Public Service, Community Organizing, and Social Change

January 29, 2001

Through service-learning, this seminar explores the experience of democratic citizenship in a multicultural society, focusing on the role of the activist in public service, community organizing, and social change. Internships in Philadelphia or Chester (5 hours/week), dialogue with local activists, and popular education pedagogy enrich reflection upon and analysis of other topics, including: individual and community empowerment; public policy at the grassroots; urban politics; communication and coalition-building across differences of race, gender, class; leadership and organizing skills development.

In the United States near the end of the 20th century, poverty, racism, homelessness, inadequate education, lack of access to health care, unemployment, environmental pollution, etc., have become daily realities for many people. The pervasiveness of injustice and inequality call into question the meaning of American democracy. More and more people have given up on political participation, even as politics becomes more urgent. At the national level, the federal government has increasingly distanced itself from the plight of American cities. Yet, at the grassroots, in neighborhoods and workplaces, people are organizing and trying to resolve the tremendous problems which confront them. How do communities empower themselves to take action? What are the roles and responsibilities of individual citizens and activists – as members and leaders of struggling communities, as people from the outside engaged in public service, advocacy, or organizing?

“Public Service, Community Organizing, and Social Change,” formerly titled “Community Politics/The Internship Seminar,” is the core course of the Democracy Project at Swarthmore College, and may be combined with PS 19 “Democratic Theory and Practice” or PS 36 “Multicultural Politics” to form an honors preparation. Because service-learning involves interacting with people off campus, often in sensitive or challenging situations, enrollment is limited to a maximum of 12 students who have previous experience in community service, and who request permission from the instructor before registration.

This semester, students will be interning with the Chester Community Improvement Project, and in Philadelphia with the Maternity Care Coalition, Congreso de Latinos Unidos, People’s Emergency Center, the Village of Arts and Humanities, Friends’ Conflict Mediation Program, Coalition Against the Death Penalty, New Jerusalem, and Norris Square Neighborhood Project.

Course Format and Assignments:
A major focus of “Public Service” will be our internships; the course is designed to facilitate learning from our own experiences and from each other. Each of you will complete a minimum of 60 volunteer hours by the end of the semester (approximately five hours a week through the end of April). The internship will give us the opportunity to explore in a sustained way different approaches to public service, community organizing, and social change. The internship experience is structured by the role and the responsibilities the host organization agrees to provide you, your own interests and learning objectives, and my course design. These three components will be formalized in a Learning Agreement, to be signed by the student, a representative of the host organization, and myself, as the professor of the course. It is essential that the relationship between the intern and the host be as reciprocal as possible; the community organizations and activists who share with us this semester should be respected, not simply treated as “labs” or “data” for our purposes only.

Our seminar-style weekly meetings are designed to encourage exploration, community-building and democracy among ourselves. Sessions will include a combination of: discussion of the readings; dialogue with a community activist; internship highlights and presentations by members of the class; and dinner and/or dessert, which we will take turns in preparing. I have invited several activists to get our dialogues started; later on, I encourage you to invite someone from your host organizations. In order to fully integrate reflection and experience, the course will feature popular education pedagogy, which is based on the principle that students can and should take responsibility for their own learning, just as citizens can and should govern themselves.

In our discussions, we will integrate scholarly and community “voices” which are not often heard in academic or public policy debates. During our meetings, we will work together to create a class environment in which we all try to express our views AND to listen to the views of others. This requires a degree of courage and trust; it is sometimes very hard to take a different stand on a controversial or sensitive issue, or to open ourselves to a very different viewpoint. But if we can’t do it in a class like this, how will we ever be able to do so in our internships, or in public life?

In addition to our weekly sessions, I will meet individually with you during the first week of classes, and conduct an evaluation meeting with the student and the community internship supervisor at the end of the semester. I plan to visit each internship site at least once during the semester, and am available for additional visits and/or individual meetings as necessary. The class will also be divided into two-person learning teams, so that you have a partner to check in with at least once during the week (of course, you can also talk with me, during office hours or by appointment). If you feel that there is a serious problem with your internship, contact me right away (instead of waiting until our next class session).

The primary written work of the course will be a journal. Plan to write at least three times a week (2-3 pages). After each session at your internship, you should record the date, times, and a brief description of your activity. One entry each week must address an issue or theme from the class readings, in light of your internship. Another entry should analyze a critical incident that occurred during the week. You may also want to reflect on that week’s dialogue with a community activist or an issue raised during class discussions. Feel free to include newspaper articles, photographs, flyers, or other material relevant to your topic, and to be creative. Remember that, although this journal is not expected to be a polished essay, it should not be purely stream of consciousness either. Writing in your journal will be most valuable if you use it consistently to record, reflect upon and analyze specific issues and experiences. The journal must be typed or word-processed, double-spaced. You will hand in your journal every week; I will return it with comments the following week (keep these). At midterm and at the end of the semester, you will turn in the entire journal (to that point), with my comments; at each of these times, you will also submit an analytic summary essay about your internship experience. Additional information about the assignments will be given out in class.

Because of the intensive and experiential nature of this course, your full participation is essential. You must attend all class meetings, having done the readings and completed your journal entries. Of course, I expect you to be equally responsible about your internship responsibilities. Your final grade will be based on the internship presentation and evaluation meeting (33% of the grade), class participation (33% of the grade), and the journal and summary essays (33% of the grade).

Readings: The following required books are available for purchase in the bookstore; they are also on reserve in McCabe library. Newspaper articles about Chester and Philadelphia, and other short readings will be handed out in class. Reading assignments with a * are from the anthology, Experiencing, Race, Class, and Gender in the United States. Reading assignments with a @ are from Organizing for Social Change. In both these books, feel free to read and/or comment on additional selections that seem most interesting or particularly relevant to your internship. See me for additional recommendations and suggestions for further reading.

Saul Alinsky, Reveille for Radicals
Kim Bobo et al, Organizing for Social Change: A Manual for Activists in the 1990s
Virginia Cyrus, Experiencing Race, Class, and Gender in the United States
Craig A. Rimmerman, The New Citizenship: Unconventional Politics, Activism, and Service
Peter Medoff and Holly Sklar, Streets of Hope: The Fall and Rise of an Urban Neighborhood
Myles Horton and Paulo Freire, We Make the Road by Walking: Conversations on Education and Social Change

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