A popular book in the service-learning literature asks the important question, Where’s the Learning in Service-Learning? —and it has guided many educators to community engagement practices that maximize student learning.
At a recent event at Hamline University, Robert Lupton, the author of Toxic Charity: How Churches and Charities Hurt Those They Help, essentially asked people to think critically about the other side of that question. Where’s the service in service-learning and other efforts by volunteers or nonprofits? Lupton puts forth a strong argument that “most mission trips and service projects:
- weaken those being served,
- foster dishonest relationships, and
- erode participants’ work ethic, and deepen dependency.”
His book is by no means simply intended to chastise and blame. It contains a message of hope that the “compassion industry” can be changed and that virtuous people can do good. As a place to begin, he offers an Oath for Compassionate Service.
- Never do for the poor what they have (or could have) the capacity to do for themselves.
- Limit one-way giving to emergency situations (crisis situation=YES, chronic situation=NO).
- Strive to empower the poor through employment, lending, and investing, using grants sparingly to reinforce achievements.
- Subordinate self-interests to the needs of those being served.
- Listen closely to those you seek to help, especially to what is not being said – unspoken feelings may contain essential clues to effective service.
- Above all, do no harm.
Lupton’s book is filled with examples from his own four decades working on inner-city poverty. For example, he talks about a Christmas charity tradition where people would ‘adopt ‘ a poor family and purchase gifts for the children based on knowing a child’s gender and age, and then deliver those gifts to the family’s home. Mothers would politely bear the brunt of the humiliation and fathers who felt emasculated (Lupton’s word), would slip out the back door, as the evidence of their inadequacy was left behind by the suburban folks doing them a service. Meanwhile, as Lupton puts it, “children get the message that the ‘good stuff’ comes from rich people out there and it is free.”
The non-toxic solution to this annual program was to re-direct the giving to help set up a seasonal Christmas store where financial donations would go toward reducing the cost of new merchandise, and where parents could work and earn the money to buy presents that they themselves picked out. Meanwhile, some residents are learning useful job skills in the store.
This would be a great reading for anyone interested in an honest conversation about going beyond good intentions. How have you tried to develop service-learning courses and community partnerships that are genuinely transformative? That advance both students’ learning and community members’ well-being?
By John Hamerlinck
Folks in Duluth and Northfield can plan on efforts to get them eating a whole lot healthier. Students at The College of St. Scholastica, University of Minnesota, Duluth, St. Olaf College and Carleton College will all be engaging in multiple service-learning projects focused on food-related concerns.
The campuses and their communities are all benefitting from grants recently awarded by a Midwest Campus Compact consortium established to increase service-learning in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) courses. The consortium was made possible through a grant from the Corporation for National and Community Service through the Learn and Serve America Program.
The program focuses on multi-campus collaborations organized to address local food security and related issues. In Northfield, Classes in biology, environmental studies, and other disciplines from both colleges will work with two local elementary schools and local nonprofits, to develop and facilitate food and nutrition-related activities, with a special focus on children at higher risk of obesity and nutrition-related illnesses.
The Duluth campuses are partnering with the University of Wisconsin, Superior on projects designed to strengthen and sustain community commitment to the production, distribution, and consumption of regionally and locally-produced food; and increase the amount of nutritious foods individuals consume, in an effort to reduce the Body Mass Index numbers of people that are overweight.
Congratulations to these campuses for their grant awards. Be sure to check back here for future progress reports on these innovative projects.
by John Hamerlinck
I recently attended the 2nd annual Rural Alliance for Service Learning (RASL) Summit in Racine, Wisconsin. RASL formed last year when a group of about 25 people met to discuss both the opportunities and the challenges related to engaging higher education institutions in meaningful partnerships in support of rural communities.
This year’s Summit focused on a collaborative research project being led by Randy Stoecker from the University of Wisconsin, and funded in part, by the North Central Regional Center for Rural Development. The research includes a literature review on the limited rural-specific service-learning research that exists, a number of folks writing case studies about rural service-learning projects (You can read my case studies on projects assisted by the Gustavus Adolphus/St. Peter Partnership Council, and the Center for Small Towns at the University of Minnesota Morris, on the RASL site), and a white paper that outlines what we’ve learned and where we want to go next.
The white paper will be academic, but straightforward. It will be interdisciplinary, informative, and hopefully contain enough ideas to encourage lots of effective practice in the field. The paper should be published early next year.
By John Hamerlinck
A recent article in the Chronicle of Higher Education, “Big Classes Encourage Experiments in Teaching” by David Glenn, shed some light on the fact that strained budgets are leading to larger class sizes at many colleges and universities. I have written previously that we need to look at economically-driven institutional change in terms of the opportunities they present. This phenomenon is a good example.
There couldn’t be a better time to expand our notions of what “service,” and “service-learning” might entail. If you previously had 20 students volunteering at – let’s say – a food shelf; and now you suddenly have 30 students in that class – why not expand your options beyond either sending 30 students to the food shelf or giving up altogether because logistically, 30 is just too much extra work.
What if 15 students did the food shelf service and 15 students worked on strategies to help food shelf users find employment. What if all the students worked on a sustainability plan for the employment piece, so that the effort could be part of a long-term commitment by multiple faculty, staff and students. What other ways can we come up with to mobilize even more educated people to solve pressing societal issues?