Harold McNaron, Lewis & Clark College, Portland, OR

June 15, 2017

Perhaps this seems to be a silly question. “What is this clickbait?” you say. “Of course social justice and service-learning are intertwined! That’s the whole point.” Or is it? I’m guessing your answer depends on how you define these terms. In the Student Leadership and Service (SLS) office at Lewis & Clark College, we try to frame our work through a social justice and equity lens. To that end, we utilize Lee Ann Bell’s (1997) definition, which describes social justice as both a process and a goal. According to Bell, the goal relates to full and equal participation of all groups in a society mutually shaped to meet their needs. Other aspects of the goal relate to an equitable distribution of resources, security (physical and psychological), self-determination and interconnectedness. Regarding social justice as a process, that relates to democratic, inclusive and collaborative engagement.

Certainly some of that relates to service-learning, right? Well, not necessarily. Community-based learning scholar Tania Mitchell (2008) challenges this assumption stating:

Without the exercise of care and consciousness, drawing attention to root causes of social problems, and involving students in actions and initiatives addressing root causes, service-learning may have no impact beyond students’ good feelings. In fact, a service-learning experience that does not pay attention to those issues and concerns may involve students in the community in a way that perpetuates inequality and reinforces an “us-them” dichotomy.  

To address these concerns, Mitchell proposes a critical service-learning that: (1) names social change as its goal; (2) pursues that goal via the redistribution of power, and (3) consists of authentic relationships. That’s quite a challenge!

Here in the SLS office, we appreciate Mitchell’s challenge and have begun to bend our co-curricular service-learning program toward justice. Firstly, we’ve started to notify our community partners and our students of this new frame/guide for our work, engaging student staff in a multi-week critical service-learning curriculum. For current community partners who support this frame, we seek to deepen our engagement in order to continue building trust and understanding between our respective groups. When reaching out to new community partners, we intentionally seek organizations utilizing an equity frame in their work. For the last couple of years, we’ve co-created semesterly or annual partnership agreements, ensuring that students and community partners set expectations for themselves and each other. Implementing a policy I learned from my work with Hands On Atlanta, we reimburse community partners for some tools and materials costs and, when they are invited on campus to present leadership workshops, offer some partners honoraria - a financial acknowledgement of their co-educator roles.

Yet, we’ve only begun this collaborative process toward justice. Moving forward, SLS will utilize the Protocol for Culturally Responsive Organizations (Ann Curry-Stevens, Marie-Elena Reyes & Coalition of Communities of Color, 2014 ) to help us identify areas of success (hopefully) and improvement (certainly) related to racial justice, specifically. Expanding our understanding of service to include collaborative solidarity work, we are also looking for new ways to engage students in political processes and events such as relevant off-campus teach-ins, public general assemblies and town halls. Which types of service-learning and community engagement programs does your school utilize to engage students in social justice action? 

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