CIRCLE works to increase civic engagement among young people through Tisch College

American political pundits often focus on racial, socioeconomic and gender demographics. But if you want to talk instead about age demographics — and the teenage to college-age demographic in particular — you go to CIRCLE.

CIRCLE, which stands for Center for Information and Research on Civil Learning and Engagement, operates both as a research center and a civic engagement organization. It moved to Tufts in 2008 and is now based at the Jonathan M. Tisch College of Citizenship and Public Service, according to its websiteDelving into multiple topics relating to young people, CIRCLE facilitates meetings with media outlets to discuss policy and to conduct broad systemic reviews of voting trends.

Peter Levine, associate dean for research and Lincoln Filene professor of citizenship & public affairs at Tisch College, was the founding deputy director of CIRCLE and served as primary director until this past April. He said that CIRCLE has become the leading authority in its field due to its specialized focus. 

“Mostly what distinguishes us is the topic,” Levine said. “It’s that we’re the people that specialize in youth civic engagement … We take a broad view of youth civic engagement, but on the other hand, we don’t study anything else; we specialize in that. So I think…we have a niche.”

CIRCLE is almost always engaged in multiple projects simultaneously. Kei Kawashima-Ginsberg, the current director who took over for Levine in April, talked about some of the recent research projects initiated by CIRCLE.

“One of the newest projects that we are able to do through WT [William T.] Grant Foundation’s support is to look at how the neighborhoods can affect how young people see themselves as active citizens growing up,” she said. “So we’re looking to see now, can investing in neighborhood resources, [like] having…more youth-based community centers or better parks in the neighborhood, have long-term consequences as they become adults and actually care about the communities they grew up in?”

A more recent research project, announced on Oct. 20seeks to determine the effects that one year of service with AmeriCorps, usually following college, can have on young people, according to Kawashima-Ginsberg.

“If somebody that didn’t go to a fantastic high school or didn’t [necessarily] have a lot of resources before graduating from college does a year of service, does that actually increase their chance of having…a more solid career or better entry into the job market?” she said. “[We] promote a lot of national service, and we think that it’s a really great way to have a really meaningful year for young people. But does it also have practical benefits, instead of holding somebody back?”

CIRCLE also engages in survey projects related to youth civic engagement. Currently, there is an effort underway to measure levels of news literacy among the youth, which is an indicator for their civic development, Kawashima-Ginsberg said.

The 2016 Presidential campaign provides an opportunity for CIRCLE to look into disparities in youth voting. According to the Center’s research, individuals who never attend college are almost half as likely to vote as those who did attend college. This could potentially be attributed to politicians’ frequent skepticism of young voters, Kawashima-Ginsberg said.

“We really try to push back on that narrative,” she said. “[It] really puts young people in one box, as if they’re the same people across different backgrounds and groups and interests, when it is a really diverse group racially and politically … Today’s young people really are so interesting in that they’re less…attached to the dogmatic party line and what they present. They’re much more likely to sort of inform themselves and decide what’s right for them. So that makes this group — if we may talk about group — much less predictable in terms of how they’re going to vote, what issues are going to be important to them and how much they are going to vote.”

Yet the decline in voting could also be attributed to the structure of civic life itself, Kawashima-Ginsberg said.

“I think we’ve been seeing some trends in which young people are sort of abandoning voting as a trustworthy mechanism for democracy, and that’s a huge problem,” she said. “It partly has to do with things like the perception of corruption, but also things like campaign financing, where people feel their votes don’t really count. The same with…how much we’ve become formalized and how the campaigning has become focused on a handful of states where the electoral votes really matter. So something like 90 percent of the young people’s votes actually don’t really count.”

Given this trend, CIRCLE has begun to account for other ways in which young people can become civically engaged. Kawashima-Ginsberg explained that, on the whole, many younger voters are concerned with issues and have a desire to be active, but they resent conventional methods of civic engagement. As a result, many have turned to voicing their opinions through alternative routes of participatory politics, such as Black Lives Matter or Student Immigrant Movement, instead of institutional politics.

“Participatory politics is really about getting out of the box,” she said. “[These protest organizers] sort of broke out of the old organizing model. They decided to gather around, and they sort of broke some codes that were in old-school organizing and became a really effective and impactful voice.”

According to Kawashima-Ginsberg, because of their broad scope of research topics, CIRCLE is able to connect experts from disciplines across academics and politics.

“We think [it’s] really important to have a connector organization for any field,” she said. “We’re able to contribute what we’ve heard from other fields and other perspectives. So a lot of times, people that we know at two different nodes have never met each other, and we’re the ones connecting that. And it’s a rewarding thing to do.”

CIRCLE also serves as an outlet for other researchers to publicize their findings. Often, a professor’s research may be noteworthy but will only be available to a few individuals through select journals. Therefore, posting their findings through CIRCLE offers an opportunity both to apply their insights to the broader community and to convey their work to a larger audience, Kawashima-Ginsberg said.

Throughout its history, CIRCLE has been able to effect actual policy through its research and engagement efforts, Levine said.

“In the early 2000s, we put together a paper called ‘The Civic Mission of Schools,’ which is about K-12 education, and that’s really been the main guide or…manifesto for civic [education] ever since,” Levine said. “So there’s now a campaign called the ‘Campaign for the Civic Mission of Schools,’ which is co-chaired by [former Associate] Justice Sandra Day O’Connor and Governor Bob Graham from Florida, and they push for civic education across the country. So that was a good example of an effective piece of work, because it was research that we did that turned into advocacy and policy.”

Abby Kiesa, a youth coordinator and researcher at CIRCLE who is currently based in Washington, D.C., also works toward CIRCLE’s mission of focusing on real-world implications and using research to bring about a greater good.

“We want to make sure that a) our research is informed by what’s happening on the ground and by the people who are working directly with young people, and b) we want our research to actually be used,” she said. “We all have contacts with folks who are working on the ground, and one of my specific roles is to make sure that we have ongoing relationships with youth groups, with national organizations who are doing work across the country, as well as my colleagues [who] have great relationships with folks in Boston and Massachusetts.”

Kiesa added that CIRCLE’s research aims to inform the community about government policy.

“We’re definitely trying to do research that illuminates the effect of policy, as well as providing information for people who are looking at possible policy impacts or policy solutions, and what the potential effect of those could be,” she said.

CIRCLE often engages with other areas of the university, working alongside professors whose research relates to the topics on which they work.

“[There are] a lot of people here who are good colleagues for us, who care about things that we care about and we can learn from,” Levine said. “It is the administration, but it’s also a bunch of faculty. There are some strong people here doing some things that are relevant to our work.”

Kawashima-Ginsberg commented on the symbiotic relationship between CIRCLE and the Tufts faculty.

“[The] Tufts faculty does incredible work, and many of them really change the world, and I think we should all be really proud of that,” she said. “At the same time, I think we bring something to their work sometimes … When they do, for example, hard-core science work that has the purpose [of advancing the] greater good…[CIRCLE is] able to bring in…whatever larger meaning their work entails, [and] that’s a significant thing for them sometimes.”

Kawashima-Ginsberg believes that CIRCLE’s mission is not only reflected by Tisch College, but also by the Tufts community in general, as both institutions try to promote civic values among young people.

“President Monaco talks about [it on the] first day: ‘If nothing else, vote,’ which is fantastic, and that’s really the reflection of the Tufts spirit,” she said. “[It’s] an active campus, and it’s really revered across the country about how active it is.”