From Charity Towards a Social Justice Paradigm: Critical Consciousness Through Service-Learning


A charity paradigm of service-learning emphasizes the importance of altruism and joy that comes from giving. Yet this charity paradigm plays a role in domination and does not critically examine the acts, decisions, and policies that lead to domination and injustice (Mitchell, Donahue, & Young-Law, 2012).

A social justice paradigm based on Critical Consciousness develops the capacity for service-learning projects to integrate how systems of power are created, maintained, and changed. This social justice paradigm of service-learning can play an important role in developing students’ skills, knowledge, and agency to create just social systems.

With the growth of social inequality, it is essential that educational institutions develop pedagogical models that equip students to address the root causes of social inequality. This article explores the elements of Critical Consciousness, and how those elements can be used to deepen students’ capacity for social change through intentional service-learning experiences.

One of the main reasons I became interested in service-learning was the potential I saw for service-learning pedagogy to develop students’ understandings and capacities to address social justice issues. What I have learned over the years is that connecting service-learning and social justice is a much more difficult task than I ever imagined it would be. The first part of this paper will explore some of the reasons it is challenging to connect service-learning to social justice. The second part of the paper will lay out why Critical Consciousness (CC) can be a resource in moving service-learning projects towards a social justice practice.

One of my first experiences that reveals just how challenging it is to connect service-learning to social justice was when I gave a group of service-learning students from a colleague’s class the Volunteer Functions Inventory (Clary et al., 1998), an assessment designed to better understand and assess volunteers’ motivations for doing community engagement work. The results shocked me. I thought that the data would show an increase in students’ “understanding” factor (seeking to learn more about the world and/or exercise skills that are often unused) and “social” factor (volunteering allows the person to strengthen one’s social relationships). My assumption was that by engaging with a community organization, reading articles on social justice, and discussing these readings and experiences with their peers, students would become more understanding of the world and have a greater connection to diverse populations. Instead, what I found was that the social factor was the smallest of all the factors and had no statistical change from the beginning to the end of the semester. The understanding factor also had no statistical change. The only factor that did have any statistical change was the “protective” factor (volunteering to reduce negative feelings, such as guilt, or to address personal problems). This change was in the positive direction, not the negative direction that I expected to see. Counter to what I expected students were more likely to volunteer to reduce negative feelings or address personal problems.

Around this same time, I started teaching some of my first service-learning courses. They were labeled with a Z-tag, the university’s general education cross-cultural requirement. What I was struck by was how the words power, privilege, systems, social justice, social change, collective action, and agency were not found in the learning outcomes for these Z-tag courses. I realized that service-learning courses could be and were being taught to help students improve their individual cultural competence and to see social change occurring mainly through an interpersonal framework.

These two experiences made me start to question my assumptions about the connections between service-learning and social justice. I wondered if what I was experiencing was an anomaly or more widespread throughout the service-learning field, so I started reading literature on service-learning and social justice.

Kahne and Westheimer (2003) used a CC framework to critique programs focused on community service and character education. They found that most programs “embrace a vision of citizenship devoid of politics” emphasizing “developing individual character traits,…volunteerism, charity” and lack “teaching about social movements, social transformation, and systemic change” (p. 36). In a critique of literature on youth civic engagement Watts and Flanagan (2007) wrote that “much of it focuses on the maintenance of social and political institutions rather than on action for social justice” (p. 779). Watts, Diemer, and Voight (2011) researched the use of CC in youth civic education, concluding that “for most scholars in the United States, youth social action aimed at the roots of social injustice is near the periphery of theory and research on civic engagement” (p. 43). These three studies indicate that often social justice, system change, and issues of power are not dealt with in service-learning experiences.

CC can be a helpful resource in moving service-learning projects towards system analysis and change. The following sections provide a short overview of CC and describe each of its three elements. The discussion of each element will include the words of one student engaging in CC and another student using a charity framework to understand their service-learning experiences. There are also examples of helpful pedagogical resources for teaching each element.

