Youth empowerment through service learning

One of the things I have come to enjoy the most about being a Rochester Youth Year Fellow is  being able to engage in valuable professional development activities and attend exciting events that I would certainly not have had the opportunity to do otherwise. Over the past five months I have seen congresswoman Louise Slaughter speak at a Rochester City School District board meeting, met senator Kirsten Gillibrand, learned a great deal about youth empowerment and even improved my public speaking skills. Not only have these experiences helped to strengthen my professionalism but they have also served to further inspire me to do the best work I possibly can at East High School.

A few weeks ago, I received an email from the RYY VISTA Leader about a professional development workshop that would be taking place at my alma mater, Nazareth College, called “Service-Learning: A Youth Development Strategy.” As one of the major projects I am working on during my year of service is working to engage students in East Takes Action, the school’s community service club, I figured that this opportunity would definitely be worthwhile.

The workshop was conducted by Dr. Marie Watkins who is the Director of the Center for Service Learning at Nazareth College. While the primary focus of the workshop was understanding the difference between a basic “community service” project and a “service learning” project, the piece that stuck with me the most was the importance of involving youth in both the planning as well as the execution of these endeavors. Even though this may seem like a “no brainer” as far as planning service activities with youth, the general consensus of the workshop participants was that youth were generally absent from the more logistical parts of these projects.

Far too often, it seems as though adults take the forceful approach when it comes to involving youth in community service projects; requiring them to complete a certain number of hours to fulfill a graduation requirement or even using it as a punishment. Unfortunately, while these certainly lead youth to becoming positively involved in their community, they do not necessarily lead to enjoyment or prolonged experiences in service. However, if youth are given more of a voice in their service experiences in terms of being able to plan and make decisions about exactly what they want to be involved in based on their own interests, the likelihood that they will enjoy what they are doing and will possibly continue to be engaged for years to come.

While East Takes Action is a student run club and therefore thrives on youth decision making and planning, there are a number of adults involved in many of the logistical areas of this organization, such as budgetary matters and general community outreach. This workshop definitely inspired me to take another look at the way this club operates and hopefully identify ways in which the students are able to collaborate more closely with the adults on the logistical matters to truly make the organization their own. With this new knowledge regarding youth empowerment and effective service learning project planning strategies, I am very excited to see what this club will be able to accomplish in the coming months!

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