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Steve Culberston is the CEO of Youth Service America (YSA). In 2000, Steve led the transformation of National Volunteer Service Day into Global Youth Service Day (April 23rd - 25th), now operating in over 100 countries around the world, with the participation of over 2,000 organizations.
Josh: We are all very excited about Global Youth Service Day this year! To start things off, what was your favorite service activity in your youth?
Steve: I had lots, but two stick out, and they were eight years apart. I was the head crossing guard in sixth grade, and we worked with the local police to make sure that everyone crossed the major intersection in front of my elementary school safely. Junior year in college I was elected to serve as a youth representative on my college fraternity’s national board of trustees. I remember being shocked at the first meeting when I was told my vote counted the same as the corporate CEOs who served on the board.
Josh: In 1996 you led the launch of SERVEnet, an enormous database providing volunteer opportunities in America as well as countless resources for volunteers and nonprofit organizations. What kind of innovations have you seen recently in the world of online volunteerism, and how has it fared compared to offline in getting people involved in service?
Steve: With previously nothing more than a keyword on AOL (thanks, Steve Case!), launching SERVEnet on the Internet was an exciting event. I remember when I arrived at YSA and asked the staff what we were doing on the Internet. “You know what the Internet is?” said one of my program directors. If you think about the online communities in 1996, creating a database that allowed users to update content and communicate was very Web 2.0, and well before its time.
I’m also going to reveal to you that we will launch a brand new version of SERVEnet in May. We are partnering with Samaritan Technologies to bring their decade of volunteer technology experience to our 25 years of outreach around the world. The key difference with the new site is that it will be much easier for nonprofits that need volunteers to manage their data. But in the end it will focus on what we do best – connecting youth and adults with their community. And just in time for Summer of Service.
On the supply side, online volunteerism is very important, but most opportunities are still not online, so we are asking ourselves why and working on new solutions. On the demand side, we know that the number one reason why anyone serves is because they are asked by someone. That interactive experience, even if mimicked online, is still very important. The volunteer movement is still on a natural learning curve toward mastering the online ask. This remains our next horizon.
Josh: While there are many events dedicated to service, such as MLK Day and National Volunteer Week, GYSD is the only day specifically dedicated to getting the youth involved in service. Why is it so important for this group in particular to get involved?
Steve: GYSD is unique in that way, and it motivates and mobilizes kids across six continents and more than 100 countries. But we also want GYSD to celebrate and thank the millions of children and youth who are already contributing to their communities 365 days of the year across the United States and around the world.
Habits of the heart and mind start young, and there’s a very narrow window for learning them. Whether you’re learning to read or learning to a play a musical instrument, it’s important to start young. The 28 year old conductor of the Los Angeles Philharmonic claims he’s neither a prodigy nor a genius. “Someone handed me a violin when I was four,” he explains. Young people have incredible energy, commitment, and idealism. They are extremely innovative. They are open to exploring processes and solutions that adults are likely to dismiss. The great thing about service-learning is that it teaches kids how to solve problems – something most of us are forced to learn in the school of hard-knocks. By guiding young people through the process of “investigation, preparation, action, reflection, demonstration, and celebration”, we give them valuable skills they can use in school, the workplace, and the community for the rest of their lives.
Youth service is also the classic pipeline to lifelong service and philanthropy. Not surprisingly, the vast majority of Americans who gave over $300 billion to charitable causes last year are also volunteers. And the vast majority of those adult volunteers started as children.
Josh: Do the projects performed on GYSD differ greatly from other more general service events?
Steve: Because so many young people are also in school or participating in a program at a youth development organization, many of the projects on GYSD are connected to deeper learning about issues such as health, education, human service, human rights, or the environment. We prefer that kids who are planting trees also take the time to think about the tree’s connection to other species, its role as wildlife habitat, and its potential as a carbon sink to mitigate climate change. Youth-led projects with that kind of learning and sense of accomplishment draw kids back to solve even more problems and to ask the classic service-learning question: What’s next?
We launched Semester of Service in 2008 to give teachers and professors a natural framework between MLK Day in January and GYSD in April. It turns out that “duration and intensity” of about 70 hours from beginning to end is an important dynamic to student transformation. In other words, studies show a day is too short and a year is too long. Nobody wakes up the morning of GYSD and decides to create a project, but it means we want youth to appropriately investigate the issues in their community, plan the best way to target those issues, and then reflect on their successes, challenges, and next steps. But any experience can be a doorway to service for someone; and the park cleanup, if done right, will make a lasting connection between that child and his or her community.
Josh: In 2000, National Youth Service Day transformed into Global Youth Service Day, now supported in over 100 countries. How difficult was it to move this idea across so many countries, and what sorts of efforts did you and YSA have to go through to pull this off?
Steve: Let me first say that going global with National Youth Service Day was the suggestion of a 15 year old Russian boy I met when I was visiting his country in 1998. GYSD is a campaign and no campaign is effortless, but we would be lost without the Internet and its capacity to translate and to transport information, documents, photographs, and grant applications. Secondly, we depend on a sophisticated set of like-minded partners who are global, regional, national, and local. Finally, the demographics are in our favor. Half the world’s population is under 25; 40% is under 19. I often say if your organization doesn’t have a youth strategy then you don’t have a strategy at all.
When young people learn about GYSD, and sense being part of this global movement of youth changing the world, we watch the floodgates open. For GYSD this year, 15,000 of the poorest young people in Kenya slums are educating their communities about HIV/AIDS and Malaria prevention. Girls in Jalalabad are taking leadership roles and coordinating a project that brings fresh water to their school for the first time.
Global Youth Service Day takes place over three days so that students may participate on the Friday, and youth in community and faith groups may participate on the Saturday or the Sunday. Three days go by quickly, but in the end it takes the full year to plan for the next Global Youth Service Day.
Josh: So, what is the best way to get involved in Global Youth Service Day? Can adults get involved, too?
Steve: The best way to get involved in Global Youth Service Day is ask yourself what change would you like to make in your community and which of your friends or siblings might be willing be help. Adults are great champions, coaches, funders, advisors, and mentors for kids, so don’t be afraid to put them to work for you. Create a project that’s visible and makes the case of young people being problem solvers. Don’t forget to use the Internet, the copy machine, and letters to the editor and the government to tell the world what you’re doing and why. You can also visit www.GYSD.org to find a project near you or register your own project on Google Maps. It’s never too early to begin planning for next year so please visit www.YSA.org and sign up for our grant alerts as well.