Democracy in Action: Social Justice Oriented Service-Learning

Casey O’Meara is a public school teacher in Middlebury Vermont.

Middlebury College students protest Vermont gas pipeline.

Millennials are innovating new ways to problem solve, through their desire to collaborate and communicate using technology (Burstein, 2013). If Millennials are not engaged in designing new ways to approach societal issues, traditional civic systems in America will be decreasingly valued.

A commitment to serve, through social justice service-learning, can develop a civic mindedness and encourage Millennials to participate in America’s democratic process. A generation noted for its sense of entitlement and self-centeredness (Twenge, 2006), Millennials must regularly participate in service in their communities and develop imaginative solutions to societal dilemmas. Through social justice oriented service-learning, students engage in issues of personal and local importance, taking an active role in their communities and influencing the formal democratic systems they seem to disregard.

Higher Education has a moral duty to formally engage its student body in civic learning. Not just theory but literally finding ways to change their worlds and, thus, the world.

Social Justice oriented service-learning is experiential pedagogy, addressing regional concerns with the knowledge, skills, and resources of those communities (Butin, 2007; Mitchell, 2007, 2008). This is democracy in action. Student involvement in civic learning during college increases their capacity and a willingness to partake in its work after graduation (AAC&U, 2007; Barber, 2012; Saltmarsh, Hartley, & Clayton, 2009; The National Task Force on Civic Learning and Democratic Engagement, 2012). Learning experiences to create lasting meaning, while engaging in the principles of democracy, do not always exist on college and university campuses (Barber, 2012; Bok, 2006; Butin, 2012; Enos, 2015; Pedersen, Meyer, & Hargrave, 2015).

In fact, campuses can isolate and exacerbate a sense of disconnectedness. Millennials apparent disaffection with customary governmental systems in the United States, represented through poor voter turnout amongst 18 to 29 year-olds, demonstrates the disconnectedness between individual’s issues of importance and traditional democracy (Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement, 2014; Colby, Beaumont, Erlich, & Corngold, 2007; Sax, 2004). College and university campuses, the places where the number of 18 to 24 year-olds totaled 31.5 million in 2013 (National Center for Education Statistics, 2014), must engage Millennials in their civic responsibility. If the United States continues for generations, lacking political/intellectual involvement, then we better begin creating ethical and effective citizens at the grassroots level. The demise of many great nations since they came into being has been the growing disaffection citizens have for their leaders and government structures.

Higher Education has a moral duty to formally engage its student body in civic learning. Not just theory but literally finding ways to change their worlds and, thus, the world. Social justice oriented service-learning as a form of civic learning engaged 34 students as participants in a democracy through a gateway course at a liberal arts college in the north eastern part of the United States during the fall of 2015. For more than 200 years, the college has provided a liberal arts education, recognizing learning within and beyond the classroom. As the school looks to further its efforts in civic learning, they are broadening their use of experiential learning pedagogy.

The school developed an academic cluster on privilege and poverty, for which the entry into the cluster is a gateway course[1]. The cluster is a series of courses from a variety of departments, in which issues of poverty and privilege comprise the theory of the course to be applied in its communities. The cluster, rather than an academic major, provides a structure for long-term gains from theory and community engagement. The college’s gateway course into this academic cluster asks students to consider privilege and poverty through topics such as food security, education, and health care.

The gateway course into the academic cluster facilitates social justice service-learning, for students to consider their social justice perspectives through experiences of civic learning. Course goals include: a) recognition of one’s beliefs when using “inequality,” “privilege,” and “poverty;” b) exposure to interdisciplinary definitions and assessments of “inequality,” “privilege,” and “poverty;” c) understanding of a variety of frameworks to analyze and assess, individual and group social responsibility to those in conditions of poverty.

Civic learning consists of two parts, civic knowledge and participation (AAC&U, 2007; Braskamp, 2011; Carnegie Foundation, 2015; Campus Compact 2015; Colby et al., 2007; Cress, Burack, Giles, Elkins, & Stevens, 2009; Gould, 2011; Hatcher, 2011; Harkavy, 2006; Jacoby, 2009, 2015; Lough, McBride, & Sherraden, 2009; Levine, 2007, 2013; Saltmarsh, 2005; Saltmarsh et al., 2009; The National Task Force on Civic Learning and Democratic Engagement, 2012; Torney-Purta, Cabrera, Roohr, Liu, & Rios, 2015). Students elected to partake in social justice service-learning and momentarily experienced civic learning through the college’s gateway course. This education is voluntary and fleeting. A liberal arts institution has a social and moral contract to do better. Millennials pass through many post-secondary institutions and their involvement in civic knowledge and action, voluntarily.

Middlebury students showed up to protest controversial “Bell Curve” author Charles Murray.