Historical/ Theoretical Overview of Critical Consciousness

Paulo Freire (1970), in his seminal work, Pedagogy of the Oppressed, developed the idea of critical consciousness. Freire conceptualized CC as a process by which people reflect on the oppressive social systems in which they find themselves, and out of reflection they begin to act in the world in ways that change those oppressive systems. This process of reflection and action moves people from being objects that are acted upon to subjects that act in the world. These ideas result from his family’s experiences in poverty and hunger during the Great Depression of the 1930s, followed by the death of his father in 1934. These experiences forever shaped how he saw the world, as evidenced in his writing in Letters to Cristina (1996): “Our hunger was of the type that arrives unannounced and unauthorized, making itself at home without an end in sight….Legs, arms, and fingers become skinny. Eye sockets become deeper, making the eyes almost disappear” (p. 15). This lived experience created another type of hunger in Friere to spend his life working with marginalized communities for liberation. Later in life he taught literacy to people experiencing poverty. He came to realize that people need to understand how human systems are created, maintained, and who benefits from those systems. He and found that liberated people’s “reflectiveness results not just in a vague and uncommitted awareness, but in the exercise of profoundly transforming action upon the determining reality” (Friere, 1998, p. 500). He realized that the process of CC education must be done with people and not to people

The Elements of Critical Consciousness

CC researchers have theorized that there are three components of CC, critical reflection, critical motivation, and critical action (Diemer, McWhirter, Ozer, & Rapa, 2015; Shin, Ezeofor, Smith, Welch, & Goodrich, 2016; Thomas et al., 2014; Watts & Flanagan, 2007). Friere wrote most about critical reflection and critical action, but also emphasized critical motivation. These three components build on each other to heighten people’s CC.

Critical reflection.

Critical reflection is a cognitive aspect of CC refers to the process of people “coming to see critically the way they exist in the world with which and in which they find themselves” (Freire, 1970, italics original, p. 83). Freire believed that humans have the capacity to relate to their environment through a consciousness of history, themselves, others, and future possibilities. Through critical reflection people move from being passive objects to active subjects. Friere (1973) wrote, “Throughout history men have attempted to overcome the factors which make them accommodate or adjust, in a struggle — constantly threatened by oppression — to attain their full humanity” (p. 4). Critical reflection begins the process of living with the world and attaining full humanity.

Carlson, Engebretson, and Chamberlain (2006) give the following as an example of critical reflection from a participant who talked about her understanding of how local businesses perpetuate poverty. “The owners won’t participate in or contribute to anything we do in the neighborhood. Why do we support them when they grab their children, their fine expensive cars, and our money and dash out of the community before dark every day?” (p. 845). This participant is moving beyond the typical explanation that poor communities are poor because of some internal factors. She is making connections between poverty and the practices of the elites. When elites take without contributing back to the community the community can become desperate. The participant also asks the important question of why the community continues to support this behavior. Through critical reflection, the community could come to envision a different way of being, one in which they move from adjusting to their context to one in which they struggle to attain their humanity.

Here is an example of another student reflecting on a service-learning experience who is limited by a charity paradigm: “I am much more comfortable engaging within the community to address needs. I have grown in my confidence to be assertive in determining where I can help to make the most difference”. The student doing critical reflection talks about causes of inequality, but the student in the charity paradigm comments only on the personal benefits of the experience. The student is more comfortable and competent to work in a diverse context, which are not necessarily negative outcomes, but social change requires asking deeper questions.

Pedagogical tools for critical reflection.

Here are a few helpful tools for developing students’ critical reflection.

1. Dialogue — Students must have time for them to process with others, have their assumptions questioned, and ask questions that are often not talked about. This dialogue will take a significant amount of time and will require trust among participants. Exercise to help facilitate dialogue: Visible Thinking (“Thinking Routines”)

2. Historical and Systemic analysis- Often students approach social issues from an ahistorical and individualistic perspective, which significantly limits their capacities to do critical reflection. Example: Systems Thinking and Race (Powell, Cagampang Heller, & Bundalli, 2011)

3. Emotional IQ- Doing critical reflection will trigger strong emotions. Students need to develop awareness of these emotions, their roots, and how to manage emotions to engage with difficult questions effectively (Manktelow, et al.).

Critical motivation.

Freire (1999) consistently talked about reflection and action as the two components of CC, but he also referred to the motivation component when he wrote about the importance of hope. Hope means believing that possible change can happen if people take action today. Others have built on Freire’s idea of hope and talked about critical motivation, which is an individual’s agency and commitment to address perceived injustice(s) (Diemer et al., 2015). This is the attitudinal aspect of CC. An important precursor to activism is the belief that change can happen before one engages in actions that address social injustices.

Here is an example of a student who is growing in her critical motivation: “What I would like to do further in my community is to speak up when situations arise that are insensitive. At times I take a passive approach even when I know people are making comments that shouldn’t be made. I have the ability as an individual to educate those around me not in an aggressive manner, but lovingly so that our community can thrive”. This comment illustrates the student’s growing awareness of her agency when she rejects being passive and acknowledges her capacity to act by educating others. Instead of being a passive object, the student wants to become an active subject. This student also makes a statement of commitment by identifying specific future actions. Commitment coupled with agency shows this student is growing in critical motivation.

