This blog post is one of a six-part series on how to develop high-impact service-learning curricula. Each post discusses one best practice for writing effective service-learning curricula and provides an example of implementation. These best practices are informed by the development of Live the Questions, American Jewish World Service’s service-learning curriculum for the World Partners Fellowship in India. To engender greater collaboration and support the development of a robust service-learning field, we have made the complete curriculum available here.
Best practice: Push participants out of their comfort zone to learn from what emerges
Direct service in underprivileged communities involves negotiating incredibly difficult ethical questions. How do we relate to, and respect the dignity of, the people we seek to help? When and why do our good intentions and desire to help conflict with the needs of those we serve? How do we navigate our power and privilege and build authentic relationships with the community? How do we know when the service we do is effective, versus simply a tool for self-fulfillment, as the baked beans cartoon insinuates? These questions mean talking about power, privilege and the potential negative impact of a volunteer’s presence and service in a community.
These are hard questions without easy answers. And, answering them theoretically is only the first step toward navigating them in practice. However, an effective service-learning curriculum pushes participants to explore these questions. It challenges them to move beyond benignly feeling good about their service to a more sophisticated state of inquiry. This higher state fosters critical humility, awareness and responsibility in participants. It is where they learn to be effective volunteers and social justice advocates.
At AJWS, we call this pedagogy “fostering productive discomfort”: not guilt or a feeling of overwhelmed paralysis (“I can’t possibly make a difference—I may as well go home”) but rather a kind of psychic dissonance that encourages them to alter their perspective, and therefore their behavior.
For example, during orientation, participants read Ivan Illich’s speech “To Hell with Good Intentions” and discuss its implications for their volunteer experience.
By definition, you cannot help being ultimately vacationing salesmen for the middle-class “American Way of Life,” since that is really the only life you know…. The idea that every American has something to give, and at all times may, can and should give it, explains why it occurred to students that they could help Mexican peasants “develop” by spending a few months in their villages.
Participants talk about how to mitigate harm and move toward a more healthy relationship with members of the community where they will work. They explore the potential of photography and gift-giving to create negative power dynamics and distance them from community members. Most importantly, they learn to approach their service with a posture of humility and a desire to learn, not a presumption that they know it all.
Throughout the fellowship, participants return to these questions and apply them to the real-life challenges they are navigating in their placements. They receive a monthly text study that they discuss with a chavruta (learning partner) and write a monthly reflection that asks them to grapple with these questions in the context of their work and life in India.
As one volunteer, Raina Fox, wrote in her monthly reflection:
What I have discovered is that, as completely corny as it sounds, I live for the questions. For me, the point of being is asking and learning, and the answers are almost irrelevant. The goal is to struggle with things that are confusing, to be challenged to think differently and to be unsettled enough that I never become complacent.
I love that every experience in Bhuj has been an opportunity to challenge my thinking, from having a conversation with a neighbor to taking a walk by the lake. I never know what will emerge from these small moments – an underlying philosophy of difference (for example, I was recently told by my neighbor that I was fair because I eat yoghurt, causing me to think in a totally new way about not only the concept of race in India but my own assumptions about the biological and sociological ideas of race in general), or a moment of surprising similarity (just yesterday I was chatting with a Muslim artisan who explained that the dyeing craft goes all the way back to Mussah. As he told this history I came to realize that he was referring to what I would call the Moses story. I felt elated hearing this familiar story told in unfamiliar ways and in an unfamiliar location). I love being challenged to think differently and to see the world through a new lens, and feel I have gained confidence in approaching situations of cultural difference both respectfully and critically.
This volunteer’s reflection highlights the sweet spot of productive discomfort. It is about pushing participants out of complacency, encouraging them to face the uncomfortable and critical ethical questions of their work and supporting them to live these questions as they navigate their experience.