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Virtual Service Learning: Active Citizenship in a Virtual World

[I]n order to create a world that works for more people, for more life, we have to collaborate on the process of dreaming and visioning and implementing that world.
Adrienne Marie Brown, Emergent Strategy

At Break Away, we believe there’s no limit to the change you can make in your community. While we are in the midst of a global pandemic, service for the greater good is still very possible - but we must be creative, innovative, and imaginative in how we go about it.

Many schools, community organizations, and volunteers are having to reimagine alternative break trips and service learning opportunities. This is not an entirely bad thing. For years, there have been critiques about toxic charity and “voluntourism” that harms already vulnerable communities rather than serving them well.

COVID-19 has exposed and exacerbated previously existing inequities. There is no better time to encourage people to care for their neighbors and communities. Our hope is that you all will take this time to start thinking proactively about how virtual and hyper-local service are of great benefit.

 The Shift Towards Virtual + Hyper-Local Service

While some alternative break programs use destination-based trips as a part of their recruitment strategy, it is possible that traveling for service trips will not resume in the coming academic year. The pandemic presents an opportunity for programs to pursue more intentionally local, place-based service.

Whether due to lack of transportation, being immuno-compromised, having a disability, or other reasons, some people prefer to volunteer via phone or computer. This means that many folks who once found it difficult to get involved are seeing service opportunities increase in their favor. Phone banking, fundraising campaigns, transcription/writing, and graphic design can all be done remotely. In today’s digital age, many organizations might also need help with email and website updates.

Engagement Doesn't Have to Drop

Students place importance on community building (even while practicing social distancing). They wish to be a part of safe spaces to share dialogue around issues they are engaging in. They are looking for ways to still be engaged and further educate themselves. Service opportunities that honor this interest in community engagement and have true communal impact will be a “win” for all involved.

Now is also a great time to engage in advocacy as service. Particularly in an election year, students could spend time educating themselves on an issue like voter suppression and championing voter access.

For those planning experiences and leading teams, we suggest doing research to find out what local community organizations are around you. What they are doing and what they need? Ask them. Sometimes, what is best for vulnerable communities is you not being present but financially supporting or raising awareness via your networks. It is important to listen and honor these wishes.

Current Virtual Service Opportunities

Many of you may be looking for opportunities to keep yourself and your students engaged in meaningful ways during the crisis. Now, more than ever, is the time to do what is right and pursue a just and equitable society. The world we wish to see will happen through collective work and hyper-local engagement. Here at Break Away, we’ve been talking with our community partners from across the country and looking for opportunities to keep being Active Citizens while staying home. We’ve compiled a list of a few opportunities that you may like. We’ll keep adding to it, and we welcome your suggestions!

Dismantling White Supremacy is White People’s Work

White silence = violence

Though the burden of the tragedies brought to light in the last few weeks falls harder on the Black community, the responsibility for addressing and destroying white supremacy rests with white and non-Black folks. 

Some non-Black folks are finally opening their eyes to the 401 years of systemic oppression of Black folks in the United States and are working with the Black community to engage in an uprising. All across the country, people are protesting the injustice that Black folks face in this country.

At Break Away HQ, we do social justice work. That means we have a responsibility to work toward more inclusive communities, workplaces, and social spheres - free of police brutality, the racist actions of individuals, and tyrannical authority figures. This is especially true in our society which is built on the continued oppression of People of Color. 

Breonna Taylor would have turned 27 tomorrow (Friday, June 5, 2020), had she not been murdered in her own bed by Louisville Police officers. From Ahmaud Arbrey out for a run in south GA to the police murder of George Floyd in the streets of Minneapolis - our hearts break for the families, friends, and community at this senseless theft of life.

While the videos depicting these events are shocking, as a country founded by way of genocide and slavery of both Indigenous/Native and Black people, the racist and violent actions perpetrated by police and white men in the videos are not new. The United States was created to benefit some and subordinate others. The violence portrayed in the videos is a very real symptom of white supremacy. We have to name the culprit before we can combat it.

Smashing white supremacy is white people's work

Now that the disease has been named, know that the emotional and physical labor of unlearning and dismantling white supremacy belongs to white people. Break Away vows, alongside with you, to continue using our platform to engage in dialogue, discussion, and education as we work towards a more equitable and honoring future. 

 

In that vein, we have collected some resources for anti-racist work:

Unlearning resources
Protest
Virtual activism
Donate
Support Black businesses, always
Diversify the voices you’re hearing from

*Black, Indeginous, People of Color

first image via Charis Books and More
second image via Etsy

A Statement on COVID-19

Break Away staff has spent recent weeks reflecting on and researching the implications of coronavirus (COVID-19) on students, staff/faculty, alternative break programming, and higher education at large. 

We know how hard students, staff/faculty, and community partners have worked to plan, train, recruit, fundraise, and generally prepare for our work in community. We have been watching alongside you as campuses have shut down travel, alternative break trips, and even classes. 

