Welcome home to Ferguson.

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.



Back to Denver, on to Palestine

We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.”
T.S. Eliot, Four Quartets

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 MitchellSenior 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)


1st European S-LConference launches Dutch Centre, European Network

Education Minister Marja van Bijsterveldt and Jim Kielsmeier

Education Minister Marja van Bijsterveldt and Jim Kielsmeier

Dutch Minister of Education Marja van Bijsterveldt did not let a broken foot keep her from opening the First European Conference on Service Learning October 26 at the World Trade Center in Amsterdam.  Gathered were representatives from eleven European countries and host Holland with the support of the European Union – part of a series of meetings throughout Europe celebrating the European Year of the Volunteer.
Minister Van Bijesterveldt reviewed the 10 year history of service-learning in Holland citing its enthusiastic adoption in recent years:
”It is an integral part of education.  Initially, pupils, teachers, and parents had quite a few questions and doubts about service-learning.  Now service-learning is simply a part of school life.” She reinforced her support saying: “This is something I am very proud of.”
The Amsterdam conference marked the opening of a new national Knowledge Centre for Service-learning organized by CPS, a Dutch NGO www.cps.ni , to gather and make available service-learning materials and lessons from the previous decade. While federal funding to schools has declined,  required  service-learning  for all 200,000 Dutch secondary school students remains solid.
The Amsterdam conference was both a national convening of 150 Dutch educators as well as a gathering for nearly 40 service-learning leaders from across Europe.  I offered keynote remarks following the education minister pointing out that service –learning is an education commons shared not only by the 11 European nations represented but more than 30 nations worldwide.
Hanneke Mateman, organizer of the Conference from Amsterdam –based NGO MOVISIE www.movisie.nl   will lead a continuing connection between European service-learning practitioners in response to  enthusiastic support for further interaction from this year’s delegates.  Hanneke stepped forward unflinchingly to take the lead in organizing future European service-learning events.  National initiatives from Germany, Spain, Romania and Croatia were featured while other programs at various stages of development came from the UK, Switzerland, Bosnia and Denmark.
 I hope to see many of these colleagues next April 9-12, 2012 at the Service-Learning World Forum and National Service-Learning Conference in Minneapolis!   http:www.nylc.org

Peter Benson 1946-2011 Friend – Champion – Innovator

I lost a great friend on October 2 and NYLC and service-learning lost an important ally. Peter is widely celebrated as the “father” of the  developmental asset concept in measuring and supporting positive youth development. In articles and books published by Search Institute where he was CEO since 1985 , Peter embraced service-learning as a key part of asset building strategies for young people to grow to become effective and meaning – filled adults.

 Peter keynoted several National Service-Learning Conferences with this message and was a great partner in a recent NYLC national collaboration on the role of service/contribution in human development. He added enormously at a personal level to this two year project to create measurement tools for contribution balancing the usual deficit approach to measurement of young people.  See (Benson, et al G2G 2009, pp 6-12, 2009, St Paul, NYLC).   

Innovation and creativity have been celebrated in recent weeks personified by pioneers in technology and science. Rarely are innovators in human development and education recognized, largely because the impact of their work is not felt in a lifetime. Not so for Peter Benson.

Peter made a major contribution to changing thinking about youth development by creating predictive measures foretelling a positive passage to adulthood. The notion of measuring key developmental assets of youth  in a community then using research results to change policies has motivated adult leaders to create effective youth centered approaches -in Minnesota from St Louis Park to Willmar, in every state and in dozens of countries.

Peter was the preeminent global advocate for positive youth development reaching throngs of people through prolific writing and inspired speeches.  Most importantly, his innovations live on in the changed lives of countless young people worldwide.

 To learn more about Peter’s legacy go to www.search-institute.org/remembering-peter-benson

Greg Mortenson: A cup of learning

When Greg Mortenson of Three Cups of Tea and Pennies for Peace fame, came off stage after his spell binding keynote presentation at  the National Service-Learning Conference April 8 in Atlanta, he had more than 100’s of admirers with books to sign waiting for him. Nearby, planning an unscheduled taped interview, was Steve Kroft of CBS News’ “60 Minutes”. Mortenson ducked the taping but not the firestorm that has followed the broadcast of Kroft’s feature.

