International Service-Learning Engaging Host Communities

Noel Habashy How do we promote reciprocal benefits to communities and students? How can we collectively work to incorporate other perspectives and stories? Do those terms privilege students over communities?   How do we define the concepts of “learn” and “serve”? How can we shift a paradigm which often places a secondary concern on the wellbeing of a community? On Friday, February 19, 2016, 38 participants gathered online to discuss the impacts on and perspectives of host communities that receive students from Global Service Learning Programs. Webinar participants wrestled with the above questions and many more. The springboard for this discussion was the recent book edited by Marianne Larsen, International Service Learning: Engaging Host Communities (the first chapter of the book is available online for free – and excellent!). Volume editor Marianne Larsen participated in the conversation as well as multiple authors of chapters of the book:
  • Jessica Arends, Faculty Engagement Associate, SUNY Binghamton
  • Samantha Dear, Associate Director, Alive Outdoors
  • Gonzalo Duarte, Compañeros Inc
  • Nora Pillard Reynolds, Executive Director, Water for Waslala
  • Eric Hartman, Assistant Professor, Kansas State University
At the core of this conversation is the insight that participants from the Global North and Global South must work to understand the perspectives of one another and strive to communicate effectively. Additionally, there may be preconceived notions and paternalistic philosophies regarding the “best” way to conduct international collaborations that may be skewed away from placing communities as a priority (presenters mentioned the blog Africa is a Country as one venue working to undo common Western perceptions of Africa). As multiple presenters in the webinar shared, participants and organizers in the Global North must recognize that there is so much we don’t know about a host community’s context and setting. We must be humble and vulnerable to recognize there is much we simply don’t understand. All parties – students, community members, faculty, administrators, NGOs, and program organizers – must enter into these partnerships with an attitude of humility, recognizing there is much that we don’t understand about the other partners. Practitioners and scholars in the Global North must constantly work to ensure the value of the host community is placed in the center of the conversation, not pushed to the side as an ancillary concern. This may mean fighting an uphill battle for the value of these communities in an institutional culture where students are first and foremost in the center of learning objectives and program evaluations. Some practical steps emerged from conversation including:
  1. Be prepared to challenge assumptions of understanding of what the “other” party looks like or needs. Accept there is much we don’t know or understand.
  2. Institutions and organizations in the Global North may start by simply asking community members about their desires or objectives for a partnership and program.
  3. Work to evaluate community perspectives on partnerships and incorporate the findings into the program design and development. Without asking these simple questions we will likely be destined to continue to repeat historical mistakes.
  4. Explore frameworks and resources available. Suggestions from the webinar include:
The book Working Side by Side: Creating Alternative Breaks as Catalysts for Global Learning, Student Leadership, and Social Change was also suggested as a resource compiled by practitioners sharing lessons learned working to put community-based development into practice through alternative breaks. The challenges are undoubtedly great. There are many occasions for misinformed perspectives and colonial paradigms to emerge, however, many opportunities also exist. As we humbly enter into global partnerships and all parties work towards greater understanding, we will be able to promote reciprocal benefits to both students and communities.
Noel Habashy is a PhD student at Pennsylvania State University. He is researching the impacts and perspectives of host communities in the Global South that receive service-learning students from the Global North.  He has worked in the field of international education for over 10 years and has lived in five countries on three continents.