Designing for Participatory Agency

Building civic imagination with the Passion to Purpose tool

Margaret Conway
Convergence Design Lab


Cards on a table with various design questions such as “how might we use fashion to protest face detection and surveillance?”

Recent years and months have revealed young people engaged in civic participation in unprecedented and breathtaking ways. From the Black Lives Matter movement to Parkland, Florida, young people are finding ways to put their voices into the conversation, as Henry Jenkins says, by any media necessary.

Undoubtedly, this is a turning point in civic discourse. However, in the most visible cases, the presence of young voices in the middle of political and social conversations is expected: most of these young people feel it is impossible for them to stay silent because of firsthand experience with traumatic events.

At Convergence, we seek to create learning experiences that empower and motivate all people to be producers and participants, not just those who feel they have no choice but to speak up. We believe that participatory agency, or the sense that adding your voice to civic conversation (in whatever way you choose), will shape you and your community for the better, is one of the most critical dispositions needed to navigate our current context, from politics to the workforce. We believe that a sense of civic possibility needs to be a part of what every young person learns and practices throughout their education in a democratic society. We often say that rather than asking students what they want to learn or what they want to be when they grow up, we should be asking them what problem they want to solve.

So what does this mean for educators, mentors, or others who work with young people? How can we cultivate a disposition of participatory agency in our classrooms and other learning spaces by tapping into their passions and purposes? How might we give young people the opportunity to build the competencies they need to be lifelong civic participants?

Let’s start with a few things we know about learning and about how young people engage in their world today.

Our work is grounded in the principles of Connected Learning, some of which are:

  • Learning is motivated by interests and passions
  • Learning is production-centered
  • Learning is relevant and purposeful
  • Learning is social and participatory

Research shows that these are basic principles of good learning. In fact, if you think back to a learning experience, no matter what kind, that was particularly impactful and stuck with you for a long time, chances are it featured one of the principles above.

We also know, because of research, media, and what’s right in front of us every day in our classrooms and our own families, that young people are fully capable of exploring their own interests with wide communities of peers, creating original work, and sharing it more widely than ever before. Whether it’s skateboarding videos or Minecraft tutorials, making something online and putting it somewhere where thousands can see, share, and react to it is part of everyday life.

And finally, we know that young people care about real issues. They notice them, they feel them, they see them impacting the world around them, and they want to be able to make changes.

So, we decided to combine those things that we know. We believe that a young person’s passions, no matter how trivial, can unlock their sense of agency to make an impact in an area they care about. We believe that educators, mentors, and parents can help guide young people to flex their civic imagination muscles by providing ways to let kids brainstorm the possibilities that could come from the things they love to do best.

We designed an experience called Passion to Purpose: part game, part brainstorming tool, that turns your ideas into playful possibilities. It is free and open source, and can be used in almost any context. The results can be silly, or serious, and everything in between, and every design question generated by engaging with the tool can spark countless ideas for projects and actions.

We hope you’ll try it out for yourself and test it out with some young people. What ideas does it spark? How might you build real-world projects around the design questions, even the ones that sound a little crazy? Let us know your thoughts and the ways you use it; we are all ears. Help youth imagine and design their future worlds.

Check out an online workshop we did with Media Education Lab that walks through Passion to Purpose here.

Check out other resources as well as our work at



Margaret Conway
Convergence Design Lab

Co-Founder and Director of Learning at Convergence Design Lab.