TG: Tackling the Long-Tail Problem of Youth Civic Engagement

It is our observation that community-driven innovation and engagement among youth exhibit a “long-tail problem” ( In other words, there are very few young people who are actively and intensely engaged in problem-solving in the civic space around them.  Most young people fall somewhere along the “long tail” of engagement -- with a moderate proportion engaged minimally and a much larger group relatively unengaged. There are a number of reasons for this lack of engagement: personal, historical, institutional, technological, and the paradox of choice among them.  These reasons play themselves out in multiple and different ways at various points along the tail.


The thesis of this panel would be simple, but rich: that a) we should want young people to shape the realities they seek in the communities around them, and that b) there are a variety of interventions that can enable young people, wherever they are on the tail, to do so.


The panel would start with an overview: what precisely is the “long tail problem” of youth civic engagement?  A general framing would describe how the long tail problem manifests in society and economy, and apply the framework to youth engagement.  Panelists would then describe their own thesis of the “problem” that motivated their related work, situating and describing an archetypical young person he/she is trying to target along the tail.  Presenting a “solution” they have put forward to resolve these problems, panelists would specify what it is about this solution that moves young people to higher engagement, and why this greater engagement is a good thing for the world around them.  Specifically, panelists would offer their work in the following realms: community benefits projects among justice-involved youth in Harlem, maker-innovation camps among young inventors in Sierra Leone, visioning labs to ignite the talents and passions of the millennial generation, and voting registration improvements that aim to be as easy as renting a DVD from Netflix.


The moderator would then stimulate Q&A from the audience on such questions as: 

  • Must all solutions be sustainable and scalable - or are they relevant and important in their bespoke, or unique nature? 
  • To what extent do these solutions build trust, empathy, and collaboration among civic actors?  And need they do that? 
  • How are young people re-imagining their own realities by engaging civically? 
  • To what end digital technology?  For what purposes? Always? 
  • Under what circumstances is being plugged into local-level innovation and engagement processes useful?  -Are they existent everywhere and, if not, why?  
  • Can national-level processes or online processes suffice where offline, local ecosystems are not established? 
  • What kind of partnerships successfully promote youth engagement?  To which kinds of partnerships have we turned a blind eye? 
  • Is there actually a way to increase the area under the curve?  In other words, if there will always be a long tail of civic engagement, is there some minimal level of civic engagement that would be beneficial to youth and society?
Kate Kontriris
Chris Watler
Priya Parker
David Sengeh
Seth Flaxman
Discussant: Kate Kontriris