From “me” to “we” – common good and social action
Paradoxically, our young people are ostensibly the most socially conscious generation in recent history, and yet the least socially attached to their neighbourhoods. Jo Stow here reflects on the impact of our individualistic culture on how service and justice are perceived, where sometimes volunteering is reduced to merely an opportunity for self-development and justice becomes divorced from grounded reality. When motivations are individualistic and transactional, young people miss out on the experience of solidarity. Yet when justice and social action are approached through genuine local relationships, the benefits to the community, the school and for young people can be transformational.
I emerged from my tent, bleary-eyed and grumpy. I had been awoken at the crack of dawn by a group of teens getting ready to embark on an expedition. We were on a camp site in the North Yorkshire Dales and had been kept awake late the previous night too.
Later, my teacher friend and I were debating the merits and pitfalls of a famous young people’s award scheme. He was in full flow, bemoaning the decline in the calibre of today’s participants who, he claimed, had absolutely no interest in hiking, volunteering, or serving – except in how good it looked on their CVs and university applications!
Telling the story of a young man who had volunteered to tidy the equipment in the department he leads, he reported, “the help dried up the moment the necessary number of weeks of volunteering was complete.”
A later conversation with a participant returning from a 17-mile hike reassured me. Not all youngsters are captured by such a self-promoting approach. There was no trace of that transactional mentality in this young woman. She had embraced the challenge, both in terms of enthusiastically seeking an opportunity to contribute to her community, and as a chance to develop herself in readiness for adult life.
As Common Good Schools project leader, I find it interesting to observe young people’s culture through the eyes of the teachers in our partner schools and of youth leaders too. I find it especially illuminating when considering young people’s interaction with award schemes.
On the one hand, young people are immersed in a ‘me-culture’ that drives them to a hyperfocus on ‘my looks’, ‘my rights’, ‘my education’, ‘my tribe’, ‘my profile’ and ‘my image’ – both in terms of actual physical body image and through the distorting prism of social media.
Our individualistic culture – based on the philosophy of the “unencumbered self”, shaped around a false conception of freedom unburdened by the relational constraints of family, community and history – reduces the value of giving time to others. Instead, there is enormous pressure for personal perfection and self-actualisation, resulting in anxiety and a consumerist mentality towards education and life in general.
On the other hand, ‘Gen Z’ are the generation that apparently care more passionately about social justice than any before them:
“For today’s teens, addressing injustice in our world is a top priority—more than any other generation [we have] studied to date… The emerging generation truly wants to make a difference when it comes to addressing what is broken in the world.” Barna Group 2022
These observations may seem at odds with each other. As if the confusion of the post-modern mindset allows for our teens to hold these seemingly opposed perspectives simultaneously.
But concealed within this paradox are some poignant truths. Sometimes, the passion to change the world can represent justifiable concern about genuine injustice, but sometimes it can be driven by individualistic motivations.
“Young people are ostensibly the most socially conscious generation in recent history…But on the other hand, they are easily the least socially attached to interpersonal networks or to their neighbourhood… Young people are half as likely to speak to neighbours, and a third less likely to borrow or exchange favours from them, as they were in 1998.”
As many observers have noted, willing the world to suit one’s own desires while avoiding mutual obligation can result in motivations for “justice” morphing into self-gratification, virtue-signalling, and even narcissism. The drive to campaign for change may be accompanied by anxiety, by an inability to set one’s own house in order and by the absence of true solidarity.
At the same time, despite these pressures, there are some young people who instinctively feel the void generated by the ‘me-culture’. This recognition drives a desire for the kind of justice that is rooted in a deep longing for connection, and which rejects the individualistic paradigm. They sense that their needs can only be truly met through relationship, and that authentic connection simultaneously benefits both parties.
Sources of Joy
There is plenty of evidence (and memes on social media) to show that, rather than being counter-intuitive, putting others’ needs first in the context of reciprocity and mutuality is invariably life-giving, a source of joy.
Our young people urgently need opportunities to learn what it takes to build lasting local relationships.
This begs the question whether social action opportunities offered in schools are relational or transactional. And, whether, without due vigilance, the individualistic culture can reduce the good opportunities offered by awards schemes to mere forms of self-development, where it is “all about me.”
