On Thursday, September 25, 2003, the Foundation hosted a dialogue entitled “Supporting Active Citizenship among Youth.” Numerous local organizations with an interest in better serving youth were represented: Santa Barbara County Education Office, Endowment for Youth Committee, Future Leaders of America, Big Brothers/Big Sisters, La Casa de Maria, and PAX 2100. Similarly, a strong contingency of students and parents from Santa Barbara Middle School enriched the dialogue.

Foundation Board Member, Marc Kielberger, shared pictures from his recent trip to Sierra Leone, reflecting on the experience while incorporating lessons learned as Executive Director of Free the Children (the largest network of children helping children in the world). Similarly, Marc referred to his efforts as founder of Leaders Today (an international youth development organization) and author of Take Action! A Guide to Active Citizenship (a text used annually by 17,000 school children in Toronto alone). The presentation began with startling statistics about Sierra Leone. At 147 infant deaths per 1,000 births, Sierra Leone has one of the highest infant mortality rates in the world. Life expectancy is 45 year of age for women and 40 years for men. While minerals are the Sierra Leone’s main export, Marc explained how many of the individuals he met during his travels view diamonds as one compounding factor fueling civil strife and extreme cases of human rights abuses. Still, Marc found hope on his trip. He visited a primary school built by Free the Children. He met and talked with numerous former child soldiers who had forgiven themselves and their former enemies, choosing to work for peace instead. He renewed his own passion for helping others in need.

Prior to our general discussion, Lauren Peikert, a 7th grade student at Santa Barbara Middle School, made a special presentation of $2,500 to Free the Children’s School Building Campaign. Lauren was inspired to help others when Free the Children’s Embracing Cultures Tour visited her school last year. The tour featured three powerful young speakers and artists from different cultural backgrounds who invited Lauren and her classmates to be leaders in their school, community, and the world. Lauren sold drinks at sports events, spoke at her church, and organized numerous other creative ways toward building a school and hiring teachers for children in Sierra Leone.

The discussion that followed contained numerous insightful comments and revelations, all focused on better identifying and meeting the needs of Santa Barbara youth so that they may have the will and skills to help others. A number of participants who were born and raised in Santa Barbara cited a sense of neighborhood as a key factor in coming of age, building self-confidence, and resolving conflict. Many participants agreed that this sense of neighborhood has been replaced with a certain degree of segregation, exclusion, and isolation. We asked ourselves, how can we restore this sense of community? How can we teach compassion in an extremely competitive culture? Marc commented that young girls often develop an interest in leadership and community service before their male counterparts. His trainings tend to focus and mobilizing this core group and challenging them to inspire and instruct their peers. Following these trainings, the school culture often shifts from one of competition to one where social consciousness is cool. Numerous parents agreed and added that parents must set a good example for their children to become compassionate leaders.

Toward the end of the dialogue, three follow-up actions were proposed. Foundation President, David Krieger, challenged all of the Santa Barbara Middle School students present to raise enough money to build another school. When they achieve their goal, they will have the opportunity to present the check at the Foundation’s upcoming 20th Anniversary Evening for Peace, honoring Harry Belafonte and Jonathan Schell. In addition, the organizations present expressed an interest in collaborating toward creating a series of opportunities for young people to speak out and participate in informative, empowering events. This series would culminate in a summer leadership camp.

If you are interested in contributing toward the successful completion of these actions or for more information about this event, please contact Michael Coffey, the Foundation’s Youth Outreach Coordinator, at youth@napf.org.