Thursday, February 28, 2008

Accountability and Why We Need to Articulate Our Mission

I work in the Service-Learning Center at Calvin College as a student coordinator. If you were to ask me what I do, what we do as an office, I could tell you many things. We organize an event called Streetfest that exposes new students to service-learning in Grand Rapids, we establish partnerships with many non-profit agencies in our community and work to build connections on Calvin's campus with those agencies, we work to promote specific longstanding service-learning partnerships in each of the residence halls, and the list goes on and on. Visit out website and you will find a myriad of the various things that we are involved in, but you will NOT find an explicit mission statement or a clear vision statement that explains WHY we do all of these things. I am writing this blog post to challenge our lack of a mission or vision statement.

Is our lack of a mission or vision statement a shortcoming on our part? I think it very well might be. I do not think there is anything magical about a mission or vision statement. Just because an organization has a statement of direction and intent does not mean that it actually follows it. In fact, from my perspective, there are many terribly written mission and vision statements that are doing nothing for an organization or the community it serves. Such statements sound great, but are so awash in ambiguity that they fail to have any meaning because there is nothing to actually hold on to, they are empty statements, full of overly sentimental fluff.

My position is that if you are going to have a mission or vision statement, then you need to do it right, which means, be modest, be clear, and offer something that you can be held accountable to. This sounds remarkably akin to a thesis for an essay. We would not regard an essay as well written if it did not have a thesis, but yet we accept our ongoing lack of a mission statement as okay. The notion of accountability is what drives my desire to see our office have a mission and/or vision statement. My fear is that because we are the service-learning center, and connected with this notion of "service" which in our society is generally regarded as a very good and positive thing, that we are then not held to high standards, our methods go unquestioned and are not examined with any significant amount of rigor. I think we should be questioned, examined, and held to high standards. Service-learning is a powerful tool that can do some unbelievably amazing things in individuals and communities, but it can also do some profoundly terrible things. As such, no organization that is oriented to fostering and sustaining service-learning should go unexamined, failing to be held accountable.

I would like to see the Service-Learning Center at Calvin College develop a mission an/or vision statement that is modest, clear, and something that we can be clearly held accountable to. So I ask sincerely, why don't we have a mission or vision statement? Is this a major shortcoming on our part? What are some suggestions for possible mission or vision statements?

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Learning in Community

I was shocked when I read it, the Time Magazine "Person of the year" is me. Well, not me particularly, it is all of us, the bloggers, the IMers, the YouTubers, the cyber generation committed to expressing our own views and opinions through accessible technologies for a mass audience. Many have observed that in the midst of all that is good about these new communication technologies, there is a certain egoism at play. I am still undecided on this point, but regardless, I will admit that the broad access provided by new communication technologies has, ironically, atomized our existences from one another even amidst allowing us to come into contact with more people then ever before. There is a tremendous amount of speaking happening in the world today, but it is not as clear that there is as much listening happening. Many believe that they have something to say, but not many are willing to listen to others around them and before them. I worry that we are drowning one another out with the sound of our own voices, failing to actually inhabit the space of learning with another person by listening to them.
Service-learning does not happen in a vacuum removed from this growing tendency to assert one's own position and voice while failing to listen and learn from others. My hypothesis is that when we engage in service-learning, we are oriented to service necessarily taking place in community, however we imagine the learning as an internal, isolated process and event. That is, we imagine a going out of ourselves to serve another, but then we return back into the interior of our own minds to learn. To be sure, genuine learning does restructure and enhance the inner working of our minds, and has an autonomous aspect, but learning is not exclusively this. I assert that learning at its best, and most especially in the case of authentic service-learning, must happen in the community as well. Here, I imagine an actual dialog taking place in which we actively process our experiences out loud with other individuals from within and outside the communities we serve and live in. I would venture further to say that there is a desperate need for mentoring relationships when especially engaging in service-learning. Contrary to the isolation of speaking without listening, mentoring relationships help to ensure that we find wisdom and guidance from something outside of ourselves. Amidst the sometimes disorienting nature of service-learning, mentors can offer us a safe place to grow and rebuild after having knocked down false assumptions and other bad habits of thinking and doing.
To anyone that will engage in service-learning, I say, serve in community, but also learn in community. Against the predominant tread of societal interactions, seek out mentoring relationships as an essential part of the service-learning experience.

