Peter Konwerski: Service learning gives back

As an adjunct professor with a passion for exploring the interplay between service and social justice, I have been fortunate to work each fall with an entire class of GW students looking to extend their education through service-learning experiences.

The pedagogy of service-learning has empowered my students to not only explore social issues in Washington, but to also attempt to find solutions to some of our nation’s most pressing social problems.

By working in the D.C. nonprofit sector, students have seen the impact of the recent economic downturn and its effect on senior citizens, immigrants and the working poor struggling to hold on to low-wage jobs. Students at their sites have seen the need for food banks and soup kitchens rise dramatically this semester, along with requests for clothing and other social services.

Likewise, they have become well-versed in the intricacies of social policy at the local level, whether by attending hearings exploring the closing of the Franklin Shelter or understanding the potential cuts in the mayor’s permanent supportive Housing First initiative. Both have had a dramatic influence on the lives of local homeless residents.

Yet despite the increasing challenges which they have come to witness, service-learning courses like those offered in GW’s Human Services Program help prepare our students to assume effective leadership roles in not-for-profit agencies supporting people and communities who are experiencing need.

For instance, one student is working with site staff to research more effective recruitment and job-training initiatives, which better facilitate career development for low-wage woman workers. Similarly, several students are supporting their educational organizations in the research, design and implementation of culturally sensitive lessons plans and age-appropriate curriculum for children and youth.

Other students are conducting research on improving orientation materials and training manuals to assist staff recruit and manage their volunteer pools more effectively. Finally, as the service sector is responding to economic distress, many organizations are looking to expand their scope of service to meet these emerging needs, allowing several students to assist local nonprofits research, apply and compete for scarce grant funding. Each of these skills is part of a continuum of philanthropy our service-learning students engage with as they prepare to take on leadership roles in the nonprofit sector.

The students also organized the series of Hunger Week activities designed to help the GW community explore the complex issue of poverty in our midst.

Students have developed events to educate their peers to the challenges they have seen firsthand at their service sites. Using Saul Alinsky’s classic community organizing text, “Rules for Radicals,” they will attempt to shine a light on how deprivation affects empowerment among those in need. This will test Alinsky’s principles of organizing against contemporary campus coalition-building techniques, in an attempt to expose the GW community to issues of access, power and social stratification, issues which impact the distribution of resources and affect so many people here in D.C.

The service-learning method brings these complex social issues to life and, hopefully, better explains how to understand problems like hunger and the devastating effects on the D.C. community and cities around the globe. Join us at our Hunger Week events to learn more!

The writer is an adjunct assistant professor of human services and assistant vice president for Student Academic Support Services.

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