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Tips for working with community partners

Like all collaborative endeavors, service learning requires a spirit of respect, equality and reciprocity.  When done well, service learning benefits students, community partners and faculty.  At a bare minimum, however, all service learning collaborations must abide by the Hippocratic oath: "First, do no harm."  Here are a few tips:

DO DON'T
Acknowledge that community partners may be just as busy as you, and possibly busier. Expect responses to communication more quickly than you give them.
Acknowledge that community partners possess wisdom, knowledge, skills and expertise that are just as significant as your own.  Invite them to share this wisdom with students. Treat the community as a laboratory for you or your students.
Expect community partners to invest just as much time and energy in service learning as faculty and students.   Let partners off the hook if they've failed to meet agreed-upon expectations.
Ensure that service learning activities meet real needs and produce net benefits to community partners. Co-opt or exploit community-based programs to enhance your class, your research, or your status.
Place equal value on the partner agency's needs, course needs, and student needs.  Understand that none of these is more important than the others. Assume that university participants have final decision making authority about service learning activities.
Utilize asset-based thinking.  Instead of asking "What problems need to be fixed?", ask "What strengths can be built on?" Utilize deficiency-based thinking ("What weaknesses or defects can we fix?").
Always respect confidentiality.  Ask students to anonymize in discussions and written work. Ask students to record video or audio or take photos in any community settings without prior consultation with partners, express consent from all community partners and clients, and full cooperation with agency policies and procedures.  IRB approval may be necessary for research projects.
Hold yourself and your students accountable to mutually agreed-upon expectations. Automatically take students' side when problems arise.  Understand that students and community partners may have different interpretations and perspectives on issues that arise.
Seek feedback from partners, including constructive critique. Always include community partner feedback in grading. Ignore underperformance or write off a bad collaboration as a "learning experience."

At Loyola, we strive for an even higher standard.  In addition to abiding by these basic principles of respect and equality, we hope our university-community partnerships embody the Jesuit ideals of social justice and solidarity.  

Here are a few tips for realizing these ideals in service learning collaborations:

  1. Ask yourself: "Does this service learning activity empower or disempower the recipients?"
  2. Ask yourself: "Will this work reproduce or reinforce unjust social structures?"
  3. Examine whether and how service learning activities address root causes of social problems.  Encourage students to examine this as well.
  4. Focus on cultivating university-community partnerships which can be sustained over the long term (3 years or more).  Avoid "drive-through" or "hit and run" collaborations.
  5. Consider how service learning activities increase human capital, build community, and enhance diversity.
  6. Explore how university stakeholders can share resources with community partners beyond just providing volunteers.  Can the partnership aspire to a deeper level of resource-sharing?
  7. Be aware of and educate students about the dangers of voyeurism, objectification and stereotyping in community work.
  8. Be aware of and educate students about the intercultural competencies needed for effective service learning.