Feminist Community Engagement
by Sophia Abbot
The Association of American Colleges and Universities (AAC&U) lists service-learning or community-based learning among 11 high impact practices in education, and it’s not difficult to see why. The praxis (theory, practice, reflection) of service-learning promotes students’ deep and sustained learning (Campus Compact n.d.). But doing service-learning well isn’t always easy, and doing service-learning poorly risks reinforcing students’ stereotypes and biases (Bocci 2015). What can facilitators do to ensure service-learning is appropriately challenging, reflective, partnered, and contextualized?
For folks just getting started in conceptualizing and facilitating service-learning, feminist pedagogy may be a helpful entry-point. A recent article by Angela Clark-Taylor (2017) provides just that. Clark-Taylor uses feminist content as well as feminist pedagogy to promote deep and transformative experiences for her students. Her case study describes the experiences of 12 students in a program that paired each student with a community partner and facilitated 20 hours per week of community engagement and student-cohort reflection and journaling. The feminist concepts Clark-Taylor used to guide this experience pair well with practices we already associate with key elements for facilitating good service learning.
The Center for Engaged Learning offers a list of ten good practices in high-impact service-learning, and four in particular map well onto a feminist pedagogy:
- Establish shared goals and values
- Build mutual trust, respect, authenticity, and commitment between the student and community partner
- Identify existing strengths and areas for improvement among all partners
- Work to balance power and share resources
(adapted from Reitenaure et al., 2005, and Howard, 1993)
I explore how these good practices can be facilitated using a feminist lens below.
Feminism’s Critical Lens
As Clark-Taylor describes, adopting a feminist lens in service learning and community engagement facilitates students’ development of critical consciousness and agency and makes issues of privilege and oppression explicit. Feminist community engagement pushes “attention to social change, questioning power structures, and developing authentic relationships” (Clark-Taylor 2017, 84) — goals which get us to the good practices above of “build[ing] mutual trust, respect, authenticity, and commitment” and working “to balance power and share resources.” There are a number of ways one might work with students to make power and inequity visible and to encourage the development of deep and meaningful relationships; the critical lens of feminism is one good mode.
Feminism’s Mutual Meaning-Making
Clark-Taylor also discusses the heart of feminist pedagogy — “co-mentoring and reciprocal teaching” (85) — and its role in service learning. This kind of mutual meaning-making reminds us that teaching shouldn’t come from a sole authority, and mentorship from instructors, community partners, and peers can all be valuable. Clark-Taylor facilitates this explicitly by encouraging “multiple sites of support” (94) within the service-learning context. Students:
- are paired with a community partner/supervisor with whom they have explicit conversations about feminism,
- journal and meet with Clark-Taylor herself to make sense of their experience,
- form more informal connections with their site community,
- read framing feminist theories, and
- meet together as a cohort to form new connections and understandings.
By de-centering knowledge creation, feminist community engagement helps us in each of the four good practices listed above: to “establish shared goals and values,” “build mutual trust, respect, authenticity and commitment” among instructors, students, and community partners, identify and value existing strengths, and “balance power.”
Scholars of service-learning tend to agree that reflection is an essential component of this high impact practice, and Clark-Taylor’s case study offers an especially useful example of how to facilitate such reflection. Students submit reflections throughout their experience to make connections between feminist readings (which they complete as a cohort), their service-learning experience, and their own understandings of the world. These reflections included prompts that specifically asked students about “positionality, privilege, and views on feminism, activism, and social change.” The personal nature of these reflections proved challenging for some students who realized that talking about these topics in abstract intellectual spaces is not the same as understanding one’s own participation in an unequal society (96). And yet, participating in such reflection is essential to supporting students’ ability to “establish shared goals and values” at the beginning of a service-learning experience, and to “balance power and share resources” throughout.
Ultimately, adoption of a feminist lens is just one entry way to facilitating transformative and meaningful service-learning for students. The Center for Engaged Learning’s blog series includes other good entry points, and CEL’s service-learning resource page offers great guidance and other examples for getting started.
- Bocci, Melissa. 2015. “Service-learning and white normativity: Racial representation in service-learning’s historical narrative.” Michigan Journal of Community Service Learning, Fall, p. 5-17. https://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/EJ1137412.pdf
- Campus Compact. n.d. “Facilitating reflection.” Retrieved October 2019 from https://compact.org/global-sl/toolsandsyllabi/facilitating-reflection/
- Center for Engaged Learning. n.d. “Service-Learning” Retrieved October 2019 from https://www.centerforengagedlearning.org/doing-engaged-learning/service-learning/
- Clark-Taylor, Angela. 2017. “Developing critical consciousness and social justice self-efficacy: Lessons from feminist community engagement student narratives.” Journal of Higher Education Outreach and Engagement, 21:4, p. 81-115.
Sophia Abbot is the 2018-2020 Center for Engaged Learning Graduate Apprentice and a student in the Masters of Higher Education program at Elon University.
How to cite this post:
Abbot, Sophia Abbot. 2019, November 12. “Feminist Community Engagement.” [Blog Post]. Retrieved from https://www.centerforengagedlearning.org/feminist-community-engagement