Spoiler! New Workshop on Critical Service-Learning

Last month, at William & Mary’s Active Citizens Conference and the IMPACT Conference at UMass Amherst, we revealed our newest workshop: Rethinking Allyship through Critical Service-Learning.

The inspiration for this session came from countless conversations among staff: deconstructing conventional allyship, adopting a solidarity approach to service, and understanding the difference between charity and justice.

Our finding? Allyship is hard - we mess up far more often than we get it right.

Indigenous Action Media introduces the concept of the ally industrial complex - examining how well-meaning “allies” are often patronizing, exploitative, and motivated by guilt or shame in harmful ways. In activist circles, allyship has become largely self-serving and reinforces an “us” vs. “them” dynamic. To summarize: the article suggests a shift from ally to accomplice.

ALLY - a person who experiences privilege and rejects the dominant ideology while taking action against oppression; sees this work as mutually beneficial

ACCOMPLICE - a person who helps another commit a crime; willing to take personal risks to work toward liberation

We’re not 100% ready to throw out the term ally, but important parallels exist between these terms and two models for service-learning: Traditional vs. Critical Service-Learning by Tania Mitchell. The models illustrate a key difference in their approach to service. The traditional service-learning model places emphasis on the volunteer - resembling charity through a lens of conventional allyship. However, the critical service-learning model decenters the volunteer and focuses on the redistribution of power - resembling an accomplice working toward justice through social change and authentic relationships.

So what does this mean for our programs?

First, charity is not inherently bad. It’s important to respond to immediate needs (food, shelter, clothing, education, healthcare, etc.). But as alternative breakers and volunteers in pursuit of justice, we should be trying to work ourselves out of a job.

Example: An alternative break trip where participants teach engaging and LGBTQ-inclusive sex education. Each spring, participants travel to a public high school and teach the curriculum to junior classes. After three years of running the same trip - honing the curriculum, and building relationship with the high school teachers - the AB participants redistributed power by placing the curriculum in the hands of students. Rather than teaching the junior classes each year, the AB team trained seniors to teach the juniors so the power (in this case, knowledge) could continue to be passed on from one class to the next. These alternative breakers worked themselves out of a job, adopting the critical service-learning model on their AB trip.

In your own service projects, how can you work to center the experience around the redistribution of power, focusing less on the volunteer experience?