When I was in seventh grade, a teacher assigned me a project. I don’t remember the details of the assignment, but I remember my subject was homelessness. Because of the nature of his work at the time, my father knew some about social issues in Houston, and he offered to drive me to several shelters where I could talk to homeless people about the reality of their lives.
Imagine me: 12 year old girl-woman, in my hot pink muscle shirt and requisite 90s leather wrist band. Black Keds and high ponytail, and my hips just growing soft around their wide bones but my long torso as flat as the streets of my city. My father took me first to Casa Juan Diego, a home that serves refugees, immigrants, and the poor and models itself after Dorothy Day’s Catholic Worker. He introduced me to the director, Mark Zwick, a silver-haired man who never smiled but took the time to talk to me slowly and carefully. He answered my questions with a seriousness that lent me some dignity. He didn’t have to, and maybe he did it because he respected my father, but I remember that very starkly: being spoken to as an intelligent, trustworthy person. Zwick died a few weeks ago—my father attended the funeral. Sixteen priests, he told me afterward. I counted. Sixteen priests were on the alter, Sis. That’s how holy a layman he was. After Casa Juan Diego, we drove downtown where we pulled up to the curb along one block. Homeless men lined the sidewalk—talking to each other or sleeping. I opened my car door, but the car engine idled. My father sat with his seatbelt still fastened.
“Daddy?” I asked.
“I’m going to stay here,” he said. “I’ll watch you. I’ll be right here.”
“What do I do?”
“Introduce yourself. Ask them their name and whether they mind answering a few questions because you’re curious about their lives. Let them tell you their story. They’re people just like you.”
I was terrified. But before you think I had an irresponsible, reckless dad (indeed, my teacher raised an eyebrow when she saw the pictures I’d taken, and I told her I talked to homeless people) let me break the suspense. Nothing happened. Some people talked to me and some didn’t. My voice grew less shaky with each question. I probably didn’t venture much more than 30 feet from the car and my father watching, waiting for me. As we drove home, we talked. He listened to what I heard and then framed it for my young mind; he provided context and history to the stories. He helped me understand how and why someone might end up homeless. He encouraged curiosity and empathy rather than pity. I never heard pity in his voice, ever. And because I was sad and frightened, he spoke to me tenderly too.
I’ve been thinking about that day lately. A colleague and I are planning a service learning course for the Interim period at the school where I teach. We attended a conference together where we received training in the difference between “charity” as service and service learning, and then a second session on the leadership capabilities that children need to become global citizens and problem solvers. As we moved through the curriculum, I realized I’d already learned much of it. In practice and in theory, in the careers I had before teaching and in my life. I learned it mostly from witnessing my father and mother live their lives as active and engaged citizens working to create a more equitable world and extending to me respect in the form of talking to me about their work.
Service learning is an experiential education where learning occurs through action and reflection and students work with communities to achieve real objectives and gain skills and understanding for themselves. Its aim is to enhance learning while simultaneously contributing to the common good, and at its best, helping to promote social justice. That’s a lot of words. The two major differences between community service or charity work and service learning, to me, are: reciprocity and integrated, formative experience.
As for reciprocity, many adults believe their children should “see” people different from themselves, but don’t let their children actually engage with people that might be dangerous or unknown. But to just “see” is not enough. The research reminds us that interaction without context or reflection can actually perpetuate a lack of understanding and empathy, and in worse case scenarios increase fear and distrust. What students see is filtered through their often narrow experience and positioning. For example, if students work with homeless people but do not receive any education as to the root causes of homelessness then they’ve merely learned that there are people more unfortunate than them, but they haven’t been empowered to imagine solutions or see the “other” in themselves. Service learning recognizes that impact goes both ways–the community served and the servers share potential for growth and enrichment–and challenges the assumption that privilege alone provides people with more to give. To approach communities of need by acknowledging what they have to teach our students—and asking them to do so–affords those communities dignity, much in the same way Zwick afforded me dignity, and helps children move from sympathy toward empathy and, therefore, toward lasting engagement and future leadership.
And as for formation, John Dewey, the father of American education, said, “We don’t learn from experience…we learn from reflecting on experience.” For example, I’m learning as I write this. Likewise, unless we give social issues an intentional place in our curriculum, and unless we ask our children to reflect on what they see and experience in their lives—at school and in carpools and around the dinner table—we have divorced their “charity” or travel from their education instead of promoting service as a core educational tenet. We will have turned community engagement into an addendum to their personal and educational story. We may raise children who tithe religiously or make philanthropic efforts (good things, both), but not children empowered to imagine solutions to systemic issues nor motivated to implement and advocate for those solutions. Service learning provides the possibility for moral and spiritual development, endangered characteristics in our various “leaders” of late. To make service an educational experience and to offer academic incentive for service does not diminish its moral value; it enhances it for all involved.
The shadows creep so close, but we adults are lucky, as Jeanette Winterson once wrote, “even the worst of us, because daylight comes.” Daylight comes in the form of babies—we’re in the season that reminds us most of this very basic truth. It’s children that unthread the sun from the horizon’s dark seam. Therefore, we are called to nurture the light they come by naturally. Our children are in danger of indoctrination into cynicism, narcissism, and opportunism from models at the highest level. But we can innoculate them against such diseases. Dorothy Day herself said, “Together with the Works of Mercy, feeding, clothing, and sheltering our brothers, we must indoctrinate.” She was using the word subversively; rather than impose Christian doctrine, she meant we must indoctrinate daily ourselves and those we serve into kindness and justice. And we must indoctrinate our children into kindness too. It’s not enough to provide them food and shelter if those things come easily enough to us. It’s not enough to bathe them and sing them to sleep and amass college funds and place presents under our shiny trees. We have to take them toward what may seem ugly and scary and incomprehensible and say, “I’m not going with you, but I’ll be right here.” And then trust their little lights to guide them.