What prompts young people to take political action?
Active and equitable participation is key to a well-functioning democracy. It’s important to have people from a wide variety of backgrounds run for public office, push for legislation, call for change, and show up at the polls to vote.
Yet researchers know remarkably little about how young people come to participate in politics and how institutions — in particular, schools and the civic lessons they offer — shape this behavior across racial and ethnic groups.
Matt Nelsen ’12 is working to change that. His research on the socioeconomic factors that shape political involvement in youth has been featured in the Washington Post, and recently won the Best Dissertation Award from the American Political Science Association.
“I love learning about people’s experiences and trying to develop political theories or understandings of the political world by really centering the voices and experiences of people,” Nelsen says.
I love learning about people’s experiences and trying to develop political theories or understandings of the political world by really centering the voices and experiences of people.Matt Nelsen ’12
The voices Nelsen centers in his work are those of young people with diverse racial and ethnic backgrounds, from diverse locations and schools. His research reveals how these factors shape how young people will participate in politics.
Writing about the protests that broke out in response to the deaths of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and George Floyd in the Washington Post, Nelsen said, “the protests of May and June demonstrate that empowering civics lessons often take place outside the classroom.”
But in the classroom across America, civics classes are not doing as much as they arguably need to, he says, primarily using texts that “tend to focus on the political contributions of white men who held positions of power in government,” and effectively excluding histories and voices of BIPOC groups.
During the protests, organizers became civic educators. Conversations and space for learning opened up about not only the historical roots of police brutality, and violence inflicted on Black Americans and other marginalized communities, but also the contributions and achievements that these communities have had in America.
But should people have to die, and massive protests take place, for young people to get a civics education like this? And if that comprehensive and inclusive education was widespread, how would it affect the political climate in America?
To gauge the impact of how what is taught in civics classes relates to the motivation or discouragement of political action in youth, Nelsen conducted a research project with nearly 700 students ages 14-18 in nine different Chicago-area schools and 24 classrooms.
He split classes in half at random, and assigned each student to read a passage on a piece of American history — like the abolitionist movement, or resistance to the Chinese Exclusion Act — from two different sources.
The first group read passages from a traditional textbook that is a staple in Advanced Placement U.S. History courses. The other group read from a different textbook that takes a more critical view of the same events, and does more to emphasize the role of everyday people.
Nelsen then gave both groups of students a survey about how motivated they felt to get involved in different political actions like voting, or participating in a protest or demonstration. He found that students who read texts that show people like them engaging in collective action were more willing to participate politically than their peers who read texts that emphasized the “great American heroes who worked from high positions of power.”
Matt Nelsen’s research found that students who read texts that show people like them engaging in collective action were more willing to participate politically than their peers who read texts that emphasized the “great American heroes who worked from high positions of power.”
The importance of this finding ties into the protests, because they are not only fostering civics education but also civic engagement, and bringing feelings of empowerment to protestors at the same time — which, Nelsen says, is something that civics classes could be doing with students.
Emphasizing this conclusion and his ongoing research in his dissertation, “Educating for Empowerment: Race, Socialization, and Reimagining Civic Education,” Nelsen received the Best Dissertation Award from both the Education Politics and Policy and the Political Psychology sections of the American Political Science Association this past June.
Knowing that civics curricula shape political engagement in youth, Nelsen’s research calls for widespread attention, and is powerful in the hands of those who have influence over institutional change.
After graduating from St. Olaf, where he majored in political science and Asian studies, Nelsen earned his master’s degree in social science at the University of Chicago and his Ph.D. in political science from Northwestern University.
Now working as a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Chicago, Nelsen is putting his research and education into action on — and making an impact through — his publications, which have been featured in the Washington Post, Perspectives on Politics, Political Behavior, the Journal of Race, Ethnicity, and Politics, and GenForward’s Race and Place: Young Adults and the Future of Chicago.
Nelsen also has a completed manuscript for his book project, Democracy in the Schoolhouse: Empowering Civic Education for a Multiracial America, which is under review for publication at Oxford University Press. Growing out of his dissertation, the book expounds on how to forge more empowering and equitable spaces for civic learning — in schools particularly — by centering the agency and lived experiences of marginalized communities.
