Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Finding Community Sites for Transformational Learning

One important ingredient to successful transformational service-learning is finding community partners with whom you can collaborate. Some instructors have contacts that they can use, but others feel like they are starting from scratch in this process.

We understand that reaching out into the community without a plan or assistance can be intimidating, and faculty members should realize that there are resources available to help. Fortunately, there are many ways to make this step in transformational learning easier.

Before exploring potential sites for your students, be sure to consider what sort of experiences or service work makes sense given the focus of your class. Service-learning is most beneficial when students clearly can see the connections between the course on the one hand (in terms of topics, lecture material, readings, or skills that the professor wants to develop) and the field work on the other. Admittedly, some disciplines will have community sites that are relatively self-evident, whereas others may require some creativity (i.e., instructors in fields that are less applied may have to consider how community members could potentially use the skills that the discipline has to offer).

Instructors also have to decide whether they will allow students to perform their transformational service-learning with a primary partner (such that all students will work at the same site), or if a range of sites will be preferable. There are advantages and disadvantages of both approaches. Collaborating with a single community partner provides a greater amount of coherence and focus for transformational learning, and can deepen the connection between Roosevelt and the site. However, it can pose logistical or scheduling problems for those students who have difficulty reaching the site because of geographic or time issues. Allowing the students to chose their sites has the advantage of greater flexibility. Students can ask the instructor to approve a placement that reflects their particular area of interest relative to the course focus and that meets their scheduling needs. However, this option requires students to be more active in the search process, and it can be more cumbersome for instructors to ensure that all students are at appropriate sites and are performing their duties well.

How can professors find sites after these decisions are made? Here are concrete resources offered by the Mansfield Institute for Social Justice and Transformation (MISJT) and beyond:

1. There are easy-to-access databases of sites. The first one is Volunteermatch.org. This is an extensive listing of community agencies, grouped by theme and location. Each is actively seeking volunteers. This is perhaps the most frequently used database nation-wide for professors to find service-learning placements.

There are also databases of sites that provide services that are arranged by location and service type. My personal favorite is Community Resources Online. Professors can easily generate a list of sites that assist populations that connect in with their course themes listed on the pull-down menus (e.g., illness, abuse, financial planning, citizenship preparation, crime prevention). Keep in mind that this site lists agencies rather than volunteer opportunities; however, a follow-up call may allow you to determine partnership potential.

2. Contact the Mansfield Institute or our in-house colleagues for assistance! You can email Steve Meyers (Mansfield Professor of Social Justice) at smeyers@roosevelt.edu or call at 312-341-6363 directly.

We have two main channels for assisting faculty in finding placements. First, the Mansfield Institute launched its initiative to disrupt the "cradle to prison pipeline." This refers to how many social factors contribute to the disproportional incarceration of minority youth. We have formed a range of partnerships with community organizations around this theme in areas such as education, juvenile justice/corrections, social services, neighborhood development, and more. Nancy Michaels (nmichaels@roosevelt.edu or 312-341-2150), Program Coordinator at the Mansfield Institute, would be happy to see if there are connections between your class and our partners.

Second, we are fortunate to welcome Jennifer Tani as the university's new Director of Community Engagement. Jennifer has a wealth of experience collaborating with community organizations and agencies, and she is willing to assist faculty in finding potential service-learning placements as well. She can be reached at jtani@roosevelt.edu or 312-341-2375.

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