Reflections on 20 Years of Activating Youth to Change the World
It’s been said all that all young people need the same nine things: Purpose, Meaning, Adventure, Community, Power, Respect, Structure, Challenge, and Opportunity.
Founded by 12-year-old Isabelle Adams and her 10-year-old sister, Katherine,Paper for Water is helping to bring running water to those in need. The girls make and sell origami Christmas ornaments that have brought in $800,000 in water fundraising dollars.
Jackson Silverman, 11, started I Heart Hungry Kids when he was 7 after hearing about other kids who were making a difference in his community. He felt a special place in his heart for kids who were hungry, so Jackson started organizing monthly parties engaging peers to pack bags of healthy foods for those in need.
When I took over the helm of Youth Service America from its founders 20 years ago this spring, I thought my job was going to be all about motivating apathetic youth, more interested in video games than saving the world.
I could not have been more wrong. Young people are volunteering at record rates, more than any generation in history.
Instead, my biggest challenge has been skeptical adults.
I’ve spent a good deal of the last two decades encouraging adults to remember their own childhoods, reminding them how powerful they felt when they were trusted, heard, respected, counted on, and asked to contribute.
Countless times, I’ve made the case with doubtful elected officials that young people need to be at the decision-making table, especially when issues that affect youth are on the public-policy agenda. As they say, if you are not at the table, you’re on the menu.
I’ve been dismayed many times as potential funders stared back in disbelief when I suggested that they provide philanthropic support to children and youth to tackle the world’s most difficult challenges in health, education, human service, human rights, and the environment.
I’ve wrestled with frustrated teachers who are afraid that solving authentic community problems as a teaching and learning method for math, science, English, foreign languages, or history would be yet another burden to what they are already required to teach.
The history of the world is the history of power, and there is no question that young people become powerful when they bring their energy, commitment, idealism, and creativity to bear on the world’s problems. As the history of people who are African-American, women, immigrants, disabled, or LGBT reminds us, those in power do not share it easily.
Talent and empathy are widespread, but opportunity is not. So, YSA’s newest strategy is to unleash the unique brainpower of youth around the world to achieve the United Nation’s 17 new Sustainable Development Goals. For the first time in human history, every country on the planet recently voted to adopt the same global goals to make the Earth sustainable for human existence and prosperity by 2030. The powerful agenda is identical across the globe, whether you’re in Boston, Brussels, Bangalore, Brisbane, or Bogota. A 15 year old volunteer in all these cities will be 30 by the time the Goals come due in 2030.
The United Nations has publicly stated that the Global Goals will not be achieved without the significant contributions of young people around the world, so we have a lot of hearts and minds to change. A 16-year-old African girl in Lesotho told me that I was the first adult to give her permission to change the world. Less than a month later, I heard the identical complaint from a 16-year-old American girl from New York. When commencement speakers tell graduates that they are tomorrow’s leaders and the hope of the future, we put young people “on hold” at their most creative time in life. For too many youth, the promise of leadership never surfaces.
As adults, we must raise our expectations for what youth can accomplish in the present -- as players, not spectators; as actors, not recipients. We simply cannot afford to wait for young people to grow up before they start tackling the biggest problems facing the planet -- we need them to be the leaders and the hope of today.
The spectrum of social change is wide and welcoming to youth, and we encourage them to use their “Sparks” (passions such as sports, creative arts, learning, helping, the environment, reading, animal welfare, leadership, etc.) as the starting point to their intervention and solution. Service projects are fun, and they are great ways to gain agency, persistence, grit, and knowledge about the world.
Luckily, YSA’s partners, such as 4-H, Boys and Girls Clubs, Girl Scouts, Boy Scouts, Camp Fire, SkillsUSA, FFA, Junior Achievement, Girls, Inc., and the YMCA have deep commitments to youth service and are bursting at the seams with smart and talented changemakers. National service programs like AmeriCorps and Peace Corps have long wait lists of idealistic young Americans wanting to serve their country. Ironically, these cost-effective programs are authorized by Congress to be much larger, lacking only the appropriated funds to meet the supply and demand of today’s youth. In the private sector, Fortune 500 companies such as State Farm, Disney, UL, Sodexo, Microsoft, and Unilever are investing millions of dollars in programs that engage children and youth as problem-solvers.
The last 20 years went by quickly, and I continue to be amazed by the innovation and energy of youth people. But it must not take another 20 years for the world to make youth service the common expectation and the common experience of all young people. For the sake of the human race and Mother Nature, let’s hope we’re not too late.
Steve Culbertson was appointed the President and CEO of Youth Service America in May 1996. Based in Washington, DC and operating in more than 100 countries, YSA’s mission is to help young people, ages 5-25, find their voice, take action, and have impact on critical social and environmental problems.