Service Learning, Social Justice, and Hope:

A Reflection on Some Recent Work


by Adam Renner
Bellarmine University

Recently, I arrived home from a trip to Mexico City and Montego Bay.  My reasons for traveling were primarily academic, but there was also a personal side to the experience.   In Mexico City, I spoke at the American Educational Studies Association annual conference, held at the Maria Isabel Sheraton on Paseo Reforma, near the US Embassy.  In Montego Bay, I spoke at an international teacher education conference, EduVision 2003, sponsored by The University of West Indies (Mona campus) and held at the Rose Hall Wyndham Hotel about five miles east of the Sangster International Airport outside Montego Bay. 

In addition to speaking at the EduVision conference I continued some community organizing involving two local schools, not far from Rose Hall, and one children’s home, located deep in the hills of the northwest countryside of Jamaica. Over the last five years, I’ve worked closely with these schools and children’s home in an international community partnership, which connects students and teachers from the US with students, residents, workers, teachers, and administrators in these Jamaican organizations.  Generally, this partnership might best be characterized as a critical service learning experience, as I have taken both my high school and university students to Jamaica as an experiential component to theoretical courses on social difference and social justice.  On this particular trip I wanted to meet with our community partners regarding our forthcoming three-week trip with students in the summer, 2004.  Together, I hoped to plan what to bring, how we could help in the schools and children’s home, and what we might do during our free time this coming year.

While this planning was successful on a number of fronts, I’ve mentioned it in order to build some context for the following.  This reflection serves as an opportunity to more critically examine, in particular, this most recent trip (and past trips), making sense of the experience with three figural themes/elements/issues that stood out throughout my time abroad: (1) economic inequities and absurdities; (2) the meta-narrative on America(ns); and (3) desperation/trust and hope(lessness).  In addition, and more generally, the experience and examination also helps me to reflect on my work as an educator here in the US, (re)focusing my attention on knowledge production, service learning, and social justice.

Economic Inequities and Absurdities: The making of a mini-US

Many years ago, I took a cruise.  Rather uncritical, if perhaps wholly ignorant, at the time regarding exploitation, oppression, and post-colonialism, I took this cruise to the Bahamas. While I certainly noted the poverty there (maybe planting a seed that would bloom years later), the self-contained nature of the cruise stood out most to me.  Everything needed was right at our fingertips, all-inclusive (except the alcohol, of course).  The crew was there to pamper us, to make us forget the troubles back home, and to give us the impression that, somehow, we deserved this. I remember feeling how unrealistic and ridiculous this seemed as my fellow cruise-mates took the bait, consuming large quantities of margaritas, tequila, and beer; spending credit on the on-board casino; and limboing into a false world that would quickly crash to a halt when we eventually returned to the US.      

These feelings came flooding back when I entered the Rose Hall Wyndham in Montego Bay, Jamaica.  The owners had created a veritable ‘cruise on land’. In this all-inclusive environment (which this time, incomprehensibly, included alcohol), guests were pampered/entertained by Jamaican workers, treated to not quite authentic Jamaican cuisine; and painted an unjustly skewed version of Jamaica.

All cash exchanges at the hotel were made in US dollars.  No Jamaican newspapers (the Gleaner or Observer) were apparent in the lobby.  And, tours outside of the hotel were closely monitored in terms of routes and destinations.  The travel agencies offering these all-inclusive packages were sure on every front to construct an unrealistic, uncritical, and nearly un-Jamaican experience, as this hotel could have been anywhere in the world with an ocean and cheap exploitable labor. Anticipating the response about hotel jobs, like the one at the Wyndham, I asked my driver, Tim [a pseudonym], who was giving me a lift to see my partners, about them.  He responded, “They are good jobs, but not good paying jobs.” That is, if you want work in a country marred by very high unemployment, you’ll sell yourself out for these jobs. 

