Restoring Justice and Joy

The following comes from long-standing activist for critical, engaged social justice learning Seth Pollack, Director of the Service Learning Institute at California State University, Monterey Bay.  CSUMB is the only public institution of higher education in California where service-learning is a graduation requirement. The Service Learning Institute supports faculty integration of service-learning in both lower and upper division courses across the curriculum, all of which teach to a common set of social justice-oriented service learning outcomes.  In 2017-18, Seth will be a Fulbright Scholar with the European Union, working on critical service learning and civic literacy curricula in universities in the UK and Italy.

Service:  Restoring Justice and Joy

[The following was prepared for CSUMB’s annual Spotlight on Service, part of the CSUMB Capstone Festival, held on Thursday, May 18, 2017.]

It is hard to imagine that today we are celebrating our 20th Spotlight on Service.  Despite budgetary pressures and the pressures to conform to the standard CSU mold, CSU Monterey Bay has maintained its distinctive commitment to service learning  –to educating CSUMB students to become professionals committed to social justice and social responsibility.  While other aspects of CSUMB’s audacious founding Vision Statement have not survived these two decades of growth and change, CSUMB’s commitment to service learning, and to meaningfully addressing the social challenges of our region, has remained steadfast.  It shows in the faculty we hire, as departments such as Mathematics, Psychology and Environmental Science have recently hired faculty whose expertise is based in mobilizing the insights of their disciplines to address the real-world challenges.  We are proud of the fact that as CSUMB grows, we actively recruit faculty who can help our academic programs to become ever more relevant to, and connected to, the social challenges of our region.

CSUMB remains the only public university in California to have made service learning a graduation requirement.  This ensures that every CSUMB graduate has the opportunity to develop their civic engagement skills along with their professional and technical expertise.  As a result, in 2016-17:  3,053 CSUMB students were enrolled in 119 service learning courses, and contributed over 97,000 hours of service to 262 schools and community agencies in our region.  Using the value established by the Independent Sector Value of Community and Volunteer Service, this represents a contribution of $2,295,856.

Service in Turbulent, Divisive Times

However, as this past year has shown, the environment is not always conducive to learning about diversity, social responsibility and social justice.  At times, it has seemed that many of the core values of the Service Learning Institute –justice, compassion, diversity and social responsibility—have themselves been under attack.  The rise of a new nationalism across the country and around the world has set a hostile ethnocentric tone that is suspicious of outsiders and quick to blame “the other.”  It is as if our collect sense of identity is itself under threat.  In response, the SLI led a faculty development workshop series in the Fall semester, entitled “Difficult Dialogues in Turbulent Times.” The purpose of the workshop series was to help service learning faculty strengthen their skills in leading discussions that are more balanced, that make room for multiple perspectives and differing opinions, and that can counteract the hate and the biases that many in our community are experiencing.  Sessions were led by faculty and community members, and focused on issues such as:  “Policing and Communities of Color,” “Free Speech, Hate Speech and Protest,” “Anti Immigration: Who is an American?,” “Gender Identity and Oppression,” and “Islamophobia.”  In today’s divisive political environment, these workshops are more important now than ever before.

As fear has continued to rise in our communities post-election, the Service Learning Institute has partnered with local immigration attorneys, the Monterey College of Law and the Monterey County Bar Association, to offer a series of monthly Immigration Law Workshops.  These workshops provide our students and their families with up-to-date information on the ever-shifting immigration policy environment.  The workshops help to quell rumors, while also providing practical information that enables our community members to take the appropriate measures to safeguard their families.  The SLI is committed to being an ally to our undocumented students and their families, and to all who experience suspicion and bias, in the tumultuous times ahead.

Restoring Justice and Joy

When concern for justice and humanity seems to be lost in the fog of false facts and fear mongering, it can be easy to fall into despair.  However, a recent book by the Dalai Lama and Archbishop Desmond Tutu, The Book of Joy, reminds us that while suffering and oppression is inevitable, our response to that oppression is our choice.  These spiritual leaders, both of whom have experienced significant suffering in their lifetime, remind us that one way we can restore justice, is to cultivate joy.  And, one way to feel joy is through developing compassion and deep, authentic connection to our fellow human beings.  This requires us to break out of our bubbles and comfort zones, cut through the fear and suspicion that is being cultivated, and build meaningful, reciprocal relationships with each other.  It is then that we begin to see the “other” in us.

So, perhaps the greatest contribution being made by the 3,053 CSUMB service learning students is this:  they are developing compassion for and connection to the diverse families of our region.  And as Archbishop Tutu said,

When we see others as separate, they become a threat.  When we see others as part of us, as connected, as interdependent, then there is no challenge we cannot face –together.

Despite the threats, fear mongering and divisiveness, service learning is helping us to build new connections across our communities.  Through service, we are discovering the strength and power of joy, one relationship at a time.  And no wall can keep that joy from spreading.  As the Dalai Lama, a man who has lived most of his life in exile, stated:

Wherever you have friends, that’s your country.  And wherever you receive love, that’s your home.

I want to thank our CSUMB students, faculty and community partners for demonstrating the power of joy in building community and restoring justice.  We look forward to strengthening that joy in the years to come.

In solidarity,

Dr. Seth Pollack

Professor of Service Learning

Director, CSUMB Service Learning Institute

spollack {at} csumb(.)edu

NOTE:  All opinions expressed are that of Seth Pollack and do not represent the CSU or CSUMB

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