Diversity and Democracy

Community-Based Learning to Advance Social Change

In 2002, my colleague Irene Beck and I established the Women and Gender Research Initiative to promote community-based programs and research that help prevent and address gender-related oppressions. Housed in the Department of Women’s and Gender Studies at DePaul University, the initiative became the Beck Research Initiative for Women, Gender, and Community (BRI) in 2010 to reflect the ongoing vision and support of the William and Irene Beck Charitable Trust as well as an expanded mission focused on encouraging full engagement of community members, faculty, and students in community-based projects that affect social change through policy, advocacy, and community development.

The BRI seeks to (1) “document, collect, and make public the contributions of individuals whose lives reflect previously untold experiences and unrecorded resilience”; (2) “engage the community by strengthening and expanding partnerships with individuals and organizations committed to social justice and the eradication of gender-related oppressions”; and (3) “integrate a participatory action research model into course-based curricula” (BRI 2015a). Since its inception, the BRI has developed, funded, and implemented several successful projects that exemplify these goals while illustrating how community-based programs and research can support a broader educational mission. One such project, which I cofounded in 2004 with Heather Flett, a longtime domestic violence professional and advocate in the Chicago community, is Take Back the Halls: Ending Violence in Relationships and Schools (TBTH).

Addressing Relationship Violence

Designed to prevent relationship violence among teens, TBTH incorporates service-learning and research components for both high school and college students. It gives teens the opportunity to examine issues such as domestic violence, sexual assault, sexual harassment, and sexual abuse, as well as the variety of social structures and inequalities that shape violence in different contexts. It creates a space for high school students to talk about issues affecting their lives, generate ways to raise public awareness, speak out against violence, and advocate for change in their schools and communities. In short, TBTH aims to empower teens—as well as the college students with whom they work—to become community leaders and active participants in the movement to end violence.

Heather Flett and I created this university-community collaboration to address an epidemic of youth relationship violence. Research suggests that dating violence is common and widespread among adolescents, experienced by between 9 percent and 46 percent of teenagers (Johnson et al. 2005). Moreover, a study by the American Association of University Women Educational Foundation (2001) found that 81 percent of high school youth reported sexual harassment from peers. As noted in that report, studies on sexual victimization have indicated that 15 to 20 percent of high school females reported experiencing forced sexual activity.

These interpersonal violence issues also are prevalent on college campuses, making a community-based service-learning program engaging high school and college students particularly productive. Indeed, public awareness of sexual violence at colleges and universities was brought into sharp focus recently with the release of Not Alone: The First Report of the White House Task Force to Protect Students from Sexual Assault (White House Task Force 2014). In this political climate, with many college campuses grappling with what have now been identified as inadequate institutional responses, a community-based service-learning program such as TBTH has particular relevance (Catlett and Proweller, forthcoming).

Advancing Learning for Social Justice

TBTH is based on best practices for dating violence prevention programs. High school student participants from three urban high schools meet weekly throughout the school year to examine a range of questions and create activist and advocacy projects related to relationship violence. These meetings are facilitated by specially trained staff as well as university student interns enrolled in an interdisciplinary service-learning seminar, Women’s and Gender Studies (WGS) 387: Teen Violence Prevention. All students in this course participate in TBTH.

Based in feminist pedagogical principles, TBTH provides a structured opportunity for students to thoroughly ground themselves in social justice work. Through WGS 387, students collaboratively explore youth perspectives on violence and consider the ways in which economic, social, political, and cultural contexts influence violence in adolescents’ lives. Situated within a critical framing of service learning in conjunction with feminist theory and pedagogy, course content provides structured opportunities for students to critically reflect on their own social locations and to understand how power differentials operate in their relationships with urban high school youth.

Research that we have conducted on college student intern experiences in TBTH points to the program’s potential for creating an effective context “for students to reflect on the complex relationship[s] among service learning, power, and privilege, and to see themselves engaged” in transformative community-engaged work (Catlett and Proweller 2011, 34). Furthermore, our most recent research suggests that critical interrogation of structures of power has the potential to be “existentially disturbing” (Butin 2010, 20) for college students, disrupting how they understand themselves in relationship to others. This experience, we argue, is necessary in order for students to identify and challenge the foundational aspects of systemic inequalities, thereby creating opportunities for them to consider and advance social justice (Catlett and Proweller, forthcoming).

Looking Forward

We are committed to a process of gradual and deliberate growth focused on the BRI’s founding mission and vision of community-based work that is integrated into course curricula in meaningful and intentional ways. For example, our Service Learning and Internship Program (SLIP), launched by the BRI and the Department of Women’s and Gender Studies in the 2010–11 academic year, builds “long-term partnerships with both feminist-informed community organizations and other DePaul University departments and programs in order to produce multidisciplinary, multicourse, and multiyear projects that serve our students and community partners” (BRI 2015b). SLIP is designed to help students integrate theory and praxis, engage in the work of social justice, and develop practical experience that is essential to the learning process as they prepare for careers after graduation. While pursuing work like this, we remain mindful of our goal to create a vibrant community of scholars, including faculty, students, and community partners, that reaches across disciplines to advance scholarship that centers the needs and perspectives of the communities with which we collaborate.

For more information about the Beck Research Initiative and its service-learning projects, visit http://beckresearch.org/.


American Association of University Women Educational Foundation. 2001. Hostile Hallways: Bullying, Teasing, and Sexual Harassment in School. Washington, DC: American Association of University Women Educational Foundation.

BRI (Beck Research Initiative). 2015a. “History & Mission.” http://beckresearch.org/about-us/history-mission/.

———. 2015b. “Service Learning and Internship Program.” http://beckresearch.org/slip/internship/.

Butin, Dan W. 2010. Service-Learning in Theory and Practice: The Future of Community Engagement in Higher Education. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

Catlett, Beth S., and Amira Proweller. 2011. “College Students’ Negotiation of Privilege in a Community-Based Violence Prevention Project.” Michigan Journal of Community Service Learning (Fall): 34–48.

———. Forthcoming. “Disruptive Practices: Advancing Social Justice through Feminist Community Based Service-Learning in Higher Education.” In Service-Learning to Advance Social Justice in a Time of Radical Inequality, edited by Alan S. Tinkler, Barri E. Tinkler, Jean R. Strait, and Virginia M. Jagla. Charlotte, NC: Information Age Publishing.

Johnson, Sara B., Shannon Frattaroli, Jacquelyn Campbell, Joseph Wright, Amari S. Pearson-Fields, and Tina L. Cheng. 2005. “‘I Know What Love Means’: Gender-Based Violence in the Lives of Urban Adolescents.” Journal of Women’s Health 14 (2): 172–79.

White House Task Force. 2014. Not Alone: The First Report of the White House Task Force to Protect Students from Sexual Assault. Washington, DC: The White House.

Beth S. Catlett is associate professor and chair of the Department of Women’s and Gender Studies and director of the Beck Research Initiative for Women, Gender, and Community at DePaul University.

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