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Contextualizing Service Learning Within Communities

By Sarah Lillo
Contextualizing Service Learning Within Communities

This is the third article in a series that explores how international schools can support service-learning programs. It is based on nearly seven months of interviews and observations at three schools with established service-learning programs: the American International School of Johannesburg, the International School of Kenya, and the International Community School of Addis Ababa.
In my October article, “Unpacking Service-Learning Efforts,” I suggested that there are far more skills and understandings involved in service-learning endeavors than we tend to acknowledge. If schools want to support efforts, they need to deliberately seek out experts with understanding of six different domains of knowledge: service-learning pedagogy, global issues, local community contexts, school contexts, leadership/group organization, and communication. I explored the first two of these in my December piece, “Tapping Into Service-Learning and Global Issues Expertise.” In this article, I focus on the relevance of the next two domains: understandings of the local and the school contexts.
Service-learning efforts happen in the context of communities—both school communities and local communities. Each respective community has its own structures, culture, values, expectations, norms, histories, languages, and interests. Each social space evolves and shifts over time. Their dynamics are complex. In order for service-learning efforts to thrive, teams need to lean on insiders and experts who can help them navigate the nuances of each community.
In general, international schools are highly transient spaces. In many cases, those facilitating service-learning projects are fairly new to their settings. While such facilitators may be passionate service-learning educators, they may be unfamiliar with school-specific procedures for arranging transportation, protocols for security checks, or which school activities will monopolize community attention. They may be new to the IB philosophy. Or they may not know the school’s traditions or the community “nerves” to carefully avoid striking. They may be accustomed to students that take more initiative or ones that require more directives, to faculty that are more collaborative or more independent.
Yet projects depend on facilitators’ ability to rally enthusiasm within their particular school communities and to follow school-specific expectations, all while fostering collective ownership of projects.
Accordingly, service-learning teams need members with institutional knowledge. These experts know the school’s “gatekeepers”: the influential teacher that everyone listens to in meetings, the administrative assistant who coordinates school calendars, or the secretary who knows every student’s backstory. They can offer insight into how to cultivate enthusiasm for any given effort, how to align projects with school initiatives, and how to maximize school resources.
Just as service-learning teams rely on school community insiders, so too do they depend on those who understand the contexts of their respective projects. Projects typically include partnerships with members of the local community and, as one student in South Africa so aptly put it, teams strive for “dignity-aware relationships.”
In order for relationships with community partners to be respectful, teams need to understand their partners’ culture, expectations, and needs. This can be more of a challenge in international schools than in national schools, for more students and faculty members may be culturally, linguistically, or economically disconnected from the local community. However, gaps are not insurmountable.
Even in the most diverse international schools, there are still individuals who are long-term members of the local community. These may be students, faculty, or staff members. Service-learning teams must be especially careful not to frame these individuals as the representative voices of the local community or to tokenize their community membership. At the same time, teams should recognize that local community insiders may have abilities that their expatriate peers do not; they might recognize culturally-specific body language, perceive social cues, comprehend the local written or oral language, or understand the historical context of actions. It is crucial that teams bring such experts into their instigation, planning, action, and reflection process.
It is also important for all team members to continually expand their understanding of the community that they serve. They should demonstrate respect for community partners by learning their colleagues’ language(s), exploring their traditions, and trying to understand their values. Experts, both from the school and from the local community, may be especially helpful in this process. For example, language instructors might offer linguistic support, local social workers might provide intercultural guidance, and longtime community members might share their experiences. Community partners themselves may be able to provide training to help students understand the context of their efforts.
In short, service-learning efforts rely on many different types of understandings. It is important that teams remember the communities that their projects are embedded within and seek out the expertise of those that are familiar with each respective community.

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