Using mixed methodology to conduct research, Nelsen understands the importance of numbers, but at the same time, really centers humanity. Political science, especially the discipline of American politics that Nelsen works in, can be very heavy in quantitative research.
But, he says, “I went in a very different direction in terms of my research. There are definitely quantitative aspects of the type of research I do — I do surveys, I do experiments — but I really love qualitative research.”
This grew out of experience that Nelsen gained at St. Olaf, where he did just that. During his senior year in the Political Science Department’s capstone seminar, Immigration and Citizenship, Nelsen conducted ethnographic research in Faribault, Minnesota.
He attended different community organization meetings, sat in local coffee shops, and visited other gathering spots to observe how people interact with their environment and each other. For his senior research project, Nelsen interviewed individuals in charge of refugee resettlement in Minneapolis.
“What really excited me about those experiences was that they weren’t just sitting in front of a data set and identifying quantitative trends. They were really getting to understand a place and getting to learn about the experiences of people,” he says. “I love learning about the stories of people and translating that into my own writing.”
Nelsen came to St. Olaf with the intention of becoming a music major, so “I really do see research as something where I get to channel my creative energy, and I think that’s a good balance to strike simply because I came into St. Olaf wanting to do music seriously.”
Even after switching majors, Nelsen did not envision himself earning a Ph.D. and becoming a well-published political scientist.
“I came to St. Olaf as a first-generation college student. I did not know what I was doing. I really struggled not even just my first year, but my first two years,” he says, noting that he worked multiple part-time jobs in addition to his classes. “And I felt like the faculty in the Political Science Department saw academic potential in me that I didn’t recognize, and I really credit those faculty for really encouraging me to see that I was capable of excelling academically.”
I came to St. Olaf as a first-generation college student. I did not know what I was doing. I really struggled not even just my first year, but my first two years. And I felt like the faculty in the Political Science Department saw academic potential in me that I didn’t recognize, and I really credit those faculty for really encouraging me to see that I was capable of excelling academically.Matt Nelsen ’12
Nelsen’s academic advisor, Professor of Political Science and Asian Studies Kathy Tegtmeyer Pak, said that for the first few months Nelsen was a quieter student in her class and it wasn’t apparent to her how talented or ambitious he was.
But, she says, “One of the joys of knowing him over the whole time he was at St. Olaf was watching him come into himself, understand his talents more, and then show more about himself to his professors, including me.”
And none of these initial doubts or struggles kept Nelsen from getting involved. He was in the Norseman Band his first year, and the St. Olaf Band the next three, and was in a production of Into the Woods through the Music Department. He was also on the Political Awareness Committee and involved with College Democrats, which he was president of for his last two years on campus.
“He made the most of every opportunity that he had. He did his music really, really seriously in a way that required a lot of discipline, he did research off campus, and he took difficult classes that pushed him in different ways,” says Tegtmeyer Pak.
Nelsen eventually came to feel at home and thrive on the Hill. Key to his success was the mentoring relationships that he built with many of his professors, especially Tegtmeyer Pak, Professor of Political Science Kris Thalhammer, and Associate Professor of Political Science and Department Chair Chris Chapp.
“I would not have gotten a Ph.D. had Kathy not been my mentor,” Nelsen says. “She pushed me to ask difficult research questions, pushed me to be a really critical reader of text, pushed me to be a better writer, which is just one part of the wonderful and rigorous education I gained.”
There is an emphasis on those student-faculty relationships at St. Olaf. As Tegtmeyer Pak puts it, at St. Olaf “it isn’t just a student by themselves learning how to master things.”
Tegtmeyer Pak has kept in touch with Nelsen over the years, visiting with him and sharing updates about their respective research projects. She says she wasn’t surprised at the news of Nelsen’s dissertation award. “I am delighted, I’m super proud of him, but it was really clear to me that he was doing groundbreaking research, so no, I am not at all surprised,” she says, smiling. “It’s a lot of accomplishment that was not preordained. He’s just worked really hard, and he’s so talented, and such a good guy. He’s so kind, he’s so warm, and he’s funny and creative. And also really serious and driven.”
Nelsen says this drive has been key to achieving his dreams — and making a difference in the world. If he could go back and give his younger self advice, it would be the same thing he would tell young Oles today: “You do belong at St. Olaf, and you will come out on the other side a much better, stronger, and more prepared individual.”