Friday, May 22, 2009

How to Reduce Your Community Service Learning Footprint

by Ann Abbott

We all know we should reduce our carbon footprint. For the good of the planet--and for our own good--we should consume less, eat less meat, use renewable/recyclable goods when we do consume, carpool, bike, and in general, become informed about the issues and consequences of our behaviors.

You can calculate your carbon footprint on-line by answering questions about how much animal-based what kinds of food you eat, how much trash you produce, how much you pay for electricity and gas, how much you travel by car, bus, train or plane, etc. In essence, these calculators allow you visualize how much you are taking from the planet, what kind of burden you are placing on it. The result for most of us in the developed world is that we are consuming more of the earth's resources than it can actually provide.

But what about our community-service learning footprint? How can you calculate your community-service learning footprint?

Here are some basics of what I would consider to be a "green" community-service learning program:

Benefits. The program is truly mutually beneficial. Students give as much or more to the community than they "take." Our students' presence in the community and in its organizations is disruptive. For example, community partners must take the time to train our student volunteers, answer their questions and correct their (inevitable) mistakes. They must be providing enough benefit to the community to be worth the disruption they cause.

Sustainability. You contribute to the community's sustainability and have a sustainable community service-learning program yourself. Most real-world problems need long-term, on-going solutions. Therefore, our communities need lasting partnerships. For example, if a biology class works on a water-quality program, in one semester they might be able to analyze the water and suggest treatment solutions. But who will knock at City Hall's door and present the findings? Who will wage a letter-writing program to local businesses to ask for their cooperation? Who will write op-ed pieces and letters to the editor in the local newspaper to inform the public? Who will do follow-up analyses to see if water quality improves over time? In my experience, community partners can use our help at all those stages. So, in order to commit to a community's sustainability, your program must be sustainable. If you're a one-(w0)man show, like me, are you going to burn out? If you started your program or course with grant money, what will you do when that money runs out? Community problems don't take sabbaticals; what will you do if you go on one? Does your department view your program as "nice," but not integral to their mission? If so, it could be the first program to be cut in these tough budgetary times.

Research. Your research benefits the community and "does no harm." I cannot tell you how many times I have been told by Latinos in the community that they don't want to just be the subject of university research, they want to share in the grant resources and benifits of the research. That's great, except I don't do research with community members! (My research is on student learning.) That means that someone before me came into the community and left a really big research footprint that I now have to work around. People have been used. Burned. And now they automatically assume that my students and I have the same motives. Obviously, it's important for us to do research to advance the field of community service learning. But you have to do it in a way that is, again, mutually beneficial.

Transitions. You have clear entry and exit strategies for your students. At this point, I think that most community service learning instructors and program directors do a good job of thinking about effective ways to prepare their students to enter a community and the community partner's organization. But what about when the semester or school year is over? What is your exit strategy for your students? We need to help our students make smooth transitions into the community and out of it, disrupting as little as possible the work of our community partner organizations and the lives of the community members. Without a smooth exit, community members can feel confused or even cheated. When we work with vulnerable populations, some people might feel "abandoned" as our students leave them and their community and go on to new challenges. For communities that struggle with low educational achievement and unemployment, what should your student say or not say when he/she leaves after the semester is over to start a new job or to go on to grad school? And if you have a bumpy exit one semester, it's harder for your students to enter the community the next semester.

Students. Students are aware of their responsibilities and the potential for negative consequences. Most of our students are very responsible, mature people with a real desire to immerse themselves in a community, learn from it and contribute to it. Nonetheless, even well-intentioned students can get things really wrong in the community, causing unintentional damage. Worse still, there are inevitably a few students who carry their negative, often uninformed, attitudes into the community. In short order, they can destroy the trust that you may have worked years to establish. I lost a great community partner when one semester, three of the students who worked there arrived late for meetings and essentially showed through their behavior that they weren't truly committed to the organization. Some organizations may tolerate that because they see what they gain from the other students. Now, each semester when I reach out to that former community partner again, the answer is always "no thank you."

Right now, there is no "Community Service Learning Footprint" calculator on the web with graphics that demonstrate how many resources you consume. But the metaphor is not far off the mark. Don't get me wrong; the vast majority of community service learning creates truly impressive synergies between students and communities. But just like we need to know how much of our planet's resources we are using when we drive to work, eat beef and take long, hot showers every day, we also need to know if we are depleting the community's reserves of time, resources and good will with our community service learning projects.

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