From the Teaching column of the December 2011 issue of Perspectives on History
Courage and Social Justice: History Students Engage New York's Immigrant and Refugee Communities
In our teaching, we look to plant the intellectual seeds that will promote critical thinking and the pursuit of knowledge. This essay argues that community-based, interdisciplinary learning enhances our students' understanding of struggles for political and social rights and of the global community. Whether tutoring refugees, collecting oral histories, teaching local history or planting community gardens, civic involvement gives students a new appreciation of transformative events and issues in American and global history.
The Intellectual Framework for Civic Engagement: Democracy and Courage
Movements for political rights and social justice are frequent themes in history and other liberal arts courses. Mobilization is a critical component of resistance in World War II and the Holocaust, anti-imperialist struggles and the feminist and environmental movements and a central theme in more traditional debates on democratic citizenship. The speeches of Pericles in 4th-century Athens, the Declaration of Independence, or Simone de Beauvoir's writings on Algeria have suggested ways to strengthen democracy by engaging the energies and capabilities of individual citizens.
The interconnectedness of civic activism and courage throughout history offers an intellectual framework for community service and engagement. Reexamining the life of Rosa Parks, feminist scholar Holloway Sparks argued for "a conception of citizenship that recognizes both dissent and an ethic of political courage as vital elements of political participation."1 In highlighting Parks's summer training in civil disobedience, Sparks demonstrated how her courage was inscribed in a network of organizations, thus challenging the popular narrative of her activism as individualistic. The centrality of courage to democracy applied beyond the soldier, firefighter or revolutionary to many women and men involved in the Montgomery Bus Boycott. In our courses, this initial reading laid the groundwork for identifying links between critical thinking, risk-taking and civic engagement. Our goal is to enable students to better understand those involved in political and cultural transformations in the past and to inspire them to be more thoughtful global citizens in the future.
Crossing Boundaries: How to Structure a Service Project
Both of us have used civic engagement to teach students in courses ranging from the Western Civilization survey to upper-level seminars such as Immigrant New York City, the History of Childhood, Feminist Theory and the History of Food, among others. In 1997, Wagner College, a small liberal arts college on Staten Island, New York, adopted a curriculum focused on experiential learning. As part of the "Wagner Plan for the Practical Liberal Arts," all first-semester students are required to engage in 30 hours of field trips or community service. In 2007, six academic departments, including the history department and the government and politics department, made commitments to each offer four civic engagement courses annually to major and non-major students at all levels. The government and politics department has often paired with Project Hospitality, a faith-based agency dedicated to alleviating problems of hunger and homelessness. The history department has chosen to work in partnership with a variety of schools and grassroots organizations and, in 2009, was the first on the campus to win recognition as the "Most Engaged Department." Exemplary civic learning included having history majors studying local history and first-year students in the global history survey teach the topics they were studying in college to elementary school students once a week using hands-on art projects to reinforce the mandated New York City Board of Education social studies curriculum.
We have taught "Crossing Boundaries, Raising Voices: Leadership and Human Rights" as a learning community, that is a paired set of history and political science classes. We taught this twice, first in spring 2008, as part of a grant from Project Pericles, then in spring 2010; we look forward to teaching it again in the spring 2012. Founded in 2001, Project Pericles is a national organization that encourages colleges to promote "social responsibility and participatory citizenship" and promotes attention to public policy issues as part of the curriculum.2
To create a stronger partnership with community leaders, we seek their advice to guide our choice of themes, readings and projects each time we teach a civic engagement course. In the 2008 and 2010 courses, our students worked with immigrants in Park Hill, an inner-city neighborhood. The arrival in the late 1990s of refugees from war-torn Liberia brought new resources to the area but also many problems of integration. The history department, which had placed our students as mentors in a nearby "Title One" elementary school for five years, was asked by grassroots organizations to address local needs more directly. Our partners were interested in having students participate in afterschool tutoring, a weekly commitment that involved many logistical arrangements. One partner, the African Refuge Center, also asked us to organize a clean-up and the planting of a community garden adjacent to their entrance. We decided to divide our students into three groups: some were assigned to a tutoring center, others to interview community members, and a third group built the garden. For this last project, we received a grant for $2,000 from the Wagner College Fox Fund for the Advancement of Civic Engagement Scholarship.
