Cami Anderson: 4 Reasons Community Service Should Be Part of Every School’s Design
Rose Farah has cherished memories of visiting her father’s family in Syria during her childhood. The escalating refugee crisis and the distressing images of homelessness, hunger, and desperation affected her deeply, keeping her up at night.
Feeling a strong connection to the suffering, the 18-year-old high school senior took action, organizing her peers and adults at her school, the Convent of the Sacred Heart in New York, to raise funds for Syrian refugee children to attend boarding schools. Rose couldn’t bear the thought of the crisis depriving the next generation of Syrians of educational opportunities, as she couldn’t imagine her own life without school. With small and steady goals in mind, Rose not only changed the lives of 18 students, but also transformed her own life.
Recently, Rose and I were honored by The Points of Light Foundation and GenerationOn, local partner organizations that support individuals, young or old, who engage in meaningful service efforts. Rose’s story moved me deeply on a personal level, and it reminded me of the importance of educators focusing on providing students with meaningful, self-directed opportunities to serve others.
Research and practice both show the following:
1. Empathy, the ability to understand others’ feelings, can be taught. It is a crucial skill that not only helps children succeed, but also encourages them to make positive contributions to their communities. The education reform community is finally acknowledging this through the concept of "social and emotional learning." We need to teach empathy as intentionally, thoughtfully, and systematically as we teach subjects like Algebra. Service opportunities can be a valuable way to teach empathy.
2. Efficacy, the belief that one’s actions can have immediate and long-term positive impacts, motivates children and helps them persevere through difficult situations. Survey research, including Gallup’s findings, shows that students who feel heard, have leadership opportunities, and believe they can make a difference stay in school longer, graduate at higher rates, and achieve more economic success. Educators have long sought to implement principles of youth development in high schools, and when they do, they see improved outcomes. Therefore, supporting young people in identifying causes they are passionate about and helping them address those causes should be an integral part of education.
3. All young people, especially those who have faced or are currently facing challenges, have something to contribute and offer unique perspectives that can lead to innovative solutions for seemingly unsolvable problems. We often think of service as something that people of privilege do for those who are less privileged, neglecting the immense leadership potential and social justice skills of young individuals from disadvantaged communities. Young people who have overcome significant obstacles often bring persistence, creativity, and dedication to addressing difficult issues. Meaningful service opportunities should be accessible to all children.
4. Service offers opportunities for shared experiences that allow children (and adults) to work across different identity lines, which are often divided by race, ethnicity, socioeconomic status, or neighborhood. The military trains soldiers to see their enemies as "other." Most divisions and prejudices worsen when people remain in their own circles and fail to establish meaningful relationships with those they consider different. Service opportunities can take individuals to new places and facilitate interactions with diverse populations. Educators must cultivate opportunities for young people to thrive in such situations, as research suggests that the ability to thrive in diverse groups is just as crucial for accessing 21st-century job opportunities as high levels of literacy and numeracy.
We recently lost Muhammed Ali, one of America’s greatest social justice warriors, who famously said, "Service to others is the rent you pay for your room here on earth." Engaging in service is humbling, as we often learn more than we give. As educators, we must find ways to provide all students, not just those fortunate enough to attend prestigious schools like Rose, with the chance to give back, realize their full potential, and witness the impact they can make.