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Interview with Dr. James “Jim” Kielsmeier

Dr. James "Jim" Kielsmeier James “Jim” Kielsmeier is founder and President/CEO of the National Youth Leadership Council, based in St. Paul, Minnesota. He also founded the Center for Experiential Education and Service-Learning at the University of Minnesota, where he is also an Adjunct Professor. Kielsmeier helped initiate the nonprofit African Reconciliation and Development Corps International and led their first project in Somalia (1993-94) during the civil war.

Jim, thank you for agreeing to talk with us today.  To begin with, would you tell us about how you came to be the President/CEO of the National Youth Leadership Council?

Yes, I turned out to be the founder of NYLC and that was brought on by the need to build an organizational structure around some programs that I had been implementing for 4 years and the need to maintain the integrity of these programs in a way that could not be maintained if I was a part of another organization. I was invited in 1983 to teach part time at the University of Minnesota but also to build the youth service/service learning/ positive youth development program areas.  And to do that in the form of retreats and trainings for young people, eventually evolved into training and retreats for teachers and youth workers.

Could you give us some information about the National Youth leadership Council and your work here?

Our mission is to build peaceful and more sustainable communities through service and service learning. It’s work that is related to creating context where young people can be useful in shaping their surroundings, shaping their world, and that the experience of being involved in the service could be connected to their own academic development and personal development, and civic engagement capacity. In the process of contribution, they will build better communities, and also in the process, they would be enhancing their skills and understanding. At the same time, they will gain a better understanding of what it means to be a citizen in a democratic society, which means you have to contribute. It is more than just volunteering. It has to do with thinking critically about what needs to be supported in the society, what needs to be changed in the society and being an active contributor around making those changes.

What are the goals and objectives of your organization?

Our vision is that every child, every student, every year would have the opportunity to be encouraged to contribute through service learning. That’s our vision. We see now about 33 % of all schools in the US have some form of service learning in them. 66% has some form of community services which means it’s volunteering without the learning dimension, and that’s okay because it often leads to service learning.

What parallels and connections do you see between Shinnyo-en Foundation and your organization?

I think we have a shared focus in our respective work of creating a more just and peaceful world. Both organizations have a profound respect for what young people say and how they contribute to society. We both understand the role of formal education in the process of working with young people, and lastly but not least I think it has to do with the spiritual dimension, in that we accept and encourage people of all faith traditions to be invested in service. All success in life does not revolve around one’s personal achievement, but is very closely related to the well-being of our families, well-being of our communities, well-being of our countries, and well-being of all the world citizens.  And I think in that perspective we have a share outlook with Shinnyo-en.

Can you tell us a little bit about the upcoming NSLC in San Jose?

The conference itself is built around the theme very close to the heart of what California has been about for years, especially in San Jose and the Silicon Valley which is the theme of Inspire, Imagine and Innovate. The one thing we are going to highlight is that it’s time for another generation of ideas and creativity to address important issues of our day. We have reached the point in human history where doing more of the same at a greater level is not going to be enough. We need new thinking and new creativity, and the hope is that the conference will demonstrate how young people working with older people as they invest in the world through service learning can be catalysts for greater creativity which will lead to greater problem-solving and greater solution development for issues about which we’re all concerned.

One of the things that we are introducing is the idea of the generator school network, a network of schools and teachers from around the country and eventually around the world, who will be joined together around service learning.  They will be able to support one another, through a professional development online community through the generator school network.  Over 200 schools have joined in a matter of a month. I was in London two weeks ago at the invitation of Federal Dept of Education. I spoke about the generator school network and how they can become involved in service learning. We’re beginning to explore networking. I know by talking to Haru that there’s an interest in Japan and other parts of East Asia, and it would be wonderful to have a dialogue on how there could be a parallel effort that involves a collaboration between countries and shared vision of encouraging active service by young people.

What were your impressions of the Six Billion Paths to Peace event in San Francisco?

I was very impressed in that the Six Billion Paths to Peace awards highlighted the contributions of some people who normally are not recognized in society for what they contribute. I think Shinnyo-en demonstrates a commitment to the ideal that everyone has something to contribute and in so doing they bring about the possibility of a more peaceful and sustainable world.

I was also at The Lantern Floating service in Honolulu, and I think the combination of recognizing the contributions of today and the strand of connectivity to our ancestors are something quite distinctive and important

Now Jim, we’d like to learn a little about your interests outside of your professional work?  What is the best book you have read recently?

As far as books I’m reading, I’m reading several at once, and the one I just finished is The Omnivore’s Dilemma and particularly influenced by the author Michael Pollan.  It’s a history of our food system in the United States and how incredibly unhealthy and destructive the foods can be, or healthy and very beneficial. The idea is that we can “vote” with our forks, and choose what we consume.

When not working, how do you spend your free time?

I have a fairly large garden, it’s almost a quarter acre, so I’ve been cultivating it now for well over 12 years. My apple trees are mature and producing apples, my cherry trees are mature and producing cherries, I have raspberries, and strawberries. I grow potatoes, squash, carrots, beans, peas, cabbage, and corn.

So, gardening is your passion?

It is a passion, yes.  And I’m very passionate and interested in the natural world and the outdoor world that I explore through hiking, through paddling my canoe or through cross-country skiing. When I was a younger person I did quite a bit of mountain climbing.

And in closing please share with our readers, what is your personal path to peace?

My path to peace has to do with my family. I find now that I have a much greater appreciation for meaningful relationships with the people that I’m the closest to: my wife, my three daughters, my two grandsons, and my extended families of sisters and cousins and nephews and the like. It’s important for me to maintain peaceful relationships with them, and then by extension people I work the most closely with, namely the people in my office, to work on being fair, being a good listener, to be honest when I have to provide a critique but at the same time encouraging in their own growth and development.  So this really starts first and foremost with me and my own spirit and my own heart, of being attentive to the things that bring me spiritual wholeness and includes my spiritual practices in appreciating my personal relationships starting with my family and then going out from there.