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Amber A. Hewitt Ph.D.
Amber A. Hewitt Ph.D.

Empowering Youth to Become Civically Engaged

Why it's important for youth to see themselves as change agents.

Six months ago, I transitioned into a new role as a congressional fellow in the United States Senate. The experience has been invaluable and allows me to explore the intersection of my research and policy interests. In this position, I meet with constituents and advocacy groups, research and propose legislative strategies, and a variety of other tasks depending on the Senator’s needs that day. Most of my constituent meetings are with mid-career professionals and adult advocates, and it is much less common for youth to come in and discuss legislative issues. My time in the Senate has caused me to reflect on my academic training as a psychologist and how it relates to my current role as a legislative fellow.

Most of the policies that I assist with are health and education related, covering issues from health disparities to rights for school-aged children with disabilities. The approach to creating change through policy differs from how psychology conceptualizes the process of change for an individual or group. As a counseling psychologist, who operates from a strengths-based perspective, I am trained to assess the degree of agency a person possesses to impact their environment. It is important to note that the relationship between the person and their environment is bidirectional. Ginwright and Cammarota (2002) assert that youth are often the “objects of policy” instead of being viewed as change agents who can shape policy. In their social justice youth development model, the authors critique traditional models of youth development which they state are lacking in helping youth critically understand themselves in context and subsequently take action against societal inequities.

The social justice youth development model draws upon Brazilian educator Paolo Friere’s (1996) conceptualization of critical consciousness. Critical consciousness refers to the developmental process of becoming aware of inequity, or oppression, and moving toward social action. Today, youth are faced with a variety of social issues that directly impact them such as disparities in educational opportunities, environmental hazards, economic instability, and access to health care. Some of these issues disproportionately impact certain communities more than others and could be a related to a youth’s gender, ethnicity, religion, sexual orientation, ability status, or the intersection of these identities. Godfrey and Grayman (2014) emphasize the importance of developing critical consciousness especially for youth who hold marginalized identities. The authors’ research also highlights the benefit of critical consciousness for all youth.

Thomas and colleagues (2014) emphasize that “to be engaged and informed citizens, youth need to have an ability to critically evaluate situations and then take action against societal inequities, or the ability for critical consciousness.” Greater critical consciousness among youth is related to optimal functioning and resilience. Youth who are able to think critically about societal issues and make meaning of these issues are better able to navigate and succeed in their environment.

Roderick Watts and colleagues (1999) described this process of self-reflection and critical examination in a five-stage theory called sociopolitical development. In the first stage, youth are unaware of inequity and believe that everyone has access to the same opportunities and resources. In the second stage, youth begin to have an awareness of inequity but believe that system of inequity is impenetrable. In the third stage, youth begin to question the status quo, which leads to the fourth stage, marked by identifying as a change agent. In the final stage, youth become more civically engaged and participate in activities that promote social justice.

In the past few months, we have witnessed a surge in civic engagement at the local and national level. In fact, the day after the recent presidential election my six-year-old nephew initiated a conversation with his grandfather about the presidential transition when he was picked up after school. This demonstrates that the time is ripe to facilitate critical consciousness and civic engagement among youth. So how do we help youth become civic-minded and civically engaged? Here are some tips for parents, educators, and others:

1. Foster an open climate where diverse perspectives are validated and respected.

2. Encourage youth to better understand the perspectives and thoughts of others.

3. Help youth identify and label their feelings related to experiences of inequity.

4. When feeling disempowered, discuss ways to depersonalize feelings of oppression.

5. Assist youth in identifying issues within their respective communities and strategies to create change.

Thomas and colleagues (2014) remind us that youth will encounter situations that demand an increased level of civic engagement and critical consciousness. It is important for youth to be educated on how to become engaged citizens. In the words of Paolo Freire, “education either functions as an instrument which is used to facilitate integration of the younger generation into the logic of the present system and bring about conformity or it becomes the practice of freedom, the means by which men and women deal critically and creatively with reality and discover how to participate in the transformation of their world.”


Freire, P. (1996). Pedagogy of the oppressed (revised). New York: Continuum.

Ginwright, S., & Cammarota, J. (2002). New terrain in youth development: The promise of a social justice approach. Social Justice, 29(4 (90), 82-95.

Godfrey, E. B., & Grayman, J. K. (2014). Teaching citizens: The role of open classroom climate in fostering critical consciousness among youth. Journal of youth and adolescence, 43(11), 1801-1817.

Thomas, A. J., Barrie, R., Brunner, J., Clawson, A., Hewitt, A., Jeremie‐Brink, G., & Rowe‐Johnson, M. (2014). Assessing critical consciousness in youth and young adults. Journal of Research on Adolescence, 24(3), 485-496.

Watts, R. J., Griffith, D. M., & Abdul-Adil, J. (1999). Sociopolitical development as an antidote for oppression—theory and action. American Journal of Community Psychology, 27(2), 255-271.

About the Author
Amber A. Hewitt Ph.D.

Amber A. Hewitt, Ph.D., a counseling psychologist specializing in adolescent well-being and resilience, is adjunct faculty at Simmons College and American University.

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