While I still wrestle with my own sense of hypocrisy for staying there as a participant in this international teacher education conference, I am more poignantly ashamed as an American by the reaction of my friends in Jamaica who came to visit me while I was at the hotel.  Sitting together in the outside courtyard laughing at the mostly obnoxious behavior of the hotel guests, I sat in my T-shirt and tattered cargo shorts with my friends, the impeccably dressed Beckfords: a mother, son, two daughters, and son-in-law.

I’ve grown close with the Beckford’s over my five years in Jamaica and always enjoy visiting with them.  Having been a guest in their home several times I asked if they would like to visit me in a place where most tourists would stay.  Happily obliging (and I think somewhat interested, if a little fearful), they arrived anxious to reconnect and talk, in person, about what was going on with their family and in Jamaica, generally.

Not sure how they might react, I asked if they would like to come in and see one of the rooms at this hotel.  Monique, the mother, quickly reacted, “Do you think they’ll let us in?”  I could only respond that we would see, but that I would try not to put them in an embarrassing situation. 

Fortunately, no one reacted to their presence.  We quickly ambled up to the room.  While Monique and I talked in the room about trying to bring the two youngest to the US for school, her children and son-in-law chatted on the balcony, which overlooked a beautiful garden, a golf course beyond that, and the Caribbean for as far as you could see beyond that.  Not long after standing out there, Monique’s insightful and unassuming son, Michael, came into the room and summarized his experience of the view, “Mommy, I never knew Jamaica was this beautiful.”

The Meta-Narrative on Americans: Accessing More Critical Scripts

      As I walked through the Wyndham buffet line by the watermelon on which was carved, “Out of many, one people,” I thought about the cooptation and commercialization of culture.  Not really a true read on the fractious nature of Jamaica—its economy, nor its politics—I thought of the message my fellow cruise-mates, rather, guests at the hotel, were receiving.

“Americans are great people”  On my third visit to Jamaica in 2000, I struck up enough nerve to interview some of my Jamaican partners, attempting to get a read on our evolving service learning partnership.  Having grown critical of US foreign policy, past and present, based on readings I had taken up and based on my experience and discussions with partners the first two years, I expected to sit down with them and get the Jamaican critique of US policy. 

I got the exact opposite.  Instead of criticizing the US for their assistive role in Jamaica’s economic demise, I received comments like “The US is a great country and we are so thankful for their financial assistance.”  And, “We could learn a lot from the US.” Regarding Americans as people, my partners responded that we are compassionate and giving.  Only in a few cases did I receive any critique of America(ns).  These were cases for which the American ‘missionary’ behavior was so outlandish that they were easily remarkable.  However, these sparse critiques were book-ended by qualifying sentiments like, “But, this was a very rare experience.” 

While not completely insensitive to the fact that individual Americans may do very good work in Jamaica.  I like to think we do good work in Jamaica.  And, not completely ignorant to the generosity the US shows at times, I simply envisioned that these knowledgeable and critical Jamaicans I had come to know would level with or confide in me regarding their feelings about the US. 

Of course, I was incredibly naïve.  On one hand, I ignored the hierarchical power dynamics at work in the relationship of researcher and researched (particularly with tape-recorder in hand).  How did they know what I was really going to do with this information?  On the other hand, I also presumed a much closer relationship with our partners than actually existed.  Who was I to them?  Was I really any different than some of the outlandish missionaries who visited them?  They obviously had much more to lose than I did.

After talking with colleagues and growing closer to these partners over the next couple of years, I understood these earlier, mostly uncritical, responses to be portions of a script—a script that is partially revealed and/or evolved over time.  The limited script issue played itself out again this year while in Mexico City.  Confined mostly to the hotel during the conference given its tight schedule, I ventured out only occasionally.  When I did, I mainly frequented the Starbucks coffee shop in the lobby.   Realizing a prick of hypocrisy and economic colonialism every time I entered the store, I felt strangely comfortable in this foreign country, amidst familiar coffees, pastries, and sandwiches.  The same coffees, pastries, and sandwiches that are accessible to me two blocks from my home.  Although the drinks were described in a different language and prices were enumerated in pesos, the smell, taste, and ordering order for drinks were the same: “Grande hazelnut cappuccino, please.” 

