Research shows that service-learning can increase students' awareness of diversity and their commitment to values like justice, yet studies also have indicated that some projects actually reinforce, rather than reduce, stereotypes that students may hold about those being "served."
So, what should the equity- and civic-minded educator do to help ensure an anti-bias outcome? Current research suggests four emphases:
1. Incorporate reflection about student attitudes.
Conduct student reflection exercises that delve into assumptions or stereotypes about the population being served. If students will be working with a population with whom they have had little prior contact (or little meaningful contact), students should reflect on their assumptions and perceptions at the start of the project. If English-speaking students will be tutoring ESL students, for example, what do they currently "know" about ESL students and their willingness and ability to learn English? Reflection exercises about students' viewpoints should continue throughout the project.
Reflection exercises also can alert educators to students' own experiences with the issue at the heart of the project -- homelessness, hunger or domestic violence, for example.
2. Work "with," not "for."
Create opportunities for students to collaborate with and learn from the population being served.
Include direct service activities.
Include direct service activities that allow students to work side-by-side with recipients -- volunteering in a soup kitchen, for example. Indirect services, such as food and clothing drives, address real human needs, but rarely afford students the opportunity to understand the humans who have them.
Position the recipient as teacher.
Incorporate a focus on what students can learn from recipients. A cross-generational service project in which students provide companionship to elders, for example, also provides an opportunity for students to collect oral histories.
3. Address real needs.
The project's outputs should respond to needs expressed by service agencies and the constituents that they serve. For example, while your local Department of Social Services might be open to a donation of student artwork to help liven up its offices (assuming the agency can afford to frame the art), what it might need more -- and what its constituents might value more -- are volunteers to help people fill out forms or to entertain children who come to the office with parents or guardians.
4. Include study of the social policies/problems that contribute to "need."
It's important for students to understand that people don't find themselves "in need" simply because of personal choices or "bad luck." Encourage students to research social policies or problems that contribute to need. Hunger and homelessness, for example, are connected to issues like the living/minimum wage. Working in collaboration with service agencies and their constituents, students can create advocacy campaigns to raise awareness about specific social problems and steps local and state governments should take to remedy them.
Use the Multicultural Service-Learning Planner to help ensure projects promote anti-bias aims.
Drawn from Community Service Learning: A Guide to Including Service in the Public School Curriculum (ISBN # 0-7914-3184-3), Integrating Service Learning and Multicultural Education in Colleges and Universities (ISBN# 0-8058-3345-5), "Multicultural Service-Learning and Community-Based Research as a Model Approach to Promote Social Justice," Theresa Ann Rosner-Salazar, Social Justice (Volume: 30. Issue: 4.); "Research on K-12 School-Based Service-Learning - The Evidence Builds," Shelley H. Billig, Phi Delta Kappan (Volume: 81. Issue: 9); Northwest Regional Education Laboratory; DiversityWeb Digest.