Learning about Community Service Learning

Knowing that UBC’s administration wanted the fledgling Trek Volunteer Program to eventually evolve into service-learning experiences that would be linked to course work, I began to educate myself about what this approach to learning entails. I browsed university websites and perused the academic literature.

I discovered that a lot of service-learning was being done in the United States. Although the wording of various definitions differed slightly, everyone agreed that service-learning consists of the integration of three key elements:

  1. Voluntary (i.e., unpaid) work in community settings that achieves goals or meets needs identified by the community
  2. Academic content that relates to the nature of the service
  3. Structured reflection activities that encourage students to make connections between what they are studying and what they are experiencing in the community (e.g., journal writing, small group discussion, or the writing of analytical papers).

I also discovered that a significant amount of research had shown that service-learning has valuable outcomes, including increases in academic achievement, increased understanding of concepts like cross-cultural sensitivity, citizenship and social responsibility, and increased skills in areas such as interpersonal communication and teamwork.

I decided to combine a vacation in the San Francisco area with visits to some universities in California. In May of 2000, I visited the Haas Center for Public Service at Stanford as well as meeting with several people at San Francisco State University, including representatives from Campus Compact, a national coalition of Presidents of U.S. colleges and universities dedicated to fulfilling the civic purposes of higher education.

It was inspiring to talk directly with service-learning practitioners. I heard about their struggles trying to bridge the divide between the academy and the community. I also heard stories about projects that achieved amazing results in communities while teaching students profound lessons about life. Hearing these stories, I understood why these champions of service-learning were so passionate about the work despite its challenges.

An instructive example of service-learning in an inner city neighbourhood

At Stanford, I was invited to attend a community planning forum in East Palo Alto, a low-income community near the university and Silicon Valley. Staff and students from the Haas Center had been working intensively with the community for several months. The purpose of the evening forum was to feed back the results of the consultation and planning process and determine what to do next.

The forum was held in a school gymnasium. When I arrived, Stanford students were posting huge sheets of butcher paper on the walls that showed community maps, lists of key issues, and other data from the consultation. As people entered the room, they were greeted with cries of delight and warm hugs. Most of the approximately 200 people in attendance were African-Americans or Latinos. Everyone seemed to know everyone else.

Learning about CSL

The evening started with a pot luck buffet dinner. Around the perimeter of the room, long tables held large bowls of food whose spicy aromas reflected the culinary traditions of the people in the room. People ate, scrutinized the artefacts on the walls, gossiped, and laughed. The vibe was celebratory. I could not help comparing this scene to the large community meetings I had attended in the Downtown Eastside.  Almost invariably those meetings were imbued with a palpable tension, not the warmth and exuberance I felt here.

As the forum unfolded, the differences between this community context and the one I worked in became even more obvious. Here, the forum was overseen by a minister from a local black church, a man with a PhD. He turned the forum into a revival meeting. The minister reminded the audience of the crucial role that local schools and churches have historically played in sustaining the community through bad times and good. He exhorted people to be proud of their resilience in the face of adversity. People shouted “Amen” and “Yeah, brother” to show their solidarity.

It seemed clear to me that the university was playing a useful role in the effort to address issues like gun crime and the influence of gangs. But it was also clear the community was in charge. People may have been poor but they were healthy and functioning and engaged. They were not mentally ill, not obviously high on drugs or alcohol, and not obviously suffering from serious chronic illnesses.

I could not imagine a single person I had met in the Downtown Eastside having the leadership abilities or the social currency to play the kind of role the minister was playing. I could not imagine residents of the Downtown Eastside having a long enough shared history or a broad enough consensus on the issues or enough personal resources (like consistent good health) to rally around a leader and engage in this kind of sustained effort to make change.

As an outsider, I may have misinterpreted the proceedings but it seemed to me that this community had a kind of power and cohesion that the Downtown Eastside did not have and probably would never have. An observation made some years later by a colleague with experience in community organizing in the U.S. explains it best. He said, “People in inner city areas in the U.S. are there because of discrimination on the basis of race; people in the Downtown Eastside are there because of discrimination based on ability.” People in the Downtown Eastside are not oppressed primarily because of the colour of their skin or their ethnicity. They are oppressed by their histories of sexual and other forms of abuse, by chronic mental and physical illnesses, and by cultural messages about how personal worthiness should be measured.

That forum was a profound teaching. It inspired me by showing what can happen when universities get involved in community development. It also discouraged me by revealing the kind of pre-conditions that need to be in place. I went home excited about how UBC could contribute to social change by mobilizing students to get involved in community projects. But I was also mindful that our impact in the Downtown Eastside might be modest at best.

For more on CSL go to Seeing the value of Community Service Learning and How Community Service Learning promotes learning.

For the next chapter in The Learning Exchange Story go to Opening the storefront.