SLCE Partnering with Social Justice Collectives to Dismantle the Status Quo

By Augustine, Sarah; Lopez, Daniela et al. | Michigan Journal of Community Service Learning, Spring 2017 | Go to article overview

SLCE Partnering with Social Justice Collectives to Dismantle the Status Quo


Augustine, Sarah, Lopez, Daniela, McNaron, Harold, Starke, Elizabeth, Van Gundy, Brian, Michigan Journal of Community Service Learning


"Service-learning" is a multilayered term with a complex historical evolution. The movement traces back to the work of Robert Sigmon and the Southern Regional Education Board in the early 1970s, when it focused on building democratic communities through a combination of meaningful service and deep collaboration. As noted in Zlotkowski's 1995 essay that asked whether service-learning had a future, there came a time in the history of the movement when some of its thought leaders urgently called attention to the necessity for a more academic and scholarly focus. In the last two decades, service-learning and community engagement (SLCE) have flourished in higher education as staff, faculty, and students have realized it can be a high-impact teaching and learning practice to promote student learning and development.

While many SLCE courses and projects adopt this student focus in undertaking and reflecting upon useful service activities with community organizations, it can be difficult to implement them in ways that explicitly engage with the historical and contemporary systems of oppression--such as racism, classism, and sexism--that created the need for SLCE efforts in the first place. Tania Mitchell (2008), in fact, proposed a distinction between "traditional" and "critical" service-learning and suggested that the movement must focus on the latter and thereby challenge the foundational systems that uphold an inequitable status quo rather than risk perpetuating oppression through the former. Over the last decade, several other scholars and practitioners have called for a transformation of SLCE toward a practice aligned with social justice goals. Our own unit, the Office of Student Leadership and Service (SLS) at Lewis & Clark College, is moving in this direction with our co-curricular SLCE programs, using the framework of critical service-learning as a guide.

Our vision for the future is a radical re-centering of SLCE within social justice collectives (SJCs), such as the organizers of the Movement for Black Lives, led by people from marginalized groups and addressing the systems of oppression most relevant to their own lives. SJCs may be registered nonprofits or non-governmental organizations but are more often, in our experience, unincorporated collaboratives comprised of individuals and groups united around a specific social justice cause. As it has been our experience that SLCE practitioners often rely heavily on nonprofit and school partners to determine the nature of SLCE projects, we are proposing a shift from individual partner organizations to SJCs so that each SLCE effort is firmly situated within a community-verified justice effort. Within this new structure for SLCE, colleges and universities, along with other stakeholders/partners, would follow the leadership of these off-campus collectives working on the frontlines of social justice movements.

For this to happen, SLCE practitioners and scholars must first acknowledge the ways in which institutions of higher education can and do perpetuate injustice. Brown University's Steering Committee on Slavery and Justice serves as a powerful example of an institution grappling with the harm it has caused and directing resources to partnership efforts that restore community. After such an honest accounting, the calls of local, national, and international movements for justice can be better heard and heeded. Once SJCs and SLCE practitioners are communicating and collaborating, pilot projects can be pursued and partnership agreements drafted around the priorities of social justice movements and the marginalized communities leading them.

SLCE for Social Justice

Mitchell (2008) provides a useful framework for designing SLCE toward social justice ends, which we understand to relate to both (a) the end goal of resource distribution and access allowing for everyone to not only survive, but also thrive, and (b) the democratic, equitable processes in pursuit of that goal (Bell, 1997). …

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