Service-Learning · Teaching

Service-learning and community relationships

Prior to the introduction of a service learning final project within the course “Introduction to Networked Systems”, students completed a final project in which they were asked to be consultants for a fictional public library.  Students were assigned to one of several teams, each of which were to provide recommendations to the library board (their fellow students) regarding the significant upgrade to the existing technology services within the library.  The project required research into the types of technologies currently implemented within libraries as well as to research newly emerging technologies.  They also needed to balance overall costs to most effectively meet the stated objectives within the “RFP” presented to them mid-semester.

During the Fall 2000 semester, about half the students participated in the traditional final project, while the other half chose to participate in a final project in which they refurbished donated computers, installed operating systems, and networked those computers together.   These computers were subsequently installed by the final project teams at the end of the semester in one of several non-governmental organizations within the East St. Louis area. Beyond the trip to East St. Louis to deliver the computers, students also traveled to the community mid-semester to perform a site survey to determine specific needs and identify existing resources.  Less research was done to determine implementations at other Community Technology Centers (CTCs), the availability/desirability of emerging technologies, and balancing costs (little funding was available for implementation, instead students used primarily donated equipment).  But on the other hand, students gained more hands-on experience working with technology and the challenges of implementing technology within community.

Prior to the first trip to East St. Louis, as the instructor I strongly emphasized the responsibilities the students were assuming as consultants to these community organizations.  I stressed the importance of professional behavior and the philosophy that the customer is always right.  While we certainly didn’t want to discount our own expertise and wanted to appropriate advise our customers, we also wanted to appreciate that they were the ones who would ultimately be implementing their programs using these computers and we wanted to be appreciative of their expertise in that implementation.  To that end, they might decide on configurations that were against our own better judgment, but that was probably based on their own deeper understanding of their overall objectives.  Essentially, we were to put into practice in this service-learning option for a final project what the rest of the class was role-playing within the former traditional final project for the course.

This community member as client approach to service learning was one with which the students could easily relate. All of them had had both positive and negative interactions with service providers within and outside of the technology field.  To that end, they by and large worked at trying to model the more positive qualities they had seen in service providers.  I continued to use this approach for the first several semesters in which the service-learning project was implemented as part of the course.  But I found somewhat disconcerting the ways and means in which students would sometimes try to sell their specific implementation plans to their community clients.  On occasion, these could be rather confrontational as students and community members each had firmly held ideals of how to best proceed.  Probably the most touchy topic was parental control software.  Some of the students, primarily masters-level Library and Information Science students, strongly felt that such software was a restriction of free speech and therefore an abomination.  Community members, on the other hand, were reflecting the ideals and principles of their community in asking for ways to keep curious youth from those parts of the Internet they found were in conflict with those ideals and principles.  I knew something needed to change after one particular site survey visit in which, despite my active interventions, a student and a community member had several extended dialogs that monopolized much of the the groups assigned two hour block to perform the site survey.

A second event that occurred about the same time provided a new ideal of the relationship that should exist between the academic institution and the local community.  In this case, the students had completed a site survey and returned to Urbana-Champaign.  In subsequent communiques with their site coordinator for a church in East St. Louis, they began receiving conflicting information.  The intended use and specific location of the lab changed, they expectations of what would be accomplished by the students changed, and overall the tone deteriorated.  I decided that for the sake of the students, I needed to return to East St. Louis to speak with the site coordinator to clarify specifically what we could and couldn’t accomplish during the course of the semester, and that if that was not acceptable, to identify an alternate community site.

While there, I met with not only the site coordinator, but her pastor.  In this way, I came to better appreciate the role of the site coordinator vis a vis the pastor of the church.  The site coordinator had little in the way of authority over the lab, and as such, the changes in understanding occurred because the pastor had provided greater definition of his goals after we had left East St. Louis.  To that end, the conversation that afternoon was primarily between the pastor and myself.  I found it confusing and frustrating that the pastor seemed to be actively throwing verbal barbs at me, as if he were goading me into an unprofessional response.  Finally, after about 45 minutes of such dialog, I did indeed throw a verbal barb back his direction.  He instantly broke into a smile and responded “now we’re talking!”.  He went on to clarify that he missed the deep relationships he had built with the founders of the East St. Louis Action Research Project (ESLARP) during its early days.  In his viewpoint, it wasn’t until I felt comfortable enough to throw barbs back that I could stop being his service provider and begin being his partner.

Following that interaction, I began to describe to the students a new concept for the relationship between the class and the community, that of partners.  I aggressively removed language from my class notes and my own speech that referred to community members as clients, and replaced it with partners.  I added a section before our first trip to East St. Louis the next semester that described how the students were beneficiaries of  the rich partnerships developed by ESLARP over the years and how the students would affect those partnerships to the positive or negative, depending on their actions.  (It’s not that I didn’t recognize ESLARP and it’s history before, but I had never stressed the partnerships aspect before.)  I also added a visioning exercise in which students were asked to imagine their experience on a blind date, such that at the end, things had gone so well they wanted to see that person again.  They were then stepped through a second blind date in which they were turned off by the other person to the point they had no intentions of ever trying to talk to that person again.  We then reflected on the differences that contribute to a positive first meeting and the factors that contribute towards the building of a longer term relationship.

While not always perfect, the interactions between students and their community partners has steadily improved since the time the approach was changed, emphasizing community member as partner.  Indeed, relationship building is a two way street and students are now more aware than ever when they end up with a site coordinator that is not interested in partnership but is instead looking for a service provider.  These differences are especially emphasized during those semesters when a different group ends up with a site coordinator that is especially gifted at establishing a partnership.  Fortunately, through group reflections and the final class presentations, the whole class is able to learn from these comparisons.

As important as these changes have been for the students, I believe the changes I’ve experienced in my relationships with community members in East St. Louis has been equally or more critical.  Over the course of 15 semesters, I have transitioned from community member as client, to community member as partner, and most recently, in a number of cases community member as friend.  The changes in my relationships with community members in East St. Louis has brought with it an ever greater depth of understanding of the challenges faced by minorities within our culture, and especially of minorities who find themselves located in an economically distressed community like East St. Louis.  I’ve often come to appreciate the depth of character and resources it takes to survive under, let alone overcome, such circumstances.  This understanding has not only affected my professional approach within academia, but also my personal life in numerous positive ways.  This in turn has subsequent benefits for those with whom I interact, from family and friends to students and business associates.  I continue a process of discovery personally regarding the transformative process for me specifically started during the fall of 2000 and the implementation of service learning within that one course.

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