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Teaching Advocacy and Making Change

Street Law, Inc.

Over 40 years of educating about law, democracy, and human rights

Teaching Advocacy and Making Change

A group of high school students from the Franklin Pierce School District in Tacoma, WA, participated in a Youth Act program to take on the issue of highway safety by creating a citywide media campaign to encourage the wearing of seat belts.

Advisers of school-sponsored groups are no strangers to bake sales, car washes, food and clothing drives, and other fundraising activities to help those in need.  While important and worthy of applause, these efforts do not always challenge young people to put their civic education into action.

Youth Act—a program and curriculum developed by Street Law, Inc., a leader in the field of civic education—challenges students to go a step further than volunteerism and community service efforts.  Youth Act guides students through the process of making change by educating them about an issue of importance to their school or community, learning what they can do to change it, and taking action to make a lasting impact. 

Youth Act has been successfully implemented in a variety of sites, namely social studies classrooms, community-based organizations, and school-sponsored groups.  Student groups are ideal Youth Act participants because it deepens leadership abilities, develops advocacy skills, and ultimately builds stronger schools and communities. 

The advocacy approach used in Youth Act is validated in the most recent report of the Campaign for the Civic Mission of Schools—a coalition of 40 organizations working to renew and elevate civic learning in our country’s schools.  According to the report, “research shows that service-learning may be more effective at instilling civic skills and values among young people than community service or volunteering that is unconnected to the curriculum” (Carnegie, 2003).  The report also states that the service-learning programs that are most effective for civic education are those that “encourage teachers and administrators to use them as a way to consciously pursue civic outcomes…and that allow students to engage in meaningful work on serious public issues, with a chance of seeing positive results within a reasonable time” (Carnegie, 2003)  A Youth Act project embodies these criteria and provides a tool for educators/advisers to take civics beyond the classroom and into the community. 

The Advocacy Approach

Youth Act teaches students an eight step approach to advocating for change. 

Step 1  Build your team

Assemble a team of students and an adult leader.

Step 2  Identify your public policy issue

Look around your school, your neighborhood, and your community.  Is there a problem you see that you would like to change? 

Step 3  Become an expert on your public policy issue

Use the internet, your school library, the media, and people in your community to educate yourself about all sides of the issue. 

Step 4  Set your advocacy goal

Clearly identify the primary goal of your advocacy work.

Step 5  Reach decision-makers, recruit allies, identify roadblocks

Reach out to those who have the power to make and change laws or rules affecting your public policy issue.  Identify people or groups in the community working on both sides of your issue. 

Step 6  Identify your advocacy super strategies

Decide how to communicate your message.  Know your audience!

Step 7  Work the media

Use the media to promote your campaign and garner support for your advocacy issue.  Write a letter to the editor, make a public service announcement, or hold a press conference.  

Step 8  Assess your progress and know where you are going

Is your campaign is headed in the right direction? Are your strategies working? What changes need to be made to better align the project for success? 

Success Stories

Through Youth Act projects, students have taken on a myriad of issues facing their schools and communities, including homelessness, seatbelt enforcement, underage drinking, bicycle safety, tobacco use, gun violence, and rights of youth with disabilities. 

Youth Act for Safer Roads

Across the U.S., motor vehicle crashes are the number one killer of teenagers (Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, 2005).  A group of high school students from the Franklin Pierce School District in Tacoma, WA, participated in a Youth Act program to take on the issue of highway safety by creating a citywide media campaign to encourage the wearing of seat belts.  The young people developed a catchy campaign slogan—Click & Get: Click on your seatbelt and Get to where you are going.

Using the three golden rules of advocacy—clarity, quantity, and frequency— the student group reached an astoundingly broad spectrum of Pierce County, WA.  The campaign goal was clear: change student behavior to increase seat-belt usage.  The students aimed to reach not only the entire student bodies at the two area high schools but also adult residents of the county.  They decided to conduct media advocacy to get the message out as frequently and broadly as possible.

Students kicked off their campaign with a school rally.  They developed educational flyers on seatbelt safety facts and challenged their peers to change their driving behaviors.  They handed out Click & Get buttons with the following message:  “When you exit the parking lot today, if you have your seatbelt on, you will be cheered on by the school pep crew.”  At the end of the day, more than 50 students lined the parking lots of the high schools and cheered on classmates who clicked on their seatbelts before getting on the road. 

Participating students expanded their reach beyond their peers by successfully lobbying the local print and broadcast media to cover their event.  As the campaign caught on around town, the students secured an invitation to appear on a local television news broadcast.  The media campaign culminated in the creation of a televised public service announcement, which aired during the December holiday season, a time when many crashes occur. 

Youth Act for Human Rights

Young residents of Washington, DC, were alarmed to learn that families experiencing homelessness in the District must spend six months on a waiting list for emergency shelter.  A student group from César Chávez Public Charter School decided that six months is 180 days too long for families to wait for emergency shelter, so they decided to do something about it. 

Using Article 25 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights as their platform, which guarantees the right to an adequate living standard, the students analyzed the city’s budget.  Through training, research, and a great deal of determination, the students found the budget to be insufficient and advocated for an increase in the amount of money allocated for emergency shelter services. Moved by their findings, and armed with the Youth Act program’s advocacy tools, the students conducted surveys, circulated petitions, coordinated a clothing drive, spoke at a rally, and testified before the D.C. City Council.  After hearing the students’ testimony, a councilmember remarked that the youth taught the council an important lesson about human rights. 

Beyond bringing attention to homelessness as a human rights issue, students made a significant impact advocating for fiscal policy changes to provide emergency shelter for families.  Through their efforts, they demonstrated that young people can be a voice in a national movement to increase awareness of human rights issues in the United States.

The Curriculum

The Youth Act Kit

Starting with the most basic definitions of advocacy, public policy, and laws, the Youth Act Kit gives students everything they need to get the most out of their advocacy project.  It describes in detail each of the eights steps toward making change.  The kit is full of templates and examples to help students develop petitions, letters to elected officials, surveys, press releases, e-mail action alerts, and communications plans to help advocate their cause. 

Adult Leader Guide

This guide gives student group advisers detailed instructions and tips for guiding students through all steps of their Youth Act project.  Though this guide is not essential to starting advocacy project, it is a valuable resource for project leaders. 

Neither the Youth Act Kit or the Adult Leader Guide are required for the implementation of a Youth Act project.  The materials do simplify the project for both students and adults and are designed to ensure that the advocacy process is as enjoyable, interactive, relevant, and as effective as possible.  For more information about these publications, please visit   

For advisers in search of a truly cocurricular activity, a Youth Act project is an ideal combination of education and service.  Rather than textbook learning, young people learn how citizens can take part in civic life by actually impacting public policy and participating in community-problem solving. 


Leadership for Student Activities is a publication of the National Association of Student Councils.

Source: Leadership for Student Activities, March 2008, Vol. 36, No. 7 (Reproduced with permission)