From our own experiences as kids to having kids of our own, each of us has an emotionally charged relationship with the word "youth".
Our thoughts of youth are shaped around the boundless possibility of new discoveries, novel hopes and inspirational dreams. And yet despite all of the energy, enthusiasm and capability evident in this time of life, the challenge youth have always faced lies in the fact that they are rarely given equal opportunity to affect change or have real social impact in the world we share.
For the last three years, I have researched, interviewed and collaborated with kids born roughly between 1992 and 2002, who happen to be folded between two generations – GenY, affectionately termed Millennials, and their younger siblings, GenZ. For our purposes, I will collectively refer to these kids as "Digital Natives".
While there is certainly a generational divide that is digital in nature, the larger gap that needs to be bridged today is more cultural. From the point of view of youth, schools and parents are not properly recognizing the profound generational shift in citizenship styles that has occurred.
Characteristically, Digital Natives value experiential learning, working in teams and leveraging social technology. They want to gain knowledge by doing, rather than being told what to do. Moving seamlessly between online and real world, these kids crave "virtual meets virtuous" activities that reinforce social interactions. Because they care deeply about humanitarian causes, community service is not just an option for these kids, it's a responsibility – so much so that it has become increasingly "cool" to "give back". Nearly 8 in 10 youth today (79%) are interested in volunteering in their immediate community.
What has become increasingly clear for me — and paramount to the founding of KooDooZ — is that three stakeholders need to be considered in today's world: (1) Kids, (2) Classroom and (3) Community.
Unlike other educational experiences, Service-Learning builds the bridge between kid, community and classroom with theory and practice. When done right, kids provide service in response to community-identified concerns and learn (i) the context in which service is provided, (ii) the connection between their service and academic coursework and (iii) their roles as citizens.
Despite the fact that service in a learning community increases GPAs and critical thinking skills among youth, Service-Learning Inspired as a teaching strategy has actually gone down from 46% to 35% for high schools and from 38% to 25% for middle schools.
While it's true that recent legislative reform (as evidenced by GIVE Act and Serve America) has set in motion a growing national emphasis on increasing students’ involvement with their communities, public and private schools are actually controlled at local levels. As a result, program successes are varied and inconsistent state-to-state and school-to-school.
Simply said, the concept of Service-Learning Inspired took off before the infrastructure was in place to support it. This explains why, perhaps, 77% of middle schools and 86% of high schools (which translates to 68% of all K-12 public schools) have concentrated instead on community service and days of volunteerism. Though these experiences still enable impact, it's impossible not to question the real win that otherwise would have been gained for both kid and cause had the system enabled a learning opportunity.
In 2009, 63.4 million Americans volunteered to help their communities. This is an additional 1.6 million volunteers compared to 2008 -- making 2009 the largest single-year increase in the number of volunteers since 2003. Specific to youth, their numbers grew from 7.8 million to more than 8.2 million.
Think about this... volunteers in America provided 8.1 billion hours of service in 2009 -- which has an estimated dollar value of $169 billion.
With the bulk of youth philanthropy happening outside the conventional classroom, it is perhaps of no surprise then that one of the largest and fastest growing volunteerism trends in 2009 was family volunteering. I attribute this to the following reasons:
- Today's kids are willing to hang out with their parents. Surveys show over 90% of youth today "get along" with their adult counterparts. The vast majority of youth say they have an adult in their life who cares about them (94%) — and of those youth — 92% specify their parent(s) are the ones who care the most.
- Homeschooling, which has been cited as the fastest growing segment of American education, often leverages volunteerism as a teaching tool, and consistently graduates higher levels of community-engaged citizens.
During a KooDooZ focus group, a ninth grader shared these feelings: "As a surfer, I know I should care about my beaches, but when I was asked to pick up trash for community service, it felt like a punishment. I had my mom sign-off that it was done, instead of doing it."
Were the same opportunity tied back to a [marine] biology class, or asked of an eco-minded group of students who seek out opportunities to participate in various ocean stewardship/environmental science competitions, such as Team Marine, the call to action would have been embraced.
Ironically, this same kid shared that he would have been willing to participate in a beach cleanup had it been coupled with something more meaningful to him. Specifically, this 14 year old gravitated towards being given the opportunity to teach autistic children to surf. "My problem wasn't really about picking up trash," he revealed, "it was more like…making a difference to fish wasn’t the same as helping people. And so, yeah, I'd rather do community service for these autistic kids, even if it meant I also had to pick up trash."
Adults who label Digital Natives as "lazy" and "lost" have misunderstood what they're all about. Not only do these kids want to make a difference, they have proven that they really can have impact — as evidenced by twelve year old Zach Bonner, who has for the last six years (yes, you read that right) been advocating for youth homelessness, and Addison Graham, who at age nine, adopted One Warm Coat as her nonprofit partner. Both of these young social entrepreneurs have raised money, recruited new people to the cause and directly benefitted a non-profit.
14 year old Hannah Taylor has raised nearly $2M to help the homeless; 17 year old Riley Carney has raised nearly $100,000 to break the chains of poverty through literacy; 11 year old Olivia Bouler has raised more than $135,000 for the National Audubon Society; and so many more kids like them are doing amazing service for their communities.
While young philanthropists may not personally be able to write a big check, the financial influence they do have should not be underestimated by nonprofits, foundations or profit-for-purpose organizations. Digital Natives plan to be generous donors, with three-quarters (76%) of them stating that they will regularly give to charity.
More to the point, Americans who volunteer their time and skills to nonprofit organizations donate an average of 10 times more money to charity than people who don't volunteer.
So here before nonprofits and profit-for-purpose organizations is a phenomenal life-engagement opportunity to cultivate evangelists.
In order to see measurable, repeatable and actual success with kids in service to their communities, adults need to understand and value the passion points of the Digital Natives.
The time is ripe with opportunity to empower youth to impact the world we share. Knowing that youth learn outside the boundaries of formal education, they need access to empowerment opportunities so that they can craft their own identities in unprecedented ways.
In this way, the skateboarder intense about getting his only "high" from freestyle tricks can be revered as an athlete capable of delivering a successful anti-drug campaign. A young girl passionate about writing can promote literacy to her peers by encouraging them to write a story that they can read to kids at a local hospital. A photographer, techie, financial wizard — and all the other multitude of things that Digital Natives happen to be — can be purposed to make a higher difference.