Have you ever washed a rental car?

Reflections from a visit to explore youth social action in the US

16th September 2016

At the end of July 2016, I had the great fortune to be part of a US-Government funded professional exchange exploring the theme of ‘Youth Volunteerism’.  Along with nine, fabulous colleagues from the UK, I spent ten days visiting projects and meeting individuals engaged with youth social action across Washington DC, Boston and Miami.

One month on, my head is still full of the sites we saw, the people we met and the conversations we had.  The many discussions I had with colleagues on the trip have been continued with my colleagues back here in the UK as I reflect on the many similarities, and few fundamental differences, that might inform our work in this field.

Out of the many meetings we had, there are three quotes that have particularly stuck in my mind and that I find myself referring back to.  They represent the variety of interactions we had, but also a couple of the key themes that recurred throughout the trip.  I’m hoping by sharing them here I might be able to stimulate further discussion, and maybe get them filling heads other than my own.

“Have you ever washed a rental car?”

This question was posed to us on the second day of our trip by Steve Townsend, a staffer at the office of Senator Mike Enzi, who we met in the grand surroundings of the Russell Senate Office Building on Capitol Hill.  Had the question come on day one, it might not have stuck in my mind, but it came after an extremely useful briefing on Governance and Federalism by Akram Elias, President of the Capital Communications Group, and consequently served to reinforce his observations on the primacy of populism, individual liberty and localism.

I returned to the question many times during the week.  I thought about it in the hot, windowless classroom of Pine Villa School, Miami where we sorted through abandoned furniture with off-duty teachers and their children to find precious, usable desks.  I thought about it as we spoke to the young volunteers at the Miami Veterans Administration Healthcare System (VA) whose parents worked, or were currently admitted in, the hospital.  I thought about it when we helped to paint a mural in South Miami alongside young volunteers who had run over from houses on the other side of the park.  And I thought about it when we were being presented the billion dollar annual budgets for the National and Community Service programmes.

The question obviously suggests that you will (or perhaps even should) only invest time, effort and resources into what you own, and this is certainly an attitude and approach we witnessed.  Young people were often recruited by, and volunteering for and within their own neighbourhoods, communities and institutions.  They were giving back to what they themselves had benefitted from, in turn enabling it to continue to serve others.  The programmes that brought young people into contact with different communities, like the National and Community Service Programmes, often seemed to offer an alternative investment or motivation for the individual, for example a stipend, scholarship, or professional advancement.

I am left wondering whether this is a fundamental difference between the UK and the US.  It is obviously a generalisation, but it wouldn’t be surprising to see volunteer patterns reflecting the different attitudes to financial giving; that Americans tend to donate to institutions and communities they are connected to, and Brits to those beyond their own lived experience (often cited as a distinction between US generosity and UK altruism).  There is no doubt that the communities and institutions in the US that enable, and benefit from, this local support are often the type of community-strengthening networks that funders and policymakers in the UK are working very hard to build and sustain.  But what happens when need is located in isolated or deprived areas, and the skills, time and resources (rented or otherwise) are in very short supply?

“Education, Employment and Self-Efficacy”

These are the three outcomes that Marcella Raines, Site Director at More than Words, reeled off for us as we sat around the table at her Boston Bookstore.  We were surrounded by floor to ceiling shelves, packed with carefully sorted and catalogued books, and next to a whiteboard charting the targets, achievements and occasional set-backs, of the young people responsible for them.  Our conversation was accompanied by the soundtrack of these young people working amongst the shelves: checking barcodes, shifting trolleys, taking orders and chatting with each other.

Marcella’s outcomes list tripped off her tongue.  I’m sure we were not her first group visit this summer, and certainly will not be her last.  But it was the third outcome in the list that made me stop.  It was four days into the trip, and education and employment were already receiving top billing, both as outcomes of programmes as well as mechanisms for delivery.  But the quiet arrival of ‘self-efficacy’ was hugely powerful, and empowering.

This programme was clearly about more than giving young people an education or a job.  It was about letting them take charge of their lives by taking charge of a business, building mutual accountability for the goals they set, and whether or not they met them.  I was struck by the real impact that the explicit declaration of that outcome could have on the depth of engagement and sustainability, but also by the significant skill and courage required from those managing and supporting the programme if it was to indeed be ‘more than words’.

“Oh please, give me something that’s real”

One of the highlights of the trip for me was an all-too-brief meeting with the extraordinary Fernando Reimers, Professor of International Education at the Harvard School of Education.  Professor Reimers works on innovative global education programmes that aim to encourage civic participation and the meeting was a masterclass in the challenges and opportunities in global education, and the need for generating innovation that can be scaled.

The quote came as Professor Reimers was lamenting some of the recent efforts at encouraging citizenship and social action through education that he felt were insubstantial.  It was refreshing and salutary to hear someone so knowledgeable and experienced take such an uncompromising stance on the quality of programmes and opportunities offered to young people.

Our group contained representatives from the funding, policy and education sectors – all areas where quantitative targets can dominate decision-making.  But we all have access to evidence that illustrates the importance and impact, both for the young people and their communities, of youth-led, long-term, regular activities, with opportunities for reflection and development.  We already have these embedded in the six quality principles that lie at the heart of the #IWill campaign.  Professor Reimer’s quote should stay ringing in our ears: let’s increase the number of opportunities, let’s make them accessible to all, but please let’s make sure that they’re real.