Engaging Marginalized and Disadvantaged Students in Social Justice, Community Engagement and Public Affairs Issues

Published in:

A National Symposium

November 19–20, 2010

Howard University
Washington, D.C.


Constructivist learning environments are rich learning environments which involve problem-solving activities (Roblyer, Edwards, & Havriluk, 1997), cooperative and collaborative group learning, and learning through exploration. Cognitive constructivism contends that knowledge is constructed and made meaningful through an individual’s interactions and analyses of the environment; knowledge is constructed in the mind of the individual. Faculty should create applied, hands-on environments for students to connect new subject matter and content with prior knowledge (Piaget, as cited in Jadallah, 2000). Social constructivism maintains that social interaction with the instructor and other students contribute to the learning process. For experiential learning to be meaningful, students must actively participate in a process of exploring, analyzing, evaluating, and synthesizing knowledge into a frame of reference that they then use and build on prior knowledge (Jadallah).

Johnson C. Smith University is surrounded by many neighborhoods which have been destabilized by poverty and crime. University officials recognize that the university is not an island unto itself, that what affects the university affects the community and vice-versa.

For over 25 years, the authors have provided students with experiential and constructivist learning opportunities in an effort to engage them in social justice, community engagement, and public affairs issues through (1) internships and field experiences, (2) service-learning, and (3) community-based participatory research (CBPR). Internships afford students experiential learning opportunities to bridge theory and practice (Gault, Redington, & Schlaager, 2000; Weible, 2009). Service-learning is a pedagogical resource in which students learn and develop through well-organized service projects which meet the needs of both the community and the university (Markus, Howard, & King, 1993). CBPR affords both students and faculty the opportunity to work with underserved, marginalized communities (Shiu-Thorton, as cited in Delemos). Each of these constructivist learning opportunities will be examined in more detail below.

Internships and Field Experiences

At JCSU, Criminology majors are required to complete a three-credit hour internship as part of their degree requirements. Students complete 120 hours of work in an agency, in which they gain hands on experience in their chosen field(s) and meet with internship faculty in class on a weekly basis. Students have been placed in criminal justice organizations, such as the local police and sheriff’s departments, substance abuse prevention and treatment agencies, probation and parole, private law firms, and organizations which work with disenfranchised populations, such as a community action agency which seeks to combat poverty and empower the disadvantaged, or the local housing authority which provides low income housing options for the poor, disabled, and elderly. Through their internship placements, our students have been engaged in impacting the people and communities of the region, including working with many populations that are often underserved.


Service-learning is an integral part of the curriculum at JCSU and seeks to enhance the curriculum in a context which both learning and service are emphasized. The goal of service-learning at JCSU is to integrate community service with instruction in order to teach civil responsibility and to strengthen the local community. Service hours are linked to course objectives and learning outcomes. For example, students enrolled in a juvenile delinquency course served at a school-based drop-out prevention program, working with youth in academic enrichment programs through tutoring and mentoring. In turn, our students were able to bridge theory and practice, apply best practices, and evaluate theories related to delinquent behavior and the realities of the challenges that many of the clients experience due to their social and home environments, socioeconomic status, academic challenges, and other factors making them high-risk for dropping out of school.

Internship and Service-Learning Best Practices

Given the benefits of internships and service-learning, best practices for maximizing student engagement should be utilized. They are as follows:

Structured Activities. Structured internship and service-learning activities maximize benefits for students, foster career growth, and link universities to the communities being served. A prescribed minimum number of hours, a contract between the student, faculty, and organization, and standardized criteria for placement are the keys to providing structure (Boggs & Deuce, 2000; Knouse & Fontenot, 2008; Obermiler, 1999; Wentz & Trapido-Lurie, 2001). There also must be clear evaluation criteria used by both the faculty and the agency supervisor (Baird 2002).

