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Conversation #2: Service Learning

A conversation with Dr. David Park of Xavier University of Louisiana about teaching and service learning.

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H: Hello today I’m talking to Dr. Dave Park who teaches Mass Communications here at Xavier University of Louisiana. His research interest includes new media technology within the music industry and his recent book is titled Conglomerate Rock: The Music Industries Quest to Divide Music. He regularly teaches courses such as Principles of Public Relations and Public Relations Campaigns. Hi Dave!

P: Hi Elizabeth thanks for having me.

H: Thanks! What I want to talk to you about today is primarily your use of service learning in classes especially post Katrina. You are known on campus for your innovative use of service learning and for those listeners who don’t known service learning is a teaching strategy where you use community service to enhance instruction in student learning. Before we get into your class and the assignments you use, I feel we need to set the context for people. You been here before and after Katrina so I wonder if you would start by sharing you Katrina experience?

P: Well sure I mean Katrina experiences are always personal and long winded and usually end up kind of sad but I think in my case it really energized me to come back to the city and fight and rebuild so you can use that energy and at times anger and put it towards something positive. New Orleans ranks the lowest in terms of health care out of the 50 states or is ranked 49th or 50th. Those issues with education have a colonial history so there’s a lot of work to be done. There’s poverty, health discrepancies and then you throw in a hurricane which wasn’t really the cause of the problems — it was the levees that were funded by the government. So they breached and made the city even more of a toxic cocktail of sorts. So I guess that experience perhaps maybe energized a lot of people and things are changing in a positive way right now.

H: I wonder if you would comment on the university, I wasn’t here at Xavier before Katrina so I wonder if you could talk about the university’s experience and the students' experience and how that fed into your teaching?

P: Well again Xavier was under I guess 5 feet of water and the experience immediately after Katrina — They had actually rebuilt a lot of the university and had it up and running 5 months, 4 months right after the disaster. So when we came back, I came back I think in October first time and biked around the city, went down to the Lower Ninth Ward, the upper 9th ward, and just saw the destruction and at that time it was basically a military state. Some check points here and there and the only representation... there wasn’t any government presence anywhere except for the military here and there. The only presence in the 9th ward was a small non-profit group called Common Ground. So I stopped in and I said listen I’m a professor, I teach at Xavier University, we do media courses, how can we help, what can we do to help? And they said we need volunteers, people need their houses gutted, they need debris removed and so forth. At Common Ground what I learned was started by two people who came to New Orleans, I think they were both originally from Louisiana with 50 dollars, set up camp had a large presence and so we worked together with community interests to bring in volunteers at that time. So I changed my classes to do a national media campaign with the help and direction of the community and Common Ground. We created news releases, articles, radio PSA’s, coordinated with different universities different groups, church groups, fraternities, sororities, everything, anyone. And we sent it out and volunteers started coming, they came, helped out, and what we thought then was — is that good enough? We can get some volunteers, let's see if we can do something to spark interest again. So the volunteers that came we gave them a goodbye packet which consisted of ways of how to contact their local media and continue the issue in the media. So after the volunteer returned to your home time call the local newspaper or t.v. station I’m sure they might be interested in interviewing you and raise more awareness about the needs in New Orleans Post-Katrina.

H: So let me be sure that I got that right. So what you actually did then was use student volunteers in your class to actually get more volunteers?

P: Right, our class — at the time I think I was teaching PR campaigns class so we could either write or make a fake campaign that may or may not do anything, or we could do an actual campaign for a good cause and for the needs of the community. So we got the entire class doing this national campaign to bring in volunteers, contacting the media, getting awareness of the needs throughout the city of New Orleans.

H: Could you back up a little bit, because I am not in Communications, like what are your student objectives or learning outcomes that you’re trying to get students to achieve as a part of this class?

