Making a Difference
Service-Learning as an Activism Catalyst and Community Builder
By Jose Calderon

From the September 1999 AAHE Bulletin

Adapted from "A Multicultural and Critical Perspective on Teaching Through Community: A Dialogue With Jose Calderon of Pitzer College," by Sandra Enos, which appears in the recently published book Cultivating the Sociological Imagination: Concepts and Models for Service-Learning in Sociology (AAHE 1999), James Ostrow, Garry Hesser, and Sandra Enos, editors.

When I began teaching at Pitzer College, I wanted to develop a class that could let students feel what I felt when I went out to work with Cesar Chavez and the United Farm Workers (UFW) after I graduated. That experience had changed my life in terms of wanting to come back and organize in my own community back in Colorado. So in order to bring a flavor of that experience to my students, I developed a class called Rural and Urban Ethnic Movements, where students go work and live with the farmworkers. In preparation for their going, I utilize a number of books and a lot of literature that has been written about the farmworkers. The ties that I developed in the early 1970s have provided me with the contacts to allow for the kinds of relations that have developed between students at Pitzer and the United Farm Workers. In return for the union’s hospitality and shared knowledge, the students work in various departments of the union. When they return to Pitzer, they organize a memorial celebration and support the union’s boycott efforts throughout the year.

Integrating community service into my classroom came out of a passion, of trying to figure out how I could connect this passion for community activism and social change with the classroom and do it in such a way that I could survive in academia. A lot of the faculty whom I have met have had some type of community organizing and service background. Because of their past experiences, they struggle to make education a nonalienating, relevant experience. Usually, these individuals care immensely about the state of the world and its inhabitants, and they are using their energies to make it a better place to live. I put myself in this group. Although we have stumbled over many hurdles, we tend to be optimists. We are constantly looking for new angles to teach, learn, and organize. There are never enough hours in the day to do all of this — but somehow service-learning creates the balance and the link.

Building Community

The communities that I have been working with have been empowered to see campuses as having tremendous resources that the community can take advantage of. The labor unions, for example, are actively seeking to develop stronger ties among labor, campuses, and community activists. I am heartened by the efforts being made by labor organizers as well as faculty to become part of the communities that they live in — collaborating with neighborhood groups to advance local organizing efforts and political campaigns.

As the research efforts on our campuses are being used to create and change policies, the divide between campus and community is being diminished. Our communities don’t see the campus as an island, and, more important, we don’t see ourselves as an island. We see ourselves as an appendage of a larger community.

As students and faculty get involved in local political issues, they also begin to see that they can be a political force in the community. They no longer see themselves as travelers passing by, but as individuals with a stake in the decisions being made. Service-learning certainly helps to bring all these aspects together. Pitzer College, as an example, is developing a reputation locally and regionally as a place where there is a culture of service-learning. We get calls all the time from schools that want to utilize our resources in conflict resolution, early outreach, and curriculum transformation. As we get known for that sort of work, the strengths and advantages of service-learning get known.

Lessons Beyond the Classroom

Service-learning also provides our students with unique teaching and learning experiences. For example, students "do" diversity and multiculturalism without realizing it. In various classes that I have been involved with, students were drawn from different backgrounds in terms of race, class, gender, and sexual orientation. What I found is that the students, in the process of working together in service-learning projects, have developed a sense of collectivity. In the case of the UFW experience, students work together in teams doing data entry, public action mailings, archival research, etc. In return for the union’s hospitality and shared knowledge, the students present a reflection of what they have learned through the medium of theater. The beauty of this project is that it brings together students from diverse backgrounds to work together and to think critically and creatively. When they come back to campus, these ties are not lost but enriched. These are results that we cannot replicate in the classroom. These are results that reenergize me as a professor and remind me about the concrete meaning of collaborative learning.

A lot of students come right out of high school and are full of theories and ideas that they were taught in high school or by their parents. Many students come out of communities where they were not exposed to people of color or to issues having to do with race, gender, class, or gay and lesbian issues. In the Rural and Urban Ethnic Movements class, we get students from all different stratification levels. The students who are the most affected are not necessarily the minority students, because I think they know some of that [the social situation]. The students who have been somewhat isolated and have not been exposed to the conditions of farmworkers and how farmworkers have emerged to organize themselves are the ones who begin to question why there has been this massive movement, there have been all these books written about it, and they have not been taught about it. The direct experience with the UFW affects them on a long-term basis, because it doesn’t just follow how they have been taught in the past out of a book or a teacher feeding them abstract information.

And the impact is long term; that is why it is hard to evaluate the effect of service-learning after one semester. Usually, students say that they had a positive experience and that they learned a lot. But the long-term impact is what we don’t get right away. For example, I had this very conservative student who used to question the legitimacy of unions. He went on the service-learning alternative spring break. I recently got a letter from him in which he wrote that the class and experience had changed his entire life. He wrote that he decided to go into social welfare and empower people. Before, his outlook was to go into corporate

America and make lots of money. His is not an isolated incident. If we started asking people involved in service-learning all across the country, I think we would find that this transformation occurs among many students. They end up working with the homeless, in unions, in nonprofits, in agencies, and in the community. Their values are now to use their lives, their knowledge, and their values to build a better community. That is what I have found. Again, some of the students who are most affected are not just students from minority backgrounds but those other students.

Bringing It Back to the Campus

Service-learning outside of the classroom also has an impact inside the classroom. One of the lessons that I have learned about student-centered education is that if it is applied well, it leads to a more interactive classroom, where the roles of the faculty member are made more equal to those of the student. This is a good thing.

However, I have also found (particularly in introductory courses) that many students have not been exposed to particular theories or different ways of looking at issues. Some students in this situation often become comfortable with sharing their experience but slight the importance of doing the readings. As professors, we can shirk our responsibilities if the class becomes primarily focused on lived experience. The students need to learn to be dialectical and critical of the various sides and implications of classical and contemporary issues and theories in the literature. They need to ask challenging questions: Why do people have different positions on issues? Why are individuals and groups stratified at different levels? How did I, as an individual, get stratified in the position that I am in today? Students should be able to explain the historical, economic, political, and social foundations of how individuals and groups have become stratified at different levels and how inequality in positioning is explained in different ways by contending theories and theoreticians.

Overall, I think that this type of learning by "doing" sociology will stay much longer with them than if it were knowledge being taught merely out of a book. I am learning, more and more, how to develop combinations of lived experience, theory, and praxis in the classroom.

Jose Calderon is an associate professor in sociology and Chicano studies at Pitzer College in Claremont, California. He can be reached at jose_calderon; (909) 621-800, ext. 72852.

At AAHE’s 2000 National Conference on Higher Education (March 29—April 2, Anaheim, CA), Jose Calderon will be one of four Featured Speakers on Saturday morning, April 1.

Cultivating the Sociological Imagination: Concepts and Models for Service-Learning in Sociology is part of the AAHE Series on Service-Learning in the Disciplines, designed for faculty wishing to explore community-based learning in and through their individual disciplinary areas. Through the series and various coalition-building activities, AAHE aims ultimately to strengthen the educational infrastructure supporting service-learning in higher education.

The series consists of 18 volumes in the following disciplines:

Political Science
Communication Studies
Medical Education
Peace Studies
Teacher Education
Environmental Studies
Women’s Studies

More than 200 disciplinary teacher-scholars are contributors to the series. To purchase a volume or the entire series, see the AAHE Online Publication Catalog or contact the AAHE Publications Desk,(202) 293-6440, ext. 780.

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