On my third or fourth trip into the store, I asked a familiar face at the cash register, how she was doing.  The barista, Marlena, responded that she was fine and asked if I was in Mexico City on business or pleasure.  I told her I was attending an education conference at the hotel and that I was a teacher back in the US. “Can you teach me to speak better English,” she inquired, hardly allowing me to finish my sentence.  I explained that I was not that kind of teacher and made some inane comment regarding how much better her English was than my Spanish. 

After a little more conversation, I thanked her for my coffee and sat down to do a little reading.  A short time later, she sat down in an adjacent chair and occasionally looked over my way.  Sensing that she wanted to continue the conversation, I asked her why she was interested in learning better English-speaking skills.  She explained it was the only way to move up at Starbucks, and, potentially, to land a job in the US.  Seizing the opportunity, I asked what she thought about Americans.  She enthusiastically responded, “They are great people and very friendly.  They leave tips and clean up after themselves.”  Asking what she thought she might do once she got to the US, she indicated that she hoped she could work for Starbucks or maybe work in hotel management.

Warming quickly to our conversation and hoping to learn more about life in Mexico, I inexplicably launched into a diatribe on Starbucks, big business in general, and my countries’ policies abroad (particularly NAFTA and its effect on Mexico). Apparently responsive to my own eagerness to talk frankly, her script expanded a bit. She talked about the difficulty of finding good work and the conundrum of wanting to stay in Mexico, but realizing that she would have a better economic opportunity in the US.  Toward the end of her own diatribe, she whispered, “You’re not one of those, you know, gringos.” Nodding with understanding, but feeling like a gringo, I thanked her for the conversation, as her apparent break ended. I returned to my book and cappuccino and considered what life might be like for her in the US.  I thought about the fact that our entire conversation was conducted in English.  I thought a lot about my privileged life.

       The counter-narrative What may be even more damaging than this meta-narrative on America(ns), though, is the formation of a dangerous and destructive counter-narrative. Over the years, alongside comments regarding how great Americans are, I’ve heard how selfish Jamaicans are and how Black men cannot be trusted—all comments, of course, coming from Black Jamaicans.  Although my reading of Freire and McLaren theoretically warned me of this debilitating possibility, where the oppressed buy into their oppression, I never envisioned it to be so blatant and adhered to in reality.  Although these sentiments about selfishness and untrustworthiness may only be a portion of the script, these are dangerous words to throw about, particularly to mostly ignorant and uncritical visitors to the island.

Marlena disclosed the same counter-narrative.  Along with telling me how unselfish and friendly Americans were, she also indicated how lazy Mexicans were.  “Mexicans never leave tips and always leave their place dirty. I can’t wait to get out of Mexico. Mexicans are so lazy.”  Might there be lazy Mexicans?  Of course.  But, proportionately more than anywhere else?  I doubt it. Did this understanding come from her direct experience with other Americans or Mexicans?  Or, did it emerge through a mediated understanding of culture promoted by the US and other First World countries.  The hegemonic power of the colonialist, indeed.     

Desperation/Trust & Hope(lessness):

Toward a More Critical and Emancipatory Future

      There are no easy answers to accessing more critical portions of the script or to dismantling the damaging counter-narratives constructed around US-Other relations.  What I have noted in my trips abroad, though, is an incredible sense of hope and trust that contrast feelings of desperation and hopelessness, which result from these counter-narratives.  As a middle-class American, it is difficult to imagine not being able to find any job, not having access to medicine or doctors, and not having a way out of a given situation.  These circumstances, though, characterize many lives in Jamaica and Mexico (as well as the US). 