P: Sure well because it’s a peer campaigns class you learn some background or history of theory that would guide a certain campaign, so we look at different theories. Again the field of Mass Communication is interesting. It can go in many different ways. Some ways are strict social science, research oriented, quantitative, qualitative. Other programs are more professional skills oriented. A lot of programs walk both sides of the fence. They do a mixture of both, as we do at Xavier. So this particular class has some theory but also does practical professional skills, so writing skills to make students familiar with, in this case, public relations writing styles. So in the field of public relations people write media alerts, newspaper articles, news releases, radio PSA’s and so forth. So we designed the campaign so there’s one aspect with the practical skills that they would learn with or without service learning, but why waste your time doing something that is fictional, right? So we’re doing something practical led by the community which we continue to do three years after Katrina.

H: Are you still working with Common Ground?

P: Right now we’re working with Common Ground again, yeah, and we can talk about what we’re doing this semester a little bit. But I think with service learning the goal is to cultivate empathy, understanding and civic engagement especially with a media system. Students spend more time in front of the media than in school a lot of times, and the media often treat people as passive consumers of information. What we want to do is cultivate an active citizen. And that’s were service learning can fit in, students can be involved with the community, participate, if it's done well hopefully they can earn a sense of empowerment and as change agents in society. So I guess that’s a secondary goal of using service learning, at least the way I do in my classes.

H: OK, and how do you see it as differing just from volunteers and their community service, or something that students can get as extracurricular?

P: Yeah, I mean that’s a good question. I guess it all depends on the program. If you were in a academic setting in many ways the students here are looking for guidance. They’re learning new things and if you can normalize this within institutions it may be more powerful in terms of inspiring or having the students remember this once they go on to a different position, after they graduate, into graduate school, they go on into the job sector or wherever they go. So volunteering, they may or may not get credit for volunteering, that depends on the student volunteering or not, so I think there’s some overlap there without a doubt.

H: And are most of the students that you are doing this, are most of them communications majors?

P: Well the students in the class, yeah, they’re all communications majors

H: So you make a very good argument for using this, and I’ve used service learning too and just think it’s a great experiential learning, active learning. It brings a lot for students, it does so many things. Did you do it before Katrina?

P: Yes, I think for a year or two before Katrina I been involved in number of different service learning projects. Some of them smaller — well most of them smaller than this campaign, I mean right after Katrina in some ways we were the first responders of helping bringing in volunteers. But before, yeah, we worked in different neighborhoods right next to where the university located is a neighborhood of low socioeconomic status and we worked with after school programs. I think it was five years ago, my memory isn’t 100 percent correct, community center, I think there was some kind of retirement center that needed help in donations, so we built websites for them. And it’s interesting just to observe the students here three blocks away from the university, they never crossed a certain street and they didn’t know how groups or different groups lived or what the problems were or the issues that faced them. So it’s interesting, you observe like small things from students and think, wow, I didn’t know that these were problems here or I’ve never seen this before. And our society and especially our media dividing people on our race, class, gender, etcetera for consuming different products. I mean the advertisers fund television, and the television shows are vehicles geared towards specific segments of society so people can advertise products. And we need to resist that to a certain extent, and one way is by going to different communities, talking to different people, finding what their issues are and that’s what cultivates empathy, understanding, and in some cases empowerment as change agents.

H: That leads me to what I want to ask which is what are some of the reactions of your students? What have some of the reactions been in addition to, I didn’t know this neighborhood existed right next to campus? What are some other reactions both positive and negative that you’ve gotten from students about these assignments?

P: Right, two comments came to mind. One was, wow, I did not know people live like this. The other one was when we finished our campaign right after Katrina, and we brought in a couple thousand people, and the students actually saw because, you know, a thousand people would mean maybe a 100 thousand dollars worth of free labor to a neighborhood in need, right? So if your bringing people there’s a certain economic component of that. One student said, wow, you know, everyone says students are the future but now I feel as if I’m actually directing it or I’m actually doing something. And that’s hard to cultivate. I mean, I think universities and teachers and professors have been trying to do that for centuries, and for some reason in this project it worked. I’m not taking credit for it, I will say the neighborhood in the Lower Ninth Ward and the community center and everybody worked together on it.

