Prior to the on-going Covid-19 pandemic, we were seeing years of stressed educational systems, communities divided, and many young people disengaged. As the current situation shows in what some are calling the “tale of two pandemics,” existing societal injustices are being further amplified, individuals isolated, and students’ educational outcomes are at risk. And at a time when they face risks to mental, physical, and spiritual wellbeing as well.
At the same time, we know many stories of success, with young people leading the way in creating positive change in their schools and communities. Bringing the power of youth-led service tied to academic and civic outcomes is once again coming to the forefront as a solution to the challenges we face in our country and around the world. In these times, NYLC’s mission to create a more just, sustainable, and peaceful world, with young people, their schools, and communities through service-learning takes on a new and even more vital importance. We remain steady in our belief in the power of young people to lead us to solutions.
We are not alone; the momentum is growing with a realization of the impact of youth-led service as an effective vehicle for learning and citizenship. In addition to a host of proven academic, social, and career outcomes:
- “A Republic (Still) at Risk- and Civics is Part of the Solution” published in 2017 acknowledges service-learning as one of six proven practices for restoring faith and participation in our democracy. (The list further includes student voice in schools, and student-led voluntary associations).
- In 2019, a group of foundations convened a project study our nation’s capacity to create citizens who are well-informed, productively engaged in working for the common good, and, hopeful about our democracy. “[W]e need to fundamentally rethink and enrich the ways we prepare young people to be successful citizens in a democracy… to imagine a lifetime of civic learning and practice.” Service-learning fits squarely within the civic learning eco-system, supporting the shift of focus from merely direct Civics education in one high school class to civic knowledge, skills, and dispositions beyond classrooms in K-12 schools, and beyond schools to community organizations and post-secondary institutions.
- In “Inspired to Serve” issued last month (May 2020), the National Commission on Military, National, and Public Service—a bi-partisan commission completing two and a half years of extensive research—concluded with a compelling call to revitalize civic education and expand service-learning over the next 10 years. They recognize these as key factors to ensure young people are fully prepared to participate in civic life and understand the importance of service.
In the last decade, beginning with the 2009 elimination of Learn and Service America, closely followed by a shift in focus of major national funders, we have seen an exponential drop in financial support for organizations and schools at all levels- national, regional, state, and local to do service-learning. While interest and demand for high-quality service-learning resources remained high, the ability to implement decreased significantly. Many organizations and initiatives ultimately had to close their doors.
With a new focus on civic learning and youth voice, now is the time to reinvest in service-learning. We know from experience that service-learning is a proven strategy to engage students in their education when they understand that their service is authentic, has substance over time, and can be understood in the context of academic or civic content. It is time for service-learning to expand in classrooms and communities across the nation.