Dr. James C. Kielsmeier has committed his life to transforming the roles of young people in society — building youth/adult partnerships that facilitate young people’s growth from recipients of information to contributing members of a democratic society. In the process, he has pioneered service-learning, an educational approach that benefits young people and communities around the world.
Jim’s work is rooted in his time as a youth worker in Harlem and as a U.S. Army Infantry platoon leader and community relations officer in Korea in the 1960s. His experiences bridge the traditional divide between formal and informal education, having served as a middle and high school teacher, leading Outward Bound programs, and bringing Outward Bound strategies into mainstream public schools. In St. Louis in the 1980s, he developed an experiential model for youth development that featured cross-age mentoring, building trust and community across racial barriers in a desegregating school district.
These experiences provided the foundation for the National Youth Leadership Council, established as a nonprofit in Minnesota in 1983. Jim incorporated team-building, youth/adult partnerships, applied learning, and community involvement into both a summer camp and education reform initiative that became the national service-learning movement.
Always an advocate for youth development and education, Jim was appointed to head a comprehensive youth service team that implemented the first sustainable state-level approach to integrating community service and service-learning in Minnesota in the late 1980s. In the 1990s, he was engaged in advocacy that led to the creation of Learn and Serve America within the new federal agency, the Corporation for National and Community Service.
Whether directing research projects on K-12 service-learning, hosting the National Service-Learning Conference over its 20-plus-year history, or convening international service-learning leaders, Jim has been at the forefront of a broad movement to reshape roles for young people. Perhaps most importantly, Jim has always had a tenacious hold on his core principles and a bold vision of a new way of building community.
In the words of Jim’s mentor, retired University of Colorado education professor Richard Kraft: “Jim is the ultimate paradox: a gardener who hunts; a pacifist who served in the military; a deeply committed man who has a listening ear; a devout Christian with friends from all religions and no religion; a man with much to be proud of, but who like the Jewish Prophet Micah seeks to do justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with his God.”
After leaving his role as NYLC’s CEO in 2010, Jim continues to teach as an adjunct professor at the University of Minnesota, where he founded the Center for Experiential Education and Service-Learning.
Jim holds a doctorate in education from the University of Colorado, a master’s degree from American University, and a bachelor’s degree from Wheaton College. He is married to the Rev. Deborah Eng Kielsmeier and is the father of three daughters.