Our youth lead very busy lives. They spend most of their lives at school, where instructors work very hard to educate and cultivate their sense of curiosity. They also spend important time with friends. Many work part time. Many others are involved in any of a wide variety of programs and clubs — from the arts, to sports, to any number of other interests.
In some cases, these interests involve community and social engagement, but not always. In our experience, it seems often those who could most benefit from engagement in community projects are the least likely to have the opportunity.
Part of this is undoubtedly a question of desire. Young folks who have little to no exposure to family and friends who are themselves actively engaged in their community are less likely to be engaged themselves. As with so much else, how we want to spend our time has an awful lot to do with the environment that surrounds us, and the people in our lives.
Of course, the benefits of community engagement are not restricted to any single group of young individuals. Given that not all youth come to school with the spark of community engagement, it falls to formal and non-formal educators to try and develop this desire to engage.
For an agency like ours, this is very often a primary objective. We have seen first hand the impact true and authentic engagement can have on youth. We have seen countless young folks who struggle to find meaning and purpose develop this engagement spark and find tremendous personal growth in the process.
The challenge as we see it is in making other educators and youth-serving professionals understand the importance of this type of engagement. All too often, engagement programming is considered secondary — it’s what you may do on your own time, outside of your school and work and friends and everything else. While this may work for some, it also leaves out many. In particular, it often leaves out those who likely need it most.
So, how can we get more youth to be engaged in community and social projects? That would be the million dollar question. Likely any true solution would require partnerships. In this case, such partnerships should include both formal and non-formal educators on a regional level.
More importantly, it would require a greater acceptance of social engagement as a formative and educational tool. While there is little doubt that educators and youth-serving professionals view such projects in a positive light, our experience strongly suggests the students who are typically given such opportunities are often those who are already highly engaged in social matters.
How can we get more youth to be engaged in community and social projects? The answer may be complex, but we believe it begins with one fundamental shift in thinking: It needs to be more than just an add-on for the privileged few.