When Border Crossings Become Border Inspections

Guest blog by Brittany Dernberger, Assistant Director, GVSU Women’s Center

Watching light bulbs go off for students as they begin to understand another person’s worldview, make connections between systemic issues, and reflect on their own lived experiences is a big part of why I love my job. Facilitating opportunities for students to engage in meaningful service learning, both locally and in South Africa, in order for them to bring classroom material to life is a truly enriching experience.

However, is this experience fulfilling for all parties involved? Are community partners equally benefiting from this exchange? Folks from academia often have the best of intentions; we often have done our homework, may be able to cite best practices, and recognize the histories of a community. However, great intentions do not automatically eliminate the potential of exhibiting harm. By requiring students to engage in service learning as part of their well-rounded liberal education, are we teaching students to tackle systemic issues or to simply fulfill hours for a class? How do we help students understand social justice and long-term partnerships while engaging in (short-term) community-based learning? 

Justice-learning, a concept written about by Dan Butin[i], provides a framework for engaging in community-based learning from a social justice perspective. His article delineates the concept in detail, but four key points that most resonate with me include:

Justice Learning…

  • Constantly problematizes. Recognizing that service learning committed to social justice may perpetuate oppressive conditions and assumptions, justice learning requires a continuous critical questioning and examining of your own motives and assumptions. What resources do I provide? Why am I here?
  • Requires “unlearning” oppressive assumptions before any other justice-centered work can be done. Recognizing privilege and oppression, and that we all have been socialized with certain perceptions and categorizations, is a crucial part of engaging in this work. What biases and stereotypes must I recognize and address? How does the top-down nature of knowledge production impact our community partnerships?
  • Avoids easy, specific, and pre-determined end-goals. The goal should be to create tensions and dilemmas that must be reflected upon and resolved. This dissonance serves as a reminder that process is as important as the final result. What does success look like? How does each partner define success?
  • Inquires about who controls the narrative. Students and those of us with institutional authority in the ivory tower are often the ones writing about these experiences and thus control the dialogue in which “privilege, identity, and power are defined or obscured.” Are community partners included in the writing and reporting process? Are multiple voices heard? How do we prevent border crossings from becoming border inspections?

These tensions are real, and often the disparate impacts fall on our community partners. Not all service learning or community engagement is good community-based learning that leads toward social change. Out of respect and reciprocity for our community partners, it is essential that projects be developed, monitored, and evaluated in collaboration. We must wrestle with these tough issues along with our students and community partners in order to avoid perpetuating harm. This may include asking tough questions about whether we are engaging in border crossings or border inspections in which the academic side of the fence is controlling the narrative.

As we seek to become a community-engaged university and continue to build community-based learning into our scholarship, teaching, and research, it’s essential that we are doing this from a justice-oriented perspective.

[i] Butin, D. (2007). Justice-learning: Service-learning as justice-oriented education. Equity & Excellence in Education, 40:177-183.

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