Academic journal article Michigan Journal of Community Service Learning

A Case for Community: Starting with Relationships and Prioritizing Community as Method in Service-Learning

Academic journal article Michigan Journal of Community Service Learning

A Case for Community: Starting with Relationships and Prioritizing Community as Method in Service-Learning

Article excerpt

This paper describes an eight-year service-learning experiment that created four distinct spaces in which campus and community members meet, reflect, and act together. This work explores the tensions between traditional and critical service-learning, and points to the importance of building relationships with members of local communities and nurturing shared community as a way for service-learning to begin realizing its civic engagement and social justice objectives. It addresses issues of power and meaning making. It presents a theory of community that suggests the connections between civic engagement and social justice with the practices of hospitality, compassion, listening, and reflection across social and cultural boundaries.


Higher education service-learning is at an interesting conceptual crossroad. On the one hand, it has become more professionalized and institutionalized, paying careful attention to principles informing the field since the Wingspread Principles of Good Practice for Combining Service and Learning (Porter, Honnet, & Poulsen, 1989), and arguably achieving its longer-term goal of inspiring students to stay involved in their communities after graduation (Mitchell, Battistoni, Rost-Banik, Netz, & Zakoske, 2015; Soria & Thomas-Card, 2014). On the other hand, there is increasing doubt that service-learning is achieving its democratic and social justice outcomes for students and communities (Kliewer, 2013; Meens, 2014; Mitchell, 2008; Saltmarsh, Hartley, & Clayton, 2009). These contradicting viewpoints, along with the language of "traditional" and "critical" service-learning used to frame the latest discussions, recall earlier arguments in the service-learning literature that differentiated "moving students from charity to justice," or inviting them to discover, reflect on, and deepen their orientation to "charity, project, and change" understandings of service (Morton, 1995).

One of the possibilities raised and left unexamined from these earlier arguments and also relevant in today's discussions continues to intrigue us: Do some forms of service have more potential for both personal and social change as well as transformation than others, or do "thick" practices of all forms of service contain the potential for change and transformation? A common denominator across "thick" forms of service seems to be the quality of the relationships at their center--relationships that recognize, respond to, and sometimes draw out what Palmer (2009) has called the "hidden wholeness" of persons and places.

In this article we describe the problem of why neither traditional nor critical service-learning alone can adequately address the aforementioned questions, discuss the undergirding philosophy of our work with communities, identify models informing that work, discuss and deconstruct the four initiatives we have undertaken to date, and offer an analysis of why we have achieved outcomes not customarily associated with traditional campus-community partnerships.

The Problem

Service-learning has been institutionalized at many colleges and universities over the last thirty years (Meens, 2014). The mainstream practice begins by connecting campus-based faculty, staff, and students with particular course learning objectives and community-based agencies--most often nonprofit organizations, K-12 schools, or government agencies --that can provide experiential, service-based opportunities related to the learning objectives (Jacoby, 2003). "Reflection" in this context is service-learning's short-hand term for what David Kolb (1983) has called the process of "transforming experience into knowledge" (p. 38), and is undertaken in a wide variety of ways (Eyler, 2002; Eyler & Giles, 1999; Eyler, Giles, & Schmiede, 1996). There is evidence that this basic approach is successful as a form of experiential education (Eyler; Moore, 2000). Community impacts, however, are less clear (Sandy & Holland, 2006), but are generally defined by the projects and programs of the higher education institution. …

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