Can critical global engagement be to colonialism in international development what service-learning is to charity in community development? Thoughts from IARSLCE 2012

By Nadia De Leon

What does quality engagement across cultural differences, locally and abroad, look like for faculty and students in American universities? After participating in many inspiring discussions at this year’s IARSCLE, two words I have often utilized before in other educational contexts stand out to me as answers to the question of quality: responsible and responsive. It seems we are doing a much better job at ensuring our students learn from the experience, than at creating positive change in the communities we work with. The terms colleagues shared as having heard from disgruntled community partners when describing SL faculty went from self-centered to student-obsessed. Someone else shared the words of a community partner who once asked, “wouldn’t it be great if Mexican students could also go to the U.S. and help you solve your problems!”… a reminder, about hell and good intentions.

Critically reflective practitioners and scholars have long questioned our exercising the privilege of visiting other countries in search of learning opportunities for our students. They have also questioned the arrogance that makes us all think a group of students (with limited knowledge of a particular communities’ history, context, or challenges) can actually make a difference. Participants at the dinner to discuss Global Service-Learning hosted by Maryland Campus Compact spoke from experience when they engaged in that questioning of assumptions. It was inspiring to hear such self-problematization. It gave me courage and comfort to be surrounded by other nonconformist professionals devising better alternatives.

Developments in the field of service-learning and community engagement problematized, and continue to challenge, traditional forms of service based on charity as non-efficient (if not harmful) and unbalanced (if not disempowering). Service-learning approaches have also offered reciprocity, capacity building, and true partnerships (in which communities self-determine and evaluate needs and solutions), as ways to improve the effectiveness of community development, and counterbalance unequal relations of power and privilege. How well does the same approach fare when applied to international/intercultural work? What else is important?

Unfortunately, those with the opportunity to dedicate time to aid in solving the problems of minority and marginalized individuals and regions, often come from the same groups (nations, social class, race) that created and sustained the circumstances that sprung such problems to start with. Whether international/intercultural community work is just another form of colonialism (or assimilation!) is an important question to ask ourselves. Fostering awareness of the wider context of which we are a part of is also critical. Being born into, coming from, and exercising the privileges of whatever groups we happen to belong to comes with unshedable roles and identities that will inevitably tint how others perceive us, how effective we can be, and how solutions that address root issues must be built. Reflection on this awareness must inform our praxis.

In my notes from the meeting, three interrelated lines of ethical and practical suggestions to problematize colonialism in international/intercultural development emerged.

  • Relationships: We must invest in and strive for long-term partnerships. We must build organizational and personal relationships grounded on what I like to call deep reciprocity – that is, not just being of benefit to each other, but learning from one another. Such relationships are based on solidarity among equals and are conducted in ways that uphold dignity for all involved.
  • Context: Participants must take the time to learn about the global, economic, cultural, social, historical, and political context in which they are themselves entangled (by virtue of their own positionality and heritage, that of their partners, and that of the issues being addressed).
  • Community: Community partners’ voices must be sought and amplified. The positive impact on the community must be maximized, and never be relegated to a secondary role following student learning. The knowledge and expertise of the community members and partners must be valued and appreciated as indispensable. We must seek to be able to remunerate partners for their shared wisdom and incurred expenses of time and effort.

More concrete suggestions as to how to help each other achieve such standards were also offered. They were largely focused on ways of sharing, collaborating, and publishing about best practices and emerging practices, as well as theorizing on principles and approaches. This Building a Better World Forum for Global Service-Learning is an already existing platform that can help us move forward with many of those steps. I am glad to join in the conversation!


Nadia De Leon, Community Engagement Coordinator at the ALIVE Center for Community Partnerships at Western Kentucky University and doctoral student in educational leadership, and was honored to receive a 2010 WKU International Reach Award and a 2011 Women of Achievement Award in the arts category. She directs multicultural programs at her institution and in her community, and teaches a variety of diversity related undergraduate courses. She is also a 2012-2013 PAGE fellow for Imagining America.

This entry was posted in Community Effects, Development, Global Service-Learning, International Service-Learning. Bookmark the permalink.

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