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The Time is Now: Rethinking Service Learning

By Kelly Owens
The Time is Now: Rethinking Service Learning

Photo: Eight students from the American International School of Bamako (AISB) and Banjul American International School (BAIS) teamed up in January 2020, at the Global Issues Service Summit (GISS) in Abidjan, to present to students about the potential harm of aid. The students pictured are Aïche Danioko, Kaustav Sahoo, Mingyu Du, John An, Zeytoun Ndiaye, Mima Seye, and Aina Vives-Roca.

“There comes a time when humanity is called to shift to a new level of consciousness . . . that time is now.”

? Wangari Maathai

2020 was a difficult year that has changed the way we behave and think about the world. The murder of George Floyd coupled with the visible long-standing inequality that was exposed by the pandemic has reinvigorated the Black Lives Matter movement and has increased the awareness of the “white savior” mentality and the need to “decolonize foreign aid.”

In order for our society to evolve for the advancement of all, we must address areas of our privilege that obstruct the liberation of others. Community-Based Engagement (CBE) provides a framework for students to understand the importance of working together for the betterment of all.

Catherine Berger-Kaye’s 2004 book The Complete Guide to Service Learning, became the go-to resource for international schools looking to engage in service learning. However, I see service learning as a way of reinforcing the “savior” mentality with students. I am troubled by the assumption that my students, because of their privilege, have the tools and skills to help the less fortunate.

Therefore, in 2016, the American International School of Bamako (AISB) pivoted from service learning to CBE. The goal of CBE is for students to become ethically engaged members of their community and to build successful, mutually respectful, and reciprocal partnerships with others. Ideally, these partnerships will result in positive outcomes in the community and for the students. Due to the difficult conversations we are finally having about society and inequality, I believe it is our responsibility as teachers and schools, to teach our students about responsible and ethical engagement, and to do this we must move away from service learning towards community engagement.

Service learning has many positive characteristics. It allows students to learn more about topics that interest them. Students are given responsibility and latitude to plan and implement projects. Service learning teaches students invaluable planning skills and the importance of following through and finishing a project. However, in my experience at international schools, service learning also provides students with a false sense of expertise.

It is presumptuous to think that students can solve a problem that a community has been grappling with for years. When affluent, well-connected students feel like they are solving community problems we are perpetuating neo-colonialist beliefs that it takes an outsider to fix people’s problems. Schools must be forward-thinking and reactive; the events of 2020 must push schools to rethink the message we are projecting to students with service learning and pursue a model that better reflects what we know to be best practice for our students and, more importantly, for our communities and the world.

The switch to CBE is challenging. To begin, schools must work to raise the profile of community engagement and ensure that people understand the difference between service and community engagement. It forces students and teachers alike to understand that their privilege does not equate to expertise. Students and teachers must realize that they have much to learn and benefit from the experience, thanks to the knowledge and wisdom within the community.

However, once students and teachers are able to make this shift in mindset, the process of transitioning from service learning to CBE is impactful, rewarding, and inspiring. CBE requires students to actually engage with community members and to work with them, not bulldoze them. Students are forced to get out of their SUVs and to talk with and try to understand the challenges being faced and work with others to explore ethical and sustainable solutions, sharing resources, ideas, inspirations, and perspectives.

CBE requires students to reflect on the potential harm they may cause and the implications of their actions. Moreover, CBE forces students to interact ethically with others. All schools, but especially international schools that profess to be progressive, must rethink the message we are sending students and adopt a model of community engagement that is less paternalistic and encourages cooperation and engagement.           

Kelly Owens is a social studies teacher and the CBE Coordinator at the American International School of Bamako. AISB’s CBE program would not be possible without the invaluable involvement and support of Renée Comesotti and Brad Waugh. @KellyOw99480157


Berger, K. C. (2010). The complete guide to service learning: Proven, practical ways to

engage students in civic responsibility, academic curriculum, & social action. Free Spirit Publishing.

Editorial Board. (2021, Feb. 13). The New York Times. Foreign aid is having a reckoning

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