Tonight ServiceNation, (a coalition of 110 organizations that has a collective reach of some 100 million Americans and is dedicated to strengthening our democracy and solving problems through civic engagement and service), kicks off a two day summit on service in New York City. Service-learning leaders from around the country will gather to consider a comprehensive approach to building a service movement. A publication, entitled Service Nation captures the organizers’ agenda and comprehensive approach to building a service movement in this country.
As part of the ongoing planning process for this summit, Teddy Gross, executive director of Common Cents, has written a brief comment on one significant omission in the current plans: the service of children.
As the activities get underway, I’d like to offer a critique of the current plans from my perspective. It is a perspective that derives from some years of working to deepen the voice and involvement of young children in the affairs of their communities, while also trying to enrich and enliven their education. My experience has been mostly with underserved children in the New York City public schools. I hope this commentary will stimulate discussion, even debate, and that it moves us toward more inclusive plans in the future.
The same old perspective
It isn’t news to me that in the world of service, children below the age of sixteen are invisible. While the legislation that established The Corporation for National and Community Service (CNCS) calls on it to involve “all Americans” in volunteering and service, the data that CNCS annually compiles is limited to Americans over 16. (The data derives from Department of Labor surveys, which only ask about household members over 16.) But are under sixteen year-olds not Americans?
Unfortunately, the same bias is found in the materials and plans of Service Nation.
Here are a few illustrations.
In Language: Children as a Problem, not a Resource
While children are invisible as a national resource, they top the list of “problems” for Service Nation to address.
• First challenge to the nation: “every 26 seconds another student gives up on school…”
• First global scourge: “In Africa, more than one million people, mostly children under the age of five, die every year from etc.”
• First national scourge: “Meanwhile, almost one in eight Americans, including 13 million children, lives in poverty etc.”
It is hard to escape the conclusion that children are being used to tug at our heartstrings. By characterizing them as victims, who deserve our sympathy and service, we get an instantly appealing volunteer opportunity for the ServiceNation.
We need to ask, what is the cumulative effect of repeatedly portraying children as needy victims and objects of other people’s service and never as performers of service themselves?
In Imagery: Children as Recipients of Service, Almost Never as Givers
The book is lavishly illustrated with plenty of inspiring full-page photographs, but with one exception, the pictures are of young children happily receiving volunteer service:
• 20 images children as happy natives receiving service -- [pgs. 10, 11, 12, 23, 24, 30, 32, 33, 37,42, 46, 52 (3 times),56 (5 times) ]
• One image of children as resources [pg. 16 -- six young girls planting a tree, courtesy of Alliance of Community Trees].
Conclusion: this is a call on all Americans to join in helping helpless children. Something is really wrong with this picture.
“From Kindergarten to Post-Retirement”
The rhetoric of ServiceNation is often quite inspiring, and it was thrilling to read the call on government to support policies that broaden the range of service opportunities to serve Americans “from Kindergarten through post-retirement.” But a review of the proposals and policy recommendations shows that only one of the ten major policy categories has any application to young people. This is, of course, the K-12 School and Community-Based Service-Learning agenda. But even here the bias is toward secondary and post secondary schooling.
Even here more could be done. I love the call to expand Learn and Serve (a national organization that provides direct and indirect support to K-12 schools, community groups and higher education institutions to facilitate service-learning projects); and to set up Youth Engagement Zones: but why is there no acknowledgement that we have yet to develop and scale quality programs that meet the developmental needs of primary school children?
I know children are lovable, and they do make for appealing snapshots and needs statements: but when an entire age generation is exploited as the problem (as in “Our main concerns are the environment, children, and AIDS.”) -- that is itself a problem.
The exploitation of children’s vulnerabilities, and our simple-hearted sympathy for them shouldn’t not come at the price of ignoring their need to have a voice, and their chance to serve.
As importantly, we may be missing a great educational opportunity. Integrating service into school life may actually be much easier to accomplish on a large scale during the early school years than in high school, since (as we have found with the Penny Harvest in New York, and now in other cities) the flame of empathy burns the fiercest in young children, and since teachers and parents of young children are more open to innovation and inter-generational service.
Young persons are more eager and ready to respond to the call of service than anyone else. It is a vestige of our recalcitrant paternalism that we ignore them, and build a glass floor to delay – and sometimes extinguish -- their civic participation. We all need to be needed. Let’s make the call of service from “Kindergarten up” real.