Exercise: The Service-Politics Connection

Young people are often enthusiastic about community service, welcoming the opportunity to help others and improve the world around them. This can mean participating in a beach clean-up or serving food at a soup kitchen or filling backpacks for needy schoolchildren. Such work is commendable, but does not address larger questions: Who is responsible for the condition of the beach? Why are there hungry people in such a wealthy society? What essentials should be provided to children to afford them the best chance to succeed in school?

This exercise combines a community service activity with a look at larger policy issues and the role of government in addressing them. The key is to combine a meaningful service activity with a subsequent discussion of the public policy surrounding the issue that makes that service necessary. Below are some examples, but there are many other possibilities.


Speaker Topics –
How governments address:

Prepare bag lunches or other foods for a soup kitchen, OR gather and sort food products for a food pantry OR participate in a gleaning with a farming organization.

Hunger issues
Food deserts
The Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program (food stamps)

Participate in a beach or river clean-up OR  work with municipal government to mark storm drains warning against dumping

Water quality
Waste disposal

Help a local organization fill back-packs with school supplies for needy students

Educational inequality

Allow 2-2 ½ hours to complete the service activity; participants can be divided into teams and rotated among tasks, or all can work together to complete the task. Afterward – whether on the same day or in a subsequent session – have the guest speaker discuss the relevant issues at an age-appropriate level, addressing questions such as:

  • Why is the service necessary?
  • Who benefits from the service? What would happen if no one was performing this service?
  • Are there other approaches to meeting this need? Are those approaches being implemented here or elsewhere? By whom? Why or why not?
  • What does government do to address the problem that makes this service necessary? What more could/should government do? Why isn’t that happening – what are the objections/barriers/costs?