Service-learning’s role in promoting active citizenship and unifying a community

Service-learning’s role in promoting active citizenship and unifying a community

By Billy O’Steen, Associate Professor of service-learning at the University of Canterbury in Christchurch, New Zealand

“It was the first time I was happy to see a group of university students coming down my street,” said a long-time Christchurch, New Zealand resident in response to the army of  10,000 University of Canterbury students who volunteered after the the city’s devastating  2011 earthquakes.

By clearing debris, delivering food and water and a myriad of other tasks large and small, the students flipped the script on what had been an entrenched and negative town/gown relationship. This work drew students to areas far away from usual campus hotspots, enabling the forging of new and unexpected relationships across socio-economic backgrounds.

While these post-earthquake experiences had a profound effect on many of the students involved, they likley were not unique, according to Rebecca Solnit’s A Paradise Built in Hell, which provides case studies of five disasters. Following each one, she points out “that disasters provide an extraordinary window into social desire and possibility, and what is seen there matters elsewhere, in ordinary times, and in other extraordinary times. The desires and possibilities awakened are so powerful they shine even from wreckage, carnage and ashes.”[1]

However, extending this limited post-disater utopia is a more difficult task. American philosopher William James, addressed this in his speech and essay, The Moral Equivalent of War[2], which President Jimmy Carter referenced to rally national unity in the face of the 1970s oil crisis. Like a disater, the crucible of war can forge a sense of national unity, but today’s leaders still struggle to addres the challenge that James addressed of positively engaging. Service-learning, which is the combination of academic content, critical reflection, and service may be one way of extending Solnit’s window of social desire and possibility.

Capitalizing on the SVA’s work in the earthquake’s aftermath, I developed a service-learning course, CHCH101: Rebuilding Christchurch, at the University of Canterbury. This new academic offering drew upon the work of John Dewey, best known for his progressive approach to education with a particular emphasis on the role of experience and transference. In Dewey’s view, education is not a preparation for life but is life itself and should include experiences that occur outside of the classroom. The classroom is then used for reflecting on experience and transferring those reflections into the next experience. By validating each student’s experience as a legitimate learning activity, Dewey lays the foundation for a democratic model of education.

Thousands of miles away and hundreds of years before Dewey’s work, the indigenous people of New Zealand, the Māori, shared his belief of the validity of personal experience in education. The Māori word for both teaching and learning is “ako” with the belief that we are all, at once, teachers and learners and that those roles are flexible and interchangeable. Thus, instead of a one-way transmission of information through “a sage on the stage”, ako establishes a more democratic approach whereby individual experience is recognized, validated, and shared.

This democratic approach to learning and engaging all participants (community members, students and teachers) has been implemented in numerous ways such as the active citizenship initiatives of the Highlander Center in East Tennessee, Paolo Freire’s work with indigenous people in Brazil, Auburn’s place-based Rural Studio architecture program, and social justice actions by the Boggs Center to Nurture Community Leadership in Detroit. By combining academic content with service and critical reflection, service-learning is a democratic approach to engage students intellectually, personally, and civically. Research on this method of experiential education has been shown to achieve those outcomes and its value has been recognized through the creation of service-learning centers at most U.S. universities.

The University of Canterbury’s on-campus opportunity enables students to use their volunteering experiences as a highly personalized text through which they connect with relevant academic content and reflect on their actions, beliefs and values with other students. These service-learning opportunities reinforce New Zealand’s culture of service, which relies on volunteers for school boards of trustees, surf lifesaving patrols, and ambulance crews. As  Oscar-winning producer Sir Peter Jackson has noted, New Zealand is more like a large village rather than a small country. This draws on Māori culture where service to one’s community is expected and not seen as a separate or discrete activity.

Even though New Zealand has this well-established expectation that community members will contribute to society’s day-to-day functioning, there is evidence to suggest that there is a risk of insularity and not having opportunities to interact with people in different areas or different socio-economic backgrounds. Thus, service-learning, like that undertaken at the University of Canterbury, has the potential to strengthen the bonds of unity.

This learning and teaching process is well suited to a modern democratic society, while being inspired by the ako tradition. Service-learning’s qualities of marrying students’ social engagement with reflection and more traditional academic content enable it to positively impact both the student and the community member and serve as a meeting point or a commons that otherwise would not have existed. At a time of growing disjuncture in the United States, New Zealand and other democracies, service-learning can strengthen both a univeristy’s and its students’ ties to the community, while tackling some of society’s toughest challenges.

It may have taken an earthquake to open the window of interaction across Christchurch’s town/gown divide, but the students working in the knee-deep in the muck left behind by the earthquake demonstrated the importance of enshrining similar opportunities to learn through service in the university’s academic curriculum. They all provided a nation disrupted by the earthquakes with an example of how to come together through seeing utopian possibilities of neighbors helping neighbors.

[1] Rebecca Solnit, “How to Survive a Disaster,”

[2] William James, “The Moral Equivalent of War,” Peace and Conflict: Journal of Peace Psychology, 1(1), 17-26.

Billy O’Steen is an Associate Professor of service-learning at the University of Canterbury in Christchurch, New Zealand, where he created an educational response model to the natural disasters of the Christchurch earthquakes in 2011, Hurricane Irene in 2011, and Cyclone Pam in Vanuatu in 2015. He received his BA from Vanderbilt in English and History before receiving his M.ED. and Ph. D from the University of Virginia.