Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Research: How to Build Community Partnerships (NYLC The Generator)

by Ann Abbott

As always, the National Youth Leadership Council's newsletter, "The Generator," has very useful information about service learning in it. The Spring 2009 issue focuses on partnerships, and in this post I'd like to focus on the "Research" section written by Bjorn Lyngstad.

Lyngstad's piece begins with a question: "How can partnerships best be developed to ensure the success of service-learning projects?"

Frankly, in Spanish community service learning (CSL) I think we have it pretty easy. Our students need to develop their Spanish language skills and/or knowledge of Latino cultures. Our partners usually need our students' Spanish language skills to communicate with their stakeholders. That seems pretty easy to square up.

The problem is that our students need to use Spanish to do something: answer phones, greet clients, tutor children/adults, help resolve issues (legal, financial, bureaucratic, etc.). So our students need knowledge of other fields/issues to use their language skills effectively and carry out our partners' missions. In most Spanish classes students use Spanish to talk about literature or the language itself (linguistics), but in the real world students need to use their Spanish to communicate about topics that are probably unfamiliar to them.

But let me pull a few quotes from the piece in "The Generator" and link them to Spanish CSL.

"Obviously, community organizations have resources and technical capacity that most schools lack. Also, local organizations provide expertise on local issues." As obvious as this seems, I have found that it is not always obvious to all students. Many of our community partners are operating on shoestring budgets, in cramped quarters, with outdated technology (and sometimes technological know-how) and with a smaller-than-necessary staff. Given these conditions, students don't always see their resources because they can't see beyond the organization's "needs." Likewise, the staff of our community partners are very friendly and down-to-earth. But because they don't wear their expert status on their sleeves, students don't always recognize them as the highly-trained, powerful professionals that they are. Just as we must help students see a community's assets as well as its needs, we need to go through that same exercise with the partner organizations.

"[S]chools and agencies represent two radically different cultures." I like to think that my Spanish CSL program tries to simply be at the service of my partner organization and not impose our "culture" on theirs. Still, certain things are inevitably different:

  • Calendar. My students only work in the community for 14 weeks during each full semester. My community partners' work never ends.
  • Program growth. Many students want to take the "Spanish in the Community" and "Spanish & Entrepreneurship" courses, and that is one indicator of a successful academic program. But can my partners grow with me? Can they accommodate more and more student CSL workers? Not all of them can.
  • Millenials. Today's students--millenials, as some call them--display characteristics that are very different from many of the adults with whom they work in the community. This is certainly a cultural and inter-generational conflict, at times. While I think it is important for our community partners to understand not just what Spanish skills our students will (or won't) bring to their work in the organizations, it's equally important for us to explain the generational perspective and habits that they will probably exhibit as well.

"[W]hile organizations define success by the accomplishment of certain tasks, schools determine success as meeting particular academic standards." Yes, I agree wholeheartedly that this can present a challenge. I would also add that organizations need to accomplish certain tasks over and over again. Some students see this as "boring." They might say, "All I ever do is answer the phone and greet clients." Instead, as a way to practice their Spanish and get to know about Latino cultures, students should say, "Every day I get to answer the phone and greet clients." Learning a second language requires a lot of repetition. If we can help students recognize the role of repetition for success in language learning as well as accomplishing the mission of the organization for which they work, perhaps we can reduce the "bore factor."

"Schools and organizations do not necessarily need to share goals, but they need to communicate them clearly." Yes, yes, yes! Clear communication is the key to making sure that partnerships are mutually beneficial. I would only add, "...clearly, often and in different formats." Try giving your partner a brochure about your course/program. Send them to your website with it's programmatic information. Dash off an e-mail every once in a while to make sure things are on track. Pick up the phone and call. Get in your car and drive to their office. I find that university-related people communicate via websites and e-mails most often. I rarely pick up my phone to talk to anyone on campus. But that might not be the case with your community partners. Dropping by might be the only way to have a conversation. And bring something along with you to work on. These are busy people who have "office hours" all day long with people lined up to see them.

"The best partnerships go beyond individual projects.... Ideally, they are based on a "program" model with individual projects carried out within the program." This is the model that I have built at the University of Illinois:

  • Students work with community partner two hours each week, and do the every-day work of the organization. They may assist a teacher in the classroom, tutor a student on whatever that day's homework is, answer whatever questions that day's clients present, translate a document that is next on the priority list, etc. They contribute to the day-to-day work.
  • Students work on projects for honors credit or a course-based team project. Although I always ask partners what their project needs are, many times I can match students' abilities with my partners' needs. Some recent projects: researching/writing a short grant proposal; putting PayPal on a community partner's website; raising funds to buy Spanish-language books for a school's library.

All in all, I agree that "partnerships can be time-consuming to form, and they take knowledge, interpersonal skills and resources to sustain (Bailis and Melchior, 2004)." However, I have had the privilege to work with very easy-going, positive community partners. I'm sure there is room for improvement in our partnerships, but I know that they have been mutually beneficial so far.

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