Youth engagement opportunities abound to teach kids about activism, philanthropy, service
Laura Seitz, Deseret News
SALT LAKE CITY — Cherise Udell is cooking pasta primavera for a few dozen strangers. Her daughter Sophia, 7, and Sophia's best friend Shae Sorenson, 8, are helping with simple tasks. In a little while, all three will haul the food down to Pioneer Park to feed the people staying in tents as part of the Occupy Salt Lake demonstration.
Sophia and her little sister Ella, 5, have been learning about social change and active participation since they were even smaller. Mom co-founded Utah Moms for Clean Air because she worries about pollution's effects on health, especially on children. Their dad, Kent Udell, a professor of mechanical engineering at the University of Utah, tackles global projects in a different way. Recently, he emailed photos home from Madagascar, where he'd gone as a volunteer with Engineers without Borders to bring clean water to communities that have none.
The Udells are civic-minded, interested in teaching their children to give and protest and work and volunteer in street-level pursuits. It's a great thing to donate money to a cause. But there's something special about touching the cause with your hands and solving a problem with your action.
It's called "youth engagement," and children and teens can make a big difference in their world through activism, philanthropy and voluntarism, says Adam Fletcher, who a decade ago founded the Freechild Project, based in Olympia, Wash., to celebrate the spectrum of ways in which youths promote social justice, change and caring across America and Canada.
"There are so many young people from different situations economically, educationally and socially who are doing cool, cool things focused on changing the world, from the very local to the international," he says. "I started Freechild to celebrate these things."
Over the course of a century, he notes that children have gone from being passive recipients to being active partners in world change, whether it's the smaller local world or the global playground. And there's never been a better time to harness their enthusiasm to take part.
"Our society is in crisis mode. More things are going wrong than ever before. The social situation, the education situation, the economy — a plethora of things are at a crisis point. The dilemma is that as a society we have ignored or denied (childrens' and teens') ability to solve anything. In reality, it will be them, whether now or in 10 or however many years as adults, who deal with many of the problems."
Schools, youth organizations, civic clubs, churches and others have discovered that they can design opportunities for the young to make a substantial difference, Fletcher says.
Children and teens in Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts and service clubs, church youth groups and others nationwide are volunteering, tutoring, mentoring other youths, raising money for causes and more. There's now even a public engagement office in the White House and the president has hosted two dozen youth forums.
You don't have to look far to see the variety of ways in which children, including some young ones, are participating. And there seems to be something to engage almost anyone.
San Francisco-based Generation Waking Up, for instance, focuses on helping youth lead a cultural effort to build sustainability. Its website seems to take the task very seriously: "A new generation of young people is waking up. We are the middle children of History, coming of age at the crossroads of civilization, a generation rising between an old world dying and a new world being born. We are the 'make-it or break-it' generation, the 'all-or-nothing' generation, the crucible through which civilization must pass or crash."
The Institute for Democratic Education in America (IDEA), out of New York City, is networking education organizations in a "youth-driven fashion."
Manateens, in Florida, are trying to save the manatees. Seattle has the Seattle Young People's Project that picks different activities and causes. The list is long.
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