H: Well, my background is in Psychology, and so I also have to wonder if it was something about the immediacy of the disaster and really contributing post-disaster into the recovery that could have made it so powerful as well.

P: Certainly, yeah, I think so. And we’ll find out now if the immediacy right after the disaster and if psychology does play a part, you know, you can look at projects several years afterwards. Well, can we sustain this feeling of empowerment as a change agent or not, and I think this semester we’re again working with Common Ground on 2 projects. We’ll see if it works, I’ll find out. We’re trying to save the 2nd oldest African-American church in New Orleans and the 8th oldest in the United States, it’s the Wesley United Methodist church. And this is interesting, because it’s historically relevant. This was an antislavery, abolitionist organization. It was a meeting place for strategists fighting Jim Crow segregation and discrimination, participated in the struggle for civil rights. The bricks were built by slaves, and you know this is a very important part of history and if it’s gone then the memory is gone, the memory leaves so it’s the politics of memory. It’s the same reason why Congo Square in New Orleans, people still call it Congo Square even though the official name is Louis Armstrong Park, right? Because Congo Square is where it keeps the legacy, I’m not going to say legacy but just the memory alive of what is was used for.

H: You said you're working on it this semester. Have you found differences in student reactions to this, this semester versus the semester right after Katrina versus pre-Katrina? Like student experiences.

P: You know each semester is different, as we all know — different students, different classes, different years — but honestly I haven’t found that much of a difference. They seem fairly consistent, but what I found is it’s more effective to use service learning when you go to the site and you meet the people first. You want to go right there, see the destruction, go to the church and get the history, look at it, find out the 400 people that used to be there every week, know the history, find out what the implications are before it’s gone, and hopefully that can inspire people.

H: What about for you personally? Have your reactions changed over time of doing it and then given Katrina’s role in it?

P: I guess they're essentially the same, but maybe even stronger now. For me, the reaction is, hey this is exciting, this is invigorating, we're in the field, we're connecting the university with real problems, real issues, we’re extending the knowledge and partnership with community. To me that’s wonderful, that’s exciting and, well, it goes back to my background as well. I used to work a little bit in international quote unquote development in West Africa for a year. So there I learned a lot and how a lot of development projects can fail for a number of reasons. And also maybe the West needs development from Africa of different sorts, you know there’s a lot of interesting things that one can learn. But what I took from that was that you know we can be active agents and work from a level and make small changes, you know, small things but small things add up over the years.

H: And I know that when people talk about service learning, there’s the students, there’s the faculty member, and then there’s also the community partner which is a full partner in this learning experience. So I’ll ask the same question about Common Ground, have you noticed a change in that organization from when you first, you know, ran into to them and got started to now, their needs changed or anything like that?

P: Yes, definitely without a doubt. I mean at first they were a disaster relief organization, and they fought a lot of battles. It’s very interesting, and they are wonderful people, their hearts are in the right place, it’s just been an honor, and I learned a lot from working with them. But it’s changed, now they’re trying to get more sustainable projects, right, the immediate need, right, after this government disaster is sustaining things, health care clinics, community centers, churches, you know, in this particular case with its historic nature. We’re also again not only working with the church we’re also working with the Lower Ninth Ward Village Community Center. You know, this disaster I think changed a lot of people, and one of the guys down there started up a Lower Ninth Ward Village Community Center. And there they plan on turning it into a residential meeting space, a computer classroom, a commercial kitchen for training in the culinary arts, an on-site café, library, gym, after-school tutoring, recording studio, art studio, and they’re making progress on it. We were just there last week, but again that’s what we’re doing again, a similar type of campaign to raise awareness and hopefully raise some money so people can donate to this place in the Lower Ninth Ward.

H: OK, to the community center and to the church, is it similar?

P: Correct, yup

H: And what’s Common Ground’s role in that?

