What is the lesson of 9/11 sixteen years later? After that terrible day in America, there was a sense of unity in the face of overwhelming evil. We found humanity in one another, despite inhumane terror. However, one-third of Americans under 21 never experienced the fleeting solidarity in the aftermath of 9/11. They’re too young to remember, or were born after the day.
Instead, they know other effects. There was political polarization because it led to an unpopular war in Afghanistan that continues today; xenophobia because it was an attack by foreign-born terrorists. The unity of September 2001 could not bridge this country’s legacy of division. Those divides were on display recently in Charlottesville. They’re present in the achievement and opportunity gaps that impede minority students.
The solution to disunity is connection — to one another, to understanding, to the best within ourselves. We are connected to one another through meaningful service. Service that considers the real needs of communities impacted, by going out and investigating those needs, asking community members how they feel, and by building partnerships with stakeholders.
We are connected to understanding through service that links to curriculum and learning programs. Meaningful service is not context-free, and neither is learning. Classrooms must connect to communities. To gain knowledge from a service experience, that experience must be tied to academic, civic, or character goals that place it inside a larger picture of understanding. Disunity, bigotry, and hate are borne of ignorance. Service-learning is a path in the opposite direction.
We are connected to the best within ourselves when we participate in service-learning. Young people are challenged to take ownership of their learning. By taking action, they uncover their strengths and leadership skills. Students and communities are empowered to create solutions together. To cooperate with those outside their own circle, but who are neighbors nonetheless.
Service-learning has many virtues. It enhances teacher instruction and increases student engagement. There are reasons to adopt this method based on the benefits to a classroom or program alone. But in a larger sense, service-learning is a way to achieve unity, an American value. We are a united 50 states. We are a nation of immigrants. We are a nation of freedom, which is to say a nation of differences. It’s not easy. It’s also not impossible.
We have developed a resource for young people, with adult support, to discover the power of connection for themselves. 9/11 Day: A Service-Learning Toolkit guides educator-student teams in creating a one-day service-learning project around the theme of unity. The experience prepares students and educators to take on longer-term service-learning projects. Service-learning honors the memory of 9/11 by identifying common goals for the common good — to achieve a lasting legacy, united.