Integrating Service Learning With Systemic Change

Integrating Service Learning With Systemic Change

Alison Badgett
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-7998-8463-7.ch014
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This chapter examines the redesign of the Petey Greene Program (the PGP), which prepares undergraduate and graduate student volunteers at 30 higher education institutions to tutor people in prison. Through a redesign process, the PGP shifted from a service learning organization that only supplements existing prison education programs with volunteer tutors to one that also pursues systemic improvement in educational access for justice-impacted people and facilitates volunteer activism. The chapter explores how service learning programs may perpetuate unjust systems if they are not integrated into systemic change initiatives and offers a guide for using service learning programs as a platform for pursuing systemic change. The case study illustrates how higher education institutions can partner with external organizations to educate justice-oriented citizens who understand and address the structural root causes of injustice.
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The Petey Greene Program (the PGP) was founded in 2008 to supplement education in jails, prisons, and detention centers by preparing college student volunteers to provide free tutoring to incarcerated people. The organization was named after Ralph Waldo Petey Greene, Jr., a formerly incarcerated community activist and television personality, who dedicated his life to advocating for racial and social justice. The organization’s founder, Charles Puttkammer, first met Petey Greene in 1963 while leading the United Planning Organization in Police Community Relations, and was so inspired by Greene that he founded the organization to honor his legacy. To launch the PGP, Puttkammer enlisted the support of several of his college classmates who graduated from Princeton University in 1958, including the organization’s founding executive director, Jim Farrin, who served through 2019.

The PGP implemented its first program in New Jersey, recruiting Princeton University students to tutor incarcerated youth. In 2013, a quasi-experimental evaluation of the organization’s programming showed incarcerated students tutored by the PGP gained one to two grade levels more than non-tutored students in math and reading over the course of one semester (Kowalski, 2013). Following these results, the organization launched programs in Massachusetts, Connecticut, New York, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Washington D.C., Virginia, and Maryland. By 2018, the PGP operated the largest multi-state tutoring program in jails and prisons, coordinating 1,000 volunteers annually, 80% of whom were college students recruited through partnerships with 30 universities, the remaining 20% community members from a range of professions. The organization tutored approximately 2,200 youth and adults in 50 correctional facilities each year, 80% of whom were pursuing adult basic and high school education, and 20% post-secondary education.

While the PGP’s founding intent was to support incarcerated individuals, the program deeply affected volunteers from the start, many of whom considered the experience the most meaningful of their college careers. As a result of their participation, some volunteers founded student advocacy organizations, beginning with Students for Prison Education and Reform (SPEAR) at Princeton. Many shifted their academic, civic, and professional focus to criminal legal system reform and other social justice causes. Over time, the organization complemented procedural training for volunteers required by departments of correction with PGP-led education on mass incarceration and ethical volunteerism. The PGP elevated and supported campus leaders, forming university-sanctioned student groups that recruited volunteers and organized campus events featuring social justice activists. Staff facilitated volunteer reflection on their tutoring experience each term, including how it influenced volunteers’ understanding of the criminal legal system, its racial and socioeconomic underpinnings and implications, as well as their relationship to it. In educating volunteers on the structural context and causes of the need for volunteerism, the organization shifted from its original community service model to a service learning program. Whereas a community service program addresses a community need through volunteerism, a service learning program also educates volunteers on the societal causes and consequences of that need (Cipolle, 2010; Kegan, 2000; King, 2004; Mitchell, 2007).

As the organization expanded volunteer education on the carceral state and events featuring social justice activists, a tension emerged among board trustees and staff: Should the PGP focus on educating future activists, or on educating incarcerated students, and to what extent are the two mutually exclusive? While both board and staff included proponents of one or the other, trustees were slightly more concerned than staff about the increased focus on providing volunteers with a social justice education. While some trustees felt educating activists was a critical element of the PGP’s work, others who were concerned by it felt that activism was necessarily partisan, and that the PGP ought to remain nonpartisan. Many trustees were also unaware of the difference between lobbying and advocacy, and the regulations governing and allowing a nonprofit’s engagement in both activities. Most trustees were also unfamiliar with the concept of systemic change, and how it might apply to the PGP’s mission of providing high-quality education to justice-impacted people.

Key Terms in this Chapter

System-Impacted: Those who are negatively affected by the collateral impacts of a family member being incarcerated.

Prison Education Program: An educational program offered within a correctional setting.

Tutoring: Personalized instruction provided by an individual to a student or group of students.

Critical Service Learning: Service learning that challenges systemic causes of inequity in sustained partnership with the community, with facilitated reflection on volunteers’ relationship to structural oppression.

Abolition: Reallocation of resources from carceral control to community building.

Social Justice Education: Education enabling students to understand, critique, and mitigate internalized and external oppression.

Justice-Oriented Action: Action addressing the systemic causes of social injustice, wherein the intervention is conceived in the context of a long-term plan to effect structural change.

Community Service: Volunteerism to address a community need.

Decarceration: Reducing the number of people incarcerated.

Structural Oppression: The subjugation of a group at the individual, institutional, and societal or cultural level, and the dynamic interplay between their different manifestations.

Carceral State: Institutions, ideologies, and practices of criminalization.

Justice-Impacted: Those who are or have been incarcerated, or otherwise under carceral control.

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