A May 16, 2016 NPR article proclaims millennials to be a rival political force to baby boomers — each generation makes up about 31 percent of the overall electorate. Political potential, however, is distinct from political influence — the same article notes that millennials “have the lowest voter turnout of any age group.”
However, with the help of a new tool created by the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement (CIRCLE) at the Jonathan M. Tisch College of Civic Life, civic organizations can be better equipped to engage youth in becoming active citizens in their community.
The tool, known as the Reaching All Youth Strengthens Engagement (RAYSE) Index, was created in 2016 and provides organizations and other interested parties with data on factors affecting youth civic engagement, according to CIRCLE Director of Impact Abby Kiesa.
CIRCLE Director Kei Kawashima-Ginsberg explained that the main purpose of the index is to help organizations identify and target the inequalities in levels of civic knowledge and participation between youths of different groups, as a means of equalizing opportunities for civic engagement.
Kawashima-Ginsberg explained that part of the goal was to help policymakers and practitioners on the ground identify gaps in resources.
Users who visit the RAYSE Index’s website are greeted by a comprehensive display that lists counties, each with five indices: education, close elections, potential youth influence on elections, quality of life and community civic culture.
Kiesa explained that in order to create the index, existing data on youth demographics and youth civic engagement were analyzed and applied to a theoretical model created by CIRCLE specifically for RAYSE.
“One of the things it was really exciting for our staff to do was come up with this model that is the basis for the RAYSE Index,” Kiesa said. “It’s based on what we know about youth civic engagement from the research about the conditions in our communities that supports youth civic engagement. We broke that down into five areas and then looked for indicators in each of those areas.”
Each county has an indicator of whether each of the five conditions has a low, medium or high potential for increasing youth civic engagement. In addition to the five indices, users can narrow their search for counties by selecting criteria such as electoral history, poverty level and youth turnout.
As part of the team behind creating the index, Kawashima-Ginsberg mapped out a method to measure and categorize data in the five domains.
“For each of these indices there were a couple of different ways, in some of them — community civic culture, quality of life, and education — they were a standardized score, so they’re essentially how far above or below the median each community is based on a number of indicators that go into that,” Kawashima-Ginsberg told the Daily in an email. “With others though, like the election index and potential youth influence on elections … I counted a score, so it’s an addition of that score, so high low medium are defined by where they are on that spectrum, so it’s a little bit different.”
The “high, medium and low” index ratings are defined by where each country falls on each spectrum.
According to the interactive online RAYSE index, Medford’s own Middlesex County is scored as “high” on the community civic culture, quality of life and education indices, but rated as “low” under the close elections index and youth influence on elections index.
Kiesa noted that the RAYSE Index is unique in presenting its users with highly specific county-level data on civic engagement.
“Practitioners across the country are looking for as much specific data as they can find,” she said. “The reality is that when you look at state data, it’s great because of huge differences between states, but within states there’s a great deal of difference as well, so we’re trying to look at a series of ways to think about strategies.”
Recognizing that practice and research must go hand-in-hand, CIRCLE is encouraging its partners to use the RAYSE Index to better facilitate discussion on local issues and encourage youth aged 18 to 29 to make their voices heard in political discourse, according to Kiesa.
While highlighting that the index’s data can be applied to many situations, Kawashima-Ginsberg emphasized that the index is simply one source of data among many.
“It’s a tool for problem solving, not a conclusive statement about a community and how well they’re doing,” Kawashima-Ginsberg said. “I think where it really comes alive is when we actually talk to community advocates and leaders who know the community well.”
According to Peter Levine, associate dean for research and Lincoln Filene professor of citizenship and public affairs at Tisch College, one obstacle that community leaders face when trying to mobilize youth is the lack of institutional strength.
“One relative deficit today compared to the past is that we have weaker ‘asking’ organizations,” Levine, CIRCLE’s former director, said. “We used to have unions, churches and political parties that would reach out to a lot of people to ask and encourage to participate, and those three are all weaker than they were.”
Levine noted that the availability of specific data, like what the RAYSE Index provides, can help bridge the gap between youth and civic organizations.
“The kinds of players that have resources to invest in young people need to know where to invest,” Levine said. “If you’re a political party, you need to know where to put dollars into driving up turnout to help your candidate. If you’re a national environmental movement, you need to know where young people are, and we are trying to give people the data they need to make those decisions.”
While the data presented by the RAYSE Index has a large impact on how organizations can approach youth engagement, Kiesa explained that there remains a vast amount of untapped potential in the field of civic engagement research.
“We see research as an ongoing conversation and process with our partners and other stakeholders,” Kiesa said. “It’s really about getting ideas and understanding what the field might need and then trying to figure out how we might contribute to that.”