Sunday, February 24, 2008

Streetfest '07 Orientation (Video Clip)

Each year the Service-Learning Center at Calvin College organizes and carries out an event for new, incoming students called Streetfest. This event takes place over three days, with different groups of students each day. The general approach is to send students out into the community to local organizations where they can learn about the Grand Rapids community as well as serve that community. This event is a fast introduction to the rich and complex idea of service-learning, and certainly has its pros and cons. Each year the Streetfest coordinator develops a theme to center the event around, this past year Laura Wolff, the Streetfest coordinator, chose the theme of Revive, Restore, Renew (a play on the Reduce, Reuse, Recycle slogan). This video clip*me.

*Clip no longer available

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Arty Things. #1.

Art has irrefutable restorative and conciliatory powers. This is the notion that has spurred on some of us S-LC staff members to a quest to better understand art and the ways in which it relates to service-learning and social justice. To be sure, this is no small task. With that initial conviction as our foundation, however, we decided to begin this escapade by exploring the ways in which art creates meaning. This nebulous outset in turn has led to many fascinating discussions about how art is ontologically polymorphous (even amorphous, such as in the Jackson Pollock sampling to the right), how it manifests itself concretely and in its interpretation, and how it acts as a medium of restoration and reconciliation. The list goes on.

In our latest musings, we have been particularly intrigued with one phenomenon: the genesis and preponderance of community art programs across both the US and the world at large. Why are these programs successful, especially in communities that lack the funds to support it? Who makes time for this sort of thing? What is it about these programs that convince neighborhood associations and local budget committees to set aside monies for an activity as “frivolous” and purportedly impotent as art?

Among the many apparent answers to this question (for instance, the construction of a communal identity, an avenue for self-expression, etc.), the most intriguing idea we’ve toyed with relates back to Marxism—an ever-apt lens when it comes to any examination of power dynamics within society. Louis Althusser, a 20th century Marxist philosopher, frequently addresses the idea of interpellation, or that which he deems “hailing the subject.” This principle is essentially an act of saying, “You are a person.” According to Althusser, the basic human truth that makes such an act necessary is that the status of personhood is granted not by the self, but by the Other, whether the Other consists of one person or the consensus of an entire community. Each of us, then, is dependent on others to bestow upon us the title of fellow human being. Likewise, communities can easily deny the personhood of others simply by refusing them entry into their community. Power is given, not taken.

We have been exploring the notion of art as interpellation, as an interpellative act. By granting the privilege to participate in art, this exclusive activity that is so often rendered either impractical or a lavish luxury, you allow for the act of interpellation to take place, for the establishment personhood. In the case of community art programs, someone who belongs to a marginalized subclass of society is, for the moment, no longer relegated to his or her place of inferiority, but is empowered by the simple accessibility and extension of art. A paintbrush, then, is so much more than a basic mechanism for creative work. It is a scepter of sorts, both an instrument and a possession of empowerment. To paint, to write, to create is to participate in one construct of society as a fuller, more empowered citizen than you were before you walked through the door.

The implications of this quickly lead to a perspective of art as a means toward social justice that we hope to explore further in meetings to come. We’ll keep you posted.

Are we positioned for change?

Within service-learning circles, much time and energy has been invested in the critical analysis of such concepts as "volunteering" and "charity." Service-learning, as a compelling theory of practice, depends on being recognized as distinct from these alternative views of how people interact with other people in a society. Have service-learning theorists, though, been equally deliberate in critically engaging their own enterprise of service-learning? That is, are the limits and weaknesses of service-learning practice and theory being addressed? Or is there a mentality of having arrived at the perfect method. Has service-learning become too entrenched, too static such that it is not prepared to grow and adapt, whereby it would be true to the spirit which gave it rise?

