In the wake of last Saturday’s successful and inspiring March For Our Lives across the nation and beyond, I thought it appropriate to highlight some of the things that are being done by the nation’s young people to make the world a little bit better place for us all. Rather than highlight specific members of our youth, I am shining a big, bright light on a man who has done more than perhaps any other to assist kids in finding their path to being a powerful force. You may remember that one of my Good People posts last November highlighted an organization called Youth Service America.
Steven A. Culbertson is President & CEO of YSA (Youth Service America), a global nonprofit activating youth, 5–25, to find their voice, take action, and acquire powerful skills as they solve problems facing their communities. The Nonprofit Times twice named him to its list of “The 50 most powerful and influential leaders” in the sector, saying, “Steve Culbertson has helped to position volunteering and young people as an issue and a national priority.”
Mr. Culbertson began his work with YSA in 1996, and I will let him tell you a little about his experiences in his own words, for his words are powerful and wise..
“When I took over the helm of Youth Service America from its founders 20 years ago this spring, I thought my job was going to be all about motivating apathetic youth, more interested in video games than saving the world.
I could not have been more wrong. Young people are volunteering at record rates, more than any generation in history.
Instead, my biggest challenge has been skeptical adults.
I’ve spent a good deal of the last two decades encouraging adults to remember their own childhoods, reminding them how powerful they felt when they were trusted, heard, respected, counted on, and asked to contribute.
Countless times, I’ve made the case with doubtful elected officials that young people need to be at the decision-making table, especially when issues that affect youth are on the public-policy agenda. As they say, if you are not at the table, you’re on the menu.
The history of the world is the history of power, and there is no question that young people become powerful when they bring their energy, commitment, idealism, and creativity to bear on the world’s problems. As the history of people who are African-American, women, immigrants, disabled, or LGBT reminds us, those in power do not share it easily.
The United Nation’s has publicly stated that the Global Goals will not be achieved without the significant contributions of young people around the world, so we have a lot of hearts and minds to change. A 16-year-old African girl in Lesotho told me that I was the first adult to give her permission to change the world. Less than a month later, I heard the identical complaint from a 16-year-old American girl from New York. When commencement speakers tell graduates that they are tomorrow’s leaders and the hope of the future, we put young people “on hold” at their most creative time in life. For too many youth, the promise of leadership never surfaces.
As adults, we must raise our expectations for what youth can accomplish in the present — as players, not spectators; as actors, not recipients. We simply cannot afford to wait for young people to grow up before they start tackling the biggest problems facing the planet — we need them to be the leaders and the hope of today.
When teenagers across the country took the reins of the gun safety debate after the high school massacre in Parkland, Florida, they reminded us that young people have always played a pivotal role in America’s common life, starting with the birth of our Nation. The average age of Founding Fathers like James Monroe and Alexander Hamilton was only 19 when they rebelled against the 38-year-old king of the most powerful empire in the world. The #NeverAgain students also honor other youth-led movements ranging from Women’s Suffrage, Voting Rights for 18-Year-Olds, Campus Free Speech, Ending the Vietnam War, and the Civil Rights Movement. In each case, youth leadership moved America forward, with some measure of kicking and screaming.
One question I’m constantly asked, often with skepticism, is “What do they actually do?”.
Well, if you’re pre-teens like Jackson Silverman, Katie Stagliano, and Will Lourcey, and you cared about hunger, you and your friends started nonprofits like I Heart Hungry Kids, Katies Krops, and Friends Reaching Our Goals. You then spend your adolescence feeding hundreds of thousands of people. Literally.
YSA also supports children and youth volunteering to end homelessness, climate change, illiteracy, gender inequality, middle school bullying, water scarcity, and just about every health, education, human service, human rights, and environmental issue on the planet. To measure our global impact in more than 100 countries, YSA aligns our outputs and outcomes with the United Nation’s 17 Sustainable Development Goals, to build a better future for everyone.
When young people decide to tackle a problem, YSA suggests they do it ASAP. Yes, we want them contributing to the greater good today, long before they become adults. But we also recommend they change the world using one (or more) of the four ASAP strategies: Awareness, Service, Advocacy, Philanthropy.
Youth are powerful forces in raising awareness about big community problems. Consider their roles in successful public education campaigns to stop littering, start recycling, wear seat belts, and limit exposure to second-hand tobacco smoke. Today, YSA supports students raising awareness in their communities about everything from water conservation and clean energy, to the humane treatment of animals, childhood obesity, and the opioid addiction crisis.
The “S” in ASAP describes the traditional community service route many kids take. They clean beaches and parks, tutor younger students in English and math, teach seniors how to use technology, ladle soup in shelters, include their peers with disabilities in extra-curricular activities, deliver groceries to people The second “A” in ASAP is about advocacy and the common good. It may be the most difficult, but also the most sustainable contribution youth make, since it focuses on changing the rules of the game. It’s about inclusivity, fairness, and equality in policies and laws. Since it may buck tradition and age-old power structures, youth advocacy requires intense working sessions with public officials, as well as compromise and patience. One project YSA supported with a grant was the Texas Hunger Warriors. After studying the official hunger statistics, these third-grade students decided it was unfair that 1 in 5 of kids like them lived in food insecurity. So they donned orange t-shirts, rallied in front of the State Capitol in Austin, and worked with the Legislature to pass the Texas Breakfast Bill. Don’t tell them that 9-year-olds can’t change the world!
The “P” in ASAP is for philanthropy. Bake sales for the hungry, lemonade stands for the Tsunami victims, car washes to help refugee kids, and even 46 hour Danceathons at Penn State that raise more than $10 million for children’s cancer every year. Sometimes it just takes money to solve the problem.
When young people serve their community ASAP they gain experience and agency, but they also learn critical workplace skills valued by every employer on the planet — empathy, critical thinking, creativity, collaboration, and communication. They become more likely to vote, give money to charity, and participate in the civic life of their community for a lifetime.
Congressman John Lewis, who was handcuffed and bashed on the head as a teenager trying to make “A More Perfect Union” describes student activism like the #NeverAgain movement as youth getting into “good trouble.” Oprah went so far as to compare the Parkland students to the white and black students who banded together as Freedom Riders during the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s.
The history of the world is the history of power, so it’s high praise to be compared to another generation of young people who succeeded in changing the world. It’s also a high bar. But armed with the courage to turn their unfathomable grief into something positive, plus their cell phones, social media accounts, lots of adult champions, and a natural dose of energy, commitment, idealism, and creativity, we must be optimistic they will succeed.”
This man has dedicated the last 22 years of his life to helping our youth to be all that they can be, and I think he deserves a huge round of applause. Next week, I will shine the spotlight on some of the young people he mentioned who have done great things. Thank you, Mr. Culbertson, for showing us just how much our kids are capable of, if we just give them the guidance and a little bit of encouragement.