Community, Service, and Learning
[Uncovering the slave burial ground, 24th May, 2011]
A year ago last week the city of Richmond broke asphalt on a parking lot that had, for years, covered a burial ground used for slaves. I attended the ground breaking ceremony with three of my coworkers.
I, like my colleagues, taught the controversy in class. Some taught students about the debate as a way of engaging issues of social justice; I taught Dovi’s article (linked) as part of a long unit on local history, Southern identity, and community.
This year when I taught my classes about the burial ground, several things had changed: first, the asphalt had been removed, which changed our conversation considerably; second, my course this year was significantly different from year’s past. This year I had made “community engagement” an non-negotiable portion of their grade. All students had three options: to design for themselves as service learning project, to participate in a public art project, or to engage in research that would be presented to the public.
I’ve written extensively about the public art project here already, but not about the service learning component. By the end of the semester twenty-two students opted to participate. Together they committed over four hundred hours to twenty-six local organizations. The project seemed incredibly successful, and it has left me wondering what the role of service might be in a program like ours. Our class is necessarily more of a “community” than their other classes. We are small, and we are together all year. Seeing student reports on their service, on their long- or short-term impact, on their relationship to a city they have perhaps never seen before arriving on campus, and on a city they perhaps did not hope to know well was fascinating, and wholly refigured my sense of what it means to be a student, a teacher, and a person affiliated with VCU.
[photo taken from a student presentation on mural painting on the East End]
Service, I can’t help but think, is integral to education. Recognition of need in one’s community is more informative than most of what we learn both in school and elsewhere. I can’t help but think back to Jane Addams and her apt assessment of the neglect that is our failure to engage young people with work that needs done. She claims that “we have in America a fast-growing number of cultivated young people who have no recognized outlet for their active faculties. They hear constantly of the great social maladjustment, but no way is provided from them to change it, and their uselessness hangs about them heavily (21).”
Talking about “service,” however, is a complicated task, as is seeing oneself as capable of serving others. Addams follows her assertion that young women must be engaged locally with a warning of the misled superiority of those who would assume the extent of their own ability to serve:
“Many of the difficulties in philanthropy come from an unconscious division of the world into the philanthropists and those to be helped. It is an assumption of two classes, and against this class assumption our democratic training revolts as soon as we begin to act upon it (62).”
How, then, do we serve our community and ourselves without assuming this kind of distinction?
I don’t have an answer to this question yet; it’s an unsettling admission as I know service will be a core component of my courses next year. It’s also unsettling as I engage in service myself at OAR, and am in the process of applying to teach an SL designated course through VCU’s Open Minds program.
I do, however, have this to report: my colleague Mary Shelden engaged her own students in a service project at the William Byrd House in Oregon Hill.
[photo: William Byrd House Community Center, 2012.]
Working at Byrd House allows students to participate in community initiatives that originate in the community and not outside of it. Byrd House, like Hull House, is a settlement school, a organization built in a community, by the community, for those who live around it. This model, I hope, might help students to see that they service does not mean solving the problems of others, but engaging others in facilitating outcomes they have chosen for themselves.
[photo: Empty Bowls, William Byrd House, Apr. 29th, 2012.]
Addams, Jane. “The Subtle Problem of Charity.”The Jane Addams Reader. New York: Basic books, 2009.