Out of Silence and Into Silence

Often in the arena of justice and politics we interpret silence as oppression and marginalization. Undoubtedly, silence is often exactly that, a cue to the overt or implicit domination of a person or group of people in such a way that they do not even have the potential to contribute in a meaningful way to the society that they live in. I wonder, though, can silence ever represent something productive? I do not mean that the oppression or marginalization of a person or people could ever be productive, but rather, I wonder whether there could be other species of silence. Sometimes I think that for many people, including myself, spoken words act like a mirror, they remind me that I am alive and recognized by something other than my conscious self. Thus, in the anxiety of existence, we find ourselves chattering, so desperate to hold on to ourselves in this world. Perhaps what is necessary, though, is to be alert to the silence of the oppressed, who are all around us, and learn to make their silence our own. Thus by choosing to still our anxious tongues, we create a space for another to speak. What I imagine here is not the impersonal, faceless interactions of us and the masses, but rather the real encounters we have with other people throughout our day. This silence that we adopt is not the silence of oppression, merely the reversal of roles, but rather the silence that expresses itself as community. It is a silence that is bound up with words, each giving the other meaning, allowing a dialog to take shape.

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

A Documentary

Last week I had the privilege of watching a beautiful documentary that was filmed by a recent Calvin alumnus, Chris Mills. The documentary details some of his experiences on a Calvin service-learning spring break trip in Houma, Louisiana. I have posted that documentary here in this post, and invite you to watch. Besides the fact that I think that from a technical perspective this is an excellent documentary, and thus reason for posting, I also think that this documentary reminds us what is happening when people talk about taking part in service-learning. Behind the theory are the voices, footsteps, and fingerprints that breath life into this way of engaging the world and the lives we lead together in community. Below is the documentary presented in two parts due to space limitations on YouTube*.

*No longer available

Sunday, February 17, 2008

Finding Meaning in Spaces

What determines the nature of the places we inhabit? At the end of my street, construction workers are tearing apart what used to be a hospital. The hospital recently moved further out into the suburbs to a new building, while their old building was to be demolished. In the past two sentences that I just wrote, I have used the word "hospital" in two different ways. In the first sentence, I used the term "hospital" to denote a building, while in the second, "hospital" refers to the collective community (staff, doctors, patients, and administrators). It is this ambiguity of the term that makes me wonder, do we understand a place through its architecture or the people and their work that happen to be in a certain building? I am inclined to say that it is the people and the work they do that gives a space its meaning. Whether it is a hospital, a school, a non-profit or a for-profit company, the buildings that populate the landscape of our lives, on closer inspection, derive their meaning from the communities within and around. This strikes me as remarkable. Human beings are architects of meaning through their daily work. In the case of the hospital that used to be at the end of my street, workers and patients infused the raw materials of that particular space with a significance and purpose beyond what any professional architect could have done. Now, the hospital has not been destroyed, but rather only relocated because the hospital is where the community is. This realization can be applied to any building that we recognize as operating for a certain function. It is incredible, really, that we recognize any particular building as performing a certain function (i.e. education, healing, worship, serving the community, etc), this is a radical testament not to the design or signage of the building, but rather to the work of the people inside and out.

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Spoken Language is Not Meant to Be Everything

There is a fierceness to the way that complexity and magnanimity invade our overly simplistic conceptions of the nature of life and the world, at times shattering what we thought we knew and understood. G.K. Chesterton did well to observe that the human tendency is to shrink our world to a manageable size, wherein we can pretend to predict and control. As I write about service-learning, I frequently write about "communities," but upon reflection, I realize that while it is easy to type the letters that assemble the word "communities," the actual reality that this word signifies is not nearly so easy to articulate or reveal. Communities are not simple, they are complex and expansive. They rarely have clear cut boundaries, and even when one boundary appears, it is gone before it can be meaningful because communities are never stagnant, but rather dynamic and living entities, simultaneous with the continued tread of human existence. My intent here is not to abandon human language, but rather to acknowledge its shortcomings to ever fully express the complexity and bigger than me-ness of this life and world that I am blessed to be in and part of. My invitation is for us all to consider that when we use terms like "community" and "us" and "them" that the ease with which we can say or write these words belies the depth and profundity of their actual reality. We must be constantly committed to the task of expanding our worlds, and sometimes this just means opening our eyes to the world that we are actually talking about.

