Saturday, December 25, 2010

Youth Leadership Experiences Shape our Potential

     It is an inescapable fact that every person is simply a product of their experience, first guided by family and friends, but later by life and personal choice. 

     Our character, our values, even our basic decision making processes were indelibly marked by the leaders who passed through the early course of our lives.  These individuals served as beacons during our journey towards independence, responsibility and establishment of our role and place in life.   They were parents, teachers, coaches, older siblings, Boy Scout troop leaders and many others who may not have even realized that they were serving such an essential role.

     It is easy enough to search through the archives of our memory to find those individuals whose personal light has left a lasting impression on our future.  Some deserve accolades for their impact while others may have left fingerprints we prefer to forget, but their influence on our lives remains nonetheless, and hopefully we learned from both.

      One of the most influential beacons in my early leadership experience was a high school teacher.  Ms. Fritsch taught a leadership class focused on teaching high school seniors how to organize, plan and then execute dances, pep rallies and other events we all remember as so important to high school life.  We learned the basics of public speaking, conflict resolution, and small group dynamics while preparing for projects with school wide participation.

      It was not so much the content of that class that I remember, but rather the impact of putting the content into practical experience as we, the students, drove the decision making and problem solving required to orchestrate the school's social activities.  The personal engagement in project execution, accountability for success (or failure) and collaboration with my peers while working towards a common goal set the basic conditions for my success as a leader over the next twenty-five years.

     I don't know if Ms. Fritsch recognized how formative her facilitation of these service projects were to me, but I believe she understood the raw power of service learning on adolescents still trying build their identify and shape who they wanted to be as adults.  Using an experiential, project based approach she built confidence in our ability to communicate, collaborate and be creative.  Ultimately we were building confidence in our own potential.

     While the debate about the quality and effectiveness of the American education system rages on, it is not necessary to wait for revolutionary change or systemic overhaul to make a difference.  We can make a difference today by actively supporting with our time, experience and resources the widespread integration of service learning as a formal part of our youth's foundational learning experiences.  Exposing our youth to positive, productive service project learning is a very real investment in the future of our community, our state and the nation.

    The essence of service learning is exposing young men and women to leadership experiences in a service oriented project. What can be more valuable than provisioning a learning experience where young adults become leaders in their own right and in doing so, learn to interact and serve the communities and country where they live?

   Intrigued enough to find out more?  Here is a fantastic place to start:


  1. Allow me to offer a refined opening to your well-taken exhortation to service learning:

    We are FAR more than simply products of our experience. I prefer the concept that, "Experiences are not authoritative; they are simply the stones on which the blade is sharpened or dulled."

    In other words, we are shaped by the interpretation of our experiences. As a counselor in the Christian tradition, I find a vast majority of my work involves breaking the paradigm of thinking that we are products of our experience. My clients are not the abused children, or mentally scarred combat veterans, or pornography addicts, or abusive spouses that they think they are! There is far more happening on the battlefield than what I can experientially capture in my sector of fire - we need others to help us interpret what is happening in our field of view based on the bigger picture.

    Does this perspective matter in the challenge to service leadership? I believe it does. Rather than offering the experience to shape the young life, we MUST include and indeed emphasize the interpretation of not just the experience, but the higher calling of why we do service leadership (Why bother 'getting in the ring with lions?'). Yes, we stand to be shaped (not defined) by the experience, but the 2nd and 3rd order implications are often far, far more profound than we could have hoped for. Otherwise, whose to say the service learning isn't a miserable, meaningless, even painful experience? Are we content to allow that experience define us?

  2. Excellent remarks.

    Interpretation happens with, and is part of, every experience we undergo. I agree with your message that since interpretation is such a critical facet of any experience, quality leadership is required to shape it or we risk facing simply random outcomes. Without guidance one of these outcomes is to create individuals who see themselves as victims rather than empowered decision makers who can define their own way ahead.

    Service learning without seasoned adult leaders to help jointly develop the learner's interpretation is simply service. The probability of success in service learning is increased exponentially when the adult facilitators care deeply about the learners and guide a joint interpretation of the work. In this way, the learner can reflect, internalize and set in place yet another stone in the foundation of their character.