the promise and perils of volunteering

(Washington, DC): In lieu of a separate blog post, here is an interview of me with Youth Volunteer Corps. A few excerpts:

Do you have any anecdotal and/or quantifiable information about the impact that diversity has on the success of youth volunteer programs?

There is some evidence that students learn more when they work together with people who are different from themselves on community projects. (See this, for example.) There is also some evidence that it is harder to have frank discussions of pertinent issues when the group is diverse. In this paper for CIRCLE, David Campbell reports, “as the percentage of white students increases, black students are less likely to report that their teachers encourage political discussion in class, and as the percentage of black students increases, white students report less discussion in schools with a larger black population. In other words … teachers appear to shy away from the discussion of political and social issues in schools where students have divergent views.” That is a problem that requires constant and skillful attention. The best scenario may be a diverse group led by a skillful person (either an adult or a youth) who knows how to support frank yet civil discussions. But that situation appears to be rare.

Do you have any anecdotal and/or quantifiable information about how the “spirit” of a youth project impacts its success?

I think it is very important for the spirit of the program to match the real needs of a community and the values of the young people who serve. In this paper for CIRCLE, Michelle Charles finds that many African American teenagers from the inner city of Philadelphia are unmotivated by projects that involve street cleaning and graffiti-removal (to which they are frequently assigned), because they “see first-hand how the clean-up sites repeatedly become trash-strewn after all their organized efforts,” and because such work may seem to deserve pay by the city government. On the other hand, in the same study, African American youth were observed “thriving in their mentoring roles with younger children,” which they regarded as a path to long-term and fundamental change.