We understand your fears and frustrations surrounding this pandemic. We continue to be in solidarity with student leaders who are taking on the brunt of the work tempering worry and mourning the loss of programing, both for community partners and student learning. We feel your disheartenment. This pandemic has ripples that will be felt for a long time. 

Although the majority of programs send trips in March, active citizenship isn’t relegated to one week in spring. These closures and cancellations call for creative responses (we’ve seen the memes, Gen Zers, and know you’re up for it). Engage active citizenship from wherever you are, whenever you can. Making others a priority in your decisions and life choices doesn’t just have to happen in person. 

Active Citizenship in the Face of COVID-19

As a communicable disease, COVID-19 presents a unique opportunity to unpack the way in which these types of diseases disproportionately affect communities already at the intersection of multiple systems of oppression. 

The call for people to work from home, self-quarantine, or go to the doctor assumes equitable access to these options. In reality, there are significant portions of our communities for whom that is not an option due to job limitations, lack of paid sick leave, or access to health care benefits. 

In the current conversations around coronavirus, there is a lot of mention of “high risk”, “vulnerable”, or “at risk” individuals without a real acknowledgement of who these folks are, nor our collective responsibility to keep each other safe. The norms and structures of our world are not built for disabled people and they face disproportionate barriers and consequences during times of crisis.

We also want to clearly name the rampant racist and xenophobic narratives surrounding COVID-19. We all need to engage (and encourage others to engage) in self-reflection around our language and beliefs about this pandemic. We all play a part in combatting the ideologies that inform these bigoted and racist actions.

We believe in you. We continue to be your biggest fans. And, for what is probably the hundredth time you’ve been told today, please wash your hands.

Your partners in the Movement,
The Break Away Team

Advancing the Movement

National Conference Calls have historically been one of our platforms for student + staff leaders to share ideas and best practices within the Movement. This month, instead of putting out a conference call, we’re trying something new - still sharing innovative ideas from programs doing great work, but in a format that centers and honors your brilliance in a more sustainable way. 

We know there is only so much time that you can dedicate to professional development in staff meetings, advising meetings, or at your desk over lunch. So, we have created this new method of delivery for you. The same type of content that we would deliver to you in a conference call, but in a condensed format that you can come back to time and time again. We're excited to hear how it's working for you!

Recruitment

Nationally, we've heard from programs struggling with recruitment. In the 2018-2019 National Alternative Break Survey, we heard from a few schools that they have experienced an uptick in recruitment as of late. We were intrigued, so we reached out to Zach Carr, the Associate Director at the Center for Service Learning and Volunteerism at the University of Memphis to share the creative ways that he and his team recruit new participants. 

Part 1

Part 2

Key takeaways from the University of Memphis’ recruitment strategies

  • New Student Orientation breakout session. Have your program conduct a breakout session to introduce students and parents to alternative breaks
  • Welcome Weekend outreach. Organize a Day of Service during your institution’s Welcome Weekend
    • This is an opportunity for students who may not know about alternative breaks to engage in service run by your program’s trip leaders
  • Seek out service related courses or courses with service-learning components. Have program students/staff request to speak about the program
    • This audience is already service-minded 
    • Consider any social justice courses in addition to service-related courses
  • Seek out scholarship programs on campus. Many scholarship programs have a service requirement
  • Gather phone numbers / emails of students who are were interested and engaged during any of the above outreach. Trip leaders should reach out to the interested students to begin building a relationship with them
  • Invite the interested students to an informational session. The University of Memphis has informational sessions run 3 times per week from the end of September to mid-October

University of Memphis Recruitment, a Timeline

Alternative Break Recruitment Timeline

A note on cross-campus partnerships

68% of schools reported engaging in cross-campus partnerships in last year’s National Alternative Break Survey with organizations such as the diversity + inclusion office, campus recreation, and Greek Life. 

For example, if your program is planning a trip that focuses on LGBTQ+ rights, are you working with the LGBTQ+ Resource Center, Gender + Sexuality Studies Department, Office of Equity + Inclusion, or the Chief Diversity Officer? 

Working Side by Side quote on recruitment

Discussion Questions

  1. What departments or programs are you already partnering with for recruitment to your AB program? Who might you add to this list?
  2. Where do your student leaders (exec board, site leaders, etc.) hold influence on your campus? How can you help them connect their AB involvement with other roles they hold on campus (resident assistant, Greek Life membership, teaching assistant, lab assistant, intramural participant, etc.)?
  3. What other programs or departments are increasing in enrollment?  
  4. Does your school have an experiential learning/co-curricular transcript? How would you add or edit your program to meet the requirements for inclusion? What about course credit? 
  5. Have you recently raised your participation fees? Who is excluded (or included) by your fee structure? 
  6. Do your potential participants know how to connect the skills gained in preparation for and during AB trips to the job/internship market? 

Download these questions as a PDF

Get trip leaders into service learning or social justice courses to talk about alt breaks