In contrast, here is an example from a student working from a charity paradigm. When asked about their future this student responded, “Get connected with a health organization that interests me and be actively involved in it”. The student’s reflection revolves around adapting to what others are already doing. Joining others can be positive, but critical motivation involves students identifying unique contributes to the work of social justice.

Pedagogical tools for critical motivation.

1. Storytelling- It can be a powerful experience for students to listen to stories of elders who have worked for social justice. These stories often build in students the belief that they, too, can take action to change their world.

2. Identifying Past Successes- It is important for people to see how they have used their agency in the past to work for social justice. By building on these past efforts, students can gain confidence to take future risks.

3. Action Teams- As students share and dream with each other about the actions that they would like to take in the future, they start to realize that they do not have to do everything by themselves because there is a whole team of people that can carry the load.

Critical action.

The third component of CC is the behavioral element, called critical action which results from critical reflection and critical motivation. Critical actions are designed to counter or respond to injustice in a liberatory manner (Watts et al., 2011). These actions can include activism, as well as action taken within the political system. It is important that this action be about liberation from oppression; otherwise, these actions have no real significance in people’s lives (Freire, 1973). The importance of and emphasis on liberatory action is one of the key components of CC that distinguishes it from other pedagogies and developmental theories. If people do not experience liberation, then critical reflection and critical motivation become one more static theoretical framework that supports oppressive structures and practices and makes little difference in people’s lived experiences (Friere, 1970; Ginwright & James, 2002; Prilleltensky, 2012; Watts, Griffith, & Abdul-Adil, 1999).

A student’s comment reflecting critical action wrote, “I think it’s important for me to continue to engage in the relationships that developed during the trip. I also want to get more involved with UCB (a social justice student group). Outside of the university, I want to figure out what issue(s) I want to pay attention to and join movements against them”. This student desires to engage with a social justice student group, led by students of color at a predominantly white institution. This student is realizing that liberatory actions are not about acting for the marginalized but acting with the marginalized. Freire (1973) wrote about there being a significant difference from doing work with the student and doing work on the student (p. 34). This student is also talking about joining a movement, which highlights their understanding of the importance of collective action. They are understanding that social change does not just happen through changing personal actions, but through collective actions.

A student working from the charity paradigm, when asked what future action they would take wrote, “Just prioritize more time with nursing studies…It is a cool opportunity, it just is not always easy to make time while you have to study and complete other assignments and projects”. This student is thinking about her individual priorities as the focus. She has not come to see liberatory action as a way of life; instead, action is viewed as something she will be able to do if she has time. This view of action is centered on the individual and not on the collective, and therefore achieves no social or structural change.

Pedagogical tools for critical action.

1. Learning Circles- These are small groups of people that come together to share ideas, knowledge, skills, and goals. Many churches, unions, community organizations, and movements have used this process to organize people for social change. (“Learning Circles: A Train-the-Trainers Approach”)

2. Highlander Model of Community Organizing- The founder of Highlander, Myles Horton, developed a form of education focusing on student empowerment through community building, sharing of problems, and collaboratively developing solutions to those problems (“Highlander School’s Model of Community Organizing”).

3. Coalition Building- This is a guide on how to develop student coalitions that work to bring about social change (“GRASSROOTS ORGANIZING — Coalition Building”, 2016).

4. Public Achievement- This is an organizing model asserting that people of nearly any age can work with others to bring about positive social change (“Public Achievement”, 2017).


For Freire, the interplay between critical reflection and critical action is vitally important. Critical reflection allows one to understand how systems of oppression are at work, and out of that understanding, one develops critical action that disrupts those systems of oppression. Freire referred to this unity of reflection and action as “praxis” (Lloyd, 1972). Freire (1970) explains this interchange between reflection and action in this way: “Authentic liberation — the process of humanization — is not another deposit to be made in men. Liberation is a praxis: the action and reflection of men and women upon their world to transform it” (p. 79). Through service-learning, students can gain significant experiences of reflecting and acting upon the world alongside fellow students, faculty, and community partners. To ensure that service-learning experiences unlock the transformative potential in them, there must be intentional steps taken to go beyond a charity paradigm to a social justice paradigm.

Tanden Brekke is the Associate Director of Service-Learning and Community Engagement at Bethel University, St. Paul MN. He is responsible for overseeing the Bethel Frogtown/ Summit-University Partnership. This partnership is a longstanding and intentional community/ university partnership built on trust, accountability, and reciprocity. Tanden lives in Minneapolis where he is involved with a multicultural, community based urban farming project that is working on issues of food access. He has a Masters degree in Theology and is in the latter stages of completing an EdD in Higher-Education Leadership.


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