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"It’s Already Happening": Learning From Civically Engaged Transnational Immigrant Youth

by Michelle G. Knight-Manuel - 2011

Background/Context: This essay is part of a special issue that emerges from a year-long faculty seminar at Teachers College, Columbia University. The seminar's purpose has been to examine in fresh terms the nexus of globalization, education, and citizenship. Participants come from diverse fields of research and practice, among them art education, comparative education, curriculum and teaching, language studies, philosophy of education, social studies, and technology. They bring to the table different scholarly frameworks drawn from the social sciences and humanities. They accepted invitations to participate because of their respective research interests, all of which touch on education in a globalized world. They were also intrigued by an all-too-rare opportunity to study in seminar conditions with colleagues from different fields, with whom they might otherwise never interact given the harried conditions of university life today. Participants found the seminar generative in terms of ideas about globalization, education, and citizenship. Participants also appreciated what, for them, became a novel and rich occasion for professional and personal growth.

Purpose/Objective/Research Question/Focus of Study: The goal of this paper is to open up a dialogic space where educators can learn from and with transnational immigrant youth who are already participating in civic learning opportunities as local and global citizens in and beyond the sphere of schools. Drawing on data from two qualitative research studies, I discuss the global lifestyle and civic engagement of Kwame, one transnational immigrant youth, who lives in New York and maintains close ties to Africa. The relationship between his transnational immigrant identity and civic engagement provide insights into how he is constructing, negotiating, and contesting citizenship norms, K–16 civic learning opportunities, and new technologies of civic engagement for the betterment of diverse democratic societies.

Conclusion/Recommendations: The author argues that, in the midst of contentious debates on immigration and (mis)representations of immigrants in the media, dialogic spaces between and among educators and transnational immigrant youth can be created to grapple with notions of globalization, education, and citizenship. Moreover, as schools also serve as public civic space, educators can focus on engaging transnational immigrant youth’s daily experiences and knowledge in the curriculum. In so doing, the curriculum opens up opportunities for teachers and students to dialogue and learn about what is already happening with youth to further encourage, motivate, and sustain youth’s civic engagement at local, national, and global levels. Such learning carries the potential of a diverse action-oriented educated citizenry committed to human rights in a globalized world.

When they wrote the Constitution and the declaration about “We the people of the United States,” they didn’t say, “We the White people of the United States, We the Black people.” They just said, “We the people.” And I think you could be a citizen or not a citizen, as long as you live within the borders . . . of the United States, you are part of “We the people.” Maybe you can’t vote, but you can engage some way to make sure that dream of “We the people,” “to perfect this union,” because obviously there must be something about America that brought you here for good or bad. And when you’re here, you’ve got to contribute to making sure that you perfect that union, because nobody’s really from America essentially. That’s what I am always reminding people of. The forefathers who were here in America, their parents came. John Adams, I was just reading a biography about him, his parents came from India—they went to escape persecution. They were Puritans. So that’s their reason for coming to America, so maybe John Adams owed it to his parents for coming. Just like I owe it to my parents and those who were caught [during slavery] to give me the rights that at times I take for granted and a lot of people do all the time. So I definitely want to contribute to America. And to Ghana as well.

–Kwame, an American Ghanaian transnational youth

The excerpt is a poignant example of how Kwame’s identity as an American Ghanian transnational youth undergirds his notions of civic engagement. I am reminded of the past, present, and future of America as he forthrightly discussed how immigrants belong to this country whether they are citizens or not, the necessity of immigrants of today and every yesterday to contribute to America and their home countries. This historical continuity of immigrants belonging in America is highlighted as he talked about John Adams, the son of immigrants who traveled between America and India. And even though Kwame does not often get to travel back to Ghana, his country of origin, he maintains civic involvement across the Atlantic Ocean and into Africa as part of a global citizenry.