That Superwoman in the Bible

So one of the reasons I spend Tuesday afternoons each week at Alexander Elementary School, a public school near my house, and one where Calvin students have been serving and learning for many years, is to stay close to reality and avoid the dangers of ivory tower disconnectedness. This paid off for me yesterday when one of the students (the ONLY student yesterday, a 4th grader who was supposed to get on the bus but came alone to Bible Club instead) came up with one of those precious questions that keeps me going. This particular student has been unusually faithful in attending our Tuesday after school Bible Club, and she has paid good attention not only in Bible Club, but also during other church opportunities at our church, just a block from the school, and another block from her house. So yesterday, prompted by a hodgepodge of thoughts only a fourth grader could relate to, Katuska blurted out "Is that story of the superwoman the only one about girls in the Bible?" To which Barb, my co-teacher and I replied in great confusion, "Superwoman?" "You know, that girl who only had one penny and when she gave it, even though all those rich people gave more money, she was the one the story says gave the most?"

I don't remember our response, and frankly, it wasn't important - it couldn't match her question, no matter what we said. Off topic, out of the blue, random as anything, Katuska's question, and the way her mind has internalized the story of how much it matters to give out of whatever you have available - this seems to be how the Spirit works. I say (to myself and to you) "pay attention" and listen for that Spirit's words, and don't ever be surprised when they come from unexpected places.

Saturday, February 9, 2008

Is there a teacher in this classroom?

When we are practicing service-learning, simple understandings of server and servee dissolve. In service-learning practice there is a reciprocity that complicates general language labels. Should we then maintain the labels of teacher and student in a classroom that is oriented around service-learning pedagogy? It seems to me that if we are going to hope for a dynamic serving and learning experience for students in community organizations then we should emulate the same dynamic environment in the classroom. In the service-learning oriented classroom those traditionally labeled "students" should have the opportunity to offer input in course design and goals. Those traditionally understood as the "teacher" should leave the podium for a few moments and join the class in the growing process. But is this too much to hope for? Such a model or practice challenges long standing traditions in academia. The neat and easy to understand labels of teacher and student would become more vague, and perhaps most of all the obvious relationship of power between teacher and student would become something closer to equal. Service-learning can be something radical, can traditional academia handle it?

Sunday, February 3, 2008

Committed to Broken Communities

"Nothing is perfect" is perhaps a statement that we bandy about too easily, not really giving it due consideration. Indeed, though, nothing is perfect, and that means our families, neighborhoods, schools, clubs, businesses, churches, and governments are all broken and wounded communities of people. So often we retreat from these communities having been wounded ourselves by the community's brokenness. We become disillusioned by the church, by our school, by our government, family, and the list goes on. However, if we are going to take the realization that nothing is perfect seriously, then we must also realize that we ourselves are not perfect, and we do our part to contribute to the wrongdoing of our communities. Still more we will never find a perfect community. Instead, we find ourselves facing the radical challenge to be committed to communities of brokenness. Imaginably, these communities will disappoint and wound us, as we will disappoint and wound them as well, but so it goes in this "nothing is perfect world." As broken individuals we daily set to renewing and rebuilding our communities, realizing that the solution is not merely to stand on the sidelines, or retreat, but rather to stay committed. It is easy, even cowardly, I think, to criticize from afar, but it is something remarkable when we acknowledge the shortcomings of ourselves as part of these broken communities, and then set about to helping to heal some of the brokenness. I confess my own shortcomings in too often taking the route of criticizing from afar, but it is my hope and goal to diligently seek to be committed to my communities.