In the gateway course justice became social through students’ actions in their communities. Imagine what could happen if opportunities to ponder where one was from, their place in society and a resident of a community, required weaving together what it means to be a student and a member of an off-campus community? During a gateway class discussion a student reflected,

we (college students) have an obligation [to the community]. There is often a hostile relationship between the college and the town. When I go into Dunkin Donuts and mention I go to the college the response is, “oh, you are from the college (said sarcastically).’” Maybe we (college students) do have an obligation to reach out to our town.

Not every experience generates knowledge. An instructor must have the capacity to purposely integrate course content within the context of action, to develop a sense of place, for meaningful experiential learning. Social justice service-learning asked students to consider the origin of their actions through their communities as civic learning.

Effectively facilitated civic learning in this gateway course included: a variety of perspectives on social issues presented class; collaboration in a variety of learning experiences; community focused research on “real-world” problems; empathy through classroom and community connected experiences; individual and group reflection connecting theory to practice. Service in the community, course readings, guest speakers, student presentations and visual media were supported through writings and conversations about inequities. A class discussion referenced, “these people in the community” as a connection to course readings by John Rawls. A student asked, “what is [society’s] social contract to impact this [cycle of poverty] that is going on, does society have an obligation? A student noted in response, “[poverty] impedes upon an individual’s right to life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness.” During a different class discussion, another student commented, “education is seen as the great equalizer, but there are huge inequities in society that create inequities in education.” The content and methodology used in this gateway course had students examine who they are as citizens of the United States. Imagine if this student-led inquiry about sense of place and self was extrapolated from 34 students to every member of a college or university in experiential ways of deep learning.

Students recognized their civic perspectives as a result of the course’s pedagogy. A student described, “[service] is important, for us as a community. We need to come together to preserve the human dignity of others and make sure that doesn’t fall apart.” Another student remarked that experiences throughout the semester provided a greater understanding of community, “the way that I think about privilege and poverty in my community and in the world has changed.” Another participant stated, “[this course] was a beautiful balance between theory and practice that a lot of people should partake in.”

If permanent habits are to be formed for Millennials, colleges and universities must prepare them for participation in local, national and global communities. The added aspect of realism in the gateway course and further evaluation of student’s perspectives through performance, formed deep impressions on many participants. During a class discussion, a student recognized inequities in the college’s communities, “does the college have a responsibility to the surrounding areas that are so impoverished?” As this question was posed to the 33 students in the course, another student stated, “being a liberal arts college with varied perspectives is important, but students do not even feel comfortable [at the school] because of the whiteness, and upper middle class ideals perpetuated here.” Social justice service-learning through the gateway course provided experiences towards an understanding of students’ “varied perspectives.” Examination of students’ sense of place, understanding privilege and poverty through Experiential Learning Theory, developed civic knowledge and participation. Colleges and universities need more of this; our nation needs more of this.

Active and knowledgeable citizens, in a diverse nation and world, help promote the American values of liberty and justice.

Regardless of students’ motivation to enroll in the gateway course, its pedagogy was transformative. Millennials’ supposed entitlement and narcissism were considered during experiences in the gateway course. All courses, through their pedagogy, should inspire their students towards “action.” Interest in civic learning, amongst many college and university students, has led to campus-wide events around topics of social interest. However, often these efforts are absent of academic curricula. Students may assist in coordinating services in a homeless shelter, but they often lack coursework exposing them to the underlying issues of homelessness. As a result, participation in campus supported programs and service in communities is temporary. And, if it’s not temporary it’s often surface-level. Our young people must bridge the divide between taking social action on their smart devices by using a new hashtag, reposting a call-to-arms, or subscribing to a news feed. They must find ways to engage their real world in intentional and substantial ways, which might start with a hashtag, but certainly doesn’t end with one. Social justice service-learning in this gateway course asks students to contemplate the origin of their actions using their communities, and sense of place, through civic pedagogy.

Civic learning in higher education needs to reconsider the fundamental knowledge and skills citizens need to participate responsibly as local and global citizens. The tenets of civic learning must begin by addressing what student-citizens, need to know, understand and be able to do. Active and knowledgeable citizens, in a diverse nation and world, help promote the American values of liberty and justice. Development of the importance of social and civic responsibility through knowledge and participation is necessary for higher education and the United States. Young people must understand action as an obligation of citizenship and productive local and global societies, and post-secondary experiences must purposely guide learners toward this way of living.

Educators must evaluate the obligations, interests and skill-sets citizens of the United States have to act locally and globally. How will students experience the responsibilities of citizens at the local, state, federal and international levels? The evidence that social justice service-learning represents civic learning makes it morally imperative it be included as democracy in action throughout higher education.


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