Community-Based Learning and Social Justice

Article excerpt

Abstract

This is a reflective essay on the ways in which community-based learning (CBL) enriches the work life of a faculty member who retains working-class roots and an interest in social justice. Using examples from courses and applied research on community development, housing, and poverty, the essay explains how meaningful relationships with community organizations act as a counter-balance to the isolation of an academic career. It also discusses the value of community-based learning when teaching about social justice themes.

Introduction

This academic year will be my eighth as a professor in an interdisciplinary, applied social science department with both professional and academic degree programs. Within weeks of arrival on campus I became involved with community-based learning (CBL). Over the years I have partnered with several organizations doing some facet of anti-poverty work in our region; these interactions have enriched my teaching and research. My students have reaped the benefits of engagement in projects with community partners: authentic learning experiences, cross-cultural experiences, and exposure to the professional field. Some students have even leveraged the relationship into an internship or paid employment. My community partners have also reaped the benefits of engagement: they have received expert technical assistance and students' intellectual and organizational energy.

Much of the literature on community-based learning stresses the impact on students. Yet involvement in community-based learning has benefited my professional development quite significantly, helped me survive the stress of working in the university, and allowed me to pursue the social justice goals I consider important. The experience of working with organizations outside of academia has increased my substantive knowledge far beyond that acquired in graduate school. Because I teach students earning professional degrees, this knowledge is invaluable in the classroom. In addition, regular contact with practitioners and ordinary people outside of the university reduces the sense of isolation I feel on campus. The vast majority of faculty members come from middle or upper class backgrounds. I grew up in a working-class community. Very few of my friends or relatives went to college. I still identify with working class and low-income people and the economic challenges they face. The need to contribute to the cause of social justice is ingrained in me--it is part of my identity. It is partly fulfilled through collaboration with community organizations on projects that integrate applied research, teaching, and service. This essay discusses the role that community-based learning plays in helping me to adapt to the challenges of an academic career.

CBL Enhances Teaching and Research

While I work with an eclectic group of faculty (economists, geographers, planners, political scientists, sociologists) in a school of urban studies and planning, my focus is on the applied field of community development. We have undergraduate, masters, and doctoral students who emphasize this field. My own focus is on urban poverty, housing, and community economic development. I view community development as the grassroots response to poverty--neighborhood groups seeking to gain control over decisions affecting their lives. It is important for me not just to know the scholarship of community development, but to be connected to the field to inform both my research and teaching. The first organization I partnered with was a non-profit community development corporation (CDC) that provides affordable housing to Latino immigrants. Students in my graduate course, Concepts of Community Development, wrote a history of the organization; one doctoral student parlayed that experience into a year-long paid internship assisting the organization's executive director. Students in this field must understand both the theory and practice behind CDC work. …