Kwame1 and I have known each other since his days as a freshman in high school when he was a participant in a 4-year research study about who and what was influencing him as a high school student to go to college. We had sporadically kept in touch while he was in college, and then reconnected again when I decided to conduct a study about how African immigrants define and understand their civic life. With the same enthusiasm and seriousness that I remembered from his high school days, he and I have had several conversations about what it is to be an African, an African immigrant, and an African American living in these contested, yet hopeful, times in the United States. For, during the times of our conversations, we have lived through the devastation of 9/11, the resulting global restrictions on standards of immigration, witnessed the United States war against Afghanistan and Iraq, listened to the global debates of genocide or civil war arguments of the millions dead in Darfur, grappled with the continued racism in the United States through Hurricane Katrina, and celebrated the election of an African American president in the United States. And now, we grapple with transnationalism and civic responsibility. This grappling takes place amidst conversations on the contentious debates on immigration, (mis)representations of all immigrants in the media, and policies designed to limit access and possibilities for transnational immigrant youth living in a time of global interdependence. Our conversations have served as a dialogic space of civic engagement for each of us, as I hope this essay will do for its readers, to raise questions, share experiences, and think about necessary actions and innovations to move beyond the current negative media focus on immigrants to what we can learn form transnational immigrant youth and how they are shaping and being shaped by living in a globalized society.

I fear the America that both Kwame and I live in may lose out on learning how to provide new opportunities for the United States to encourage, support, and sustain immigrant and natural-born youth’s civic engagement if we are not able to listen and hear their stories. During this period of globalization with unprecedented levels of immigrants entering the United States, 70 million people in the United States are either immigrants (foreign-born) or children of immigrants and one out of five children in K–12 schools are children of immigrants (Suarez-Orozco, Suarez-Orozco, & Todorova, 2008). The numbers of immigrants and the realities of their civic contributions to American society were not a visible aspect of my growing up in a small town in Pennsylvania in the 1970s–1980s. Rather, during this time, many small towns across America were struggling with the tension and inequities regarding the academic achievement of African Americans. Indeed, centering the voices of African American youth in research has been at the forefront of my research as well as more recent school reform efforts to address how schools can support African American youth’s academic success, cultural identities, and sociopolitical consciousness (Knight-Diop, 2010; Oesterreich, 2007).

Now, the changing demographic landscape of immigrant populations in the last two decades calls me to evaluate the centering of their voices into possibilities for education. Transnational immigrant youth reside not only in major cities in New York and California but also in small towns in Pennsylvania, North Carolina, and Wisconsin. How do educators support transnational immigrants’ civic engagement? What contextual factors influence the degree to which civic learning opportunities play a role? How do we understand what it means for them as members of “we the people who seek to create a more perfect union” to be both an American citizen and a global citizen? Similar to my earlier research that stemmed from my lived realities in a small town in Pennsylvania, watching the changing demographics of this nation and the waves of anti-immigrant practices urges me to ensure we are listening to the daily realities of transnational immigrant youth. Toward this end, we deepen our understandings of, and build on the potential of civically engaging all youth in and beyond K–16 schools as informed and active members of a global community.

In this essay, I discuss notions of civic engagement that are already taking place in the daily life of one transnational immigrant youth, Kwame, who resides in the United States and maintains close ties to Africa. His life renders visible how transnational youth (a) construct, negotiate, and contest notions of civic engagement and (b) are civically engaged within and across varied learning contexts. His notions of civic engagement reveal multiple forms and allegiances that are flexible and relational (Mitchell & Parker, 2008). I draw on the varied contexts of learning for constructing civic engagement through the relationship that Kwame and I have shared over the years and his participation in two research studies with me. I am moved to share composite narratives focusing on three of his life contexts—birth, schooling, and the Internet—to explore notions of citizenship, globalization, and education. These learning contexts provide insight into how he, as a 23-year-old naturalized citizen, has helped me understand the need for each of us to learn from transnational immigrant youth and how they are making sense of their civic life.


Kwame was born in 1986 in Kahmi, Ghana, and grew up speaking Twi and English at home and school. Although his father and mother emigrated to the United States in the late 1960s and early 1990s, respectively, Kwame lived with his grandmother in Ghana until he was 10 years old. Kwame sees himself as a citizen of both Ghana and America, and he embodies strong allegiances and attachments to both countries. This connection to both countries as a transnational immigrant has resonated with me as an educator who has always felt that I had much to learn from my work with Latina/o and Asian immigrant students from Guatemala, Mexico, El Salvador, the Dominican Republic, Laos, and Vietnam who also straddled allegiances to America and their countries of origin.