In the brief conversation I had with Greg after his talk in Atlanta he mentioned his need to get his life and work “better organized”. I had devoured “Three Cups of Tea” right after it was first published in 2006 and have some familiarity with people and places from his mountaineering history. I also know personally the risks and rewards that shadow the mountaineering and social justice communities.

I told Greg I’d be happy to support him once the smoke cleared for both of us. Little did we know, that more than smoke – instead a roiling firestorm of controversy is still  burning about the “60 Minutes” story.

Many who know Greg and his work have waded in, notably Jon Krakauer, writer and sometime climber known for his critique of an Everest expedition gone bad, “Into Thin Air”, and other dark adventures including “Into the Wild”, who has already published an on line book let entitled “Three cups of Deceit”. Nicholas Kristof, columnist for the New York Times  and self described friend of Mortenson gives a revealing portrait consistent with the person I met in Atlanta: passionate advocate for girls education in Central Asia, an engaging personality – but clearly exhausted. ( We are told Greg is scheduled for major surgery this month)

The alleged mismanagement of funds is under investigation and caution should be exercised before putting up defenses for Mortenson or rushing to judgement against him. My guess is that the truth will be somewhere in the middle revealing a genuine, but flawed hero , far more human than the romantisized “children’s book” version of his story. Mortenson’s life already  reveals insights for me.

A charismatic leader’s certainty always needs leavening by careful checks and balances in the form of trusted advisors, friends and staff who keep the passionate visionary/founder from “going off a cliff ”.  Too bad Krakauer and Kristof, self- described friends and former Mortenson supporters, who no doubt saw the writing on the wall, did not confront Greg with the looming disaster. Maybe they did and he didn’t listen. The strength of ego demanded to start a pioneering Central Asia Institute and build schools in dangerous places like Pakistan and Afghanistan is both among Greg’s greatest assets and – in retrospect, most worrisome attribute. He simply may have refused to listen and deflected close friends and family from getting through to him. For social entrepreneurs passionately wedded to a mission a lesson is :  don’ surround yourself with people who always agree with you: listen to your critics – its difficult but history demands it.

Follow the money: beware of people who stand to benefit from ventures like “Three Cups of Tea” – including publishers,  and agents. Frankly, I had been suspicious of the promotional juggernaut that surrounded Greg. Making a good story great was in their self interest and I suspect any shading of the truth in “Three Cups of Tea” was related to creating a better story. That said, what was published was Greg’s responsibility and if he could not keep up with every paragraph he needed a close staff person with integrity and guts who would hold the presses.

This is the opening of another chapter of an already compelling story – one I hope Greg Mortenson has both the strength and courage to tell himself. Many readers are waiting.

Service, Volunteerism, and Budget Cuts: A British Perspective

Several months ago, elections in the UK brought the Conservative Party to power, led by David Cameron as Prime Minister.  With a campaign built on public frustration with a lingering recession and anger against largess  in government programs, a pillar of Cameron’s vision forward has been the “Big Society,” where volunteers and private citizens would step in to meet social needs as the government cut spending on social safety net programs.  Sound familiar?

Dame Elisabeth Hoodless receives the Alec Dickson Award at the National Service-Learning Conference in 2009. The award is named for Dame Elisabeth's predecessor, Dr. Alec Dickson, who founded Community Service Volunteers in the UK and was an honorary NYLC Board Member.

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Servant Leader – Age Nine

Christina Taylor Green was described by an adult friend this week in a National Public Radio interview as a servant leader. Age nine, and recently elected to student council at Mesa Verde Elementary School in Tucson, Ariz., she was among the six people killed Jan. 8 at a public meeting convened by Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, who remains in critical condition.

We know that Christina was born on 9/11, 2001, a transformative day that may have influenced her brief life. Like Rep. Giffords, she chose to step forward and participate in a public event last Saturday. Tragically, it brought her into the line of fire.

We already know much more about the confused life of 22-year-old Jared Lee Lochner, the accused shooter. But Christina’s young life ― which already showed evidence of compassion and leadership ― deserves our attention. Sadly, we will not know what the ensuing years would have brought her and the world.

The circumstances that have intervened to single out Christina should not diminish her uniqueness. But in our national soul-searching this week I hope we recognize, in the potential of Christina, the similar potential in all children ― particularly those whose behaviors make them difficult to encourage and love.

They are all around us in ways often hard to discern, and seek sincerely to make their mark in the world. They need our encouragement and we need their contributions – even from those as young as Christina.

A Servant Leader