The Anti-Cruelty Society, known best for preventing animal violence, works with youth through the Chicago City of Learning not only to promote animal safety, but also safety within communities.

“Our after school programs are an opportunity for teens to get exposed to what goes in in an animal shelter and how that can relate to community violence,” said Elliot Serrano, the society’s Humane Education Manager. He explained that there is often a relationship between animal violence and human violence. The program, for ages 13 to 18, begins with a focus on animal welfare and adoption. Students learn how the shelter works and get to play with puppies and kittens in the process.

As the youth progress, they discuss the role animal safety plays in society. Students learn about community violence and, for example, how animal abuse and neglect can relate to child abuse and neglect. They even discuss human trafficking, sex trade, and institutional racism from the angle of animal violence. “We relate back to how devaluing an animal can be a sign that someone could devalue a human,” Serrano said.

Throughout the after-school and summer programs, students hear from speakers from other organizations working with the Chicago City of Learning. “We’ve always partnered with organizations where people might not always see a connection, but we all have similar goals and we want to come together on these sorts of things,” Serrano said. “Chicago City of Learning is great because they help with the framework and the badging.” Partners include the Chicago Botanic Garden, Project Exploration, and the Chicago Public Library.

The badging concept, where students earn digital badges based on community service and participation with different organizations, has proved popular with teens. After completing programs and meeting certain criteria, they earn a badge on their online profile, which can be used later for school credit or shared on social media. By working with organizations to promote causes and programs in their community, teens learn to engage with their peers and communities in new ways. Older students can even issue badges to younger students once they’ve completed programs. “It really gives teens a sense of empowerment,” Serrano said.

Some students go on to become mentors, like Oksana Sokhan, a 17-year-old senior at Lanetech High School. “I love it,” Sokhan gushed, who started in the after school program at the Anti-Cruelty Society and now volunteers as a Digital Badge Specialist. On a typical day, she encourages students to sign up on the Chicago City of Learning, sets up service learning projects, helps students with presentations, and makes sure they’re signing in to receive credit. “When I did the after school program, I met so many people who shared my passion for animals and learned so much about how to prevent both human and animal abuse,” she says. “It was a really good educational experience, and now that we have drop-in days I get to share that with other people.”