Program Profile: Gary Comer Youth Center 21st CCLC Promotes Civic Engagement through Afterschool Enrichment

Civic engagement and youth leadership are central to the Gary Comer Youth Center’s mission. All programs, including the 21st CCLC program, focus on academics, enrichment, and college and career readiness; however, the Gary Comer Youth Center team knows student civic engagement supports their success in these areas. To help students develop these important skills and experiences, the 21st CCLC program team works with community partners and also integrates civic engagement into other enrichment activities.   

Through Gary Comer Youth Center’s partnership with Embarc, students have learned about Chicago’s diverse communities and cultures. Students have visited different neighborhoods and communities, met local leaders, and explored neighborhood institutions such as community-based organizations, civic organizations, and museums. These encounters help students recognize each neighborhood’s unique strengths and challenges while also realizing they have shared experiences. “Our goal is to break down some of the barriers that exist in Chicago so students can see what they have in common with youth in other neighborhoods,” says Fredricka Holloway, the 21st CCLC’s project director. “We want them to see how by working together [with other neighborhoods], they can address some of the challenges their community faces.” 

The City of Chicago’s Chicagobility program is another community resource that the Gary Comer Youth Center has leveraged to expose students to local government and civic institutions. Part of the city’s youth employment initiative, Chicagobility is a citywide program for youth ages 14–15 that uses project-based learning to support career exploration, self-discovery, self-awareness, and the development of career skills. Through the program, Gary Comer Youth Center youth participated in several community service activities, including a beach cleanup. Students also learned about Chicago’s government institutions and went to city hall to attend one of the city’s monthly meetings led by Mayor Lori E. Lightfoot, who took office in May 2019. Chicagobility “helped students better understand some of the things they learn in school about national and local government institutions, as well as events that they see on the news,” notes Holloway. 

In addition to these engagement activities, Gary Comer Youth Center also integrates civic participation and leadership into its 21st CCLC enrichment activities. For example, the organization has an urban agriculture department that includes a rooftop garden and an urban farm. In addition to mastering the basics of agriculture, students are learning about important issues in their community. The neighborhood where Gary Comer Youth Center is located is considered a food desert, an area where it is difficult for people to buy affordable or fresh-quality food. Students have taken an interest in the issue and are exploring ways to address this challenge. Twice a week, students host a farmers’ market in front of the Gary Comer Youth Center headquarters. The market includes the sale of fresh produce, which is a rare occurrence in their neighborhood. Students also donate some of the harvest to local organizations that provide meals to community members who cannot afford healthy meals. 

Students are also exploring other ways they can engage with their community and make fresh, affordable food available in their neighborhood. For example, students who are participating in the 21st CCLC’s business enrichment activities are researching how to open a grocery store that provides healthy produce at affordable prices so their neighbors would not have to go downtown to buy food. Although the students are still in the planning stages, they are learning how to research community challenges and propose solutions. 

To help students become engaged and empowered members of their community, the 21st CCLC provides opportunities for youth to develop and apply leadership skills. This includes job-readiness programs like Peacemakers, where students in grades 10–12 learn to plan and implement enrichment activities for young people. Peacemakers participants create and facilitate youth games, activities, and team-building strategies, and they assist on field trips and with classroom management. They also learn conflict resolution skills and how to apply them in their community. 

In addition to programs such as Peacemakers, Gary Comer Youth Center has a youth advisory board that lets youth leaders give input on programming. The 21st CCLC team notes that youth “voice and choice,” a must for afterschool programs serving adolescents, has helped with student engagement. “We tell them, ‘we’re building this with you, not for you,’” says Holloway. She also stresses that although the organization values youth leadership and input, the team is careful not to overwhelm students. They expose students to opportunities to learn about their community, develop skills, and apply what they have learned in a supportive environment. 

Building the capacity of the adults who support the program is also an important part of the 21st CCLC’s success. The Gary Comer Youth Center team hosts monthly lunch-and-learns for staff and invites community partners who work in the area of civic engagement to present. Staff have the opportunity to learn about these organizations, community issues, and strategies for community engagement. 

The Gary Comer Youth Center 21st CCLC sees civic engagement as a natural way for youth to lead and prepare to be contributing members of society. “We recognize that a lot of movements that have created change were started by young people because of their passion, their energy, their young ideas and way of seeing the world,” says Holloway. “Even though they can’t vote now, . . . they can use their voice and talent to create awareness and express . . . how they want to see their future world.”