Kwame breathes at least two nations in his everydayness, and it is apparent how his transnational identity mediates his civic involvement. His conversation first moves in and out of his negotiations to identify as a citizen of two countries as part of his past, present, and future as well as decisions to give back to both countries amidst constraints that others might impose upon him to choose allegiance to one country over the other.  Kwame observed:

I’m a dual citizen of U.S. and Ghana. I could participate in political life in both countries. But I live here now [in the United States] . . . so it’s hard for me obviously to participate in civic life in Ghana. But how do I see myself as a citizen or as a person of both countries . . . I guess being Ghanaian will never leave me, obviously. It will always be with me and my kids, when I have one someday, and being American is who I am now, I feel, because my understanding, the way I see the world, the way I see the world is Ghanaian, is Ghanaian but American made. What I mean is that, okay, my parents obviously, their perception of how they grew up in Ghana, what stories their parents told them about having to work hard for everything, they kind of like brought that with them to America. So there’s that Ghanaian aspect of it, but they’re doing it in America. So it’s like they’re applying an African idea to an American setting . . . I find it’s really hard to reconcile the two because it’s like, like my friend put it this way, he put it delicately. He said, You’re a soccer player. Let’s say Ghana and the United States call you up to play for one of them in the World Cup. Which I imagine you want to do because you’re a dual citizen. Which country would you choose? . . . I took the easy way out. I said whichever one calls first, that means they want me more. I’d be happy to wear the colors of both.

Kwame’s allegiance to both countries will come as no surprise to many familiar with the global World Cup soccer tournament that takes place every 4 years. Within this tournament and the global competition is a unique understanding of how national teams can consist of representatives from multiple countries, thereby engendering multiple allegiances around the world. For example, the 2010 German team included Ghanaians and when the Ghanaian team lost, some Ghanaians were willing to switch their allegiance to the German team. More than 700 million people watched the World Cup in comparison to the American Super Bowl, which recently garnered 106 million viewers (Carlin, 2010). These global games teach us about the cultural flexibility needed to understand how multiple allegiances can be formed and engaged.

Specifically, Kwame’s transnational identity shapes his way of living and interacting with others in the world. His shifting multiple loyalties within the World Cup portend how he also responds fluidly to a sense of belonging to two or more cultural communities simultaneously and what it means to negotiate these attachments and transcend nation-state boundaries as a global citizen.

Upon further reflection on being asked to choose between Ghana and the United States, Kwame said:

But I guess that’s me taking like the easy way out, but really there was no easy answer to it, because it’s a hard question. Like it’s like choosing between your father and your mother . . . You love them both the same and you would do anything you can for both of them, they are equally the same. But if you had to choose one of them, how do you choose one? It’s not easy. It’s not really something like I could really give you a definite answer because I feel like they both shaped my existence and I owe a great debt to both of them, to Ghana and to the United States. To Ghana, for obviously giving birth to me, giving me life essentially, and shaping my worldview because that was my initial worldview, from Ghana. And the U.S., for kind of like furbishing and polishing that worldview and giving me many opportunities that I maybe wouldn’t have gotten had I lived in Ghana. So it’s really hard to choose between both. But I feel like a citizen, I’m a citizen of both.

Kwame’s reflections open up what transnational youth can teach us about their complex, multiple, shifting identities and how they shape the youth’s lives and choices. His reflections have resounded within me time and time again over the years, and each time they dance through my memory and my sense of who I am as an American. I become aware of how his transnational identities have created a dual citizen who has multiple obligations and allegiances. Although I was born in England to U.S. citizens stationed in the military, I had to choose at 18 whether I wanted American or British citizenship. It was never a question as to which one I would choose—American was the obvious answer. However, Kwame’s narrative allows me to better understand the pressures and his resistance to choosing allegiance to one country, in a way that I have never have had to grapple with in my lifetime. Moreover, his sense of “feel[ing] like a citizen of two countries” also moves beyond notions of citizenship that focus on legal status and regulations to understanding the tremendous emotional significance a sense of belonging has for people. How do we, those of us who are long-term multigenerational residents, learn from this “feeling” of citizenship? Does it point to a mature emotional relation to living in a nation-state with ties to a diverse globalized society? Transnational immigrant youth require us to broaden current conceptualizations of citizenship and allegiance to one country and what civic life entails.

