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The Importance of Organizers and Communicators in Service-learning Ventures

By Sarah Lillo
The Importance of Organizers and Communicators in Service-learning Ventures

When I started a seven-month exploration of pragmatic supports for community engagement efforts in international schools, I expected that my study would center primarily on service-learning strategies. However, after doing dozens of interviews with student and faculty facilitators and hundreds of observations at the American International School of Johannesburg (AISJ), the International Community School of Addis Ababa (ICS), and the International School of Kenya (ISK), I came to realize that efforts required many different types of knowledge and skills.
To offer a framework for considering such diverse skills, I clustered relevant understandings into six domains: service-learning pedagogy, global issues, school context, local context, leadership/organization, and communications/public relations. The first three articles in this series (published in the October, December, and February TIE issues) offered more detail on the first four domains. In this article, I’ll delve into the last two.
Service-learning efforts rely on leaders and organizers. These efforts involve many people, including both school and local community members. It is easy to underestimate the skills required to inspire, organize, and manage these diverse groups. Yet leaders need to be equipped to cultivate individual ownership and responsibility within teams, create leadership structures, hold individuals accountable for their contributions, manage time and other resources to pursue specific goals, define roles and responsibilities, inspire others, maintain vision, and balance short-term and long-term planning.
The leadership and organizational skills involved in these tasks can be taught and learned. I spoke to many student leaders about their own leadership development. Some pointed to role of formal instruction. For example, ISK student leaders were trained by an external leadership training organization. AISJ service student leaders participated in a weekend-long leadership retreat with peers from another school. They also hosted the South African Service Summit for Youth to assemble leaders from across the nation. Select leaders from all three campuses attended the annual African Global Issues Service Summits. Not all leadership training was formal, though. Some student leaders alluded to the role of mentors. For example, many of the projects I observed had leadership structures where rising leaders were mentored by their predecessors. In other instances, teachers involved in projects deliberately mentored individual student leaders—they reflected with students on their approaches and choices. Yet other students suggested that their observations of role models, both good and bad, heavily influenced their personal leadership choices.
While I do not prescribe a single approach towards leadership development, I would argue that it is important for service-learning teams to reflect on ways to deliberately foster students’ related skills and understandings.
Service-learning efforts also rely on effective communication. There is a wealth of research that points to the centrality of clear communication in any group effort. Accordingly, service-learning teams need to effectively communicate amongst themselves. School partners and community partners alike need channels to communicate their desires and needs. Logistics, visions, goals, plans, and team decisions should be documented and communicated to all stakeholders. Different individuals have different communication preferences, and effective teams cater to these preferences. For instance, some students may prefer Facebook for information-swapping and depend on school announcements for last-minute reminders. Meanwhile, a community partner may prefer hardcopy documentation and regular phone calls. In international school contexts, team communication is all the more complicated, for teams are highly diverse. Facilitators need to reflect on cultural norms and be sensitive to intercultural communication dynamics.
There are also many communication needs that are more external in nature. For example, teams pursue support for their efforts from wider school and local communities. It is important that team members communicate effectively with school administrators, parents, community members, teachers, students, and staff. Publicity needs to be tailored to the interests and concerns of these respective stakeholders. Teams may share about their projects through school publications, announcements, flyers, events, word-of-mouth, formal reports, blogs, social media, school websites, or presentations. If they are more aware of projects, administrators may be more intentional in hiring, parents more interested in supporting co-curricular programming, students more likely to get involved, boards more likely to allocate funding, and teachers more likely to make connections between students’ learning inside and outside the classroom.
Both internal and external communications require a wide range of skills and understanding. Teams should recognize and value the benefit of knowledge related to journalism, public speaking, graphic design, written communication, culturally responsive language, and interpersonal communication.
In short, service-learning efforts are complex and require knowledge that spans across many domains. Teams rely on the collective expertise of their members; they need members who are proficient in service-learning pedagogy, who recognize how efforts fit into global issues, who understand the school context, and who are attuned to the local context. They also need members who can effectively lead groups and can communicate clearly. A “domains of knowledge” framework can help teams reflect upon and intentionally foster related understandings.
Sarah Lillo is a doctoral candidate and teaching fellow at the University of California, Los Angeles.

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