Like a lot of community-based organizations aimed at troubled youth, the Oasis Center in Nashville began by trying to do a lot for the kids when it opened 38 years ago. Gradually, however, the staff realized that kids responded best when they were learning to help themselves and their communities. So today, the center focuses largely on guiding the youth in community service and civic engagement, through such activities as teaching financial literacy to adults and fellow students and lobbying to improve city schools.
“Civic action has proven a successful strategy for reaching older youth,” says Oasis Center President Hal Cato. “It provides a forum for them to reflect on the challenges their families and communities are facing.”
More and more agencies have been discovering the same thing in recent years, as community service and civic engagement continue to grow. While that growth will be celebrated with special events around the country in April – National Youth Service Month – it’s worth noting how some agencies have made youth service not so much a special event as a standard strategy of youth development.
A recent study conducted by the Innovation Center for Community and Youth Development and sponsored by the Ford Foundation tracked the effects of civic action by 12 community organizations around the country. The study, “Youth Development and Leadership Initiative” (YDLI), found that community service reached youths who seemed “unreachable” in more traditional youth development programs. By focusing less on their personal issues and more on larger societal problems, youths addressed social and economic barriers facing not just themselves, but their families and communities.
The YDLI study showed that 69 percent of young people in programs focused on community service reported high-quality relationships with adults and other young people in the organization, as opposed to the 35 percent to 40 percent reported by traditional youth programs. Forty-two percent of youth in organizations that encouraged youth participation had access to leadership roles, compared with 8 percent in adult-led youth development programs.
TRAIL-BLAZING WORK: Youths from the Coconino Rural Environment Corps construct a trail in Arizona.
“Many young people are ready and willing to work hard on social issues,” says Innovation Center President Wendy Wheeler. “Often, the roadblocks are placed by adults who lack skills and training in youth-adult partnerships.”
More organizations are trying to eliminate those roadblocks.
“Weaving community transformation in with personal transformation is really powerful,” says Patricia Bravo of the Latin American Youth Work Center, in Washington. She helps run the YouthBuild Public Charter School, where students help build low-income housing to learn not only construction skills, but life skills that will help them succeed in various careers and as self-reliant adults.
For instance, Bravo says one of the school’s construction trainers recently found a student crying in the hallway because her boyfriend had put his fist through the wall in her apartment. Her landlord told her it was her responsibility to fix it, but she didn’t have the money. Bravo says the trainer handed her a bucket of joint compound and drywall tools and said, “You know how to do this.” She fixed the wall.
Such stories don’t surprise Wheeler, who believes youth handle their lives better when they feel empowered to change not just their own destinies, but the destinies of their communities.
“Kids want to make their hometowns a better place,” Wheeler says. “They see the impact of injustice on their families.” She says civic action often gets kids asking questions like, “What are my responsibilities to my community?” or “What does it mean to be American?”
The concept of getting young people involved in the community isn’t new. But many youth programs are stepping beyond having kids pick up trash or paint houses in a rundown neighborhood – not that there’s anything wrong with that. It’s just that many agencies find the most powerful and consistent form of service to be civic engagement.
“You can paint somebody’s house, but you have to ask why that person doesn’t have affordable housing,” says Alexie Torres-Flemming, founder of Youth Ministries for Peace and Justice, in the South Bronx. She believes true civic engagement for young people doesn’t involve just working in a soup kitchen, but figuring out why a community needs a soup kitchen.
Such activism, however, brings a risk. While civic engagement programs have little trouble recruiting youths, they often have trouble raising funds.
Torres-Flemming says that when a program verges on activism, it’s hard to get funding support from government entities, which fear funding projects that someone might object to for political reasons. That leaves the agencies to rely more on the private sector, or to raise funds through the very services that youths provide, as the Coconino Rural Environment Corps does in Arizona.
That’s one twist about youth service: It’s not always free. In YouthBuild programs, for instance, youths get paid hourly wages to fix homes for poor people.
Following are four youth organizations that take different approaches to youth service.
Deborah Huso can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.