While little research has examined youth civic engagement from the vantage point of the birth of transnational immigrant youth (Stepick & Stepick, 2002), the development of learning and civic engagement in high schools has garnered more attention (Rubin, 2007; Torney-Purta, 2002). In many instances, educators are concerned with how civic education can be improved to enable students to form allegiances and attachment to America only. Kwame provides insight into how youth’s civic involvement also needs to be framed beyond restrictive nationalism to the fluid borders and boundaries of global citizenship.


As a teacher educator, former middle school teacher, and high school college counselor, I am struck by the hope that K–16 schooling experiences can provide learning opportunities which promote and sustain youth’s civic commitment and engagement. Kwame’s transnational commitment to being a global citizen strikes me as being at the center of that hope of addressing societal issues such as homelessness and AIDS. While Kwame consistently praised the caring teachers he had and how they supported his learning, he attributes some of his civic awareness to a teacher, Ms. Connor. She took her students to the 92nd Street Y in New York City to hear August Wilson, a famous Black American playwright. Kwame described how his experience of meeting August Wilson impacted the young man’s (non)participation in civic affairs in his high school and college:

August Wilson first gave a little overview of who he is just in case someone was there and didn’t know, and he just talked a little bit. Then we just kept asking questions, and he was very like forthright. I remember him just telling us about we owe, we owe something to this world to give back in some kind of way. I guess it got us like all thinking. Like, okay, here’s August Wilson, he’s a Pulitzer Prize–winning author. Some of his stuff has been Broadway shows and movies, and he’s sitting right in front of you telling you this. You know, I was 17 at the time.


After that talk, many of the students went back and started a club, ARISE, in which they did a lot of fund-raising. Most of the students would just go on a walk, just like a civic aspect of it, just donating money for breast cancer and all that stuff. However . . . after a few meetings I realized that I couldn’t do it as it was poorly run and more about egos. Although it was a transnational organization, I knew that I could just find other ways to be civically engaged because to them they did all those kinds of stuff not out of the willingness of their heart. It was always like a competition, and it defeated all the purposes of it being a society that come together as one to reach our common goals. To me, that’s my definition of society. And it doesn’t do that, so I couldn’t really like join them.

Kwame’s high school experiences raise questions as to what kind of civic learning opportunities motivate youth to take action (or not). What factors motivated Kwame to initially become civically engaged? One teacher proves influential in providing the opportunity for students to meet with a writer whose work focuses on human rights for African Americans. After this out-of-class civic experience, Kwame and his peers are motivated to heed August’s Wilson’s call to give back and become civically involved when they return to school. Yet how youth respond to the “call” depends on a multitude of factors. Are they motivated by challenge? By competition? By pity? By responsibility? By being a person who has something to give? By “feeling” like they make a difference and/or actually “seeing” how they make a difference? Do they focus on causes connected to their nations of residency? Do they reach out across national borders to impact global issues and concerns? Kwame’s involvement is not sustained as his conceptualization of meaningful civic engagement is not realized. His disengagement from the organization requires us to ask what are the goals of civic engagement in a society and what type of learning opportunities supports those goals.

The tensions between differing views of what it means to be a citizen who is civically engaged for the betterment of society and the conception of education needed to support such social aims have been debated over the years (Banks, 2008; Dewey, 1916). On the one hand, Kwame’s notions of meaningful civic engagement did not create a sense of belonging for him with his peers, but rather a serious disconnect. This disconnect demonstrates youth’s contested motivations, understandings, and aims of what it means to be part of a civic community working on social concerns. He shied away from the necessity of community involvement needing to be competitive and based on self-interest. His understandings and aims of society are not bound by the borders of a state or a nation or a geographical boundary but by a set of common goals. Perhaps it is his transnational commitments and sense of belonging to Ghana and the United States that allow him to not negate differences but see the commonness that can occur when people can come together in a spirit of giving for common good of what is necessary for society to flourish.

