Give Youth Voice Now: Youth Voice Techniques and Philosophies for Jewish Service-Learning

Posted by: on Mar 20, 2012 | Leave a comment

Responding to “Turning up the Volume: A Call for More Youth Voice in Jewish Service- Learning”

Turning Up the Volume concisely illuminates the Jewish community’s opportunity to embrace and integrate youth voice into our service-learning programming to the same extent achieved by many secular service-learning frameworks. Although it is true that more research and data are needed, by looking to the secular service-learning community we can identify several tactics to achieve greater youth voice. Integrating these techniques into the Jewish service-learning (JSL) experience can make significant strides toward greater ownership and engagement by participants. Additionally, by recognizing when youth voice is and is not a core objective of the service-learning experience, the Jewish educator can unapologetically frame the experience to the participants, regardless of the amount of youth voice in the planning process. Taken together, the JSL practitioner is empowered to improve the experience of participants at every level.

Why Do We Want Youth Voice – and Why Don’t We Have It?

“Youth voice” is the engagement of service-learning participants in the facilitation and planning of their service-learning experience. In the introduction to its 2005 service-learning guide, the National Youth Leadership Council (NYLC) defines youth voice as when “youths are fully involved in the identifying and planning of the learning and service activities, as well as the doing.” Participants are more vested in the outcomes, more likely to take the experience seriously and to heart, and more willing to form a long-term commitment to the issues when they have had a role in planning the experience.

So, why do we not have more youth voice in our JSL programs? I agree with many of the main challenges that Turning Up the Volume identifies: difficulty abandoning the hierarchical relationships between students and teachers, fear of losing out on curricular goals, and the timing and practicality of going out into the community to do direct service (particularly challenging with evening and weekend classes). Additionally, in many settings the service-learning experience starts immediately upon the arrival of the participants at a remote setting. This necessitates pre-service work to be done by the facilitators and presented to the participants. However, there are lessons we can learn from the secular service-learning community that will mitigate these challenges and show us profound ways to integrate youth voice into JSL programs.

What Does Work: Expanding our Understanding of Youth Voice

Service-learning is a complex experience, with many layers and components that allow for opportunities for youth voice. The most traditional opportunities for youth voice happen during the pre-project planning and community mapping. When ongoing or sustained service-learning experiences are done in the participants’ home communities, these opportunities should not be missed: they create an irreplaceable ownership of the experience as a whole. In a Jewish setting, we have the opportunity to use Jewish values as a tool to ensure that the participants remain focused on the curricular objectives set by the facilitator or the institution.  By engaging in a conversation that links particular Jewish values to the subject, we can then move into a service-learning focus that is easily linked to the learning goals.

However, as central and ideal as pre-planning is, it is not the last time that youth can be involved. Youth can be responsible for supporting a true partnership (another core component of an excellent service-learning program) with the local service agency. Even if done remotely, participants can communicate with the agency, perhaps through targeted interviews, information sharing, and working on project details. Selected participants can be tapped to teach this information to the rest of the group, building the understanding that each participant has a role in creating the service-learning experience.

In immersive service-learning experiences, participants often travel to remote locations and first engage with the partner organization and community only after arrival, making even minimal communication difficult. However, even once the group has arrived there are still opportunities for youth voice. Participants can share in the creating of objectives for their experience. Including the personal goals of participants in the overall initiative will concretize the role that the participants play in creating their own experience.

Turning Up the Volume highlights reflection as a key way that JSL projects are exploring youth voice. It does, however, fall short by suggesting that reflecting on one’s experience is an expression of youth voice. Solid and intentional reflection is critical to a successful and meaningful service-learning experience. Service-learning cannot exist without guided reflection. However, simply participating in reflection does not necessarily provide the sense of ownership and responsibility that is the goal of youth voice. Participants can design their own reflection, after seeing models of different formats and perhaps studying the objectives of reflection. Participants can work with a facilitator to lead reflection sessions with their peers. Particularly if they were involved in the earliest community mapping and Jewish value linking, participants can look back to the initial objectives of the experience and measure their success. They can also identify new ways to extend their reflection—learning together with the partner agency and bringing the experience to a broader community.

Youth voice can even come in when a particular project is winding down. Participants who identified the goals of the experience can measure the extent to which they met those goals. They can create guides for future groups and identify resources that they wish to continue to provide to the partner agency. Service-learning at its best does not include a hard stop. Participants can be guided to turn their project’s conclusion into the beginning of a new initiative.

Broadening, Reframing, and Being Unapologetic

Broadening our vision of servicewill help us see new ways to integrate youth voice into service-learning. Just: Judaism. Action. Social Change by Kimelman-Block & Menkowitz introduces a model that expands social change work into multiple approaches (including direct service, philanthropy, advocacy, community organizing, and social entrepreneurship) that together create systemic change.

With this expanded definition of service, the first experience (usually a direct service experience) becomes an introduction to or a first engagement with a community problem, and the broader opportunities for youth voice come to life. Even in the most prescribed and pre-planned experiences, there are follow-up actions and local advocacy initiatives to be designed by the participants. If the facilitator comes into the conversation with this mindset, then the experience organically becomes part of a larger whole.

Youth voice has many benefits, fostering commitment to the community and a sense of ownership over the project and the experience.  However, the reality is that youth voice is not always the first priority. Despite its benefits, I think that practitioners do themselves more harm feeling apologetic or (worse!) defensive when other objectives are achieved at the expense of youth voice. As mentioned earlier, youth voice is particularly difficult to integrate into the early phases of immersive programs at remote destinations. It is imperative that practitioners evaluate their programs, seek out opportunities to integrate youth voice at as many stages of the experience as appropriate, and focus on ensuring the best experience for the participants. Practitioners who do this should feel confident that they are providing a transformative experience for the participants and the community.



Youth voice is an incredibly powerful component of service-learning. It has not yet become as widely integrated into Jewish service-learning as it can be, but the opportunities are ripe for strengthening and deepening the Jewish service-learning experience.