Like many complex issues, understanding youth voice can be challenging and confusing. Is it young people speaking their minds? Is it youth addressing an issue they care about? Is it youth deconstructing systems that don’t serve them? Is it a graffiti mural in a community space?

It’s all of the above.  And more.

What practitioners of service-learning can all agree on is that youth voice is centered in service-learning – in fact, it’s one of the standards of quality service-learning. Service-learning provides youth with a strong voice in planning, implementing, and evaluating service-learning experiences with guidance from adults. 

Consider these contrasts – it’s the difference between asking young people to show up for a park clean up OR having young people lead a “walk about” where they determine the needs in their community.

It’s the difference between a list of service projects for students to sign up for OR students identifying an issue – like hunger or poverty – and investigating what they can do to address the genuine community need.

It’s also the difference between adults designing action steps OR adults sharing the space for young people to make decisions, participate in project design, and even lead evaluation efforts.

For adults, this can be a practice in letting go of control and not expecting perfection. Yet, the outcomes of youth voice are invaluable for young people – learning from wins and losses, understanding the world around them, and strengthening their civic engagement muscle, which can be a lifelong habit.

Youth-led efforts are opportunities where youth actively participate in planning, decision-making, facilitation, reflection and evaluation on issues that matter to them, taking action they see as important. Through youth-adult partnerships, adults can act in supportive ways. This last sentence is important – youth-adult partnerships offer pathways for relationship building, a key to positive youth development.

This is NYLC’s vision: All young people will become civically informed and engaged global citizens by participating in service-learning during their formative years.  And we can all do that by partnering with young people to center their voices in the actions that they take!

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