When Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper ( Below left with NYLC CEO Kelita Bak and me) read the NYLC 30th Anniversary Proclamation from the stage of the Denver Convention Center last month during the 24th Annual National Service-Learning Conference (www.nylc.org/conference), I did a quick return to my Colorado roots.
Drawn first to Colorado in the 60’s by the mountains and the opportunity to work with young people short on purpose and adventure in their lives, I returned later for a Ph.D. at the University of Colorado to follow the question: How can the powerful capacity of young people I discovered in the mountains be harnessed to serve communities? Coming to Denver last month was a return to where I started, the beginning of my journey with service-learning – and answers to my question.
NYLC’s 30 year history is marked by a powerful mission, an inspired board and staff, triumphal moments and stunning setbacks. NYLC has gathered thousands of people to national conferences, spearheaded passage of pioneering state and Federal service-learning legislation and created national performance standards. However, at a key moment in the 90′s NYLC nearly collapsed financially. Worse, in a matter of days our world was rocked in 2008 by the loss of beloved co- workers Bernard Gill and Evan Dahlgaard.
For decades the service-learning movement we championed was continuously riven with division over issues of definition and standards, treated as a second class approach by the National Service community and as an alien pedagogy by strict classroom-based educators – despite compelling research to the contrary. The largest Federal funding source for service-learning, Learn and Serve America was unceremoniously cut in 2011 by a Corporation for National and Community Service weakened by abrupt leadership changes and murky internal politics.
The numbers were down at the recent Denver Conference, but quality was up. I attended crowded workshops, browsed the over 30 poster booths largely hosted by young people . Conference plenary sessions featured confident, capable young people as MC’s and keynotes. The 10 year Project Ignition service-learning collaboration between NYLC and State Farm was celebrated for its role in saving countless young lives through safer driving practices.
The closing day of service on Saturday brought Kelita Bak and me – and busloads of others from the Conference – to a project of the Denver Children’s Corridor http://www.denverchildrenscorridor.org/. There we were amazed by their 20 year vision for lifting over 40,000 low income children out of poverty to new levels of wellness and achievement. Jesse Martinez from the Piton Foundation and Tashmesia Mitchell, Senior Program Manager at Earth Force are veterans of previous NYLC Conferences, who led our day. Their bold leadership breathes new life into deserving children and the service-learning movement.
Lastly, while in Denver I spent time with delegates from Russia, Taiwan, China, Qatar, Pakistan, and Japan. Their presence was a reminder of how important the Conference experience and NYLC have been in catalyzing service-learning initiatives around the world.
A few years ago Naser Al Ardah was a participant and presenter at the National Service-learning Conference in Minneapolis. In a few weeks I will join Naser in Palestine supporting a pioneering effort to advance nation building and youth development through service-learning. President Obama met Naser at one of the Partners With Youth Centers during his recent visit to Palestine. Like Denver, joining Naser and other Palestinian friends will be a homecoming for me and for the relentless idea whose time has come.
(Naser, center next to Pres Obama)