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Last year I had the pleasure of interviewing for this blog professor, author, and social critic Corey Dolgon. I had heard Professor Dolgon speak at an IARSLCE conference, the International Association for Research on Service-Learning, and I was intrigued by his critique of certain universities' historic and ongoing actions that have disenfranchised or otherwise harmed the very communities the schools purport to serve. The talk was both wide in scope and specific in researched detail, the ability to achieve which is a defining characteristic of public intellectuals I admire, such as Henry Giroux, Robert Reich, as well as Professor Dolgon. The work of these scholars manages to clarify in plain language vast and intricate socio-political-and-economic movements in order to distill their tangible effects on our day-to-day lives.

Now Professor Dolgon has a new book out called Kill It to Save It: An Autopsy of Capitalism's Triumph over Democracy that traces the corrosive effects of recent (read post-Vietnam) political discourse and the public policy that flows from it regarding the civic institutions that uphold democracy, and thus on the common well-being of the citizenry. Such concerns, such considerations, may or may not play a part of any given service-learning course, depending on the discipline and academic level of the course. A capstone course in environmental sociology may well include as primary this type of far-reaching discussion, while a 1000-level English course designed to improve writing ability while engaging with community elementary schools may include such theoretical material in a limited, introductory amount, if at all. Yet whatever the service-learning course, the social disparities, deficiencies, and injustices addressed by community action are likely created or exacerbated by these larger forces operating just beyond our view. While teachers often internalize these realities, while they may inform our work in very close, almost second-nature ways, students may be only first learning about such broad historical contexts. Part of what we teach then in service-learning is not only course content or even the value and necessity of civic engagement, but also a larger awareness of, and a questioning of, the very real series of human choices that led to the situations the class addresses.

Kill It to Save It takes apart several myths of modern American life that have allowed public policy to work against the public good. The first to go is the idea of the rugged individual, free to succeed on his own terms without need of governmental assistance. As policies purport individual freedom and economic opportunity, the vast amount of economic gains go to a smaller and smaller few. At the same time, the sacrifices required to make this upward wealth transfer possible are to public education, public health care, and public resources. The public is sold a bill of goods about the boundlessness of upward mobility in this country, while the shrinking of public resources needed to support such mobility make it less and less likely. All investments in the public good are cast as socialistic handouts to the lazy, while the holders of wealth need only to keep the policy-setting system rigged in their favor to keep the subsidies, negative actual tax rates, and other forms of corporate welfare flowing their way.

We needn't look further than our own communities to see the damaging effects of years and years of such neoliberal policies. The homeless people on our streets are permanent communities within communities, structurally forever shut out of integration. Our poorest neighbors are crammed into the least funded schools, almost ensuring by design their failure. Entire neighborhoods bear the marks of years of redlining, employment discrimination, and racist law enforcement policy, from the war on drugs to stop-and-frisk. Professor Dolgon traces these situations back to the public discourse and propagandized ideologies that shaped the policies that created them.

No matter what aspect of social injustice our service-learning course seeks to address, it's worth remembering that no form of injustice is naturally occurring. Our society was made by us, and can be changed by us as well.

This semester Dr. Treva Lee, Xavier's Director for Institutional Compliance and Planning Initiatives, led a class of first-year students in a service-learning project to mentor local youths in the concept of Pi.

On Saturday, March 11, thirty Xavier students joined twenty other community volunteers and twenty local professionals serving as mentors to teach and mentor around 150 area school kids, as part of  STEM NOLA's STEM Saturday event celebrating Pi Day, at Gernon Brown Recreation Center. Two other Xavier faculty, Carroll Diaz (Math) and Floristina Payton-Stewart (Chem), participated as instructors as well, along with some of their students.

The kids were divided into two groups. The first group, kindergarteners through second-graders, learned the concept of Pi through math problems using skittles, construction paper cut-outs, checkers pieces, and building blocks. Skittles were used to graph Pi. Checkers were used for math demonstration of Pi. Construction paper cut-outs were used to make a chain to infinity, meaning each group of kids as they came to the station added their cut outs to the chain to illustrate how Pi never ends. The same concept was used with the building blocks.