Student Engagement in the Process. Students should be actively engaged in the internship and service-learning process, from selecting their own placements, to identifying goals and objectives of the same (Knouse & Fontenot, 2008; Holoday & Terrell, 1996; Stone, 1998). Orientation sessions for students, faculty, and agency supervisors to identify and address the objectives, goals, and standards of the internship and service-learning program offer clear communication of said objectives and foster collaboration between all stakeholders (Dale, 1996; Ferguson, 1998; Knouse, et al., 1999; Rollins, 1998). There should also be some consensus among all of the stakeholders regarding the stated objectives, and they should support the mission and goals of the university as well as the agency (Chizek, 1999).

Matched Skills and Interests. Effective placements involve the agencies identifying their own needs, and then the desirable skill sets for project and assignment requirements (Knouse & Fontenot, 2008). Agency placement and task assignments should be based on student interests, professional goals, and take into consideration the students’ psychological and social development, and philosophical beliefs. Students’ values, cultural identities, socioeconomic status, sexual orientation, gender, or age may affect the outcome of the internship. Potential risks and hazards, such as aggressive offenders, and any on-the-job hazards should be clearly communicated to the intern (Baird, 2002; Brindley & Emminger, 2000; Swift & Kent, 1999).

Active Faculty Engagement.Heller (as cited in Laker, 2005) contends that students are more satisfied with their internship and service-learning experience with adequate faculty support. Faculty can serve as a conduit between the agency, the student, and the university in order to solve any problem that might arise, regardless of whether the problem had at its origin the student or the agency (Pitts, 1992). Faculty should also be knowledgeable of an agency’s policies and carefully screen students to insure that students are not inappropriately placed, for example, if a student has a criminal history and the agency prohibits interns with any convictions (Criminal Justice Internships, 2001). A student should feel that faculty and the institution serve as advocates and provide support for the student when presented with his or her problems or concerns (Brindley & Emminger, 2000).

Ongoing Meetings with Stakeholders. Orientation sessions for students, faculty, and agency supervisors to identify and address the objectives, goals, and standards of the internship and service-learning program should provide clear expectations of all parties involved (Dale, 1996; Ferguson, 1998; Rollins, 1998). When all parties meet, they are able to address challenges, concerns, and problems, as well as engage in dialogue, creating yet another dynamic learning environment (Baird, 2002; Brindley & Emminger, 2000; Price, 2002; Sweitzer, Frederick & Haas, 1999).

Knowledge of legal and ethical requirements.Legal requirements and liability issues involved in site placement must be taken under consideration, including a review of legal requirements (i.e. the Fair Labor Standards Act, EEOC, the American with Disabilities Act), which may prove to be a civil liability matter (Baird, 2002; Chizek, 1999; Ferguson, 1988; Lipka, 2010; Swift & Kent, 1999). Stakeholders should know whether any injury to the student is compensated through workman’s compensation insurance. Students should also be advised of sexual, racial, and ethnic harassment legislation and policies, as both perpetrators and victims (Swift & Kent). Universities should also be aware of their liability for negligence and other misconduct by one of their students (Swift & Kent). Students should be clearly advised of legal and ethical issues surrounding confidentiality, disclosure, and professional liability, as well as the ethical guidelines of professional organizations that may affect their work (Baird, 2002).

Community-Based Participatory Research

Community-Based Participatory Research (CBPR) has a long history in the social sciences. University of Chicago sociologists, including Robert Park and Ernest Burgess, conducted ecological studies of Chicago neighborhoods beginning in the 1920s (e.g., Park, Burgess & McKenzie, 1925). Park and his colleagues believed that social science knowledge could be used to solve social problems. Later, many former social activists from the 1960s, now in academia, sought to use social science knowledge to address problems of poverty and inequality in their communities.

CBPR is beneficial in that faculty and students (1) engage in reciprocal research that is mutually beneficial to researchers and communities; (2) develop culturally competent and appropriate methods; (3) clarify expectations and roles of community members and researchers; and (4) honor the research product as much as the process (Delemos, 2006). CBPR also affords faculty and students the opportunity to work with underserved, marginalized communities (Shiu-Thorton, as cited in Delemos). Initial CBPR projects in which our students participated involved the local housing authority, the United Way, the local police and courts, various community development corporations (CDCs), and over fifteen neighborhood associations. Surveys were conducted as class projects in research methods courses. Students gained experience in conducting survey research (Carter, Fox, Priest, & McBridge, 2002). Rather than passively learning about survey development, data collection, and analysis, students actively engaged in developing and validating the survey instruments, disseminating the surveys in the communities, and analyzing data. Over the years, there have been some instances of grant funding for student salaries through various funding sources.

