Students Reducing Youth Violence

Service Learning as a Crucible for Personal and Social Transformation

Can students use what they learn in the classroom to make a difference in the community? Transformational service-learning was a cornerstone of Youth Violence Seminar and Outreach at Roosevelt University. The course addressed youth violence, its causes, and programs that reduce its occurrence. This class incorporated an advocacy service-learning experience, in which undergraduates each spent 25 hours in Chicago neighborhoods conducting interviews to explore youth violence. Students then used the information they gathered to heighten awareness and to promote social change regarding the issue by contacting their legislators, writing to newspapers, and developing Internet resources.

Reaching Out to Learn the Scope of the Problem

Students interviewed neighborhood residents, community and professional leaders, and government officials. To learn more about juvenile justice, they met with prosecutors in the State’s Attorney’s Office and spoke with officers involved in sentencing and rehabilitation through courts and detention facilities.

They participated in neighborhood clean-ups organized by city government, attended anti-violence rallies, and observed public hearings about policies designed to help children at risk. Students found playgrounds tagged by gangs and saw memorials honoring adolescents who had been killed. They visited youth centers and diversion programs that keep children off of the streets during after-school hours to develop skills and instill hope. They were invited into schools and communities affected by violence and gangs — hearing not only from children, but also listening to parents whose children had been murdered.

Translating Knowledge into Action

After reaching out, students learned to speak out. Specifically, the second phase of this service learning experience involved sharing the information students gathered with elected officials and the broader public.

Writing and Speaking with Legislators

After registering to vote, students wrote letters to their local and state officials drawing on the knowledge they gained from their field work and the course. They stated that they were a constituent concerned about youth violence, and concisely related facts, published research, and stories from their service learning to support their points in a personalized way. They concluded their letters by asking for political action, such as the support of a particular piece of legislation or the funding of initiatives to decrease youth violence. An example of one student’s letter is provided here. Students amplified the impact of their written correspondence with a scheduled visit to the district offices of their city councilman, state representative, and state senator.

Writing to Newspapers

Widening their audience, students wrote to the editors of local newspapers. These letters to the editor conveyed their poignantly-stated opinions about youth violence, conveyed relevant information, and connected with recently-appearing newspaper articles on the topic.

Promoting Awareness on Campus and Beyond

Service-learning can have ripple effects well beyond the classroom. Transformational learning experiences such as these not only influence students’ values and priorities, but have the potential to impact others as well.

“Stop the Killing” Campus Lecture and Workshop

At the conclusion of the course, students organized a symposium for the university community. They invited speakers whom they had met during their service learning work. Annette Holt spoke about her son, Blair, who was shot to death on a city bus on May 10, 2007. He was 16 years old. Blair’s alleged killer was the same age.

Kelly Wooten and Devante Swanson (above), two teens growing up on the west side of Chicago, also spoke, described their experiences living in a community struggling with violence, and shared their stories of loss and resilience.

The undergraduates then taught attendees how to advocate for change in a hands-on workshop (above). They encouraged participants to register to vote and helped them locate the contact information for their federal, state, and local elected officials. They explained how to write letters to their representatives, and how to reach out to popular media to emphasize the need for social action. They distributed their own letters as examples and provided information about how and where to mentor children at risk.

Developing Internet Resources for Public Informing

To raise broader awareness about youth violence, students also wove the photos and sound recordings they obtained during their field experiences into Internet audio slide shows. These can be seen on the class-related blog site, and have been viewed by people in the United States, the United Kingdom, Turkey, Indonesia, and Italy.

This development and implementation of this course was supported at Roosevelt University through a grant by the Mansfield Institute for Social Justice and Transformation. It was honored by the Social Psychology Network through its selection as the winner of the 2009 Action Teaching Award.