How Much Does it Cost to Create Change?

social changeOne prong of tenure is service. At some schools, service is required at the department level, college level, university level, and community level. Luckily, my school only requires the first two (we are not a university), and leaves the final one for faculty to do as they please.

Since my college is in the process of a lot of transition, I am of course a part of some of these discussions. Most relevant to today’s post is my participation on a steering committee for a new initiative geared toward community engagement, community based learning, and community based research. In any discussion of community engagement, the phrase ‘social justice’ will inevitably emerge. Many Liberal Arts colleges include this term in their institutional mission statement, while others opt to include it in the mission statement of the center/foundation/program for community (sometimes they say civic) engagement.

But what is social justice? When I made the decision to be confirmed in the Catholic faith, I took classes about social justice. And it was comforting to know that when people talk about social justice—be it religiously, socially, politically, academically—they are really talking about the same thing: social change. Of course different factions believe change should happen for different reasons and in different directions. But the bottom line is that everyone wants to change something about society. How do I choose what to change?

More importantly, what is my role, obligation and place in the community as a young Catholic female scholar and educator of color? How am I [supposed to be] engaging in social justice and community transformation? Does it even matter?

During committee conversations today, someone mentioned faculty ‘community service’ in passing and I thought to myself: these people have no idea what I do for my community in my personal time. And I have no idea what they do. This bothers me because community engagement (which is different from ‘service’, but that’s another post) should be inherently, communal. But it’s not. I engage with my community in multiple capacities: I am a mentor and teacher in a pathways to college program for low income high school students; I coach a step team at an area high school; I participate in a leadership training program for professionals of color; and I routinely lead workshops for teachers and parents on building effective family-school partnerships.

While I don’t think anything I do is going to engender radical change in my city, I do believe in speaking with community members, learning what is happening in others’ lives, and seeing what I can offer in terms of meeting community needs. Given my background and areas of academic interest, I choose to engage issues of educational inequity. It seems like a natural fit. And I enjoy it.

So that is why I feel some type of way when people tell me I shouldn’t be doing these things for free. They advise me to charge an honorarium when I go speak at schools and to develop a flat rate for leading workshops. They tell me to limit the time I spend mentoring high school students because ‘what are you really getting from that?’ They suggest I spend my time in more scholarly endeavors that will count toward tenure and ultimately secure my future. They tell me I am wasting my time with kids who aren’t listening and teachers who won’t change.

I see where they are coming from. Time is a precious commodity to an academic, so it is not to be wasted on frivolity or *gasp* enjoyment. No, no, no. Time is to be invested wisely in activities with the largest payout. Time—my dear naïve, foolish, junior colleague—is of the essence!

Sheesh. Ok. I get it.

But who am I to charge for knowledge? When money exchanges hands, expectations arise. People expect a quick solution to solve the unending problem of the achievement gap, but in education, there is rarely a single right answer. Teaching methods that work for one teacher may be torturous in the hands of another. I can’t tell you what to do; I can only tell you how and why doing some things may affect some people.

I feel like charging money creates a dichotomy of ‘knows’ and ‘don’t knows’, and you must give me something in order to be in the know. I am not a fan of hierarchical relationships because the nature of hierarchy is that someone feels disenfranchised, marginalized, and less, while the other party feels empowered, privileged, and let’s just say it: better. How can effective communication or learning happen when people feel talked to instead of spoken with? How can I hope to interact with my community, when I am on a pedestal out of reach? How on Earth can I effect change when I am too busy listening to my own voice to hear the input of my fellow community members?

This is why I teach where I do and how I do. I don’t believe in lectures longer than 10 minutes. I don’t believe in lecturing without debriefing through group discussion. I don’t believe in saving questions until the end (this goes directly against theories of information-processing). I guess I just don’t believe in the traditional banking model of education (where the teacher deposits information into students’ brains).

I believe in two-way communication wherein I recognize the value of others’ thoughts and experiences, and use those to help shape my own thoughts and behaviors. I believe in listening before speaking so that I may actually say something of use. I believe in participating, even if that just means observing. I believe in engagement even if it doesn’t result in change.

So for me, it is not my role, obligation, or place to create change or deliver social justice. I am a young Catholic female scholar and educator of color who shares information to help others acknowledge the biased construction of their beliefs, and in that process, face the construction of my own beliefs. That is teaching. And that is learning.

Some would even call it transformation.