On the other hand, a “competitive” spirit may engender different notions of what it means to be civically engaged. Kwame’s questioning of civic responsibility being simply about “giving” of time and money and measurable enough that it can be competitive is reminiscent of many of our school days, I am sure. Do you remember having competitions between the grade levels to see which class would be the “winner” of the canned food drive by bringing in the most cans of food? While it was engagement designed to assist the community, I recognize now that the goal may or may not have been at the “heart” of giving to help people, but rather on the competition. Does Kwame’s lack of desire to be involved in civic responsibility connected to competition challenge the American ideal that people are driven only by competition? And if so, what would civic engagement and responsibility look like in schools if competition or notions of our own self-interest did not frequently lie at the center of it? Did his transnational identity play a role in sense of belonging to and wanting to contribute to the larger society as a high school student?

Kwame’s high school narrative challenges the intentionality of civic involvement for youth, what “giving back” means, and the conditions necessary for youth to remain engaged. How can schools “contribute to youth getting out of civic engagement what they want or expect out of it” (Sherrod, Flanagan, & Youniss, 2007, p. 270)? Specifically, I question how educators might play a more critical agenic role in creating learning opportunities that may not reconcile but rather facilitate and support diverse youth’s understandings of civic engagement and the “call to give back” to society.

While the “call to give back” was not realized in Kwame’s high school experiences, the image and the call of August Wilson remained with Kwame. The echoes of this philosophy of “giving back” were supported through involvement in youth conferences at the college level. He was able to connect with his “heart” to support common goals for his communities, broadly defined, such as providing enough food for people and housing opportunities. Kwame observed:

What August Wilson told me stuck with me as I got to college . . . I actually got more into it. I became more civically engaged in college through a conference I participated in during my first semester at college . . . I went to Baltimore for a conference about homelessness and hunger, and I was there for 4 days at the university. We just went to different workshops, and that was the first time I heard about Darfur and all these other kinds of issues: AIDS, homelessness, the inner city, how much Congress actually spends on it. Then I came back to my campus and helped to plan a homeless and hunger week. I helped draft a letter. I wrote it, and we sent it. We asked the congressman in the city to pay more attention to hunger and homelessness in lieu of what he was doing. We wanted more congressional spending on hunger and homelessness, because it’s a national issue, not just a big city issue. One of the administrators who worked at the university told me that when he was in college, he interned for a congressman in DC, and he talked about how effective a tool sending a letter was. We got people to sign it so we could send it to the congressman, and it was another way for people in the county to get their voices heard. We also got the school president on board, faculty, students, as many people as we could.

Unlike his high school experiences, Kwame’s college conference experiences highlight how youth conferences serve as civic learning opportunities (Pancer, Rose-Krasnor, & Loiselle, 2007). The conference provided Kwame’s first exposure to societal concerns related to homelessness and its global connections to AIDS, Darfur, and inequitable funding across ZIP codes and neighborhoods in urban cities. This increased awareness motivated his own civic participation on campus, which may seem similar to what occurred with August Wilson’s talk and the resulting development of ARISE, but it was actually quite different. The conference did more than just challenge Kwame to act; it provided specific tools for him to utilize for civic action. When he returned to his home campus in New Jersey, he became immediately involved in decision-making structures around the issue of homelessness and hunger that brought together the college campus, the surrounding community, and the government to provide services that better met the needs of varied communities. However, the relationship between his transnational identity and action taken on behalf of a global society is revealed in his civic participation in the Model UN Conferences for 4 years. He told me:

During all 4 years in college, I did all of the Model UN Conferences. I don’t know if you’re familiar with the Model UN, how it works. Essentially it’s two kinds. It’s the Harvard national Model UN, which is for college students. Then at my university, we have our own Model UN, which is for high school students . . . At the Model UN Conference, there are kids from Israel, Ghana, Senegal, Morocco, Venezuela, Brazil, Guatemala, Honduras, Angola, Italy, Germany . . . they’re also first-generation Americans, but their parents are from these countries. Everyone is assigned a country. You research that country’s stance on the issue that you’re given in light of the one of the 10 committees that you’re on such as Special Political and Economization Committee, the Security Council, the Legal Committee, and the Social and Humanitarian Committee. We serve as presidents of those committees, and then in March, we work with the high schools on their cases for their countries. As a member of the Special Political and Economization Committee, we were given two agenda topics. The first agenda topic was indigenous rights across the globe, and the second one was the political future of Iraq, and you get to vote which one you want to deal with first, and I guess this is a way that’s being civically engaged.