Benefits and Outcome of CBPR Conducting by JCSU Criminology Faculty and Students

Data. Surveys were conducted for various reasons. For example, a neighborhood association wanted to determine who was in the neighborhood to develop a neighborhood directory. An unexpected finding of the survey revealed that approximately ten percent of the neighborhood’s residents were Hispanic. As a result, the association now advertises meetings and activities in both English and Spanish. Another neighborhood association wanted a survey to determine the proportion of homeowners versus renters in the neighborhood because the association felt the neighborhood was changing and more crime-ridden due to an influx of renters, yet it lacked recent data on ownership versus rental. Habitat for Humanity had renovated many homes in a neighborhood, but wanted data on which remaining homes to determine which homes had the most serious structural problems and needed to be rehabbed as soon as possible. Therefore, we conducted a survey making inquiry about homeownership versus renting, as well as problems such as cracks in the walls or ceilings of residences, falling plaster, or leaky pipes.

Organizational participation. Surveys often created greater interest in the neighborhood association. In one recent survey, respondents were asked if they were willing to serve on any of a series of neighborhood association committees. As a result of the data, the neighborhood association determined that people who were not attending meetings were willing to volunteer for other things, such as serving as block captains or on various committees.

Historical comparison point. Survey results may represent a comparison point for later changes in the neighborhood. For example, we conducted two surveys over a nine-year period for one neighborhood association. In turn, the association can use the results of the second survey as a benchmark to determine improvements, progress, or whether anything needs to change.

Resources. Sometimes surveys resulted in the acquisition of resources from within the neighborhood. Surveys for two organizations within a community resulted in the neighborhood association being offered the space for meetings and other activities at a local church. Having seen the results of the surveys, the pastor felt the association was serious about dealing with neighborhood problems. More often, surveys resulted in the acquisition of resources from outside the neighborhood. Partnerships were developed with various community organizations and resources, and activities including rehabilitating a number of houses in the neighborhood. Survey results in another neighborhood indicated a great deal of concern about drug and alcohol abuse in the neighborhood. After the survey, the neighborhood association made arrangements with Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous to hold regular meetings in a neighborhood church.

A student interviewer who held a position in JCSU’s Student Government Association (SGA) participated in one community survey and made the argument that the SGA should become more involved with the community. When the neighborhood association (for whom the survey was conducted) later held its Fall Festival, a busload of our students provided much of the labor and entertainment for the festival. This partnership seems to be continuing.

Sometimes data from surveys was presented to city or county government to gain services. One early survey we conducted included a number of questions about public transportation usage. The neighborhood association president presented data from the survey to the city council to order to lobby for the extension of an existing bus route into his neighborhood. Though his efforts were ultimately unsuccessful, he was pleased to have this data at hand. Often, data from surveys was used to bring financial and community resources into the neighborhood, including securing grant monies for a safe house for residents in the community, which included office space for community policing officers. Many neighborhoods were concerned about crime in the neighborhood, especially drug use. Survey results were presented to the city police department to gain greater police presence in the neighborhood. Two years ago, a new police patrol division was established within one of the communities and a new substation was opened in the community. This was due primarily to the continuing efforts of the association president over more than a decade, a high crime rate, two murders in the neighborhood in the space of two days, and in part to our survey results.


Through experiential learning opportunities, we have successfully engaged marginalized and disadvantaged students in social justice, community engagement and public affairs issues, which have not only created a positive impact on the communities we serve, but afforded our students applied learning experience, and afforded us as faculty, opportunities for research and engagement with our students outside of the classroom.


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Spring 2011: Engaging Students in the Community and the World