Sunday, October 31, 2010

Reading about the Past, Acting in the Streets: Social Justice and Transformational Learning

As Erik Gellman’s students read and discuss historical scholarship about urban problems and social movements, they collaborate with community organizers, union members, and neighborhood activists whose struggles for justice today speak to these historical movements. Dr. Gellman, an Assistant Professor the Department of History and Philosophy, not only offers students an opportunity to learn history, but to help contribute to it through the use of transformational learning by combining class work with innovative service in the community.

His history students have ventured out into Chicago’s diverse neighborhoods to learn about urban issues of social justice such as transportation inequality, environmental racism, and exploitative working conditions. They have walked picket lines and participated in delegations with workers to convince employers of the humanity and rights of workers. At UNITE-HERE Local 1, for example, they have taken to the streets to become part of the longest strike in America. Other students from Dr. Gellman’s class have conducted interviews, performed research for community partners, and helped prepare for boycotts and demonstrations.

Importantly, these Roosevelt University undergraduates have had the chance to meet and talk with dedicated and experienced community organizers and workers. This allows students to see knowledge as coming from dedicated people rather than relying solely on traditional sources of information disseminated inside classrooms. Transformational learning has encouraged students to put civil rights and union movements into a longer and more vivid historical context.

Dr. Gellman has a number of contacts with community partners around the city that has facilitated his use of service-learning. He and his students have collaborated with the Little Village Environmental Justice Organization, a Latino based environmental organization. In conjunction with organizers affiliated with Jobs with Justice, his students have taken part in city-wide campaigns that address workers’ rights. Other Roosevelt University students have collaborated with UNITE- HERE Local 1, a long time partner of Dr. Gellman’s. It has been most helpful when the organizers put students to work on pre-existing projects rather than host them or create work for them. This process ensures that the relationship is beneficial for both the student at Roosevelt and for the community partner, which is a crucial component of transformational learning.

Dr. Gellman’s students write weekly response papers in which he encourages them to reflect on both historical readings and their field experiences. Students have compared neighborhood politics, class-based coalitions, and urban community protests to 20th century political and cultural movements. Students have tied their community experiences to class discussions about race, class, and gender. They have also drawn on their field work as they have analyzed past and present organizational strategies to amass power for social change. The use of transformational learning allows Dr. Gellman’s students to go beyond the talk of social justice and provides them with the opportunity to actually do social justice as part of their education.

For more information, contact Prof. Erik Gellman at

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