Bridging divides: Penn State, Delta program partnership inspires youth activism

Amy Duke
July 20, 2020

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Inspiring young people to be catalysts for change within their communities was the centerpiece of a unique collaboration between faculty and students in Penn State’s College of Agricultural Sciences and the State College Area School District.

Penn State graduate students in an advanced course, titled “Applied Youth, Family and Community Education 535: Youth Civic Development,” served as civic engagement mentors to middle- and high-school students in “Bridging Divides: Exploring Diversity and Social Justice,” a class offered through the district’s Delta program.

Both courses offer students opportunities to connect with people whose perspectives and lived experiences may differ from their own, and to consider issues of diversity and social justice that impact their communities, explained course instructor Nicole Webster, associate professor of youth and international development at Penn State.

“All people should feel valued and included and have their opinions matter, especially young people, who are the future,” said Webster, whose research focuses on the role of youth in civic engagement and social change, especially in marginalized communities of color in the global setting.

“Youth need mentors to guide them and provide the self-confidence and knowledge they need to find solutions to problems that impact them and their communities," Webster added. "We were pleased to be invited to support the district and its students on this important and very timely initiative."

First offered last fall, “Bridging Divides” encourages middle- and high-school students to turn their learning and questions about social justice into action through a civic-action project that helps to bridge a divide or remedy a problem within their school, community or nation, according to Delta teachers Lorraine McGarry and Virginia Squier.

“Our students are constantly ‘plugged in’ to what is going on in the world, and they are very concerned,” McGarry said. “They see and experience injustice all around them, but they do not always understand the broader context or know how to respond.”

Civic engagement work, she pointed out, not only helps students understand the structures and systems that perpetuate injustice but also provides the opportunity to study those who have worked to effect change through their individual and collective actions and the tools and processes they have used.

“Civic engagement work responds to students’ authentic concerns and needs, while also helping them develop the understanding, skills, agency and community connections to address them,” she said.

Helping students make connections were Penn State students Mallen Marlowe, Darius Williams-McKenzie, Halima Gbaguidi and Kaila Thorn, who joined the program in January.

The graduate students led workgroups based on the themes of education, health, identity and justice. They engaged the secondary students in conversations on these issues and helped the young activists to develop their civic-action project goals.

Bridging Divides two

Halima Gbaguidi, a Penn State graduate student, facilitated a group discussion with Delta program students earlier this year. The photo was taken prior to COVID-19 mitigation mandates.

IMAGE: SCASD/Delta program

Marlowe, a doctoral candidate in agricultural and extension education, said interacting with the Delta students allowed him to better understand the implications of policy and its effects on youth who can’t vote or make a difference by traditional civic engagement means. It also made him feel more connected to the local community surrounding Penn State.

“Classes such as ‘Applied Youth, Family and Community Education 535’ and ‘Bridging Divides’ are essential for youth development and engagement professionals not only to remain cognizant of the issues important to youth, but also to critically examine what methods and best practices are effective in facilitating learning in diverse youth populations,” Marlowe said.

In March, the coronavirus pandemic derailed the students’ face-to-face interactions and a planned field trip to Charlottesville, Virginia, for a forum on race, equity and social justice with community leaders, public officials and other stakeholders.

What COVID-19 did not stop was the students’ commitment. Zoom meetings and online research enabled them to complete their projects, which explored topics such as food sustainability, the death penalty, LGBTQ rights and more.

One student group took an in-depth look at the criminal justice system and mass incarceration in Pennsylvania. The students’ research outlined data on Pennsylvania's prison and jail populations, as well as the number of people on probation and parole, the commonwealth’s “Three Strikes Law,” prison policies and prison reform. The project inspired the students to write a letter to Gov. Tom Wolf and state legislators about their findings and concerns.

Seria Chatters-Smith, director of equity and inclusivity for the State College Area School District, contends that a key component to social justice is understanding the systems in which an advocate is embedded, such as the educational system, to gain a better understanding of how to make it more just.

“Sometimes students do not see or understand the ‘why’ behind their work,” she said. “These types of civic engagement activities send a clearer message of the meaning of the work we do. Students get to see, feel and engage in the real impact of their work, which we hope will motivate them to continue, even during tough times.”

(Media Contacts)

Last Updated July 20, 2020