From coast to coast, Latino youth have taken to the streets to rally for the passage of The DREAM Act. They’ve stirred public support, garnered media attention, and brought the issue to the forefront of political debates.
A few years back, hundreds of Latino schoolchildren—alerted through social media, MySpace, and Internet discussions—left their classrooms in Southern California and marched to a rally protesting a proposed anti-immigration bill.
In classrooms across the country, Latino students are leading debates about civic and topical issues that range from immigration and racism to the environment and education. Their fire is fueled by their hardy consumption of traditional English-language media and digital technology.
Increasingly, young Latinos are adopting the role of activists and advocates and, according to a new study, hold the key to increasing civic activism and engagement in their parents and the larger Latino community.
“Latino youth can act as information leaders in ways that foster civic socialization for themselves, their siblings, and their parents,” says Michael McDevitt, a University of Colorado, Boulder professor who co-authored the study.
In school and through their use of technology, Latino young people can be exposed to more information about current events and civic issues, resulting in greater acculturation and more social action. They, in turn, can bring those messages and information home to their parents, who are often immigrants with less exposure to host (or mainstream) culture, McDevitt notes.
It is part of what McDevitt calls the “trickle-up” dynamic.
“If youth promote civic engagement, talk about voting, developing opinions, and know about important issues, the family will become a microcosm for discussion about community issues, and civic issues,” says McDevitt, who notes that such open dialogue could also pave the way for college and career options otherwise shut off to Latino children.
In the study, titled “Latino Youth as Information Leaders: Implications for Family Interaction and Civic Engagement in Immigrant Communities,” McDevitt and Mary Butler surveyed 74 students and conducted four focus group discussions with 53 students and parents. They also used information gathered from diaries kept by 12 students who tracked media and technology use for 48 hours.
The researchers found a technology and culture gap between Latino parents, who were often linguistically and culturally isolated, and Latino youth, who showed a high degree of digital literacy and familiarity with mainstream culture.
“A recurrent theme was the advantages that youth possess over parents in language acuity, comprehension of American culture, comfort with social media, and enthusiasm for mobile media,” the researchers concluded in the report.
That gap can often lead to conflicts between parents trying to hold onto authority and youth who may act as language-brokers and guides to the mainstream society. However, McDevitt notes, it can also serve as a catalyst for discussion and growth.
“Parents resist and don’t appreciate kids mouthing off on political issues, but teens tend to persist because they’re differentiating themselves,” observes McDevitt. “To keep up with their kids, the parents realize they need to start paying attention to what their kid’s talking about and are more likely to keep up with issues.”
Schools are also an important part of the “trickle-up” dynamic and should serve as a place where Latino youth are introduced to important issues and encouraged to debate hot topics, McDevitt said.
Too often, however, teachers, worried about a backlash from parents and administrators, shy away from class discussions about controversial issues.
But the Latino youth surveyed expressed a hunger to talk about societal concerns such as discrimination and anti-immigrant laws. Often, that zeal is fed by messages and information relayed by text messaging or social media networks.
“Students complained that while social studies teachers were talking about the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, they would not touch immigration,” the report notes.
Rather than avoiding potentially loaded topics, teachers should encourage social awareness among Latino youth, McDevitt advises. However, schools also need to make an effort to involve parents in those conversations.
“They could create homework assignments where Latino teens are asked to play the role of a journalist and ask their parents: What is your opinion about this issue?” suggests McDevitt. “It starts to trigger family discussion and should translate to civic involvement.”
Want to encourage your hijos to become civic leaders? Here are some tips:
- Encourage discussion over the dinner table. McDevitt’s study shows that Latino teens are eager to talk about current events and pressing issues. Nurture that sense of awareness by being open to their thoughts and opinions.
- Share the same media. Often, parents and children exist in separate media worlds. Mom and Dad watch news on one channel, while kids get their information from a different source. Without overlap, a divide can grow between generations, stifling discussion. Try to create common media ground: watch the news together, read the same newspapers, surf the same sites.
- Get social media savvy. If you don’t already know your way around Facebook, Twitter, and Google +, create an account and start learning the territory. It’s a good way of keeping up with issues important to your kids. As this study and others show, Latino youth are social media masters and get much of their news from these sites. In fact, much of the DREAM Act movement momentum came from calls to action on Twitter and Facebook.
- Get involved in causes. If your children see you working to help end hunger or rallying for a new park in the neighborhood, they will pick up the activism bug. If they come home fired up about an issue, join their cause. Make civic engagement a family venture.