The second CIDER workshop I attended was Integrating Community Voice. I went to the Effective Service Learning-Primer a few weeks earlier, so there was a good bit of overlap between the two workshops. However, this session reiterated the importance of collaboration and course development with community partners. One big takeaway from the workshop was to ask the community members what they wanted the students to do or learn from the experience, allowing them to also “call the shots,” so to speak, rather than forcing a project on a community which may not meet their wants, needs, or values.
Although I have not taught that much yet and have never created or led a service learning course, I envisioned what such a class with me would look like before I attended these workshops. I originally imagined students deciding as a group on a need or potential project in the community, such as restoring riparian buffers, improving stream visibility and aesthetics, stabilizing eroding features on the landscape that contribute sediment to nearby streams, or implementing strategies to better manage storm-water runoff. The project would clearly involve a learning component, in that the students would need to consult various sources and do extensive background research to come up with an appropriate design and plan of action. The students would also have hands-on time actually executing the plan and meeting a community need for the service aspect.
I greatly value local or indigenous knowledge, that being the intimate understanding individuals have of their surroundings and the place they call home, even though they may not know the scientific terminology for the processes they observe. Thus, community input and involvement were always an integral part of my vision for a service learning course. I discussed in my post about the last workshop that riparian buffers are a no-brainer for most scholars in the environmental sciences, but community members may not like them because they block the view of streams. These two opposing perspectives may suggest that there is no way to satisfy both parties, or that one side is just completely wrong. While riparian buffers are one of the best and cost-effective ways to improve water quality, if the local community members cannot see and, therefore, feel disconnected from the streams, they may be less likely to care about them in the future. The project may have greater acceptance and success if a riparian buffer is restored along the majority of the stream, while reaches near parks and other access points have a narrow buffer with only a few trees that still allow a clear view of the stream.
Although I always assumed the community would be part of my service learning courses, exactly how I was going to create this collaboration remained hazy. Many of the examples during the workshop were of projects in Appalachia, and I was surprised by how prevalent possible community partners, such as non-profit organizations, are even in rural areas. The involvement of partners also extends to evaluation of the students, which I had not thought about before. I guess I did not realize that integrating community voice into a project means pretty much right from the get-go and on a fairly even footing with my own goals for the students. I learned that I would need to identify and work with a community partner at the very earliest phases of developing a service learning course, rather than as an afterthought once the project is designed.