Despite the forces that have kept people apart over the last two years, young people and adults convened for the 2022 National Service-Learning Conference in Minneapolis at the University of Minnesota this past week for the first time since 2019. As the mosaic behind the conference theme “Together” illustrated, the event’s parts made more than a whole. The joy was palpable in the first words on the plenary stage, in workshop sessions, “lightning” tabletop talks, and service projects – on- and off-site.

Young people and adults alike shared their experiences from Hawaii to Burkina Faso, expressing service-learning as a social justice strategy, the intersections of service-learning and civic engagement, and role of social and emotional learning in service-learning. Participants illuminated the need for youth leadership on systemic local and global issues such as violence economic disparities, mental health, COVID prevention, and racial discord.

Kicking off the event was Sen. Amy Klobuchar, with a reminder that this sort of engagement on critical current issues is an antidote to polarization. To persist, she urged: “You can choose to stand next to someone you don’t agree with for the betterment of the country.”

“This is a moment when we pick ourselves up, brush ourselves off, and continue to do what we do,” because “our democracy must win,” she said.

Minnesota’s Secretary of State Steve Simon built on that theme, urging the audience to encourage voting and voter registration campaigns to help young people begin to think like voters even before they are of age. Quoting a favorite t-shirt, he added, “Failure to vote is not an act of rebellion; it’s an act of surrender.”

A youth panel of activists then reflected on the sources of their courage to act. Poet Isabella Hanson, recipient of the 2022 Youth Leadership for Service-Learning Excellence Award, spoke of the threat to all Black women after Brianna Taylor’s death, which inspired her to start the I Matter poetry competition. In a powerful piece, she asks Google, “Hey, Google, where’s a safe place for Black people to live? How likely is it for Black woman to die in childbirth? What’s the Black national anthem? Why can’t Black lives matter?” After all, service-learning is an inquiry-based instructional strategy.

Similarly, student Caleb Smith was inspired by the Sandy Hook murders to create a nonprofit that features rabbits as therapy animals. Speaking to the mixed audience of approximately one third young people, he reminded the adults that they are the “kindling” to the young people’s sparks.

Such sparks took center stage with the Irreducible Grace Foundation, an ensemble of young people focused on creating safe spaces through mentoring, life skills, employment, and self-care practices such as the arts. Like I Matter, IGF uses spoken word to help address the trauma that is “an injustice of the body and the mind,” as they said in a refrain, with the rejoinder, “But we can heal!” As each actor shared a vignette of their story, the refrain resounded, a reminder that service-learning starts with identity exploration.

The role of mental health in service-learning also played out in one of a series of Wisdom Circles, designed to surface thoughts on current issues such as meeting the needs of educators and educational systems, preparing students for adulthood, and equitable and inclusive social systems. A white paper synthesizing the tabletop discussions of those sessions is forthcoming.

The award-winners took to the plenary stage on the second day of the conference, carrying forward the role of service-learning in addressing current crises. As this year’s Alec Dickson Award-winner, Dr. Andrew Furco, Associate Vice President for Public Engagement and professor at the University of Minnesota said, “Let’s serve together as a means to change the world … to help bring about peace and justice.”

“Stand proud; speak up; make your case!” he urged, with the reminder that “No one succeeds alone… real community action happens through camaraderie.”

Artist and activist Rose McGee, founder of Sweet Potato Comfort Pie and recipient of this year’s Stellar Service-Learning Award, demonstrated the power of food as a catalyst for camaraderie. She sang John Lennon’s “Imagine” as she described her instinct to take a cultural practice of making pie for those who are suffering to the survivors of mass shootings and police brutality.

Similarly, teacher and nonprofit founder Anna Edlund sees young people as prisms, like crystals – which she had shared on tabletops throughout the room. She noted that when young people are surrounded with opportunity – like a light hitting a crystal – they become prisms of light. As one elementary student said to her, “You surround us with opportunities, and then we see which ones make us sparkle.”

Such opportunities abounded on the third day, when participants took to the streets of the Twin Cities, for a day of service with a clean-up day of the Walker Art Center’s outdoor sculpture garden, toy-cleaning and sorting at Ronald McDonald House Charities, and onion-repacking at Second Harvest Heartland, in addition to a half dozen on-site service projects.

NYLC’s Youth Advisory Council members were such prisms for the event, offering their leadership through facilitation, emceeing, and reflections after the Day of Service.

YAC member Kaleb Sy, of Memphis, Tenn., described the conference as “powerful and intriguing” adding that he “learned from uniquely qualified youths and adults who are passionate about service-learning.”

Michelle Song, of Greenville, N.C. and the Love a Sea Turtle nonprofit also said she’d “learned so much in a few short days.”

“There’s power in our hands, and I could feel the energy and passion in everyone at the conference,” added Minneapolis senior Ava VanKeulen, who also served as an emcee.

And fellow Minnesotan Sunny Leonard, who is experienced in service but new to service-learning, said that she’dnever been with so many passionate people in such a small space.”

“The conference was amazing, and now that I have an understanding of what service-learning really is, I can do something impactful,” she said.

Please join us on Wed., April 27, for a virtual day, featuring the new CEO of AmeriCorps, Michael D. Smith, a service-learning showcase of student work, workshops, including a session on advocating for the future of service-learning.

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