Classroom Activists: How Service-Learning Challenges Prejudice

This interview with teacher Lisa Weinbaum accompanies her Teaching Tolerance article "'At Risk' of Greatness."

What's exceptional about middle-schoolers and activism?
Middle-schoolers can see injustice more readily than adults. They're more willing to speak out and do something about it, if the opportunity presents itself. Much like a first-year teacher who is filled with hope and hasn't yet been jaded, middle-schoolers are risk-takers.

Activism is an underutilized teaching tool, and because of that, it's fresh to students. It's also a natural motivator, because students would rather write, for example, for real audiences instead of for just their teacher, completing a contrived assignment that no one will appreciate, much less even see. I've had students who wouldn't write a word, but if I show them they can truly affect change, they'll write an ethnography! Activism -- planning, strategizing, organizing -- is also very social, as education should be. Silence does not equate to education. Middle-school students love to talk, and activism fits right in.

Can you share an example of how service-learning helped your students reduce prejudice and develop cultural competency?
We completed a unit about violence against women in the nearby community of Juarez, Mexico. Much of the violence is caused by poverty, which, in turn, is caused by American-owned maquiladoras (factories) moving into the area and paying their mostly female workers only a few dollars a day. The students learned that because the poverty is so widespread, there is really no way for women to escape, legally or otherwise. For example, there is only one women's shelter on the entire 2,000-mile Mexican border. That, of course, is a reflection of the value (or lack thereof) the government places on women in society.

All of this information was new, to both students and the teachers, including myself. At the inception of the project, there was a common belief that it was the victims' faults, that they deserved the violence because they didn't leave their partners. Or that it's easy to leave. Or that it was Mexico's problem, not ours.

Not only did we do extensive research, we invited a Juarez mother whose daughter had been murdered (and whose murder was never solved) to speak to our students. By describing her interactions with the Mexican authorities, and her efforts to organize with other women to stop the violence, she dispelled the myth that women are helpless victims, just waiting for the next crime to be committed against them.

Hearing her saga fostered empathy for her plight. Students were able to put a face on the violence. We weren't talking about her, but with her. This led to other discussions about globalization, immigration and misogyny. The unit broadened our understanding of the United States' role in Juarez violence (economic and otherwise), and our responsibility to others.

Sometimes we think about community service as an act by people with privilege and power, performed to help people without privilege and power. Can you deconstruct this?
If I'm being painfully honest with myself and with you, I'm not the one who can refute the stereotype of people with power and privilege serving others. The fact remains that I'm white and middleclass. Yes, I'm "just" a teacher, but I live in relative comfort. I don't worry about where the next meal is coming from. I can buy books whenever I want. I can take more classes at the university whenever I want.

The service-learning units are things I devised so my students are more empowered -- to use your words, "people without power and privilege," i.e., my students and their families. The reality is, in many cases my students are the same as the groups we are serving. I teach homeless children whose mothers are/were abused. I teach migrant children. I teach immigrant children. Yes, my students are fully engaged and enthusiastic (probably because they can identify so easily with the people they are serving), but ultimately I'm the one initiating the projects.

How do you ensure that your students learn from the people/community they're serving?
We have to know the people we are serving, not just know about them. We have to talk with them and then listen because we really care. It isn't enough to research on the web or read about homelessness, for example, from Jonathan Kozol. But, like Kozol, we have to break bread with them.

How can teachers help their students avoid a "savior" mentality, where charity and "helping" are emphasized over empowerment and "service"?
I've struggled with this. Sometimes I feel like I'm exploiting or using the people we're serving, like I'm reducing them to a "teachable moment". But to avoid the "savior" mentality, I think it goes back to really knowing the community. If you develop relationships with those you're serving, there will be less likelihood of that occurring. You'll see "the other" on an equal basis, rather than beneath you.