When Youth Voice Grows Up

This is an article that I just submitted to ServiceLine, a journal about the service learning movement here in Washington. Jenn rawks.

When Youth Voice Grows Up

One of the ways that I find solace in the service learning movement is through the mature perspective many practitioners have towards youth voice. So many people believe in the moral imperative we have to seriously engage youth throughout society that an advocate such as myself can’t help but feel they are in good company. It is rare to come across adults with blatantly adultist views, and when I do, I am often the second person to address someone’s ignorance. There are so many adult allies in the service learning movement willing to step up!

However, despite this apparent enlightenment towards youth voice, our movement faces a crisis of youth engagement. What do we do when youth voice grows up? When elementary students have excellent experiences with service learning, what happens when they go to middle schools without any emphasis on community service, let alone service learning? What happens when a high school graduate completes a stellar senior service learning project, only to go to a college with no courses that deliberately connect learning with service? What happens to young adults after they have a powerful service learning experience, either through an experience as a youth, in college, or as an AmeriCorps Member? How do they “do” service learning?

The crisis our movement faces is one of continuity: How can young people extend their service learning experience into adulthood? I think this is a relatively new phenomenon, as previous generations did not have the concise frameworks of service learning, let alone programs deliberately engaging them well into their 20s. However, as this reality has shaped up in the form of service learning, it has left young people struggling for an extension of their formal service learning experiences. They want more than the pre-adulthood structures of school and community organizations can offer. Today’s generations of young people want to learn through service well into their adult years, as witnessed in the increased political, religious, and activist involvement of youth across the US today.

I think the key to this effort may lie in de-institutionalizing the service-learning movement. More than once Kate McPherson and I have talked about her vision for grassroots service learning to take the form that extra-curricular athletic programs have today: Parent-driven, volunteer-led local clubs packed with children and youth, funded by public and private donations, and sustained through zeal and enthusiasm, rather than mandate or professional prompting. I absolutely agree with Kate that service learning needs to take a different form in order to grow. Maintaining her “little league” vision, let’s extend it by having those volunteer leagues stretch into adulthood.

Shirley Chisholm, the first African American woman ever elected to Congress, once said, “Service is the rent we pay for being. It is the very purpose of life, and not something you do in your spare time.” Let’s work to provide youth voice an opportunity to transform into adulthood. Let’s challenge young people to maintain and grow their enthusiasm, energy, and commitment towards their communities into adulthood. Today’s young people deserve the opportunity to serve beyond the narrow confines of childhood and youth: let’s make lifelong service learning a new goal for the service learning movement.

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