This understanding unsettled me when I arrived back in the US after my first trip to Jamaica in 1998.  I realized my visit was only temporary and how easy it was to layer back into life at home.  I was changed somewhat by the experience, but I seamlessly wove my way back into middle-class America. Receiving regular collect phone calls (sometimes at 3:00 in the morning) the year after my second visit, though, from a young man, Thomas, asking for fifty dollars for this medicine and fifty dollars for that doctor visit, was a constant sobering reminder of my privileged life—even as a graduate student, living on a stipend of $10,000/year.  I had access to the money. There was a payoff for me at the end of my studies.  No such access or payoff existed for Thomas (or most, if any, of my other Jamaican partners).  

Whether they were using me (or playing on my sensitivities) or whether these requests were even genuine or not are fairly immaterial in a structural sense.  I had it. They did not.  Part of it was effort.  Most of it was circumstance.  I was fortunate.  They were not.  My country sometimes exploits others based on this circumstance.

Many missionaries coming out of the US capitalize on this circumstance.  Although I am not attempting to draw a definitive line of collusion between mission groups and US economic interests, I remain, nonetheless, frustrated by fellow Americans traveling to the Caribbean spreading messages about accepting this lot in life, working hard, and seeking the kingdom of heaven. All the while, the missionaries/evangelists propagating these absurdities return to their comfy suburbs, enjoying this life and, apparently, the next one.  This nonsense only sets the stage for exploitable labor as desperate and increasingly hopeless people accept this tragic life as God-given and work hard for a better life in the next one—supposedly run by the same cruel God that put them in this circumstance.  These missionaries ignore the constructed nature of this lot in life, fashioned by structural adjustment policies which disable foreign economies and make the foreign worker subservient to capital and its corporate agents. 

This is not to say, however, that Jamaican (or Mexican) workers sustain no agency or uncritically buy these evangelical absurdities.  As we know, hegemony is negotiated. However, Jamaican workers operate from an extremely weak position in the global scheme and are terrorized daily by structural adjustment policies.  Re-enter the script. To what extent do my partners understand this dynamic?  Or, are willing to reveal their understanding to me? To what extent do they accept it?  Rebel against it?  As far as I can tell, only time will permit me more access to broader script revelations.

I do understand now, though, that my partners have an incredible amount of trust and hope.  As the years go by, I am let into their lives, little by little.  Reciprocally, I offer more and more of my life to them—focusing my academic, fiscal and personal energies to their needs and causes.  The most poignant example of where this trust and hope has led occurred on the most recent trip in my visit with Mrs. Matthews.   Sitting in her three-room home, which also serves as the basic neighborhood school she teaches in and administrates, we discussed the future of education in her community.  Not sure whether to move ahead with the school as a public or private entity, Mrs. Matthews and I had had several phone conversations in the year preceding this visit to discuss the possibilities.  Having met with the Ministry of Education on her behalf during my trip, we subsequently discussed what each of us thought was possible regarding the standards for public schools required by the Ministry. 

Up to this point, Mrs. Matthews regularly sought my approval regarding many decisions involving her school.  Although I believed I had never given the impression that she needed to seek my approval on any decision for the school, Mrs. Matthews called me often on issues such as school personnel, parents late with their fees, when to hold school-related events, etc.  After the meeting with the Ministry and this most recent discussion, though, the partnership went to a new level.  At the subsequent board meeting, which she had organized to take place during my visit, Mrs. Matthews began to own the decisions at her school.  Referring to me only occasionally during the meeting, she explained how she was going to move ahead with her school—her plans, the timeline, and what it would be like in the future. 

As the room dimmed during the evening meeting, Mrs. Matthews’ husband appeared in the darkening doorway with a light bulb in hand.  Having removed it from the room in which he and their children were sitting, Mr. Matthews twisted in their only light-bulb in the ceiling socket located in the center of our meeting.  While standing on a desk at the center of our attention with the genesis of a grin at the corners of his mouth, Mr. Matthews told us it looked like we could use the light more than he and the children, as it was evident the meeting would not end anytime soon.  The Matthews gave a knowing look to one another.  I looked away and smiled.

