Once again, we are seeing the deadly effects of systemic racism in our country, as well as the social and economic inequities exposed and made worse by the health and economic crises caused by COVID-19. Youth service has never been more important – we need all young people to find their voice, take action, and solve problems facing their communities.
At the same time, service projects should never act as a band-aid covering up deeper issues of systemic inequities and institutionalized racism. As youth lead substantive service projects, they learn empathy, question assumptions, examine root causes of problems, and gain problem-solving skills to create the difficult but vital changes that our society needs so badly.
Racism can take many forms, and young people may be more familiar with some forms than others. They might have thought about individual-level racism, which includes private beliefs and biases and how those attitudes affect interpersonal relationships. They might not have thought as much about systemic-level racism, which includes unfair policies, discriminatory practices, and racial biases within and across institutions and systems of power which result in unequal outcomes (whether intended or not).
Recent events have shown that it’s not enough anymore for our policies and practicies to not be racist – we them to be anti-racist. Race Forward, a nonprofit organization that brings systemic analysis and an innovative approach to complex race issues to help people take effective action toward racial equity, defines anti-racism as the work of actively opposing racism by advocating for changes in political, economic, and social life. Dr. Ibram X. Kendi, author of the recent best-selling book How to Be an Anti-Racist defines an antiracist as someone who is expressing an antiracist idea or supporting or an antiracist policy – policies that yield racial equity and ideas that talk about the equality of racial groups.
Since service projects are interventions to address a community’s most pressing problems, every service project can and should be an anti-racist service project. It won’t happen automatically though – intentional thought and planning on the part of project organizers is necessary.