Initial Curator: Nontalie Morrow, University of Georgia


Much of the research on the theoretical design as well as the practical implementation and application of service learning are genuinely intended to build student and community relationships, however, there is often a critical component missing.  In the efforts to foster student growth and enhance community resources, there tend to be limited opportunities for these programs to critically engage in asking questions of “why”.  Why are these communities in need?  Why are these communities similar in demographics regardless of where they are located across the country?  Why have the needs been consistent for several decades? Asking these questions gives students the opportunity to understand the power dynamics within the communities they seek to serve.  This element of asking difficult questions magnifies the service learning experience because students are pushed beyond the intention of completing service for a grade.  At this point, they can develop a critical lens and a sense of civic responsibility that allows them to consider more holistic solutions for the issues they see rather than adding yet another Band-Aid to the issue at hand. The following guide will offer some helpful resources centered on promoting equity within service learning programs.

Key Literature

  • Del Rio, E., and Loggins, J. Aligning Equity, Engagement, and Social Innovation in Anchor Initiatives, Metropolitan Universities Vol. 30 No. 1 (February 2019),
  • Green, P.M., Bergen, D.J., Stewart, C.P., & Nayve, C. (2021). An Engagement of Hope: A Framework and Equity-Centered Theory of Action for Community Engagement. Metropolitan Universities, 32(2), 129-157. DOI: 10.18060/25527.
  • Lauder, C. & Berkey, B. (2021). Justice Isn’t One-Size-Fits-All: Working toward Justice in Service- Learning Courses. Experiential Learning & Teaching in Higher Education 4(2), Article 21. 
  • Mitchell, T. D. (2007). Critical service-learning as social justice education: A case study of the citizen scholars programEquity & Excellence in Education40(2), 101-112.
    • Difference between service learning and critical service learning is based on attention to social change by questioning the distribution of power in society
    • Focuses on developing relationships between HIED institutions and the community serviced
    • Critical service learning is oriented toward service-learning with an emphasis on social justice outcomes over more traditional citizenship goals
    • Service learning programs focus more on the learning and development of the students than the development and change in the communities
      • Students rarely consider whether an injustice has created the need for service
    • “A sustained service-learning interaction, fused with close analysis to server subjectivity’’ is critical to addressing mutuality, reciprocity, and the asymmetry that some- times results as power differentials in the service relationship emerge (Camacho, 2004, p. 31)
      • Instead of just offering a service, students should meet with leaders/administrators of the organizations to engage in meetings and planning sessions of why and how these groups work and learning the obstacles they encounter. Add responsibility of attending and contributing to meetings.
  • Mitchell, T. D. (2008). Traditional vs. critical service-learning: Engaging the literature to differentiate two models. Michigan Journal of Community Service Learning, 14(2). 50-65.
    • A critical approach to service learning has a goal to deconstruct systems of power so the need for service and the inequalities that create and sustain them are dismantled
    • Unless the service is carefully and consciously constructed, it can perpetuate hierarchies and be viewed as a “glorified welfare system”
    • Service learning that does not acknowledge these differences perpetuates inequalities and reinforces an “us-them” dichotomy (p. 51)
    • Greater emphasis on community problem solving/political reform through critical thinking based on questions of social inequality
    • Opportunity for institutionalizing activism committed to social justice
    • Critical service learning pedagogy fosters a critical consciousness (p. 54)
      • Allow the students to connect their own lives to those with whom they work in their service experiences
    • SL faculty must problematize the issue of power in the service experience
      • Names differential access to power experienced by students, faculty, and community members, and encourages analysis, dialogue, and discussion of those power dynamics
    • Authentic relationships and avoiding superficial encounters begins with recognizing that one assignment, one semester is not enough
  • Vincent, C. S., Lynch, C., Lefker, J. & Awkward, R.J. (2021). Critically Engaged Civic Learning: A Comprehensive Restructuring of Service-Learning Approaches. Michigan Journal of Community Service Learning 27(2).

Developing Equity-Based Service Learning Programs

  • Equity centered approach to action planning
    • Building community partnerships
      • Connect with previously established relationships
      • Seek out opportunities to develop new relationships
      • Determine need(s) and goals identified by group and collaborate to develop sustainable solutions
    • Match students to organizations
      • Determine skills and interests of students
      • Pair with group or organization who would most benefit from particular student (and vice versa)
    • Develop regular opportunities for feedback
      • Organization provides feedback on student performance/growth
      • Students provide feedback on their experience
    • Equity centered approach to service learning
      • Set intention to identify injustice within service
      • Ask what is social justice and how to live with a commitment to social justice

Examples of Equity-Based Service Learning

Curricular, extra curricular, or co-curricular based examples

University of Kansas

University of Massachusetts at Amherst

Reviewing Civic Action Plans for Equity Based Service Learning

Key Words

  • Critical service learning
  • Equity based
  • Community centered
  • Sustained engagement

Key Concepts/Ideas

  • Redefining terminology and ideas about needs
    • The service provided is more focused on the needs of the organization rather than those of the student
  • Recognize consequential issues/problems
    • Identify injustices and consider why these inequities exist
  • Community/local relationships
    • Sustained/continuous/long-term: repeated involvement between student and community organization
    • Give students greater responsibility in advancing the relationships
  • Mutually agreed upon goals
    • Emphasis on social justice outcomes over more traditional citizenship goals
  • Collaborative solutions that are deep/holistic
    • Beyond Band-Aid solutions
    • Seeking social change
  • Critical reflection
    • Evidence of student growth and change in perspective and motivation to engage
  • Program Assessment
    • Feedback opportunities from students, faculty, and community partners

Opportunities and Resources for Professional Development

Conferences and Retreats