The Model UN Conference, a civic learning opportunity sponsored at the college level, brings together many first- and second-generation Americans to shape policies and practices pertaining to societal, economic, and human rights around the world. It appears to do what Kwame was looking for in his high school civic engagement in ARISE by focusing on “common goals” upon which diverse countries find it necessary to converge. Yet it is his involvement in the Model UN conference for high schools that speaks to the invisibility of human rights issues on a global level in the high school curriculum. This absence limits civic engagement to the ways participation is concerned about what already exists in the curriculum rather than broadening perspectives and spaces for civic engagement in global contexts. Hopefully, the opportunity for high school youth to discuss significant social issues could eventually result in compromises for the good of countries with different competing views on a topic such as nuclear proliferation or AIDS. If this type of possibility had existed for Kwame when he was in high school, perhaps it could have provided opportunities for someone like him who was concerned with a sense of social responsibility for the good of the larger society. In referring back to the curriculum of his own high school, Kwame stated:

In high school, you don’t learn about international political economy or global inequality, so we actually just help guide the discussion with the high school students. I always had an interest in the UN, but second, I felt like if I do this, I could help the high school students learn about the kind of problems that they are facing—that awaits them as they get ready for the next stage, which is at this college, but life as well.

Through the high school youth UN conference, Kwame feels “happy” that he is providing meaningful high school civic learning opportunities with other college students. Youth address community issues that they may not be aware of that will affect them and other youth as well. Moreover, notions of pleasure and joy associated with the daily life of global civic engagement that motivate youth to join certain activities are rarely discussed. Kwame highlighted for us how his pleasure in being civically involved takes front and center stage:  

I always feel that I’m older than them, so maybe that’s my way of just helping them out to see there are problems in this world that most people their age or most people at any age don’t really care to know. So I guess like that was really there for me, like once I felt all high school kids should maybe—whatever little bit I could contribute to them understanding kind of what they’re in, I’d be more than happy to. That was really the reason why I joined, that was really it for me. And I felt again that was part of my civic engagement, because again, I’ll take time out after school, during lunch, go to meetings, prepare, like it was a lot of like administration stuff. I joined because I believed in what I was doing, it was a civic cause because to help somebody get a greater understanding of the problems that affect us all, especially now since we live in such a globalized system, it’s very important. So yeah, that’s really why I joined it.

With so much focus on motivating and sustaining youth’s civic engagement, Kwame’s K–16 civic learning opportunities raise important issues. Kwame’s sustained participation in the youth conferences over 4 years in college reveal how the conferences supported and sustained his expressions of transnational identity, dual citizenship, and civic engagement. The structure of the homeless and Model UN youth conferences nurtured his civic development and participation as a college student in local and national issues related to homelessness and global affairs that take up human rights around the world to effect change. His own civic development as an engaged citizen is then further supported through his civic involvement with high school youth in which he serves as a facilitator to enable them to become informed citizens through discussion, debate, and understandings of human problems that they might never encounter, thereby moving beyond their own self interests to become committed to the well-being of others. The youth conferences highlight the type of engagement that Kwame was looking for in high school—one that would cross the borders of community, state, nation, and the world to address social concerns. His K–16 civic learning experiences call into question the curriculum needed in K–12 school. How can educators build on students’ transnational immigrant identities, sense of belonging to multiple communities, and opportunities for dialogue to maintain youth’s civic engagement?