School leaders will already be familiar with young people’s innate sense of justice and their desire to address issues they perceive as unfair. Research by the Barna Group demonstrates that young people of faith in Christ are particularly motivated to act where they see injustice. It is interesting to note that:
“Most teens, including Christians, have reservations about today’s leaders. Educators are a notable exception. Far and away, teens most look to schools and educators to play a role in justice. Nearly 9 in 10 justice-motivated teens (86%) say schools should play a “major” role in addressing injustices. Among Christian teens, 71 percent feel this way.”
Social action and the building of local relationships
Young people are looking to their schools for a lead in terms of making the world a better place. Whether it be injustices overseas or national issues, schools are often keen to help young people raise money for charity and run campaigns, but these are often transactional activities.
There are also injustices in our own neighbourhoods that need attention too, and which are within our capacity to address through local relationships of solidarity. It is worth investigating if young people are aware of their own communities’ concerns and whether they can identify ways to respond appropriately, in relationship with others. This is a question of agency.
We might also consider ways to encourage young people engaging with the volunteering elements of youth award schemes to adopt more relational approaches, and to avoid a consumerist mentality, so they find the award activity fulfilling, more than a means to an end for their CV.
Where are the opportunities for social action centred on genuine connection that enable our young people to gain experience in their local area? How can our young people taste the life-giving joy that comes from real, reciprocal relationships?
This is where Common Good Schools can help.
Our proposal is:
A school rooted in the community can be a force for the common good.
Rather than seeing volunteering as a discreet activity for a limited project, and rather than outsourcing the charitable work by raising money to pay others to be ‘on the ground’ doing the work, Common Good Schools encourages young people to contribute to their neighbourhood through local relationships.
Enabling young people to discover a sense of purpose alongside others, where social action means acting together in the local, we encourage our partner schools to form and develop long term relationships with their neighbours. These are foundational. Our vision is for the school community, including students, to be routinely working alongside local bodies to address shared concerns in the neighbourhood.
Through Common Good Schools lessons and assemblies, young people look at who they are, what they have to offer and what their neighbourhood needs. During the 10-week programme they might notice in their area that loneliness in young people and in the elderly is a concern. Together with community partners, a school may begin a conversation about what might help and devise a plan that involves the participation of all parties.
Complementary, not competitive
Whilst some youth award schemes place the onus on young people to find and organise their own volunteering opportunities, Common Good Schools encourages the school to take the lead through developing existing and new local relationships.
The work done by young people with community partners, through being a partner with our programme, counts towards the experiences required by other youth award schemes such as Duke of Edinburgh, Romero Award and Faith in Action. In this regard Common Good Schools is complementary to other programmes.
We recognise that establishing something new can be a challenge but is also exciting and break new ground. This can be of great value for a school community, not only in terms of fulfilling Ofsted requirements and enhancing local reputation, but also enabling a genuine contribution to the strengthening of local neighbourhood life.
As a charity, T4CG accompanies schools through an offer of CPD. Our first will run in October and will bring together colleagues from across the UK to receive input on Common Good Principles, be inspired by examples of Community Engagement activities in other schools and provide an opportunity for discussion and Q&A.
From me to we
Thinking back to that campsite conversation as dawn was breaking, I believe passionately that young people are hungry for real relationship and for a more just society. But they need help to overcome the culture of individualism that fuels self-consciousness, isolation and anxiety. Their natural sense of justice and longing for connection can be nourished through local relationships and collaboration with neighbours in the places where they live and work.
When a young person adopts ‘Common Good Thinking’ they begin to see that they belong to a place. As they build relationships with the people in that place, there is then the potential that they will begin to see themselves as ‘we’ rather than ‘me’, developing an understanding of their neighbourhood and its needs, giving them reason for action that is not simply for their own benefit.
This is what gives life meaning and purpose.
Jo Stow | Project Leader, Common Good Schools
Jenny Sinclair | Founder and Director, T4CG
We’d be grateful for prayers during the next few weeks.
Thank God for…
- A new school partner – Oaklands Sixth Form College
- The new Common Good Schools website due to launch in October
- A successful first CPD session
- Schools who have expressed an interest in the programme to make a commitment to join
- For Jo to achieve a lot in limited time
- For financial support to further Common Good Schools
“So we, being many, are one body in Christ, and individually members of one another.” Romans 12:5
Do you have a link with your local school? Are you a parent, student, teacher, senior leader, director of an academy trust, trustee or governor? We find the best way to engage is via a personal introduction. Please get in touch with Jo if you could help facilitate an introduction.
Click here for a free sample pack of the Common Good Schools resource to try at your school.
For more details about the Common Good Schools programme, contact Jo Stow at email@example.com or 07886 240 685