Applying the material learned in class to a larger social and experiential context seems to be a central goal of the service-learning courses at K and of a social justice-oriented college.
African American Literature, a class taught by Professor Bruce Mills, is not on the list of official service-learning courses but does fulfill this goal.
In 2015, professor Mills partnered with Kalamazoo’s Society for History and Racial Equity (SHARE) to bring the “Engaging the Wisdom” oral history project to his classroom. Students in the class are divided into groups of six or seven, delegated the roles of group manager, interviewer, researchers, and transcribers, and are paired with one member from the Kalamazoo community to interview over the course of the quarter in two one-hour time slots.
The program aims to build an archive of oral histories, focusing on people’s experiences in Kalamazoo during the era of Civil Rights. Students currently enrolled in the class are now beginning the interview process.
Nakeya Boyles K’12, who was a researcher on a team of five students recommends the class to anyone looking to extend their coursework “beyond the K bubble.”
“One of the most valuable things I learned, or rather remembered, was the importance of simply listening,” Boyles said. “Often, as busy human beings consumed in our own lives with our own problems, we don’t take the time to empathize with others and simply listen. You can learn so much.”
According to the class handout on the project, “Engaging The Wisdom” is an “intergenerational, interracial program that will explore new and creative ways for youth and elders to connect,” with the goals of engendering greater respect for elders in the community, building bridges across generations and ethnicities, and increasing students’ knowledge of the history of the community.
Professor Mills said that the program not only “brings the material in class into a project that is important in and of itself, but it also puts the stories we read in class alongside the stories people tell us.”
In hearing the stories of people from the K community who had direct experience with some of the key issues from the stories read in class, professor Mills said, that material is brought to life. Students gain a richer context to be able to understand these stories and complicates pre-set expectations or generalizations about them. Most importantly, the project gives space to the act of listening.
“The project could be an incremental step toward crossing some boundaries of understanding,” said Professor Mills, “and that can be transformative.”