We live in a world marked by the convergence of a digital age and a global age. As a professor, I am inundated with e-mails and provided instant access to research information and the ability to collaborate with colleagues across state and nation boundaries. Kwame lives as a member of the dotnet generation that has given rise to new forms of civic engagement (Bennet, 2008). However, controversial debates abound as to what constitutes civic engagement online and whether or not technological advances have actually served as an incentive to increase or decrease youth’s involvement in social causes. Thus, the emphasis on new technologies, globalization, and education raise a few pivotal questions: Who decides what constitutes online civic involvement? What role do youth play in this type of decision-making? And how does the intersection of transnational immigrant identities and technologies reveal new possibilities for youth civic participation in a global society? Kwame’s experiences, which may seem routine and typical to him as a transnational immigrant youth, provide a starting place for deeper examination and analysis.

Kwame expressed how he “can’t live without it [the Internet]” and mentioned how he “always feel[s] like every generation, you make do with what’s there, and fortunately for us, we have all these great resources available to us, and I believe the internet is one such resource.” The technological advances that permeate throughout Kwame’s life cannot be underestimated because they are instrumental in how some immigrant youth define their transnational practices. The Internet provides a way for Kwame to network with other youth across the world as well as access local, national, and global information.

Kwame gives a striking example of how access unfolds and impacts his connection to the world when he first began discussing “A Letter from Birmingham Jail”:

If the Internet wasn’t in front of me, I would have had to go home, to the library, and I’d have to look for it, and read it, probably couldn’t even take it home with me . . . But here I am, like right now I could just go to my phone and look up “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” and just read it. It makes things accessible, easier, and it makes it easier to connect and find out exactly what’s going on everywhere in the world. Not just America. Like BBC’s my home page when I log on to my computer, and it breaks it down: Africa, Europe, South Asia, the Americas—news from all corners of the world, anywhere you want news from, you could have, and that’s influential, especially as we become more and more globalized as a community. I believe we do need to know what’s going on, not just in a domestic capacity but everybody in this world, because what’s happening in India and China will affect me living in the South Bronx, even in the North Bronx in New York!

Technology allows for the influence of acts past and present to challenge how he constructs civic communities with people in multiple spheres of his life. Understanding the interrelated nature of the world from Africa to China to New York reveals ways transnational immigrant youth connect with the push of a button as a method of civic engagement.

New technologies, such as a blog, do more than serve as networking sites to keep Kwame in touch with friends in Africa and Canada and his coworkers who are immigrants. He also explained how his friends from other countries instant message (IM) him, send a text, or give him a call. Kwame translated how it works in conversations across multiple media:

Okay, Kwame, I heard this and I know you’re very into politics and all . . . so I would explain the [2008] election to them. And so that’s one way I felt I really like participated a lot. I found that I was explaining the electoral college a lot to a lot of people. Even when I went to Canada in May for my roommate’s friend’s wedding, and even over there, they were so interested in Obama. But they had no idea how the system in America works. So I remember one night, I had a whole group of people just sitting there and I was explaining [it] to them.

Both online interactive technology and face-to-face interaction with diverse communities provide Kwame with opportunities to sustain and extend democratic communicativeness (Dewey, 1916). Specifically, his reminiscence about what happened on election night in 2008 and the next morning highlight how his transnational identities, notions of democracy, and the role of technology interact as a living process of mutually shaping civic communication. Kwame observed:

One of my coworkers, Bill, sent a link to their blog and what the BBC was doing because of Obama. It seemed like the whole world, everybody, was in favor of Obama, which I’ve never seen this ever in any election, like just one leader . . . He’s just a nominee, a presidential candidate. The whole world, everybody, like the goodwill Obama is receiving right now is—I don’t think we’ll ever experience this in history for a long—not in my lifetime, I don’t foresee it. But about the link on our blog, you could click on a specific area of that country. So let’s say somebody in Germany wanted to click on the South Bronx, and could pinpoint exactly 125th Street, which is the street I live on, on that map, on the YouTube map. They see how many comments are coming from that area that he could read about the election the next morning. I clicked on the map. I was like, Let me see what people want in Ghana and Kumasi [are saying] . . . I went to the neighborhood I grew up on the map. I was just standing there like astonished. Bill just went to his neighborhood, he’s from Toronto, Canada, and he just pinpointed to his exact neighborhood, and there was 10 comments for that neighborhood. The girl across from me, Amy, she’s from Scotland, she points to a neighborhood in Edinburg, there it was. I was like, that’s really like—that’s technology at its finest, and the beautiful way in which you could use it to like connect everybody. Cause here we are, the night of the historic election, and you have not just Americans but the whole world [looking on].

