Promoting quality education for all.

Breaking Barriers to Equity Through Service

by Sarah Wilson, 

by Sarah Wilson, Youth Service America

Martin Luther King Jr

“True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar; it is not haphazard and superficial. It comes to see that an edifice that produces beggars needs restructuring.” – Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.



YSA (Youth Service America) supports a global culture of engaged children and youth committed to a lifetime of meaningful service, learning, and leadership. We aim to inspire, train, fund, and celebrate youth and educators who want to make an impact on vital community issues by raising public awareness, devoting their time and talents to directly impact the issue, rallying for public or political support of a particular cause, or by raising funds to directly contribute to serving a community need.

When we look at the issues and challenges in our local, national, and global communities, much of the action that is being taken involves raising awareness, direct service, and philanthropy, but not advocacy. We must ask ourselves, do activities such as collecting canned food prevent future generations of hungry and homeless individuals? While it is noble work, and a standard project seen at YSA, it can only temporarily release individuals from the intolerable woes of hunger and chronic homelessness. What if we were to guide students to look at the policies, ideologies, and institutions that create inequitable access to things like a good education, a job that pays a livable wage, affordable housing, and access to health care? Advocacy efforts to change the systems and institutions that create, exacerbate, and fuel societal issues – including those issues that plague the realm of education – is the most effective strategy to achieve a truly just society. So why leave this work to the politicians, the parents, and the education-lobby?

Advocacy requires creativity, collaboration, good communication, and critical thinking: all skills that will enhance the experience of young people in school and prepare them for college and careers. Youth who serve are found to be more cognitively engaged and more motivated to learn thus making service-learning an avenue for increasing achievement among students considered at risk of school failure. There has never been a better time to empower and equip students to be advocates and allies for positive change in our schools and our communities!

Yet, advocacy work can be daunting and many youth feel that they lack the knowledge and credibility to do so effectively. We envision people in richly detailed suits fraternizing with old associates, paying special attention to select interests. But, with youth (people under the age of 25) making up ½ of the world’s population, they are uniquely positioned to make major waves to enrich their futures. We believe that with the right knowledge and tools all young people can be effective advocates for their cause. Here are some tips for establishing credibility as an effective advocate that connect to academic expectations:

  • Know the facts: well-researched projects bolster credibility. Students should have information from? all sides of an issue to effectively engage with media, public officials, and the public.
  • Use the facts: teach students to stay grounded in the information they find and use the evidence to support their position.
  • Have a clear and concise message: using clear language is a great lesson for students and allows the audience to quickly understand the issue and how they can support innovative solutions. Staying rooted in facts will keep students on message without it getting convoluted.
  • Nurture relationships and work collaboratively: these are critical skills in school and in life. Incorporating multiple perspectives in the classroom will enhance your understanding of community challenges and innovative solutions.
  • Engage the public: there is strength in numbers. Seasoned advocates say, “it only takes 10 people to rise up for public officials to take notice.” Therefore, the more students to join and endorse the cause, the more visibility it will have.
  • Make your voice heard: utilize technology and practice using different writing styles and mediums to share your message with a variety of audiences. Share on social media, through traditional media, with local officials, and through letters and petitions.

For more information on service-learning, data, or advocacy, including trainings, resources, and tips, go to the YSA Learning Center on or email Sarah Wilson at

Sarah Wilson is the Manager of Education at Youth Service America.

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