June 26, 2006

Oprah Winfrey and Service-Learning

What does Oprah Winfrey have in common with the service-learning community? We both recently honored the legends of our respective fields.

In summer 2005, Oprah Winfrey hosted the Legends Ball, a weekend extravaganza designed to honor and recognize African American women who made legendary contributions as civic leaders, authors, and entertainers.

In March 2006, the National Service-Learning Partnership announced the creation of the Service-Learning Trailblazers award. This award is our way to honor service-learning leaders whose legacy or body of work continues to inspire others to initiate, deepen or expand service-learning.

Some Trailblazers have retired or are playing less visible roles in the day-to-day leadership for service-learning, but the lasting impact of their talent, innovation, and perseverance is legendary and continues to fuel the spirit of service-learning within schools and communities across the country today.

While we honor seven outstanding Service-Learning Trailblazers this year, I'd like to introduce you to one extremely special Trailblazer right now: Stella Raudenbush.

I personally admired Stella and her work from the first time I saw her hosting the 1996 National Service-Learning Conference in Detroit, Michigan until her sudden passing on May 21, 2005. She was for me, and for so many other young leaders in this field, a role model--a shining example of what it means to speak your truth and stay honest to the core values and traditions that make the service-learning field unique and truly special.

In many ways, Stella was the social conscious of this field--always challenging us to create meaningful, reciprocal partnerships with communities engaged in service-learning. She and fellow 2006 Trailblazer Award Winner McClellan Hall (but more about Mac later) created opportunities, such as the annual Gathering of Elders at the National Service-Learning Conference. Each year, this gathering called on all of us to remember and celebrate the spirit and wisdom of the elders who paved the way for those of us working to build stronger schools and communities through service, service-learning, and social justice.

Stella was a longtime friend and colleague of the National Youth Leadership Council (NYLC). You can visit NYLC's website to read a touching tribute to Stella, written by Jim Kielsemeier and Wokie Weah.

Shortly before Stella passed away, she and Mac wrote Wisdom Teachings: Lessons from Gatherings of Elders. Through beautiful pictures and words, this book provides important information for those bringing elders and youths together to address issues of service and community development. In this practical guide, Stella and Mac explain the steps, cultural considerations, and lessons they've learned over a decade of hosting gatherings of elders.

And if you're interested in planning a gathering of elders in your own community, check out Stella and Mac's eight-week how-to guide, also available via NYLC's website.

There are no words I can find to fully capture the undeniable spirit and contributions Stella brought to the service-learning field--both in her local community and nationwide. She was a wife and mother. She was a teacher and a friend. She is a Trailblazer. And while she is missed, her legend is not forgotten.

--Nelda Brown, National Service-Learning Partnership

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