A Legacy of Service

By Feliza Ortiz-Licon, Ed.D, Director of Education, California & Far West, NCLR

Growing up in a traditional Latino home, I was expected to introduce myself to every adult with my name and the following Spanish phrase, “Para servir a usted.”  This customary greeting translates directly as “At your service.”  When called upon, the appropriate response—as instructed by my parents—was “Mándeme,” which closely translates to “How can I assist?”  In line with the traditional values of colectivismo, I—like many Hispanic children—was raised to be service-oriented:  to assist others by serving as a language broker, translating materials and completing paperwork for non-English speakers; helping neighbors with childcare needs; and even sending money back to the homeland to help others.

Despite our long and rich tradition of service, studies suggest that Latino youth are the least likely to volunteer or to work collaboratively with others to address community problems.  The notion of disengaged youth is further reinforced by the “selfie” culture that prevails in social media sites.  This has led many to criticize the perceived self-absorbed nature of the “millennial” generation. 

Last week in Los Angeles, however, Hispanic youth demonstrated that service continues to be a community pillar.  NCLR, in partnership with State Farm, convened an energetic group of 40 students and 25 teachers from 12 community organizations that belong to the NCLR Affiliate Network to explore an experiential learning approach known as service-learning.

NCLR’s CASA project—Cultura, Aprendizaje, Servicio, Acción—is the only known service-learning model to incorporate a culturally competent and linguistically responsive perspective that focuses exclusively on Latino youth.  Youth leadership development is a cornerstone of the CASA project.  For far too long, Hispanic youth have sat in classrooms as passive recipients of abstract information.  Through the CASA project, students are encouraged to think critically about the issues impacting the Latino community, to identify a genuine need, connect classroom learning to a real-world context, and engage in service.  More importantly, teachers are trained to validate and honor the cultural values, traditions, and experiences of Latino youth to make learning more relevant and transferable to other academic areas.

During the two-day CASA Institute, middle and high school students were forced out of their comfort zones and challenged to work collaboratively with peers, speak publicly, and reflect on why they serve their community.  Each activity was designed to give students the voice which has often been denied to them in the school system.  At the end of the Institute, one student reflected on the experience and said, “I genuinely enjoyed meeting kids from all over the country.  My fellow classmates and I had many opportunities to voice our opinions and feelings when needed.  The hotel was great, and I thank them for letting us stay here.  Overall, this experience was fun, personal self-growing, and amazing.”

Sadly, some youth are still afraid to hear themselves speak out.  NCLR will continue to work with Affiliate sites throughout the academic year to boost students’ self-confidence, develop their leadership potential, and engage them through academic learning and service actions.

This program is a great example of how Hispanic millenials are defying stereotypes and studies and continuing the strong legacy of service in the Latino community.

How are you finding your voice and serving?  Join NCLR and young Latinos throughout the U.S. and just say “Mándeme.”

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