The second group, third through eighth graders, led kids through three activities designed to demonstrate the concept of Pi. The first was measurement demonstrations, comparing the ratio of various-sized circles' circumferences to their diameter. The result of these measurements is always the same: it's always Pi. Next was a mathematical cryptography (word decoding) and mirroring (more word decoding) competition. Last was a kite building demonstration, designed to teach the concept of tetrahedral molecular geometry.
Despite some grumbling about having to meet at Xavier at 7:30 a.m., the students had a great time.
One interesting component of the project was the idea of "tiered mentorship." The area professionals served as mentors to the Xavier students, while the Xavier students served as mentors to the youths. As another component of the project, students also completed four hours of volunteering in the STEM NOLA office to learn about the administrative side of the non-profit. Some students were so successful in this capacity that they have been asked to return and may land spots on the payroll.
STEM NOLA is an organization founded by New Orleans native, and former Tulane University engineering professor, Dr. Calvin Mackie. Its purpose is to expose community members to opportunities in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM), and to inspire them to engage in these opportunities. STEM NOLA designs and delivers activities, programs, and events that bring inspiration, motivation, and training to all STEM stakeholders across the city, specifically focusing on underserved communities. Participants gain skills in communication, collaboration, and critical thinking. STEM NOLA realizes that any effective community-based STEM program must be broad enough to include everyone, yet focused enough to reach people where they are, on their level, and to take them to where they need to be in order to compete and succeed in life.

Treva A. Lee holds a Ph. D. in Counselor Education from the University of New Orleans. She received her B.S. in Psychology and M.A. in Counseling from Xavier University of Louisiana. In her twenty-five-plus years at Xavier, she has served in numerous capacities, including as a teacher in the Freshman Seminar program, in which this service-learning project took place.

-Jeremy Tuman

Download Conversation #56


Ross LouisA conversation with Ross Louis of Xavier's Communication Studies department on service learning.

Ross Louis joined the Communication Studies program at Xavier in 2003 and teaches courses from a performance studies perspective. He is the co-founder of the Performance Studies Laboratory at Xavier University of Louisiana. Recent projects include This Other World (a site-specific performance of Richard Wright’s haiku) and “Performing Presence in the Haiku Moment” (forthcoming in Text and Performance Quarterly).

...continue reading "Conversation #56: Ross Louis on the Monument Crisis"

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Last fall, Xavier faculty member Dr. Mark Gstohl, of the Department of Theology, led an interesting service-learning project in partnership with A Studio in the Woods, a nonprofit artist retreat and learning center located in New Orleans. Working with artist Jacqueline Ehle Inglefield as part of a residency series called "Flint and Steel: Cross-disciplinary Combustion," the two built a shrine to the bottomland hardwood forrest, the purpose of which was to "reignite a reverence for nature." To link thematically with Dr. Gstohl's Comparative Religion class, the shrine referenced religious scriptures and past spiritual practices. The shire was meant to "encourage contemplation of the global impact of habitual consumption and waste and how our spiritual relationship with the natural world may influence our individual acts and determine our collective impact on our environment."

For their part, Dr. Gstohl's students created handouts and posters detailing how various religions approach environmental issues, and presented their research at A Studio in the Woods' "Forestival" last November. The shrine also was displayed at Xavier's Art Village. Thus, this project engaged students with the community on several levels, artistic and environmental, fostered awareness of environmental issues in the community, and contributed to the creation of public art, which nourishes the spirit of the community. The project provided an invaluable cultural experience for the students, introducing them to intersections of art, public space, and environmental justice, while immersing them in theological history, demonstrating the ability of service-learning to achieve unique academic and civic outcomes.

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The "Flint and Steel" residencies, designed by Tulane, who manages A Studio in the Woods, seek to link artists with invested academic partners to "inspire each other in the development of new work, to excite the public, and to fuel social change. creative discourse." The residencies align with the larger purpose of A Studio in the Woods to pair "land preservation with intimate artist residencies centered on environmental challenges and connecting artists to the local community." Originally purchased in 1968, the site, in a remote wooded area in the very eastern corner of New Orleans' "west bank" of the Mississippi River, evolved organically from a site of wetlands preservation to a tranquil artist retreat, where "artists can reconnect with universal creative energy and work uninterrupted within this natural sanctuary."

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Dr. Gstohl serves as Head of Xavier's Department of Theology, and has served previously as Faculty-in-Residence for service-learning, and as Fellow in Xavier's Freshman Seminar program, where his passion for social justice and commitment to Xavier's mission have greatly benefitted the Xavier and New Orleans communities, as exhibited through service-learning projects such as this one.

-Jeremy Tuman

*Quoted text is from materials published by A Studio in the Woods and by Dr. Gstohl.

vote

Today is election day in the U.S. On college campuses across the country we see a direct connection between the purposes of universities and active and engaged citizenship, as many campuses serve as polling places, and many semester-long student, faculty, and university initiatives to increase knowledge of and participation in our democratic process today bear fruit. But even though a day like today clearly reminds of this connection, today also reminds us that this connection is not meant to be a one-time event, every four years. Our universities do have obligations to contribute to a healthy, functioning democracy, and to prepare students to become active citizens and knowledgeable leaders and participants in our democracy. While these obligations are met in many ways across the campus, nowhere is this role fulfilled more directly and effectively than in service learning.

