Despite what we hear in the media about generational changes that have left kids more narcissistic and less empathetic than their parents or grandparents, is it possible that American youth get a bad rap?
Perhaps it’s hard to notice that scores of young people are quietly going about the task of improving lives everywhere. Indeed, civic-mindedness prevails.
Youth Service America (YSA) calls the 2013 Global Youth Service Day the largest such event in the world, with the United States accounting for 1,623 of the 2,692 registered projects. As far back as 2005, a report by the Corporation for National and Community Service called the state of youth volunteering “robust,” stating that more than half of young people (55 percent) participate in volunteer activities each year. Their data also revealed a link between the level of youth volunteerism and the social institutions with which they interact.
In response to growing interest in service and leadership, programs that promote social change have sprung up nationwide. One such organization is the LeaderShape Institute, founded in 1986 by Alpha Tau Omega Fraternity. It was designed as a means of improving campus leadership and now partners with institutions across the country and around the world to promote the development of young people as leaders on and off campus.
My recent visit with LeaderShape students at Susquehanna University revealed a life-changing experience that effectively communicates “a commitment to a healthy disregard for the impossible.” It focuses youth on a process of committing to a vision and developing the relationships necessary to make that vision a reality, all the while maintaining a high degree of personal integrity.
It appears that the development of certain character traits, often through the simple communication of “life lessons” at home or at school may platform an interest in leadership by creating change for the good of others. When that activity involves starting, or extending, an organization, it is called social entrepreneurship.
Social entrepreneurs not only inspire change but also provide hope.
Those we hear about most often are successful adults. For example, among Forbes magazine’s top 30 social entrepreneurs are Rafael Alvarez, whose Genesys teaches low-income high school juniors basic IT skills and places them in paid internships, hoping they’ll land steady jobs after graduation; Joyce Chen, who helped to develop a device that keeps low-birth-weight babies warm even when the electricity in hospitals fails; and John Wood, whose Room to Read has opened more than 12,000 libraries in nine countries, including Nepal, Vietnam and India (Coster, 2011). Better-known examples of social entrepreneurship can be found in the work of Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg and Richard Branson.
But young people have a critical role to play as well.
Compelling examples of youth creating change can be found in the stories of three Cape Cod Sea Camps alumni: Julie Barbera, a student at Scarsdale High School in New York, who started a chapter of the national SADD (Students Against Destructive Decisions) organization in order to promote a more dependable and compassionate school community; Justin Deckert, a student at Colby College in Maine, who launched a learning differences task force to address underserved peers struggling with course work; and Pierce Keegan, a student at Wayland High School in Massachusetts who founded Pierce’s Pantry, a non-profit gluten-free food bank for Celiac Disease families unable to pay for food.
The character traits they identify as instrumental to their entrepreneurship include:
Determination • Independence • Accountability • Respectfulness • Initiative • Dependability • Patience • Trustworthiness • Cooperation • Industriousness • Loyalty • Responsibility • Creativity • Inventiveness
Research suggests that entrepreneurial characteristics
can be taught and, as in other critical areas of development, parents may play the most influential role in encouraging and modeling entrepreneurial behavior (Iannarelli, Mischel, & Aniello. July, 2009). The Bernelli Entrepreneurial Learning Method also speaks to key skills of successful entrepreneurs, including those related to presentations, project management and research (Bernelli Foundation, 2008).
It is clear that parents have an incredible opportunity to be encouraging, empowering and energizing forces in the lives of their children—some of whom might well become social entrepreneurs, quietly making noise … like Julie, Justin and Pierce.
Stephen Wallace, an associate research professor and director of the Center for Adolescent Research and Education (CARE) at Susquehanna University, has broad experience as a school psychologist and adolescent/family counselor. He is also a senior advisor to SADD and a director at Cape Cod Sea Camps in Massachusetts.
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Portions of this column originally appeared in Camping Magazine (May/June 2013)