The Path from Witness to Participant.
We all know that working together with others for the common good is a powerful means of unlocking connectedness, health, academic success, transferable skills, social capital, and more — all while having a meaningful positive impact on our lives and communities.
Yet, as the University of Maryland School of Public Policy discovered in a recent study, far too many young people in the United States do not take advantage of these opportunities.
“Despite 51-year highs among entering college students in their desire to engage in their community,” the study explained, “volunteering among high school and college students has declined since the early 2000s and remained relatively low and stagnant for the last decade.”
It’s not because we aren’t interested in changing the world! In fact, a 2016 Allstate Foundation survey found that nearly half of America’s youth would like to volunteer more but aren’t sure what opportunities are available for them.
The takeaway is clear: millions of students like us are hungry for meaningful service opportunities, but that interest often does not translate into action.
The tens of thousands of school-based local youth service ecosystems are not creating the opportunities students need to develop into systems change leaders.
In this country where we face many social and environmental challenges, no ambitious, motivated young person should have to search for meaningful ways to make a positive change in their lives and community.
This demonstrates the need for a two-pronged approach. It’s essential that we both develop more quality youth service opportunities and systems change leadership programs for youth throughout the country.
And at the same time, young people must speak up! We need to understand that systems change leaders see and interact with the world in a different way, one that recognizes and consciously applies the act of simply engaging as an effective lever to create the shift from witness to participant.
In our recent podcast episode featuring Brazilian activist Alessandra Orofino, we were inspired by a phrase Alessandra used: “participation revolution.” This phrase encapsulates a facet of the future we envision through Service Academy, one in which service participation is frictionless and widely available, and service engagement is part of a valuable pattern of actions that students develop in their youth and practice throughout their lives.
Participation is also a state of being. So to inspire truly purposeful change, we must also work to spark a “participation revolution” mindset.
Change From the Inside Out
From social and economic inequality to environmental injustice and everything in between, there is no shortage of pressing issues and global crises that demand urgent action. But whether we examine worldwide common threats or challenges that impact individual communities, like pollution, education funding, or the condition of infrastructure, it often seems that our existing systems are just not working to deliver adequate solutions. Governments that check their ambition at political borders, slow-moving institutional nonprofits, complex agendas, and lack of transparency; the systems often feel just as entrenched as the problems they fail to address.
Our large-scale systems may be ripe for change, but completely overhauling them all at once simply isn’t a practical or realistic goal. Rather, genuine changemaking starts with changing how we all think and behave within these systems — systems after all are made up of people. By transforming the underlying structures, including psychological frameworks, that support the failing large-scale systems, we can transform the systems themselves from the inside-out.
When it comes to youth participation, that means reimagining service through social innovation — a purposeful mindset that aligns service with self, fostering self-confidence, self-development, and self-actualization while simultaneously building up others and refashioning the systems that support us all.
The secret to shifting the underlying psychological framework of youth service is engagement.
Engagement Is a Lever
All change starts with engagement.
There is a subtle switch from witness to participant, and engagement is the lever that sets the new pattern of actions in motion. A switch from “what’s happening?” to “I’ve got to do something.” The switch of Stoneman Douglas High School shooting survivors from witnesses to potent activists is just one example — and their leadership has sparked a national youth awakening of agency and responsibility in the face of terrifying circumstances.
But participation can happen on many levels, including in how we move through the world in our daily lives. It starts with engagement.
If participation is an act you take, what you do, then engagement is a way to be: an earned awareness, an intentionality, an understanding of systemic inequalities, and the cultivation, from within, of the courage and skills needed to challenge them. These are basic behaviors performed by millions of people every day as they navigate the mutually interconnected network of relationships that makes up their community.
New Service Participation Revolution
These common social practices are foundational to the New Service participation revolution we envision, and by elevating this form of engagement and highlighting it as valuable to a democratized vision of service, we can lower the perceived barriers of entry to active, ongoing, rewarding, and far-reaching participation, advocacy, social entrepreneurism, and innovation.
The potential is thrilling. After all, participation can flip power structures, breaking through barriers to realize justice through systems built on a foundation — a foundation of engagement.
We believe that we, a generation of young people, are the ones we’ve been waiting for. Together, we can shape our lives and co-create the future. To change the world, we need only start with ourselves.
We don’t need permission. We just need to engage. So, which are you: Witness or participant?
– Ryan & Thomas Growney SG’24