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  • Feminist Service Learning:Teaching about Oppression to Work toward Social Change
  • Ina C. Seethaler (bio)

As part of Fall Welcome Week, incoming freshmen at our Midwestern Jesuit university engage in a First-Year Summer Reading program. All new students read the same book and attend small group sessions to discuss their impressions. In the fall of 2013, I led one of these discussion sessions on Fr. Gregory Boyle’s 2011 memoir, Tattoos on the Heart, in which Boyle recounts his work with gang members in Los Angeles. During our discussion, a student pointed out a quote that she found interesting: Gregory writes that “Jesus was not ‘a man for others’; he was one with them” (188; emphasis mine). The student explained that this statement seemed to contrast with our university’s mission of preparing students to become “men and women for others.”1 As a group, we discussed the difference between the two prepositions, and I ended the session by encouraging the student to participate in the First-Year Summer Reading essay contest with a paper on exactly this topic.

After leaving the discussion session, I kept thinking about the student’s observation. Our mission as a Jesuit university is admirable in many ways, pushing for academic rigor to educate the “whole person” and to serve those who are in need. Inspired by that incoming student, I started to think more about the for in our motto, which moves our campus community to invest an enormous amount of time and energy into service-learning projects every year. Where is the connection between feminism and service learning? In which ways can they profit from each other? How can we practice service learning at a religious institution that is often skeptical of feminism to bring the movement to our student body? How might this create a more effective form of service?

For the purpose of this article, I define service learning as meaningful service in connection with learning, reflection, and civic responsibility toward the strengthening of communities and bringing about lasting social transformation. Jeff Claus and Curtis Ogden propose in their Introduction to Service Learning for Youth Empowerment and Social Change that “service learning can provide powerful opportunities for youth to reflect critically and constructively in their world and to develop skills for facilitating meaningful social change” (3). Ideally, service learning enhances students’ critical thinking skills, [End Page 39] encourages them to ask questions about the status quo, and gives them practical knowledge to effect social change.

I contend that service learning shaped by feminism offers a notably more effective path to reach these goals and to see social change as the ultimate goal of students’ projects than approaches to service that do not explicitly promote discussion about and knowledge of systems of oppression, power, and privilege. Feminist concepts and theory prepare students holistically to understand oppression and its intersectional nature, which is needed to practice service with a community instead of for others. An in-depth comprehension of the social construction of race, class, gender, sexuality, ability, and other identity markers, which influences how oppression in all its forms functions, is crucial. It enables students to grasp, question, and challenge institutions and social practices that are complicit in the marginalization of minority groups.

A number of scholars have written very helpful essays about how they have used service learning in the women’s and gender studies (WGS) classroom and how the critical and philosophical foundations of WGS and service learning connect naturally. Barbara J. Balliet and Kerrissa Heffernan’s edited collection, The Practice of Change: Concepts and Models for Service-Learning in Women’s Studies (2000), offers a number of excellent examples on these topics, such as Patricia A. Washington’s “Women’s Studies and Community-Based Service-Learning: A Natural Affinity” or “The History of Women and Service in the United States: A Rich and Complex Heritage” by Helen Damon-Moore. Building on this work, I take for granted the assumption that feminist pedagogy and service learning fit together well. Instead of reiterating this connection, I propose that feminist elements should also be applied to service-learning projects outside of the WGS classroom. When taught and practiced in feminist ways...


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