|Inspired by Nelson Mandela's prison garden on Robben Island, South Africa, Wagner College students joined youth from P.S. 57 and residents of Park Hill, Staten Island, New York, to work for neighborhood beautification. Photo by Jillian Sully, courtesy Lori Weintrob.|
As in any course, the research, reading and writing assignments shaped learning outcomes. Students had to juxtapose texts on civil and human rights leaders to their own experiences outside the classroom. We assigned readings on the history of Liberia and on civil rights and environmental movements, including Mandela's autobiography. In 2008, the final project focused on public policy issues as they affected Park Hill and New York City, including tenant organizing, education, environment, refugee policy and crime. In 2010, we shifted the focus of student research towards the history of civil and human rights movements. Students chose to write about leaders such as Alice Paul, Medgar Evers, John F. Kennedy, and Harvey Milk.
Leadership and Human Rights:
How then did the civic engagement component encourage more critical thinking, better dialogue and greater insight into materials that could be found in more traditional political theory or history courses? We argue that these experiences outside the classroom stimulated student interest in and openness to new ideas and challenging material. Students saw the application of democratic theory to practice and the relevance of historical examples to their own situations and struggles. While the material empowered them to take greater risks in crossing boundaries, the civic experience enabled them to better understand the theoretical and historical battles over human rights.
This course allowed our students to learn from the Liberian refugees and other African youth, while their interactions stimulated interest in class readings, discussions and research projects. One student who wrote her final paper on Ella Baker, for example, better understood the difficulty of political mobilization:
"Working with children from such a different culture as myself, I not only learned about the culture of Africa but also how much life in America has meant for these children and their families. When thinking about the amount of planning my group and I have to do in order to successfully help out in Park Hill, I cannot even imagine what it must have been like for Ella to plan an organization, to conquer an entire movement."
Another student challenged the individualistic model of "one leader" in concluding:
"Most importantly, we all have potential to be leaders, whether it is fighting for rights or tutoring kids. What counts is stepping out into the community and making a difference."
Many of the students overcame prevailing negative images of the inner-city. As one student wrote: "This course changed my opinion of the neighborhood. It taught me not to have pre-determined prejudices about a place just because of how it's portrayed by the media." As another student explained:
"This course changed how I see race, class, gender, poverty, resources and community activism. I acquired leadership skills. At first I was afraid to go into Park Hill and now I feel I can do any leadership project because I am not fearful anymore."(2008)
This profound "collective learning" went beyond the school walls and shattered negative stereotypes of dangerous communities based on race or nation of origin.
The inclusion of a service-learning project in dialogue with the study of the past and of theoretical texts enriched both. Action and engagement laid the groundwork for intellectual growth and, in some cases, a stronger sense of personal responsibility. Nelson Mandela has explained how tending his garden in prison, from which he shared produce with both guards and other prisoners, stimulated his reflections on power and responsibility:
"I saw the garden as a metaphor for certain aspects of my life. A leader must also tend his garden. He too plants seeds, and then watches, cultivates, and harvests the result. Like the gardener, a leader must take responsibility for what he cultivates; he must mind his work, try to repel enemies, preserve what can be preserved and eliminate what cannot succeed."3
Project Pericles is a nonprofit organization founded by philanthropist Eugene Lang to facilitate and encourage the integration of participatory citizenship into the educational programs of institutions that become members of the project. For further details, visit the web site of the project at
The experience of cultivating their own gardens, both literal and figurative, enabled our students to develop the courage to think critically and to gain a deeper understanding of agency in history.
Lori R. Weintrob is chair and associate professor, Department of History, Wagner College, and coeditor of Maternalism Reconsidered: Motherhood, Welfare and Social Policies in the Twentieth Century (Berghahn Press, forthcoming 2012) and Discovering Staten Island: A 350th Anniversary Volume (History Press, 2011).
Patricia Moynagh is associate professor, Department of Government and Politics and co-editor of Simone de Beauvoir's Political Thinking (Univ. of Illinois Press, 2006). Both have served as faculty liaison to Project Pericles.
1. Sparks, "Dissident Citizenship: Democratic Theory, Political Courage, and Activist Women" Hypatia: A Journal of Feminist Philosophy, Special Issue on Citizenship, edited by Kathleen Jones, volume 12 (4), Fall 1997.
2. Project Pericles Civic Engagement Courses were funded by the Christian A. Johnson Endeavor Foundation, the Eugene M. Lang Foundation, and The Teagle Foundation. For photos and excerpts from student essays (2010), see http://wagnerpedia.wagner.edu/index.php/Leadership.
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