Secretary of Education John B. King recently noted a need for a, "broader definition of civic duty.... I ask teachers and principals and superintendents to help your students learn to be problem solvers who can grapple with challenging issues, such as how to improve their schools, homelessness, air and water pollution, or the tensions between police and communities of color."

Thus, we see the need for one's education to contribute meaningfully to the betterment of our communities and our national society codified in our national discourse, from the top down, in ways perhaps unprecedented in our history of education. While these purposes may have been imbedded in our educational system at some point long ago, we see now a renewed focus and urgency, as the challenges presented by globalization, wealth and income inequality, systemic racism and oppression, mass incarceration, and climate change are recognized as the existential threats they are.

Yet at this time of renewed focus and conviction, we are faced with a decline in the civic knowledge of of our incoming freshmen. Heather Loewecke, a senior manager at Global Learning Beyond School, notes in a recent blog on the website Education Week, that Only 24 percent of high school seniors scored proficient or higher on the 2010 National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) civics exam. What's more, a college education isn't necessarily rectifying the deficiency. Loewecke also points out that "a 2016 Annenberg Public Policy poll reflected that American adults know very little about the US government, with the majority of respondents unable to answer basic questions. For example, only 26 percent of respondents could correctly identify all three branches of the government."

In a way these disparities between our goals for civic education and our results mirror, or perhaps are just another indicator of, the myriad social inequities we now face. Either way, the situation is cast into stark relief on a day like today, when what seems to be a high-functioning democracy is observed in the bustling and frenetic energy of a presidential election day on college campuses nationwide. And while the spectacle and pageantry of Election Day can fill even the most cynical among us with a certain sense of hope, we must hold fast and remember the difficult challenges that lay ahead once the confetti settles. Today is a time to participate, but also a time for we as educators to recommit ourselves to the civic education of our students, and to fully teaching the critical skills in thinking, communicating, reasoning, and problem solving such an education entails.

-Jeremy Tuman

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This fall Xavier's first-year students are reading Aimee Phan's We Should Never Meet, a collection of short stories tied together thematically and with some common characters. The stories deal with the experiences of Vietnamese people during what America calls the Vietnam War, in the 1960's and 70's, as well during the immediate aftermath, in the 1980's, when children orphaned by the war (and often fathered by American soldiers) attempted to forge lives in southern California.

The students read this book as part of the Freshman Seminar course, a required, one-credit-hour course, whose objectives include introducing first-year students to Xavier's mission of contributing to a more just and humane society. The course has much in common with other required, first-year seminars at other schools around the country, including many other liberal arts schools and HBCUs. But with Xavier being the nation's only historically black, Catholic school, Xavier's version may be more particularly tied to the school's historical mission.

The common reading is a major feature of the course, and the course also includes a service-learning component, in which students are asked to consider the meaning and relevance of the mission through engaging in community actions and addressing social needs, needs that fairness and justice might otherwise negate. Thus, students are asked to consider the meanings of justice, fairness, humanity, through multiple perspectives, including their own, those their various communities, and, perhaps most difficultly, those of the characters in the short stories.

While in the past the common readings have been works of nonfiction, some memoir and some third-person, last year was the first time a novel was offered as a common reading (Jesmyn Ward's Salvage the Bones) and this year marks the first time a collection of short stories has been used. Drawing thematic connections between the readings and community needs addressed by service-learning is always a challenge in the course, both for the students and the teachers. But drawing connections between our experiences in, and perceptions of, our communities and the experiences of fictional characters in short stories set in and around the Vietnam War proves exceptionally challenging.

The first, and maybe most basic, common theme to point to is the shared humanity of us all, which gets neglected, overlooked, devalued in both war-torn times and places, and in communities where systemic unfairness and injustice exists. The characters in the book are marginalized, segregated, cast away, thought of as "others" and as not our problem, much in the way Americans living in pockets of deep, multigenerational poverty are. Both groups are seen at times as hopeless and irredeemable, without inherent worthiness, and in some cases individual actions confirm and reinforce these perceptions. The book's presentation of a young, male character in Los Angeles, Vinh, as a mostly unrepentant violent criminal is especially complicating for readers as they attempt to situate him within a highly oppressive and marginalizing context.

