This weekend I took a group of high school students out to clean a beach next to a toxic slag heap Superfund site that will hopefully be cleaned up by the EPA in about a decade. It’s one of the last remaining natural wetlands in California, home to endangered species, and in the process of being restored by the Nature Conservancy. The beach is largely cut off from pedestrian access by decaying industrial sites and marked by the towering smoke stacks of a power plant. I rarely meet youth from the surrounding low-income immigrant neighborhood who have ever been there prior to volunteering to clean it up. Hopefully someday it will be restored for public access, but for now the city government seems intent on developing more crap on top of it.
For me and my organization, bringing students out to this site for cleanups is more about engaging them in the broader environmental battles in the community. But we do the cleanups because that’s what the students tell us they want to do. Young people in America have a deeply ingrained idea of what community service is and what it isn’t. Teenagers are endlessly told to go clean the beach and give soup to the homeless and help children with their homework. They’re told it’s the alternative activity to gangs and drugs and they need to do it to get into college.
The commonly accepted form of community service is about being helpful and doing what an adult tells you to do. It’s not about generating controversy or engaging in power struggles or advocating for deeper change. In fact, youth are explicitly discouraged from doing those things by both their educational institutions and their parents. Community service, as it’s practiced, is about accepting the society you live in and trying to ameliorate the problems it’s created, not about challenging the conditions of that society and how it could be different.
Why are we telling youth to clean up natural habitats we allow corporations to pollute? What kind of a country makes children sell magazines to shore up the cost of the schools we’re unwilling to pay more taxes to fund? If we really believe all human beings deserve enough food to survive, how do we justify cutting food stamps while asking students to volunteer at food pantries?
Sometimes I can’t shake the feeling that as a country we’re taking the people most capable of questioning our assumptions and re-imagining our world and keeping them busy cleaning up the shit we’re creating. Maybe it comes from our condescending assumption that young people can’t make up their minds for themselves about anything contentious, that youth wanting to participate in anything that looks “political” must be the product of manipulation and brainwashing.
I want a world where high school student groups like National Honor Society and Key Club speak at school board meetings and march in rallies and write letters to the editor and get out the vote. I want a world where guidance counselors tell students to serve on a city commission to build their college application and city councilmembers actually appoint them. I want a world where parents suggest helping at a soup kitchen on Christmas and campaigning for a higher minimum wage on Election Day.
I’m not calling for an end to community service. I’m calling for a radical opening of our understanding of what it means to serve our communities. I’m calling for a broadening of the role we expect youth to have in our communities. We should be asking young people to take the role of leadership in the public sphere, producing new ideas and participating in decision-making. That’s the kind of service we admire in business leaders and elder statesmen and public intellectuals but feel uncomfortable with youth engaging in.
More and more schools are requiring community service for graduation because in a world where students are bombarded with messages about competition and achievement and test scores it’s worth teaching there’s more to life than earning good grades to get a high-paying job.
But educators, nonprofits, and parents should be teaching young people that the community doesn’t just need your menial labor, but also needs your ideas. And your courage to raise your voice and challenge us to build a better world is by far the most valuable service you can give to your community.