Community-Based Learning in DC and Beyond: Workshop Your Idea

While Georgetown students engage in a variety of courses with their own set of learning objectives, there is an overarching lesson that aims to teach students how to become responsible and active participants in civic life, and live generously in service to others. This is an integral piece of Georgetown’s mission statement, but it begs the question, how do we teach students to fulfill this responsibility? Many Georgetown courses delve into the issues of race, class and wealth disparities, their effects on the community, and steps that can be taken to help mitigate these challenges and their impacts on society. Not all of these courses, however, offer a space for students to apply what they have learned within the classroom setting to real-world communities confronting these issues.

Enter Georgetown’s Center for Social Justice (CSJ), which identifies and facilitates connections between student learning and community work through community-based learning (CBL) courses. In these courses, students work with and for disadvantaged and underserved individuals and groups in structured ways that meet community-defined needs. Several faculty members across campus departments offer these courses, many of who participated in TLISI’s Community-Based Learning Workshop to discuss the challenges and opportunities of CBL.

Amanda Munroe, Assistant Director for Social Justice Curriculum and Pedagogy at CSJ, facilitated the workshop, which welcomed participants who have either offered or are thinking of offering a CBL course. Munroe kicked off the workshop by asking attendees to think about and share some of the challenges they have encountered with their CBL course. The challenges that were posed could fuel several different dialogues that would need more than the allotted hour to parse through, so highlighted throughout this piece are the common questions and concerns that were raised by both participants and the facilitator. Of particular interest were issues around 1) building relationships with community-based organizations; and, 2) integrating course content with community need.

The general questions guiding the workshop were What? So what? Now what? For this particular presentation, the what explained the purpose of CBL and its outcomes for individual students, which may include, but are not limited to: civic engagement; understanding of social justice; intercultural sensitivity; openness to difference; and reflective skills. Participants posed questions on how the Community Based Organization (CBO) is impacted by CBL and Munroe noted that sometimes CBL courses have immediate, measurable, positive impacts for the community partner; however, more often, CBL creates a resource strain for the partner without an immediate positive outcome.

An example of immediate impact referenced a CBL course in which students in a Spanish sociolinguistics class interpreted documents for pro bono lawyers representing Spanish clients suffering from wage theft. Unfortunately, this is a rare instance, as Munroe cited that most positive impacts are long-term and non-specific, and emerge in the form of social networks, empathy, and civic engagement. The biggest positive is the community’s relationship with a resourceful and powerful institution such as Georgetown.

So What? Focusing on this topic of CBO and community impacts, Munroe explains that CBL should be structured to recognize, compensate, and honor the dignity, work, and aspirations of partner communities and community organizations. To positively impact both groups, the educator needs to be engaged and share the products of the work with the community they are serving. Sustained relationships must also be cultivated and maintained to allow for long-lasting impacts.

Building these relationships will also help to resolve other challenges that were brought up at the beginning. For instance, open lines of communication can better enable the instructor to work with the CBO to ensure integration between the goals of the course and the goals of the CBO. The benefits of these relationships are far-reaching, but how do we accomplish this?

Now What? As the workshop concluded, groups shared thoughts on how to cultivate sustainable relationships with CBOs as a way to comboat their aforementioned challenges. The group interested in better integrating the course curriculum with the work being done with the CBO suggested increased engagement between the CBO. They thought it would be beneficial to have collaborative meetings and working groups to set expectations and identify goals. Another group also noted that rather than switch to another CBO partner, they would prefer to stick with the same partner each semester to create a longer-term relationship that better facilitates successful learning and community benefits.

CSJ can help Georgetown faculty work through the challenges that were shared during this workshop, and can also help facilitate relationships between educators and CBO partners. It is important that our faculty and staff are aware of CBL and how CSJ can help, as these courses can create learning opportunities in which students better understand social justice and civic responsibility. Furthermore, the connection students make with partnering communities and the work that they do with and for these communities can better instill in them a sense of civic duty, engagement, and service that lasts well beyond their years at Georgetown. To learn more, visit the CBL section of the CSJ website. Special thanks to CSJ for presenting at this year’s TLISI!