But these same aspects of the text, which make it so challenging for readers, and for students and teachers in this course, also prove its biggest strengths. The characters are absolutely other-ized, seen as outsiders, rejected not just by American society but within traditional Vietnamese culture as well. Their individual actions do not and cannot change that. Their actions cannot be completely removed from the characters' segregated contexts, nor can the characters be excused from, or relieved of, all personal responsibility, life choices, accountability.

In other words, the characters cannot be put into an easy box, or used to simplistically support some ideological bent or political agenda. The issues are more complex. The problems are more complex. In this way these fictional characters are made real, as their complexity, and the complexity of their situations, mirrors that of the people in our communities and the problems they face.

There is unfairness, injustice, and inhumanity in our society. Those at the bottom of our socioeconomic systems face oppression that must be met and fought against by all those who wish to live in a more just and humane society. Recognizing the humanity of others is a beginning, whether in fictional characters of a foreign culture or in our own backyards.  A beginning, but certainly not an end.

-Jeremy Tuman

by Jeremy Tuman

the working poor

It's hard to think about social justice without thinking about social injustice: those aspects of our society that seem inherently unfair. Chief among these aspects in my mind is how a person can work a full-time job and remain living in a somewhat mysterious category called "below the poverty line." I say this category is mysterious not because the realities of life in this category are too far removed from most of our daily lives, and not because most of us don't see or know or interact with such people. Of course we do see them, and know them. They are among us everyday, and in fact they are us, in the sense that the working poor are a huge part of our New Orleans community. I say the "poverty line" is mysterious because it's derived by statistics, averages, and mean numbers, and these numbers are "mean" in both senses. The "line" implies that those living above it are okay somehow, that their struggles to make rent, pay bills, pay for health care, pay for child care, provide education, and cover transportation are somehow greatly eased by the simple fact that they live above the poverty line, just outside the mysterious, or maybe mysteriously derived, category.

But any working person who has used a monthly paycheck to calculate a monthly budget, and then imagined trying to calculate the same budget with a paycheck half as much, even one third as much, has a strong understanding that the amounts of money we're talking about are simply not enough. The expenses are too great, too numerous, and at times too unpredictable or unexpected. The poverty line for a family of four is $24,250. A number so low that the logistics and realities of supporting oneself while raising kids on it simply boggle the mind. That working people are forced to survive on less than this, in a society that prides itself on its wealth, is in itself an injustice. That working people earning twice that amount face almost the exact same difficulties, yet receive less attention and assistance because they live above the poverty line, is an even bigger injustice.

The ranks of the working poor are growing in this country, as inequality widens and the middle class is dissolved. More and more of our income is distributed upward, as the costs of health care, education, communication, and transportation rise. These areas are not luxury items or even optional purchases. They are areas of basic need for every American, yet they remain prohibitively expensive, even out of reach altogether for some, even as the economy improves and corporate profits rise. The only thing that remains cheap is food, well, certain foods at least, namely cheeseburgers and fries. But as our tax dollars are used to keep these foods cheap, thereby subsidizing the profits of the corporations that sell them, while at the same time our tax dollars pay for the health care and even the food of employees of these corporations, then cheap cheeseburgers start to seem like less of a bargain. Factor in health care costs associated with over reliance on these cheap foods (how could you not, at poverty line incomes?) then the value meal itself begins to look like an injustice.

It's not hard to find injustices in our society. A school like Xavier, that has the promotion of a more just society built into its very mission, has plenty of work to do and huge challenge to accept. As our first-year students prepare to engage in their required service learning in the spring semester, they have a tremendous opportunity in front of them to effect social change, and to gain a deeper and lasting understanding of both the meaning of social justice and their role in it. Of course this opportunity is facilitated by the faculty, who take on this additional challenge of teaching Freshman Seminar, and designing and leading service learning projects, when the majority of their colleagues choose not to teach the course. These are the teachers at the front line of the intersection of the school, its mission, and its first-year students, a crucial intersection where lifelong purpose can be forged. And I commend them, and encourage them to consider the injustice at the heart of their service learning project, no matter what project they choose.

by Bart Everson

I don't think I've mentioned it previously, but there's a new book out which has a couple Xavier connections.

The book is Please Forward: How Blogging Reconnected New Orleans After Katrina from UNO Press. It collects numerous writings that were shared online in the aftermath of the flooding of New Orleans, and the devastation of the Gulf Coast, from 2005 to 2007.

One contributor is a Xavier prof, the noted theologian and biblical scholar Michael Homan.

Please Forward

The other Xavier connection? Well, that would be yours truly.

