of our communities' most important assets