Diversity and Democracy

Critical Service Learning as a Tool for Identity Exploration

Service learning is widely understood as a way for students to learn about others. But it also provides opportunities for students to learn about their own identities, which shape their service-learning experiences. At the food pantry, for example, students may choose to greet and discuss favorite recipes with community members as they pick up groceries. These students may wish to connect with people whose identities feel familiar, or they may want to learn about those whose lives are unfamiliar so they can become better advocates. Other students may choose to stock the shelves alone, and their motivations may be similarly varied: they may be afraid to face their privilege or reluctant to connect with their own painful history of poverty. Students choose roles that are steeped in their personal identities, although their identities do not dictate the roles they choose.

California College of the Arts
California College of the Arts

The role of identity in service learning raises an important question: Can students truly understand poverty if they do not also understand their own race, class, and gender identities in the context of systemic inequity? Service-learning practitioners should create spaces for students to explore how personal identity interacts with systems of wealth distribution, gentrification, living wages, and government policy to privilege some and marginalize others. Just as stocking shelves is easier than having conversations, focusing on service learning as a way to help others or develop empathy is easier--and, we believe, less effective--than using service learning to raise critical questions about why inequalities exist and who benefits from them. Social identity is at the heart of these questions; an exploration of identity is necessary to critical service-learning pedagogy.

Defining Critical Service Learning

The pedagogy we have been describing is known as "critical service learning." Critical service-learning practitioners interrogate systems and structures of inequality, question the distribution of power, and seek to develop authentic relationships among students, faculty, and community partners (Mitchell 2008).

As suggested by the food pantry example, the ability to interrogate systems and structures of inequality is related to identity. While texts and lectures provide students with windows through which to view inequality, lived experiences also shape students' understandings. Students with racially privileged identities might have little personal experience with institutional racism and might see racism only in egregious acts of prejudice rather than in structures that confer racial privilege. By contrast, students whose racial identities are marginalized are more likely to have experienced institutional racism and thus to see its effects. Regardless of their lived experiences, all students need the opportunity to reflect on and interrogate systemic inequity.

Understanding one's relationship to power and privilege is an important step in questioning and redistributing power within inequitable systems. For example, some students with privileged identities (including that of "student") may believe they have a right or even a responsibility to advise individuals or community partners. Consciously or unconsciously, they assume the power to tell others what to do. When students instead see service learning as an opportunity to change their own lives, they begin to reframe how they see themselves and their identities, particularly their privileged ones. They come to reconstruct their identities, challenge their assumptions, and reframe what the distribution of power means both for them and for those they meet through service.

Service-learning practitioners who are aware of the implications of identity are better able to form authentic relationships characterized by mutuality, trust, respect, and open acknowledgment of differences. Students engaged in service learning sometimes overlook obvious differences in circumstances as they develop well-intentioned beliefs that others are "just like me" (Varlotta 1997). Students who focus on similarities alone tend to minimize the implications of systemic inequities and may even blame individuals for their circumstances. Framing service as an opportunity for reciprocal learning about differences as well as similarities promotes more authentic relationships and urges students to consider their own identities and contexts as well as those of community members.

Resources for Critical Service-Learning Practitioners

Critical service-learning practitioners may benefit from consulting the following texts on identity development:

Cross, W. 1991. Shades of black: Diversity in African-American identity. Philadelphia: Temple University Press.

Evans, N. J., D. S. Forney, F. M. Guido, K. A. Renn, and L. D. Patton. 2010. Part four: Social identity development. In Student development in college: Theory, research, and practice. 2nd ed., 227-346. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Phinney, J. S. 1993. A three-stage model of ethnic identity development in adolescence. InEthnic identity: Formation and transmission among Hispanics and other minorities, ed. M. E. Bernal and G. P. Knight, 61-79. Albany: State University of New York Press.

Torres, V., M. F. Howard-Hamilton, and D. L. Cooper. 2003. Identity development of diverse populations: Implications for teaching and administration in higher education. ASHE higher education report 29 (6). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Wijeyesinghe, C. L., and B. W. Jackson, III, Eds. 2001. New perspectives on racial identity development: A theoretical and practical anthology. New York: New York University Press.

—David M. Donahue and 
Tania D. Mitchell

Implications for Practice

To create service-learning experiences that draw on students' identities and facilitate self-exploration, faculty need to know what their students' backgrounds mean to them and how they connect their backgrounds to course content. Learning about students' identities is not easy: identity includes multiple intersecting dimensions that may affect how students make sense of service. Moreover, nothing about students' identities predicts or determines their service-learning experience. By listening to students' small-group conversations, assigning an autobiographical essay early in the semester, or requiring short reflective writings before lectures or after discussions, instructors can check their assumptions about students and seek to understand what motivates their engagement.

Service-learning instructors should familiarize themselves with identity development theories (see sidebar). These theories remind us that identity is constructed through developmental processes in which students are active agents who make meaning from their backgrounds and experiences. Many developmental theories describe students' evolution in stages, but the boundaries between stages are fluid and change depending on context. Rather than focus on identifying each student's developmental stage, faculty should provide service options, texts, and opportunities for reflection that can spur the developmental process at multiple stages.

Faculty should create safe (but not necessarily comfortable) spaces for students to reflect. Examining identity can create disequilibrium and therefore discomfort, particularly for young people invested in newly constructed identities and for students from privileged backgrounds who are questioning the normative nature of their privilege. Students are better able to engage in such questioning in an environment where people respect others' integrity, refrain from assumptions, and aim for understanding rather than agreement. A safe environment allows faculty to recognize and name students' discomfort, thus challenging students to break through their barriers.

Faculty should explicitly communicate course goals related to identity exploration with students and community partners. In doing so, faculty can help students challenge positivist notions of knowledge while engaging community partners in contributing to students' sense of self. By stating these goals, faculty can be more proactive in facilitating dialogue, including uncomfortable conversations.

Finally, faculty need to attend to their own self-knowledge. Just as students' identities are constructed through developmental processes, so are faculty identities. Through self-reflection, faculty can see how their identities shape how they frame service, what texts they select, and how they make sense of what happens in their classes. Faculty can interrogate how their identities allow them to connect with certain students and elevate particular perspectives. They can use this knowledge to escape their limitations by working to understand students' different perspectives, selecting texts that represent multiple points of view, and framing service learning using multiple lenses. Knowledge of their own identities allows faculty to model for students how to interrogate the connections between identity, perspective, and service learning.

Service learning can push students and faculty to explore their own identities along with those of others. Service can be the spark for examining identities, and the classroom can be a place for sharing and interrogating them.


Mitchell, T. 2008. Traditional vs. critical service-learning: Engaging the literature to differentiate two models. Michigan Journal of Community Service Learning 14(2): 50-65.

Varlotta, L. E. 1997. Service-learning as community: A critique of current conceptualizations and a charge to chart a new direction. PhD diss., Miami University.

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