P Well Common Ground I think they’re in charge of the church right now, that’s my understanding. So they’re fixing up, they’re trying to replace it, fix it I guess is the main thing, it’s about to collapse. And they worked out a deal where I think they’re leasing it and they’re trying to fix it for the community. So the community that we want this church it’s got historical roots, we want this back, no one else is working Common Ground is there to try to help that. And I think with Lower Ninth Village Community Center that’s a partnership or something. I’m not exactly sure of the details, but Common Ground wanted us to work with the Lower Ninth Ward community center. So I think they’re looking at community needs first and foremost and hooking us up in that case.

H: Wow, in your classes just to shift it and be little pragmatic for a minute, in your classes do you require all your students to do, since I guess this is an end project this campaign, do you require all the students to engage in service learning?

P: Yes.

H: OK, so it's just part of the class?

P: Yup.

H: Do they know that in advance?

P: Maybe not, I think by now word travels like, OK, if you’re going to take this class you’re going to be doing some of the stuff.

H: Yeah, your reputation is out there?

P: Yeah, for better or for worse, yup.

H: Do you get any negative reaction from students, and if so, what are some of the negatives?

P: Well, anything dealing with humans is not always predictable, but sometimes it’s the project. And I’ll give one case in particular. We were working again with Common Ground on the West Bank, I think it was the Woodland housing community which they had taken over, and they were running it. So they were converting things, feeding children in the morning, getting computer labs, you know, stuff like that, helping folks clean it up and so forth. But they’re also doing an Alternative Crime Prevention campaign through positive things cause again there’s some crime, times is dangerous and so they want to work for a positive angle. So we help them organize community unity days, and that was an event kind in the middle of this housing area where there would be music, there would be family things for kids, there would be free food to bring people together and so forth. And a couple time we were there and it wasn’t that effective, we were looking up a lot of people on the balconies looking down like, you know, not participating. Although it may have gotten better, I went over there a few times this semester and so forth. But then eventually the city, they didn’t want this massive housing thing around, so that put even more people homeless. But, yeah, sometimes it’s like, well, OK, maybe this wasn’t as effective as we wanted it to be, although maybe something that long-term could make a difference. And so some of the students were like, you know what, I don’t think we’re going to do anything here. You know we’re not going to really make a difference and this is wishful thinking, and you know, maybe they’re right, maybe they’re right. At the same time though, other students you can see it's an eye-opening experience, it’s a whole different culture than what the students are from, or what they’re used to, most of the students. And in some ways, service learning can create a memory and at least normalize something, right, because not everybody does service learning. And it can normalize this notion that people can be change agents.

H: Yeah. I think one of the beauties of service learning to me is also its downfall. It gets students outside the classroom, so that control shift to them into the community and makes it real life, but that’s also scary, too, when the control shifts away, and you know and so it’s real life. So, yeah, the community site doesn’t work out that can be problematic.

P: Yeah, and we work with other groups too besides Common Ground. Sometimes they show up, and they’re not there, right, or they’re supposed to come and help out, and New Orleans has a whole different time, way of existing, and so forth, so you know if you're doing service learning, you have to be flexible, and you have to have a back-up plan. It depends on where you are, but yeah, that’s something people need to be aware of.

H: Here’s another kind of frank question, how much time do you think that this takes for you, you know, in terms of prepping for this, facilitating this, making sure students get a good experience, doing service learning with integrity? How much time does it take?

P: Well that’s the thing I mean, I think universities should invest more, it take a lot of time, it takes a lot of time, it takes a lot of planning, a lot of phone calls, it’s a lot of extra work. I think it pays off because it’s a different kind of education, and it’s an important kind of education, it’s something that’s often been overlooked, but unfortunately it’s not taken as seriously in institutions as perhaps it should be. But yes, in short, the question is yeah, it takes time, a lot of extra time.

H: You kind of answered the second part which is obviously you think it’s worth it though?

P: Oh yeah, yeah, I mean even if it’s just for a couple of people, I think it’s more than just a couple of people, it’s the ones that, you know, say something that we always remember, but yeah.

