"We are the change we've been waiting for.": A rewriting of self through the social-intellectual spaces of service




Winans, Jaime


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This year-long qualitative case study investigates how service-learning may enable self-direction and the development of a critical consciousness for marginalized high school students by exploring the dynamics of service-learning through a theoretical framework of critical theory. A central aim among critical theorists is the empowerment of marginalized groups who are disempowered through the current structure of schooling. Service-learning, an instructional approach that integrates meaningful community service with instruction and reflection, is theorized to counter the oppressive nature of schooling as defined in critical theory; however, little research exists to clarify the implications of service-learning on student empowerment.
The intention of this study was to consider the negotiation of power and knowledge occurring in the open spaces of community that may empower students, redefining their experience of schooling and their identities as learners. By exploring processes of empowerment and the social structures created through service-learning, the study documents students' self-authorship as they negotiate learning spaces within community. Through this case study, three marginalized, male, urban high school students described their development as learners and as change agents within the context of service and community need.
Data analysis of interview transcripts, field notes, and documents revealed how service-learning offered a transformative experience to culturally non-dominant students which legitimized lived experience and enabled the re-writing of self through the construction of new social/intellectual spaces. Overall, the findings provide a holistic account of the spaces, relationships, and identities constructed by participants through service-learning. Service-learning positioned participants to encounter social injustices in new ways that facilitated their re-authoring of self and community identities. This widening intellectual space permitted participants' development of their own evolving interpretations and informed actions upon the world for challenging and transforming social and political inequalities. Participants' identities expanded as they critiqued arrangements of power infusing social structures while recognizing the ways their own narratives maintained harmful arrangements of power.
The findings also demonstrate the possibilities for engaging diverse learners whose life experiences and cultural forms of knowledge have been delegitimized through schooling. By providing insight to how empowerment and self-authorship can become central to schooling, this study offers a way to address the opportunity gap which disproportionately affects low-income students of color. Participants' experience offers insight to the pedagogy of service-learning that documents a framework for encountering transformational moments between self, society, and other. Further research exploring the perspectives of marginalized students who are reluctant to engage in service-learning would bring an array of viewpoints to the research purpose.


A dissertation submitted in partial fulfillment of the requirements for the degree of Doctor of Philosophy in Curriculum and Instruction


community engagement, critical theory, empowerment, service learning



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