What Should Students Know Before Walking Through the Door of the Community Organization?

Around 2002, John Reiff (CESL Director) had the opportunity to ask 30 staff members from community-based organizations what they wanted UMass students to know before they ever walked through the door of the community organization.  They discussed the question among themselves, then provided these three answers:

  1. Our organizations have cultures different from the culture of your university.  We may dress differently, talk differently, and act differently in important ways from students on your campus.  We don't expect you to teach your students our cultures, because you don't know them yourself, but we want you to sensitize your students to the need to start learning our culture as soon as they arrive.
  2. Many of your students don't come from our communities, so we want you to orient them to our community before they start working with us.  Who lives here?  What are the demographics, the economics, the politics, the history, the struggles, the hopes and aspirations?
  3. Many of your students differ in important social identities--race, class, etc.--from the people we serve.  We don't want, for example, for the first time a white middle-class student wonders what it means to be white and middle class to be when they first sit down with someone we serve who is a poor person of color.  We want you to lead them to begin exploring the assumptions and patterns of behavior associated with the ways in which they may be privileged and the folks we serve may not be--before they ever show up in our communities.

These three principles have become fundamental to CESL's approach to service-learning.  We talk with students and faculty about the differences between campus culture and the culture of community organizations.  We collaborate with Five Colleges, Inc., to offer orientations to Holyoke and Springfield--Holyoke Bound at the beginning of every semester, and Springfield Bound every fall--and we offer a UMass orientation to Amherst every fall.  And we work hard to explore the issues of power, privilege, and oppression that are tied up with our social identities, to look critically at our own identities and to ask how we might approach service, as Nadinne Cruz says, as "the creation and maintenance of more just relationships."