Building a Village

“It takes a village to raise a child,” implies that ideally, every town and city functions as a village, and every village supports its youth. Unfortunately, that is not the case, particularly in compromised urban environments where opportunities for children are scarce, parents and caregivers often work full-time (or more than full-time) jobs and struggle for fair pay, and access to adult role models is limited.

Civic engagement is not on the priority list for many communities, yet research suggests that early adolescence may present a particularly opportune time for involving youth in service-learning activities. Participation in well-structured community projects repeatedly results in increased participant empathy and social responsibility as well as improved academic skills and standardized test scores.

SOS/Summer Trek

Innovations in Civic Participation (ICP) is a nonprofit based in Washington, DC, that works both nationally and internationally to engage youth in their own communities, turning them into change agents, local problem solvers, role models, future community leaders, and social entrepreneurs. Through civic engagement, a network of positive mentors, and creative community improvement projects, fifth through eighth graders learn that—as one seventh grader said—“You need to participate in your community so that your community can prosper.”

During the summer of 2011, the Walmart Foundation funded ICP’s Summer of Service (SOS, now Summer Trek: A Journey of Self-Discovery and Problem-Solving). ICP partnered with three nonprofits—The After-School Corporation (TASC), Earth Force, and Seattle Parks and Recreation—to fund community service projects across the country for over 600 at-risk youth.

The Walmart Foundation’s investment also supported the creation of new curriculum for the Summer Trek programs. In the summer of 2014, the new curriculum and program were launched in Philadelphia, PA, with the help of the Philadelphia Health Management Corporation. The program continues to expand into new cities in 2015.

For more information on SummerTrek, see this one-pager.

Service Learning

Summer of Service delivered six to eight weeks of programming for middle schoolers in seven communities, from Albuquerque to the Bronx and from Greensboro to Seattle. Its goal was to help youth develop collaboration, team building, academic, and problem-solving skills through service learning activities that could enhance their neighborhoods.

Improvements in social development, civic awareness, leadership, and public speaking are predictable outcomes from a program such as SOS. Yet SOS took learning a step further: the program was designed to complement Common Core State Standards in English language arts and 21st-century skills—critical thinking, creating, communication, and collaboration.

Participants worked in text-rich environments, creating surveys and public relations materials, reading and writing scripts, and creating sophisticated written materials to increase literacy skills. At some sites students worked on Web development, graphic design, and film editing.

Here’s a sampling of some of the SOS programs:

TASC — New York City

Over 350 middle schoolers participated in programs run by The After School Corporation (TASC) and Good Shepherd Services.

At a Brooklyn site, youth mapped out the environmental strengths and challenges of the streets surrounding their school, evaluating disparities in public services and amenities such as trash collection and green space. In the Bronx, youth learned how to create surveys, collect and analyze data, and identify themes in their research of “How to be a successful teen in the Bronx.” The end product was a video offering advice on how to succeed at school, stay active, eat healthfully, and give back to the community.

Earth Force—NC, CO, NM

City leaders in Jacksonville, NC decided to turn a wastewater treatment center into an award-winning education facility. As part of the renovation, Earth Force worked with 57 SOS kids to transform a former holding tank into a paleontological dig for elementary- and middle-school-aged kids. The tank was cleaned and filled with shells, whale teeth, and other fossils that were solicited by SOS members and donated by community members. The youth took ownership of the entire project, from contacting local companies for supplies to procuring time with donated dump trucks.

In Aurora, CO, students communicated flood preparedness messages to their neighborhoods. In Albuquerque and Belen, NM, projects focused on beautifying and publicizing underutilized public spaces.

Seattle Parks and Recreation

Seattle Parks and Recreation’s SOS programming used green spaces throughout the city. The projects took on a novel focus by teaching students how to look at public spaces through a social justice perspective. Sixty middle schoolers worked in groups of 10 with AmeriCorps staff to explore the impacts of race, income, and class on their urban environment. They took the lead on planning and implementing service projects that addressed questions of urban agriculture (food justice), wetlands and watershed restoration (water issues), and habitat and trail restoration (urban forest renewal).

Long-Term Impacts

ICP believes that a summer of service is a new rite of passage with long-term impacts. Although “helping the community” was not a motivator for most of the youth entering SOS, by the end of the summer, 80% were committed to continuing to serve during the school year, 100% said they would recommend the program to a friend, and 90% planned to sign up again. Perhaps most remarkably, when asked what their recruitment pitch would be, the majority of youths said it is an opportunity to “change the world.”

Through the Walmart Foundation’s funding of SOS, youth from across the country—who may have had no other options for summer programming—participated in constructive summertime activities. Evaluation studies showed that community-based initiatives challenged them to solve big problems about the environment, inequity, access, and resource sustainability. They built leadership skills and reflected critically about their role in society. Middle school is a pivotal time, and SOS programs expose young teens to opportunities in—and beyond—their communities. Social engagement and civic action help them think about the future as mature citizens and encourage them to consider what their own pathways might be to college and careers.

“Changing the world” is a remarkable and admirable goal for middle schoolers. Susan Stroud, founder and executive director of ICP, articulated how her organization is helping middle schoolers achieve that goal when she said, “At ICP, we envision a world in which young people in every nation are actively engaged in improving their lives and their communities through civic participation.” Summer of Service/Summer Trek is gaining momentum as a new approach to creating tomorrow’s educated, informed, and civically conscious leaders.