Service Learning & Public Deliberation: Connecting Two Complementary forms of Civic Engagement

Erin Payseur Oeth, Associate Director of Civic Learning Initiatives, Baylor University

June 25, 2018

I started my career in civic engagement working in the area of service-learning, building links between the classroom and the community. Through the years, I have transitioned to a focus on deliberative work, building civic literacy, skills, and practice that lay the foundation for informed engagement. On a broader scale, we have seen the conversation within CLDE shift from more of a service-focused engagement to a broader civic engagement that includes service, deliberation, voter engagement, and social justice work in ways that have enriched the field, our students, and our communities. 

Yet, sometimes there is a tendency to see these different initiatives as separate and distinct, without considering the ways they often intersect and complement each other. Sometimes perhaps there is a tendency to think of service-learning as passé in light of renewed emphasis on other streams of civic engagement like deliberation.

For the purpose of this blog post, I want to explore how service-learning and public deliberation, in particular, can build off each other and suggest possible advantages for integrating these efforts on campus. The old does not have to give way to the new, but rather can open us up to exploring new possibilities.

We know that service-learning is a high-impact practice. Longer term service experiences using service-learning is associated with higher civic knowledge, civic dispositions, and efficacy scores . It also has been shown to help students foster a greater attachment to communities.   

Public Deliberation has also been shown to broaden awareness of public issues and improve democratic skills and attitudes. It is also associated with improved skills relating to judgment, wisdom, and group decision-making, as well as individual and group efficacy. 

How can these two modes of civic engagement build off each other to deepen civic learning experiences for our students on campus and in the community? I want to suggest several possibilities that I see for enriched synergy between the two:

  • Service-learning brings personal experience and applied practice to the policy conversation. Public deliberation brings policy discussion to the applied experience. Through service-learning experiences, students have some tangible experience to contribute to policy conversations. For example, working at a homeless youth shelter provides a deeper context from which to have a conversation about housing and homelessness. Service-learning equips students with a broader collective experience upon which to build as we think about potential solutions in a deliberative forum. And the deliberative forum provides the space for critical thinking and reflection on policy issues to the applied service experience.
  • Public deliberation is an invitation to the table for those in the community who may be left out of traditional policy conversations. Just as service-learning can make us aware of power dynamics and privilege, public deliberation offers a counter framework which can diffuse those dynamics. It allows everyone to have a voice and a stake in the conversation. It provides a valuable tool for integrating community voice and vision with service-learning projects and to engage in joint decision-making for community-based projects. For those we typically serve, this can be a huge paradigm shift in being a part of imagining and creating solutions and part of the implementation plan afterwards.
  • Public deliberation offers the opportunity for students and community members to come to the table together and to learn from each other. It is a powerful way for students to be with the community before working with the community. Everyone benefits from the collective sharing and learning that takes place, and that shared experience can go a long way to fostering the mutual respect and understanding that forms the foundation of effective service-learning partnerships. 
  • Post deliberation, service-learning also provides ripe opportunity for experimentation and application of proposed ideas generated. As public deliberation often poses the questions, What can we do? What should we do?, service-learning can provide the outlet for implementing those actions. Deliberation often spurs innovative solutions for which service learning can provide the energy, volunteers, and resources to carry that work forward in tandem with the community. 

In the language of the CLDE Theory of Change, deliberative work is a valuable vehicle for developing a civic ethos, building civic literacy & skills, and engaging in civic inquiry to address social issues. Through the process of deliberation, it then moves participants toward civic agency (through joint decision making) and civic action (through implementation of proposed actions). Service-Learning, on the other hand, often starts with civic agency and civic action and then moves participants toward civic inquiry (through reflection), civic literacy & skills (through context & dialogue), and civic ethos (through democratic attitudes and habits). 

Instead of choosing one mode of civic engagement over the other, perhaps we can explore ways to integrate these practices, so that we maximize the potential of both service-learning and public deliberation. As campuses with long traditions of service-learning work to broaden the scope of civic engagement for their students, public deliberation may be a way to engage these service partnerships in new ways to enrich learning for students and the experience of community members. 

Do these ideas resonate with your experience in service-learning or public deliberation? Have you seen any programs integrate these two concepts well? What potential do you see for the intersections of these or other modes of civic engagement?

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