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Asking the Hard Questions: Community-Based Learning and Critical Self-Awareness

Miranda Rosenblum, '18, American Studies Major, Women, Gender & Sexuality Studies Minor

Is community-based learning unequivocally good? 

Throughout my four years at the University of Richmond, I have had valuable community-based learning (CBL) experiences – opportunities for experiential learning, critical engagement, and co-collaboration. However, I’ve also had other CBL experiences that were ineffective at their best, and exploitative at their worst. 

Looking back, I can see that my most successful CBL experiences centered two key aspects of thoughtful and intentional community engagement: guided negotiation of power and privilege, and critical self-awareness and reflection. 

Here’s an example. In my last semester of college, I was enrolled in the capstone class of my minor. For the past three years, the seminar has partnered with a local organization focused on youth experiencing homelessness. This year, the organization had just completed a comprehensive research report detailing the state of youth homelessness in the Richmond region. They identified a need – turning their 50-page report into easily accessible posters, brochures, and booklets – and our class executed it. 

There were still significant power differentials between my class and the youth that we worked with, but this model of capacity-building community engagement helped to mitigate these power dynamics. The organization was driving the project, not us; we were responding to their articulated needs. We were also encouraged to be self-aware of our privilege and implicit bias through structured self-reflection. We wrote two essays about our CBL experience, reflecting on our personal understanding of youth homelessness before and after the project. Although this may seem simple, creating the space for critical self-awareness and reflection in the classroom allowed me and my classmates to challenge our previous thoughts, contextualize our work, engage critically with our experience, and grow both intellectually and personally. In short, in-class reflection allowed us do the introspective work that community-based learning requires. 

Not all my CBL experiences over the last four years have been this intentionally designed. 

In my first year of college, I took a class that required students to volunteer with a Richmond Public School at least five times throughout the semester. I chose to volunteer at a college-preparatory program in a local high school. A group of all white University of Richmond students were in charge of creating and implementing a curriculum that would motivate a class of predominantly black high school juniors and seniors to attend college.

Without meaningful preparation, my fellow University of Richmond students and I were not equipped to manage a classroom of 30 kids just a couple years younger than us. We also had drastically different life experiences than the students in the room. Our presence was not a sign of “I could do it, so you can do it too.” It was a reminder of the opportunities they were denied due to their race and class. Furthermore, we were not invited to reflect on the complicated dynamics of the volunteer experience in class; instead, we focused on our observations about the school, its resources, and the students.

The University of Richmond is a private, predominantly white institution, with a majority of students from higher socio-economic backgrounds. Undeniably, the University – and many within it – holds significant power and privilege.

In an independent study I created my junior year in order to focus on the link between stories and social change, I read feminist scholar Daphne Patai’s essay, “U.S. Academics and Third World Women: Is Ethical Research Possible?” Here, Patai examines the hierarchy of power reproduced by well-meaning U.S. scholars when studying women abroad: “In the end, even ‘feminist’ research too easily tends to reproduce the very inequalities and hierarchies it seeks to reveal and to transform…For we continue to function in an overdetermined universe in which our respective roles ensure that other people are always the subject of our research, almost never the reverse” (Patai 149).

For me, Patai’s critique strikes a chord applicable to university community-based learning. Even though the class I took my first year was focused on historic inequities along race and class lines, our CBL experience still reproduced the very inequities and hierarchies we were seeking to reveal and to transform. Who got more out of that experience, the high school kids or me? I did, without a doubt. I was able to see the educational inequities in the Richmond Public School firsthand and use this educational experience as evidence in the classroom. They were the subject of my educational experience, of my research. And what did they get? Some less-than-useful advice and “mentors” that left after just a month.

What would community-based learning look like if we critically examined our privilege first? What if we were the subjects of our own research? 

This kind of critical self-awareness and reflection has to be designed – purposefully integrated into syllabi and curriculum – to truly begin to mitigate the dynamics of power and privilege that community-based learning can perpetuate.

Ideally, community engagement is an exchange between communities. Too often, this exchange is lopsided, the privileged community arriving to “help” and still leaving with more. If we are dedicated to true community-based learning, we need to ask ourselves the hard questions before we leave campus. 

And even when we do, let’s be honest – in an inequitable world, truly equitable community-based learning may not be possible. But, as Daphne Patai says, “It is a mistake to let ourselves be overwhelmed by these problems” (Patai 150). Community-based learning may not be unequivocally good. But when done thoughtfully, intentionally, and critically, it is worth it.

Works Cited

Patai, Daphne, et al. “U.S. Academics and Third World Women: Is Ethical Research Possible?” Women's Words: The Feminist Practice of Oral History, Routledge, 2016.