We've got a copy of the book here at CAT+FD for your perusal, so stop in and take a look.

If you're interested in using the book in your teaching, read on...

We've been contacted by a handful of teachers and professors who have added Please Forward to their course syllabi. If you, or someone you know, might be interested in using the book in the classroom, teachers and professors can request a review copy by emailing unopress [at] uno [dot] edu and putting "Please Forward for Classrooms" in the subject line.

Footnoote: This is a topic of particular interest to me; see also my series on The Role of Blogs in the Rebuilding of New Orleans

by Jeremy Tuman

There is a disconnect between the narratives emerging from the recent marking of the tenth anniversary of Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans. In one narrative thread there is optimism and positivity about the economic direction of the city. In the Times-Picayune of Sunday, September 20, Michael Hecht, president of Greater New Orleans Inc., contributed an opinion piece that exemplifies this optimistic thread. He notes among positive growth markers that "our software sector is No. 2 for absolute job growth" in the U.S., and that the giant new medical complex in the center of our city is "predicted to create more than 30,000 new jobs, at an average salary of $92,000." Our homegrown industry in water management is also doing well by contracting in New York for post-Sandy work, along with presumably working on pressing local issues of water management.

Stefan Selig, U.S. under secretary of Commerce for international trade, joins Hecht in this narrative in another recent op-ed, in which he notes New Orleans' rapid growth, new industries, thousands of new jobs, and increasing property values. But the specific focus of his article is the booming export industry of the New Orleans-Metairie area. In an area of which many of us are likely unaware on a daily basis, we exported just under $35 billion in goods in 2014, including things such as petroleum and coal, chemicals, foods, and forestry and mining products. Our "export hub" ranks eighth in the country by this measure of dollar amount exported, ahead of San Francisco, Dallas, and Philadelphia. Foreign investors have taken note of our growth, Selig says, as noted by the Australian commercial explosives and fertilizer manufacturer Incitec Pivot, and their plans to build an $800 million plant in Waggaman. All of this industry and investment and growth supports many jobs, around 170,000 according to Selig.

But not everyone in New Orleans is benefitting.

The other strain of narratives emerging from K10 paints a much different picture, equally as eye-opening, but for all the wrong reasons. The number that looms for me over all of the positive growth numbers is 52. According to a 2013 study by Loyola University's Lindy Boggs Center for Community Literacy, 52% of African American men in New Orleans are unemployed. The study serves as a focal end-cap to a handful of other studies and reports over the last few years that indicate a singular basic truth: Black New Orleans is not better off ten years after Katrina than it was the day after or the day before, and by many measures it is much worse off. A group called the African American Leadership Conference produced a report in 2013 called the Katrina Pain Index, in which it disaggregated by race data produced by the New Orleans Index. Some of the findings of this reports were that African-American households earn on average 50% less than white households, and that 44% of African-American households earn less than $20,000, compared to 18% of white households. Meanwhile a report by the Urban League indicates that the percentage on Black children living in poverty has increased since Katrina, from 44% to a staggering 50.5% in 2013.

Something isn't adding up. If jobs are growing and industry is growing and New Orleans is doing better than ever, then why is half our population suffering so? I don't claim to know the answers to why or to how to fix it. In fact I claim not to know. A host of issues come into play when attempting to dissect and analyze this disconnect: education reform, criminal justice reform, deeply rooted racism at once cultural, historic, and systemic. But the bottom line is that if we are all not doing well, then we aren't doing well. If half of New Orleans is worse off, then New Orleans is worse off, period. The problems associated with this huge racial disparity in economic well-being cannot be ignored. They seep into our quality of life as a whole, whether its by the crime that continues to plague our city, violence that takes away too many of our young men, homelessness, mental health problems, and environmental degradation. This disparity and how to address it lies at the very core of Xavier's mission to promote a more just and humane society, and service learning is a way for our students and faculty to engage with other stakeholders, the community, to do just that. Service learning is unique as a pedagogy in its ability to produce outcomes of civic engagement and social responsibility. A spirit of volunteerism and of giving back is a valuable and necessary thing for students to have, but an experience in service learning goes well beyond that spirit, to instill the notion that social systems are created by us and can be changed by us, not just from the outside by alleviating the symptoms, but internally through our careers, our professions, our life's work. This is the world our students will inherit, and they have the power to change things for the better. It's our mission as service learning teachers to teach them why things must change, why its our responsibility to change things, and as best we can, how to effect change, even if we don't know all of the answers.

Jeremy Tuman

Faculty-in-Residence for Service Learning