Dare to Dream: Public Achievement Inspires Youth as Community Leaders
Area youth did not grow up during Martin Luther King Jr.’s lifetime, but they continue to carry a torch for his ideals. Generations after his death, MLK’s legacy lives on through the young people who are devoted to civic service and those who helped spearhead the MLK Day March for Peace and Celebration in Lafayette in January.
The annual event, coordinated by the Lafayette Youth Advisory Committee in partnership with the University of Colorado Boulder’s Public Achievement program, included all ages, but a noteworthy number of youth participated and their colorful handmade peace signs were hard to miss.
CU-Boulder students from the Public Achievement program helped shepherd hundreds of citizens who marched that day, read original poetry during the post-march program, and led community service projects, such as a community mural and a thrift store clean up.
In 2004, service-learning students from Lafayette elementary school Escuela Bilingüe Pioneer recommended that the city host an MLK Day event. This year, three students— now high schoolers— from that original class served as masters of ceremony at the celebration.
Now in its eighth year, the MLK Day event is one of many youth-led activities supported by CU-Boulder's Public Achievement program. Public Achievement aims to provide local K-12 students with meaningful service-learning opportunities. An international program, Public Achievement at CU-Boulder is administered by the Institute for Ethical and Civic Engagement with support from INVST Community Studies, the School of Education, and a CU-Boulder Outreach Award.
The program places young people in the center of their civic environment, according to Elaina Verveer, Public Achievement director and instructor for the corresponding course, “Renewing Democracy in Communities and Schools”.
The program pairs CU-Boulder undergraduates as coaches with groups of K-12 students. The coaches help the young students find solutions to self-identified salient public issues through group social-action projects. Currently, more than 60 CU-Boulder students and nearly 200 Boulder County K-12 students participate in the program.
“This program has a profound impact on the students. It opens their eyes to public service and education,” Verveer said. “It really inspires the students to consider their service and post-graduation opportunities to maintain that ethic of service.”
CU-Boulder sophomore Ace Eckstein was one of the students who donned an orange vest and helped direct marchers on MLK Day, and he also read an original poem during the post-march celebration. As a Public Achievement teaching assistant and youth coach, Eckstein said the program offers him an opportunity to inspire youth and give back to the community.
“I like to say that I am a product of youth empowerment,” he said. In high school, Eckstein joined a queer support group, and it “was first time I felt empowered,” he said.
As a Public Achievement coach last year, Eckstein helped Lafayette freshmen approach their identified community concern— the city’s youth curfew.
“They were passionate about the Lafayette curfew, and I think they wanted to do away with it all together. But what it came down to was, they were unhappy with the way they felt the police treated them when they get a citation,” he said.
With Eckstein’s help, the teens met with representatives from the police department to address their concerns and create a dialogue between students and local police. That meeting initiated a sustained relationship between the teens and police, and a member of the police department now regularly meets with the Lafayette Youth Advisory Committee.
“The students were able to feel heard,” he said. “I felt that was a really important outcome even though they didn’t lift the ban.”
Whether youth choose to lead a peace march on MLK Day or are compelled to take a stand, civic engagement is a valuable life skill for all involved, Verveer said. Research shows that K-12 students who engage in service are 22 percent more likely to graduate from a four-year college.
“I think there is a direct correlation between community service and academic achievement,” Verveer said. “Most of the kids cite these experiences in their college entry essays. For many, this is the first time they are involved in social-justice issues. It’s very transformative.”
Learn more about Public Achievement at http://www.colorado.edu/publicachievement/
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