Monday, October 17, 2011

Social action in transformational learning classes

What is our "brand" of service learning?

One of the most important ways in which service learning at Roosevelt differs from other universities is our frequent emphasis of creating social change through students' community work.  For instance, many service learning placements across the country involve tutoring children who experience adversity, but fewer encourage their students to question and act on why those inequalities exist in the first place.  This is where our social justice mission directs our work in a unique way for transformational service learning.

I recently read an example of this broader focus in an issue of the Diversity and Democracy newsletter published by the Association of American Colleges and Universities.   Here's an excerpt below.  You'll find other examples from some of the previous posts on this blog.

Perspective-Taking and Community
In my classes, I connect assigned readings directly to challenges facing our local and global economies. These challenges affect both students' lives and the lives of the community members with whom they come in contact. I use the course readings as media for enhancing critical dialogue on the possibilities for new models of democratic engagement and collaboration. To make the readings concrete, I give my students the opportunity to work alongside new immigrants in a Pomona day labor center, day laborers on the street corners of Rancho Cucamonga, farm workers in the San Joaquin Valley, and labor and community organizers in diverse coalitions throughout the region. The readings and our class discussions become "real" when students meet with these day laborers and community organizers to work on common projects that emerge from their dialogue. Just as in the classroom, students advance to new levels of collaboration and civic engagement by practicing democratic exchange.

Having identified problems that are relevant to the workers, students use participatory community-based research and action to locate solutions. Drawing on their discussions with workers, students organize various projects that push for social change. Students and workers have collaborated to implement English classes, health workshops, and immigration rights research projects. Students have also organized petition drives, researched the constitutionality of checkpoints, marched to protest immigration raids, and campaigned to ensure continued funding for the local day labor center. To combat negative portrayals of new immigrants, students and day laborers have organized community-wide art and pictorial life history presentations. Thus the workers and students join in raising their voices and ensuring that they are heard. In all these projects, students come to accept the day laborers as teachers. With the help of the Center for Community Engagement and funding from alumna Susan Hanson, the college hosts weekly Encuentros (Encounters) lunches where day laborers share their life stories and converse in Spanish with students and faculty. Students also perform teatro (activist theater) in various communities during their spring break.

Through the projects and class readings, students become more equipped to understand contemporary debates over immigration, free trade, globalization, and the many myths that circulate about farm laborers, union organizers, and immigrant workers. By learning to respect each other's perspectives and by pursuing specific outcomes that benefit both campus constituents and workers, students and workers have developed a genuine trust over the years. In this way, the practice of perspective-taking becomes a useful tool in understanding the diverse experiences that intersect in the "border culture" between academia and the world beyond. Students learn to value the perspective of the "other": the poor, the worker, the oppressed, the immigrant, or the person of another color, class, gender, or sexuality. Similarly, workers and community organizers grow to respect classrooms as places where ideas can become deeds that advance their efforts to be heard.

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