A myriad of disasters and challenges have plagued us this year including the toll the pandemic has taken on our youngest citizens. Globally, more than 1.6 million students in over 190 countries were forced out of school at the peak of the crisis (UNESCO, n.d.) This global pandemic has brought to light what many of us have seen for some time: the alarming inequities in our education systems.

In the United States, students are sitting in class alone with only the names of their classmates on a computer screen to keep them company because nobody turns on their cameras. This lack of engagement has led to students struggling —  academically, socially, and emotionally. The impacts for low-income and minority students are even more exacerbated due to access to technology and home environments that may not allow for a quiet place to study or participate in class. According to a recent report from RAND Corporation, in high-poverty schools, 1 in 3 teachers state their students are significantly less prepared for grade-level work this year compared to last year and the long-term effects are yet unknown (2020). Some sources estimate that the average students could lose five to nine months of learning by the end of the school year, with students of color losing even more.

Through all of this turmoil in education, there have been glimmers of hope. Protests of the killing of black and brown people across the United States has resulted in curriculum changes, renewed energy in conversations on race, equity, and inclusion in our school systems, and an acknowledgement of the need for teachers to have the skill set to facilitate difficult conversations on racism and anti-Black racism.

This examination of school curricula through the lens of racial inequity has prompted NYLC to re-evaluate how service-learning can address racial stereotypes, specifically how to avoid the often well-intentioned but misguided “missionary ideology” when working with communities.

Missionary ideology is defined as “one group trying to impose its ideas on another group, with little or no consideration of that group’s traditions, beliefs, and needs. It most frequently refers to working cross-culturally – involving groups of different ethnic, cultural, religious, or socioeconomic backgrounds.” (National Youth Leadership Council, 2007).

Service-learning is an experiential form of education where students are led through the IPARD (Investigation, Planning & Preparation, Action, Reflection, and Demonstration) process to address a genuine community need. Key to an effective non-missionary service-learning experience is the quality of the investigation, preparation, and reflection student experiences.

Effective service-learning prepares students for all aspects of their service experience including identifying the assets of the community and working in partnership with community members to address root causes of an issue (National Youth Leadership Council, 2007). In fact, Root & Billig (2007) discovered that students found meaning in their service when they interact with individuals faced with personal difficulties, confronting examples of injustice or encountering inefficient policies. These types of interactions seem to help students invest in an issue emotionally and move from an egocentric to a more sociocentric perspective on the word. In other words, quality service-learning empowers students as change agents on social issues by engaging them in meaningful service to the community that views community as equal partners and addresses root causes of issues.

The year 2020 has primed us for deep-seated change in public education. We must ensure that we embrace the connection between education and opportunity. NYLC remains deeply committed to our work as we look to address inequities across systems and ensure that every child has access to a high-quality education that includes the opportunity to develop the leadership skills to create a more just, sustainable, and peaceful world.

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