Academic journal article JCT (Online)

"Here We Come to Save the Day": Exploring the Dark Side of Servant Leadership Narratives among College Freshmen

Academic journal article JCT (Online)

"Here We Come to Save the Day": Exploring the Dark Side of Servant Leadership Narratives among College Freshmen

Article excerpt


I HAVE ALWAYS STRUGGLED with service projects and mission trips, and from the first community cleanup on the "black side of town" in my small home town, to the "Ecumenical Mission" trip to Kingston Jamaica, to the service trips to Carbel, Virginia, something always felt "wrong". I was never able to put my finger on it, but I am coming to understand my discomfort is a naïve mix of the feelings expressed by the students mentioned in this article and a tragic paralysis of conscience. I find myself frozen within a growing understanding that any attempt to intentionally impact a community from the outside probably does more harm than good. As a younger person, my discomfort stemmed from the feeling that I was somehow unwelcomed in the spaces that I purported to serve, despite that my personal interaction with community members were often warm and inviting.

Clearly these critiques come from a bias of both space and place. My own value-laden responses are informed by the largely privileged life I was born into and in which I have lived ever since. At the authoring of this article I am a white 34 year old son of two history teachers who lives with his wife and two children in a middle class neighborhood of "cookie-cutter" houses and in a predominantly white college-adjacent town. I have served as a student affairs practitioner and most recently in a faculty appointment at a large research intensive university having received my degrees from similar institutions. I was raised in the Presbyterian Church (which tends to be less evangelical or mission-based than many other Christian faiths), however this faith was still the source of many of my own service experiences. I encourage you to keep my relatively privileged positionality in mind as you read so you can "consider the source" of the critiques that follow.

In my adolescence, a youth pastor once challenged me to think more critically about who was helping whom, indicating a reciprocal effect of service that I dismissed out of hand from my privileged perch as a white, anglo, protestant and middle class citizen (?)of the United States. More recently, I have come to think of this discomfort as the self-inflicted wounds accrued through clumsy and insidious colonization of the spaces I sought to "improve" or "make better"; effectively, I was attempting to fix something that was not broken. As has been the case with so many historical acts of philanthropy (e.g. Howard, 2011; Illich, 1968), my current distaste for so much of our university service learning and community efforts is that they reify the inappropriate behavior in which I have participated. As such, when I speak below about privileged students and their interactions with curriculum, know that I do so recognizing my own continuing role in such behavior as a privileged individual.

I am seeking to trouble modern narratives of service learning in higher education in this article. As a practitioner, I am charged with designing meaningful service learning experiences for college freshman with the expressed outcomes of developing stronger citizen leaders. As a scholar, I am moved to challenge taken-for-granted assumptions about service-learning pedagogies which often reify oppressive colonization of marginalized communities from the center of an unjust society. The article that follows has three primary portions. First, my own perspectives of the players and scenes in this narrative of service learning are introduced. Next, I highlight analyses of three student narratives which highlight three horizontalized themes among collective student narratives. Finally, I theorize a curriculum for replacing service learning with immersion projects which move toward caring for our separate and linked communities devoid of heroic and invasive service narratives.

Setting the Scene

As the vans descends...

... down the steep hill on the road entering Carbel, Virginia, the surroundings begin to shift. …

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