On the ride home, offered by a reporter at the meeting, I thought about the meeting, the trip, the academic conferences I attended, my past work in Jamaica and the work to come, my work as an education professor, and the future of my students.  After a little more conversation, I bid the reporter farewell and rested for one final night at the Wyndham, pampered by my surroundings, missing home, and wondering what is next.

What is Next?

Back home now, reflecting over the experience and preparing for my trans-cultural experience course and service learning trip this summer, I entertain many concerns.  I worry over the proliferating standardization of education, the increasing regulation of knowledge, and the narrowing purposes for obtaining an education.  What counts as critical thinking anymore? Are students (at any level) permitted to engage critically with US policies that terrorize its most vulnerable constituents, bolster its most powerful, and erode economies abroad?  If I present this critical view, am I un-American? Or, just a critical American? Am I being too provocative?  Do I risk treading on sensitivities?  Do I risk presenting an unbalanced approach to issues (as if a balanced one was really possible)? 

If presented, why do some students seem not to care?  Have we created a system where getting a job is the only purpose for an education (and maybe propagating a little patriotism along the way)?  Can my students draw a connection between their lives and the lives of the disenfranchised here or abroad?  If they are among the disenfranchised, do they see a way out?  Can they resist and recover a share of this land’s/world’s great bounty?  Or, do they feel trapped and choose to resist in more negative ways that will seal their economic and personal fate? 

In order to help students make critical connections in a more concrete way, I’ve turned to service learning, evidenced by my trips to Jamaica and more similar work in the local Louisville area.  What students take up theoretically in the classroom, I try to show them in the community.  But, not simply show them because the community isn’t there only to be observed, researched, or commented on.  We are meant to engage our communities—to work in solidarity toward something more meaningful.  My town is once again wounded and divided by issues of race.  The only way we are going to salve these wounds and bridge this divide is by leaving the four walls of our classrooms and homes and connect with our communities. 

Students can be suspect of multiculturalism and allegedly spendthrift liberal policies based on the information they glean from talk radio.  By contrast students can also earnestly, but theoretically, take up difference and social justice through classes brave enough to present the content.  But, the only way they will be moved toward change (from either political direction) are by examples of action.

Service learning provides one such possible action.  Although maligned by both the right (as an unnecessary, non-academic, or superfluous use of class time) and the left (as not going far enough or potentially solidifying prejudices if not done critically enough), I believe it may be one of the remaining avenues we have left short of completely revolutionizing education (which may still be the best idea). 

While progressive education has ebbed and flowed over the last one hundred years, the most recent conservative restoration with its anesthetizing focus on standardization and rabid high stakes testing has worked hard to stem the progressive tide.  Experiential education, like that offered by service learning, may provide enough cracks and fissures to the rock of regulation, though, that small rivulets of criticalness and social reconstructionism may still seep out.  Only when offered opportunities will our students consider anything new. I wonder what my students this summer will discover about their world when they travel to work with our partners in Jamaica.  Will they be uncomfortable by what we study? By what we experience?  Will this be a one time deal for them, fulfilling an elective requirement toward the ultimate goal of economic security with their college degree?  Or, will this be a seed-planting experience, helping them to choose a career more dedicated to helping others but less economically secure?  Even more, will it prompt broader action locally?  Future action with our partners in Jamaica?  Might they dedicate their life to social justice? 

In Pedagogy of Hope, Freire returns to his significant work in Pedagogy of the Oppressed twenty-plus years later to update, evolve, and reinforce several of the central concepts to his problem-posing, critical, and revolutionary pedagogy.  Early in this more recent work, Freire considers, “I cannot understand human existence, and the struggle needed to improve it, apart from hope and dream.”  I bring this hope and dream to my work in service learning, generally; to my service partnerships in Jamaica and Louisville, particularly; and to my life as an educator.  I think of the Beckfords, the Matthews, Thomas, Marlena, and my students and wonder what social justice will look like for them and/or because of them.  What new narratives are yet to be written?  How will we get there?  Together, in dialog and action, is the only part of the script I’ve been able to decipher thus far.




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