Extensive research supports the proposition that community service is important and should be encouraged among our nation’s young people. It teaches compassion and understanding, building stronger communities. It gives young people a sense of purpose and cultivates adult citizens who are more engaged in their communities and in politics, strengthening our democracy. In his speech earlier this month promoting the idea of two years of free community college, President Barack Obama called attention to existing programs in Tennessee and Chicago that require their students to do community service, and throughout his presidency has expanded programs to encourage service by all young people. On Martin Luther King Jr. Day, this quotation from Dr. King makes its annual appearance: “Life’s most persistent and urgent question is: what are you doing for others?”
For many high school and college students, volunteering is required for graduation. At Menlo College, where I teach, scholarship students must perform 30 hours of service a year, and all seniors must serve 15 hours. Researchers find this service contributes to support for prosocial values (such as the importance of helping others) and to lifelong commitments to volunteerism and civic engagement. Past graduation, many of the Millennials pressed into service hours in order to graduate are volunteering to continue to serve.
More broadly, however, few Americans are engaged. According to the Current Population Survey, 25.4% of Americans volunteered in 2013, including 26.2 percent of 16- to 19-year-olds and 18.5 percent of 20- to 24-year-olds. At the same time, however, only 36.3 percent of eligible voters went to the polls in 2014, a 72-year low. Even less common are forms of political participation that require more time and effort. According to a recent Pew Research study, only 22 percent of survey respondents had attended a meeting on local, town, or school affairs in the previous year, and only 10 percent had attended a rally or speech. For all of the talk about the importance of volunteering and civic engagement, only a quarter to a third of Americans are truly engaged.
What can be done to revitalize our communities? How can Americans be moved to work with their fellow citizens to solve social problems and change public policy? A groundbreaking new book by Hahrie Han, How Organizations Develop Activists (Oxford University Press, 2014) uses in-depth observations of and interviews with members of high- and low-engagement chapters of two national organizations to answer this question. Han finds that high-engagement chapters engage in transformational organizing, using strategies that develop the capacities of their members. They focus on building relationships and community, and actively work to transform individuals into leaders. In contrast, low-engagement chapters rely on transactional mobilizing. They find supporters by casting wide nets and identifying individuals with latent skills and interests. While less difficult in the short run, these mobilizing activities do not transform people into activists. Instead, they allow individuals to self-select the level of activism that they are already comfortable with. In the long run, of course, this makes growth and community-building more difficult.
Transferring the findings from Han’s book to everyday activism and civic engagement, required student community service can go either way. Schools that take the easy route, helping students identify opportunities for service that they find easy and accessible, may accomplish the short-term goal of fulfilling required hours but may do little to transform today’s youth into tomorrow’s engaged citizens. Until recently, Menlo College allowed students to fulfill some hours through collecting recyclables: an easy (and not surprisingly, very popular) option for many students. Thankfully, that option is no longer offered. It probably did little transforming, and may have created resentment about and resistance to recycling to boot!
Instead, schools should push students to go beyond their preexisting comfort zones, to engage in community service that transforms them. Han shares the story of Dale, a doctor in the National Association of Doctors (the names of the individuals and organizations are replaced with pseudonyms). Dale started by volunteering at a phone bank but was then asked to organize and run one on his own; other leaders held his hand and taught him how to make the event a success. He was transformed into a leader.
School community service requirements that challenge the emotional and cognitive capacities of students, and create interdependent work that involves strategic autonomy, are more difficult in the short run, but they create leaders and enhanced communities. Pushing today’s youth to engage in these sorts of volunteer opportunities—to organize their own food drive, or blood drive, or neighborhood cleanup day—will require more hands-on coaching by teachers and administrators. They will require organizers to reach out to individuals personally, and to build a sense of community and social capital. It’s hard work—much harder than collecting a bag of empty water bottles. But as Han’s research firmly demonstrates, it will lead to stronger individual leaders and stronger communities. Her insights about the transformational power of organizing chart an inspiring path for those interested in developing a more engaged citizenry and a healthier democracy than the one reflected in recent levels of voter turnout.