Kwame’s excitement about his sense of belonging to a broader community through one worldwide political event is undeniable. His transnational immigrant identity is interwoven within a web of a larger interconnected communicative-based understanding of civic engagement and democracy. New technologies during this electoral event also revealed the overlapping, intersecting historic racial implications for the rights of minority groups in America and worldwide to be felt simultaneously. Kwame described in detail the hope of democracy worldwide:

I guess the racial challenges in America—and not just in America, like other countries as well, whatever racial problems they face, like would his election open the doors for like minority groups in every country? Because it could be a country, we all could be of the same race, but again, that ethnic breakdown, as you see, especially in Africa and Asia . . . like being a minority essentially, their hope is not restricted to just life at the bottom always, that you can rise up. And Obama always says the best stories in Improbable Journey, and how like a son of an immigrant from Kenya, whose grandfather was a cook [and] servant to the British, could one day become president of America. You know, that in itself is a story you thought you could only read about in books, but we’ve seen it right in front of us . . . one thing I noticed about this election, or why people never voted, especially if they’re like kids in the inner city, ’cause you always felt like, they’re not us, they don’t speak to us.

I am amazed and intrigued as I spend a tremendous amount of time online for work, but the power of this immediate connection to belonging to a global citizenship that Kwame speaks so passionately about as a transnational immigrant youth has not been at the heart of my online experiences. Kwame challenges me and offers all of us in a digital and global world three important insights into civic life both on- and offline. First, as an engaged citizen, he participated in one of the most conventional political forms of civic engagement—voting. However, his vote this time is qualitatively different as he believes it has the potential to impact a social concern on racial relations in America and the rest of the world. He believes his vote is a vote for the world and may influence minorities worldwide to believe in their possibilities for a better future. While my vote has always been solidly positioned as a Black woman deeply connected to standing with those who died for my right and the rights of others to vote in the United States, I have not thought of my vote as a world vote. Additionally, Kwame is also aware that the disposition of youth to be civically engaged has changed forms as a member of the digital age. The Internet has given Kwame opportunities to contribute civically and politically in local, national, and global spheres whether through discussions on IMs, the blog, the cell phone, or news websites such as the BBC. In essence, the use of these technologies for many youth have given rise to new forms of peer to peer sites that foster prosocial political action. Indeed, Kwame’s public communication spaces have afforded new opportunities to transcend time, space, and geographic boundaries for a diverse engaged global society to civically learn and participate together in the 21st century. Indeed, the convergence of the digital age and global age has opened up possibilities for youth to collectively connect and impact the world around a unifying human rights position.

Worldwide immigration and the increasing diversity of youth in the United States offer educators the opportunity to listen and learn from transnational immigrant youth’s complex lives, knowledge, and experiences. As a transnational immigrant youth, Kwame has developed a worldview of engaged civic life shaped by his notions of citizenship, sense of belonging to at least two nations, civic learning opportunities within and beyond K–16 schools, and new technological advances. His civic involvement is responsive to human rights in local, national, and global contexts. He is especially aware of disparities and inequities of social concerns such as for those who are homeless, those affected by the AIDS epidemic, and minorities throughout the world who hope for better lives in diverse democratic societies. As schools also serve as public civic space, educators can include transnational immigrant youth’s daily experiences and knowledge in the curriculum. In so doing, the curriculum opens up opportunities for teachers and students to dialogue and learn about what is already happening with youth in order to further encourage, motivate, and sustain their local and global civic engagement. Such learning carries the potential of a diverse action-oriented educated citizenry committed to human rights in a globalized society.


I am especially indebted to Kwame for sharing his life over the years with me.


1. Kwame is his real name. All other names are pseudonyms. I also appreciate the thoughtful, critical feedback from Heather Oesterreich.


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Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 113 Number 6, 2011, p. 1275-1292
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 16142, Date Accessed: 7/12/2020 6:17:22 AM

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