In the spring of 2013, the students in my Women’s Studies 280 course took part in a semester-long, community service learning project that bridged the gap between the classroom and local activists. The goal was to help students make concrete connections between what they were learning in the course about feminism and social justice and what kinds of grassroots organizing and activism were happening in their local community in the hopes that they would feel more empowered and more capable of acting on the new knowledge they acquired in class.
WHAT IS SERVICE LEARNING?
Service learning is an experiential educational practice that integrates civic engagement with academic instruction effectively transgressing the traditional boundaries between the university and its surrounding community. Something like a cross between volunteering and an internship, service learning gives students an opportunity to understand how ideas discussed in class have practical application in their own communities, and to see what social justice issues like poverty or gay rights look like in real life. Finally, I hoped to connect my college-age students with older, more experiences organizers, making the project a chance for inter-generational activist learning as well. As a form of grassroots activism within the academy, service learning gives students the experience of forming practical community partnerships that benefit both the students and members of the community in order to create positive change and dialogue.
The goals of the project were:
- To put students in contact with individuals and organizations involved in grassroots activism within their local community;
- to demonstrate how practical feminist ethics might be applied within their own lives as well as within our communities through acts of civic engagement;
- To help students develop practical grassroots organizing skills that they might employ beyond their time in class;
- To build relationships between community partners and the university community and its students; and
- To potentially provide area organizations with new volunteers and/or, as the students wrote in their grant, “ambassadors for their causes.”
Each group of students in the class chose a non-profit organization from the Greater Lafayette area to partner with for approximately eight weeks of the semester.During this time, students researched the history of their community partner’s (CP) and their social justice work in the community and put in volunteer hours to learn about their CP’s workings. Each group then worked to recruit members of their organizations to form a delegation for the March 22nd, 2013 event, the March at Purdue: Celebrating 100 Years of Public Action. Students collaborated with their CPs to prepare their delegations for the event, designing banners, T-shirts, and flyers to promote their organizations and their causes.
Community Partners. The following non-profit organizations worked with students in my class and participated in the March at Purdue: Lafayette Area Peace Coalition, Pride Lafayette, Feminist Action Coalition for Today, League of Women Voters of Greater Lafayette, Lafayette Urban Ministries, and the Lafayette Crisis Center.
The following video was used to advertise the march and explain the history it was designed to celebrate:
To fulfill the service learning requirement for the course, students completed the following:
- Class Presentation. Students researched the history and social justice work of their non-profit community partners and gave a presentation to the class to educate one another about local organizations and their activist missions.
- Volunteer Organizing. Students attended planning meetings for the march, attended their organization’s meetings, wrote articles and flyers for their community partners, and collaborated to design banners, signs, and T-shirts for the march.
- Reading. Students read excerpts from Amy Richards’s and Jennifer Baumgartner’s Grassroots: A Field Guide to Feminist Activism (2005).
- March and Rally. Students marched with their delegations on March 22nd, 2013, representing their social justice causes and attended the rally afterwards, listening to inspirational speeches from students, faculty, and long-time activist Zoe Nicholson, who came to campus to speak at the march.
- Service Learning Symposium. Each group created a professional poster board about their project and their community engagement experience to share with fellow students, Purdue faculty, and participating community partners.
- Reflective Paper. For their final, each students wrote a reflective paper considering their service learning experience and their future as an activist or advocate for social justice.
Students march with their community partner delegations on the day of the march on Purdue’s campus:
STUDENT GRANT-WRITING SUCCESS
In order to fund their project, two students from class volunteered to write a grant, and the class was awarded a $1,000 from Purdue’s Office of Engagement in February. The students used the funds to purchase supplies for their CP delegations as well as poster boards and refreshments for their end-of-semester Service Learning Symposium, where they showcased their projects for fellow students and faculty. At the close of the semester, three additional students wrote and submitted the final report, detailing their successes and making recommendations for similar projects in the future.
SERVICE LEARNING SYMPOSIUM
To wrap up their experience, students present their poster boards to those attending their Service Learning Symposium in April 2013.