H: Well, do you have any other pitfalls or problems that you would like to point out or lessons from your experience?

P: Just that it’s constantly changing, always have a plan B, it’s a lot more work for teachers, but after a while you can focus your assignments and how you do things so it may not, you can streamline certain things and, you know, in our case when we first did the campaign we were the contacts. So we were sending out hundreds of news releases and articles around the country saying, hey, we need help in New Orleans and here’s why and blah blah blah, who can we talk to. Well, then suddenly they would be calling back the students, and they would be calling me, we would have to organize groups of buses and coming down and meeting with them. It’s insane, it’s a full-time job, so then you learn by experience, so next time OK — make sure the organizations that you’re working with there is a contact person, they’re reliable, they’re going to answer the phone, and that they can handle bus loads of people coming in, housing them, feeding them, if they need medication you know. It’s just a massive undertaking and the legalities of the situation, right, and make sure that the service learning, there is something like that on campus, or that there’s a clear legal policy, who’s responsible if a student gets injured during your class at a site. Is your professor responsible for that, is the university, right? So that’s something that I think interested people and institutions need to work out with administration.

H: And what is the situation in your case?

P: We do not know, and we’ve been trying to push forward with a clear written statement, and as it stands nobody knows which is I guess scary.

H: OK, something to pursue for sure. I guess as a last question here you mentioned getting over a thousand volunteers as the measure of success of your previous project. What’s going to be the measure of success for what you’re doing this semester? What do you hope, you know, what do you hope to do?

P: Two things, three things, obviously for the students is instilling a spirit of optimism, empathy and civic engagement, and you know, indicating that, guess what, you guys can be change agents, you can be leaders, and your actions can actually affect the world in a positive way. You know, that’s the service learning component, then there’s the course objective, understanding theory and background and history and then practical immediate skills that can be used for good, good causes. But last is improving the community and in our case directing money to websites, we’re also making websites, I think Lower Ninth Ward community center already has a website but the Wesley United Methodist church doesn’t. So we’ll make a website where people can donate money, and in this case how effective we may not know because immediate cycles you send out in terms of articles, news releases, and so forth, maybe they’ll be published, maybe they won't. Maybe if they send out 200, five will be published, maybe eight people will donate 10 dollars, OK. If that’s the case, hey, that’s not bad, or you may get a couple thousand and it’ll hit big, you never know, so in this case how successful our campaign will be we'll have to measure monetarily.

H: And do you have a way to get that information back to the students so they can know what they did?

P: Well, sometimes they’re graduating or they’re gone, they graduate, but yeah, I mean sometimes we’re so busy, and then the next campaign comes up next semester, but usually we’re in touch, and I try to get back and tell the students, yeah.

H: Very nice, very nice.

P: But you know, I do think if people are interested in doing service learning they should go grassroots, right, go bottom up, go where the pain is, follow where the money is not located instead of following the money — follow where the money is not located, right. Especially in New Orleans people are in need of a lot of help, and let the community direct service learning to a certain extent, right? They may want to work with smaller organizations, and New Orleans right now, it’s really a neoconservative economic experiment, right, they privatize most of public education, public housing, public health care. And if anyone hasn’t read Shock Doctrine by Naomi Klein, please read it. It’s a excellent book, and it kind of lays a blueprint of what happens during these disasters and once they switch off the economic system. So we’re seeing an increase in homelessness etcetera and a lot of people around the country are viewing New Orleans as a battle for what can happen in their city in the future. This sort of system can and may eventually spread throughout the United States, so there’s still help, there’s still a need here if people want to do a service learning project that help New Orleans.

H: Very good, Very good. Well I would want to say thank you to you for all that you’ve done. I mean, I think of all the benefits of the students, you know, that the students really have gained in the community, and you’ve led that charge, so thank you for doing that, and Dave I enjoyed talking to you today.

P: Well thank you, it was a wonderful experience, for having me on the show. Thank you very much.

H: Very good, thanks for your time, and I’ll talk to you soon.

P: OK bye-bye

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