While service-learning has long been recognized for its strengths as an experiential inquiry-based process, it can also be a vehicle for social change. When students integrate diverse community perspectives into their identification of local assets and needs and involve a range of community partners in their actions, service-learning becomes a powerful strategy for anti-racist and culturally responsive teaching.

Exploring the dynamics of access, wealth, and equity while addressing a community need is often labeled “critical service-learning” in higher education circles. In K-12 systems, similar explorations of the root causes underlying community needs make service-learning its most transformational.

But examining systemic inequities doesn’t happen automatically in the process — and, when these dynamics aren’t effectively examined, community actions can inadvertently reinforce assumptions and stereotypes, resulting in charity rather than social justice.

Enter K-12 education specialists Sarah Miller and Malik Peer, who have developed “Diversity Awareness Training with an Emphasis on Equity” (DATE). From their base of practice in Jordan, Minnesota’s school system, they see much of what they do with students, teachers, and administrators as complementary to service-learning – if not integral. Their process can fit before and within the service-learning cycle, especially during the investigation and preparation/planning stages. The process also has a role in reflection throughout the experience.

Caring and Committed Conversations with Students

For Miller, this focus comes after years integrating service-learning into her K-8 teaching, and running afterschool programs rooted in service-learning. For Peer, his training in Freedom Schools (free schools that flourished during the civil rights years and continue to offer programming rooted in racial justice and literacy) informs his approach to this work, as he serves as an Equity Officer for the district.

“The important thing for us is to let it be real,” says Miller, describing a dialogue protocol they call Caring and Committed Conversations. “We are intent on bringing people together to start conversations that allow us to celebrate different perspectives, different ways of living, and different ways of being in the world.”

Using a set of agreements and guidelines, they embark on conversations driven by student interests. In terms of the service-learning process, these conversations can inform the teacher’s “Stage One: Identify Youth Outcomes” because the protocol helps students practice social and emotional skills such as self- and social awareness, developing such skills as active listening, or empathy, for example.

As Miller says, “To have difficult conversations, you have to commit to caring about others’ stories and others’ perspectives.”

These conversations also can fit in the “Investigation” and “Planning and Preparation” stages of the youth-led IPARD process as students investigate their interests and assess their community’s assets and needs, then prepare to take action.

In general, the  Caring and Committed Conversations process involves:

  1. Selecting a “topic” (which might be the root cause of a community need.)
  2. Generating “facts” – for example, agreeing on definitions for terms such as race, white privilege, equity, etc.]
  3. Having a “story starter” (someone with an experience related to the topic) share their example in a small group.
  4. Students asking questions using prompts such as “Have you ever wondered…?” “Will you explain…?” “Is there room for this thought…?”
  5. Tabletop group picks a “summarizer” who then shares what the discussion involved.
  6. The large group then deliberates what they can state as shared truths. (For example, “We believe that the way race is discussed in schools can be improved.”)
  7. Then they share what they think they can do better now that they know more.

Miller and Peer say that these conversations are about increasing awareness. “Students don’t feel the pressure to change, but have the inspiration to change,” says Miller.

Outgrowths of the conversations have included the development of diversity and equity leadership crews at the elementary, middle, and high schools which then tackle needs the students identify – such as welcoming kindergarteners to the “new and scary place called school,” says Peer.

The glue at the elementary level are “harrambes” (a Swahili word for “let us all pull together”) – gatherings where the elementary students develop and share cheers and chants and identify the word they’ll focus on for the month – such as courage, unity, or hope. Typically, the middle school crew supports the elementary students in these events.

Much of the culturally responsive teaching comes through students’ exploration of diverse leaders who exemplify these traits; the related readings and research, and cultural gatherings they sponsor with and for the community.

The corollary to the youth experience is a training for teachers and administrators focused on the “Ps” of equity – power, position, privilege, etc.

Says Peer, “Teachers have really changed their practice. They understand the importance of diverse thinking in classrooms, in programs, in the district. The whole district grows because it honors all students on all platforms.”

Broadly speaking, Miller and Peer are fostering Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr’s. “beloved community” working with students, teachers, and administrators to build awareness into the assumptions that often fuel educational myopia – and result in persistent achievement and opportunity gaps along racial lines.

“We want kids to learn and head in great directions, not misdirections,” says Peer.

Caring and Committed Conversations, coupled with adult conversations about power and privilege can thus fuel the difference between service-learning producing a charitable act versus service-learning driving actions that address the root causes of inequity.

For more information, contact [email protected]

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