Jim Kielsmeier, Founder National Youth Leadership Council
In 1979 the Danforth Foundation asked me to leave Colorado and launch a youth leadership initiative at the American Youth Foundation in St Louis geared to bringing black and white kids together around solving shared community issues. At least that was the public face of our work. The reality was that the white city fathers were scared to death that St Louis would blow up because of recently court-ordered forced busing.
Busing was a social experiment of the 60’s and 70’s that brought students across neighborhood boundaries to create multicultural school communities. Public schools were envisioned as laboratories of equity, integrated starting places for healing our racially divided nation.
School desegregation had brought violent resistance. Decades after school doors in Little Rock were closed to keep black kids out, fear permeated newly integrated school communities across the nation including St Louis and neighboring Ferguson.
My three year stint in St Louis was the spark for a larger outreach, what led me to the University of Minnesota, launching the National Youth Leadership Council and helping ignite the service-learning and positive youth development movements.
I walked St Louis streets with kids, built community gardens and brought white kids and African American teens together at rural leadership camps and as teachers in summer schools in Minneapolis. The camps were interracial communities where Dr. King’s vision of a “beloved community” was real, for a moment– and possible when students went home. The central premise of service-learning also drew from Dr. King: “Everybody can be great because everybody can serve” a quote first adopted by NYLC in 1985 and now by many others in the service and service-learning movements.
Volunteer service is an honor that should not be reserved to privileged groups. Service-learning throws open the doors to everyone, a bold educational model with the capacity to reach nearly every student. (Every private school association is now a service-learning champion!) The military, AmeriCorps and college-based service-learning have their impact but only the public schools can reach the vast majority of people in the critical transition to adulthood period of life. Research shows that kids engaged in quality service-learning early in life exhibit higher levels of tolerance later in life.
NYLC created service-learning retreats for teachers and wrote the first K-12 service-learning curricular materials and standards for the classroom. Later, state and Federal service-learning legislation passed.
Only some of it took as I look back on 35 years of carrying the ideal of King’s “Beloved Community” into basically every setting I’ve worked. America’s original sin of slavery and the legacy of racism has mutated into shrouded and barely recognizable forms. Sometimes the lid gets blown off. Welcome to Ferguson and communities everywhere. The killings of black people and violent aftermath are symptomatic of a callous disregard for the other, the neighbor we never see except when the issue explodes in the media.
Last summer, a few of us walked the Phillips neighborhood surrounding our Minneapolis church and prayed for healing and for discernment. I’ve chosen the path of service-learning. There are many more. What’s your path to peacemaking and justice? Take it now and don’t turn back.