Teaching for Social Justice through Collaborative Ethnography


Using Collaborative Ethnography as a tool and strategy, we’re helping K-16 and community educators learn to design compelling curriculum experiences that are centered on the people, issues, and culture of their own local community. Collaborative Ethnography provides an invaluable tool for teachers in working with their students to discover and share their local community’s past, explore its present, while becoming local advocates and visionaries for the future. Collaborative Ethnography is about learning about, knowing, understanding, and connecting people in local communities—especially those who traditionally are “invisible” or marginalized. Using Collaborative Ethnography we seek to build bridges of understanding and empathy through student projects. This approach also helps us to identify social justice issues from the vantage point of impacted community members themselves.

Science teacher and CWI Summer Institute participant Landon Neustadt explores the old Broadway theater corridor in downtown Los Angeles, a mix of important older neighborhood businesses, massive redevelopment, a vibrant low income Latino community, new trendy startups, and boarded up buildings.

CWI’s annual Summer Institutes in Burlington, Vermont, and Los Angeles, have both included street based practicums in Collaborative Ethnography over the past several years. Our interest is in learning and practicing teaching strategies that get at the intersectionality of of community cultures, issues, and needs, as a precursor to considering place based service-learning projects.

To understand how this actually works for classroom teachers, we had a great conversation in Los Angeles recently, with veteran educators Felipe Sanchez and Alexandra Gonzales. (video is included below)

Alexandra is a science/STEM teacher from Long Beach who took part in CWI’s annual Summer WEST Institute on Place Based Service-Learning, in Los Angeles. Felipe Sanchez is a long time educator and partner-faculty member with CWI. Felipe is an astute observer of the cultural layers and shifts in Los Angeles. Just prior to this interview (embedded below) Alexandra, along with her thirty new CWI Institute colleagues, K-16 educators from across the U.S. and Mexico City, had just spent a day in LA’s old downtown business district, which is currently undergoing large scale redevelopment.

Kindergarten teacher Lilia Vargas, from ASF in Mexico City, interviews the longtime owner of a dress shop whose business is being forced to move by accelerating development driven rent costs, and a reduced Latino clientele who are likewise being forced out of their neighborhood.

Our Summer Institute teachers took part in a CWI workshop on using Collaborative Ethnography strategies and skills with students. They then spent the day practicing through experience, by exploring the center of change in downtown Los Angeles, in small groups on foot.

The area our teachers explored in Los Angeles is home to many low income elders, is the center of a longtime vibrant but generally low income Latino community, which also abuts the largest Skid Row and homeless population in the U.S. Our teachers’ task was to try out and practice their new ethnography skills in order to to use them to engage their own students in their local communities in projects intended to reach out and understand the deeper layers of their community through people focused inquiry and place based service-learning projects.

It was a very powerful experience and piece of work, as Alexandra shares so eloquently, an important step in building a community focused pedagogy.

It’s all here and Alexandra and Felipe said it so well. When we work with students in the community we start with understanding and building relationships, not projects. learn more: cwinstitute.netcontact us


Join Us in Burlington, Vermont or Los Angeles for CWI’s Summer Institute this year!


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Community Works Institute (CWI) provides resources, professional development, and collaboration opportunities for educators. Our focus is on place based education, service learning, and sustainability.
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