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A social justice/community effort in DC

sarak's picture

I just wanted to share this non-profit fellowship for high school students in the DC, Maryland, and Virginia areas, which I was a part of last year. The fellows meet weekly throughout the academic year and develop their own social justice ventures. The fellowship culminates in a presentation and panel to real investors, who can invest money into these ventures. More information here: 


jccohen's picture

This is an interesting idea about how to run a program that tries to put students at the center, or at least have their voices heard!

sarak's picture

Why did you decide to start Learn Serve? How do you see the students/yourself as agents of change?
LearnServe was started in 2003 by Hugh Riddleberger.  He was particularly interested in two questions: (1) How do you connect students with issues going on in the world around them, whether that's right in their own home, school, or neighborhood -- or halfway around the world.  And (2) How do you help students see themselves as problem-solvers, individuals who can actually do something about these issues.
He began LearnServe with our international programs -- leading students and teachers from across the DC area to Ethiopia.  He wanted to see both what they could accomplish in country and, more importantly, what they were able to learn and bring back to their classrooms and schools.
At that same time, I was living in Southern Chile working with an organization that was training adults in social entrepreneurship.  (Basically a grown-up version of the Fellows Program).  Over and over I heard from the entrepreneurs I was working with: This is great, but imagine if I had something like this when I was younger, before I was so stubborn and set in my ways.  How much more could I accomplish!
So I locked myself in the office in Chile one weekend and wrote up a concept note for "Bridging Boundaries DC," a multi-school DC youth social entrepreneurship program.  When I returned home to DC I tried to get it off the ground at [all boys' private high school in DC] and [charter school in DC], but didn't get much traction.  I sat down with Hugh over a cup of coffee, heard his vision, and decided to team up with him -- he had a network of schools eager to do more in the school year, and he had a bit of funding; I had a model for what ended up becoming the LearnServe Fellows Program!
Here's my latest thinking on what we do:
I believe in the power of young people to create change.
And I believe that leading change has the power to transform young people.
To me that is LearnServe in a nutshell :)
What made you interested in starting Learn Serve whose target population is urban high school students?
Good question -- since our target population goes beyond urban high school students!
From the very beginning, we (LearnServe's Abroad programs that Hugh started, and my Bridging Boundaries concept) had a vision that was for the whole DC Metro Area: Public, Private, and Charter Schools, in DC, Maryland, and Virginia.
We realized that there are so many programs out there that cater just to one demographic -- for example, only families that can afford to pay, or only take place in upper NW DC, or only open to students in Wards 7 and 8.  We realized that to break down many of the cultural barriers, we needed to create opportunities for students to come together, learn from each other, and work together as peers -- which is exactly what LearnServe programs are designed to do! 
How does Learn Serve prepare students for long-term success, post high-school?
I've started drawing a venn diagram:
-Business / Professional Skills -- ex. public speaking, proposal-writing, budgeting, project planning, professional communications, etc.
-Social and Emotional Skills -- resilience, empathy, teamwork, cross-cultural understanding, problem-solving
-Civic Engagement and Global Perspectives -- understanding and contextualizing a social problem; personal commitment to take action
What I love about social entrepreneurship is that it incorporates all three of these elements -- and in a way that's practical and experience-base, not just hypothetical.  Especially for students who might not ordinarily self-define themselves as entrepreneurs.  We take students who want to do good in the world -- and then give them the tools that they need to translate their ideas into action.
I believe that all our students can have an impact today -- and also that this training sets them up to be successful in college and in their careers.  In fact, we've just hired our first LearnServe alumna to a full-time staff position!  So we really do believe in the power of these programs.