Student Companion to Community-Engaged Learning


Star Plaxton-Moore, Director of Community-Engaged Learning

I am thrilled to share the outcome of a collaborative project between myself and McCarthy Center Director, Dave Donahue, that has been years in the making! The Student Companion to Community-Engaged Learning: What You Need to Know for Transformative Learning and Real Social Change is a book designed for students to read in the first days or weeks of their community-engaged courses. The book leads students through a discussion of why and how to engage deeply and meaningfully with communities experiencing pervasive marginalization and injustice. Students will learn about the root causes of, and connections between, social justice issues and how individuals, groups, and organizations are mobilizing to address these issues. The book provides guidance about opportunities and responsibilities that come with being a community-engaged student and suggests dispositions and practices meant to maximize learning for the student and benefits for the community.

The idea for this book came from practical experience and an observed lack of scholarship on this topic in the field of service-learning and community engagement. As a community engagement professional, I’ve spent the past 13 years supporting faculty, students, and community partners. Each semester, when the community-engaged courses would come to an end, and I debriefed with these various groups, common themes arose. In general, there was a desire to make sure students were more prepared to enter the community with humility, respect, and open-mindedness.

Faculty and community partners wanted students to shed the savior complex that commonly infuses service activities, and instead embrace their roles as apprentices to the community members leading positive change in their communities. Community partners said it would be helpful for students to do some basic internet research to learn about the organization, neighborhood, and client demographic that they serve. They also wanted students to practice a basic level of professionalism. Faculty wanted students to be primed to function as participant observers, actively connecting their community experiences to course content and integrating new experiences to inform their worldviews. In addition, students would often lament, upon reflection, that they could have made more of their experience if they had some key info at the beginning.  For example, Meghan, a student in an undergraduate community-engaged course, reflected that she wished she would have been encouraged to interact meaningfully and build relationships with the staff and clients at her host organization early on. She described how it took her several weeks to realize she could learn more from conversations with the people at her host site than from exclusively focusing on the service tasks. How much more could Meghan have learned if she went into her first day at her host site with a desire to connect with people and learn their stories in addition to participating in service activities?

The service-learning and community engagement literature is filled with scholars exhorting faculty and practitioners to prepare students for entering and interacting with the community. However, this topic was never addressed with sufficient depth to guide a general set of themes for student orientation. Our hope is that this book addresses a gap in the field and responds to the insights and experiences of our brilliant, dedicated, and critical colleagues and students.

A Day at Prince Hall Learning Center in the Western Addition

The Prince Hall Computer Learning Center (PHLC), an Engage San Francisco community partner in the heart of the Western Addition, is a year-round learning enrichment program that provides structure and support in the form of emotional and academic enrichment programs. Through after-school and summer programming, Prince Hall develops individualized support for children based on their academic needs and family situation. The small scale of this program (up to 20 children) allows for customized, personal interventions that are sustained and based on a strong groundwork of trust.


As one enters Prince Hall you are welcomed by Ms. Miram Desmukes, who has 18 years of experience directing the Prince Hall Learning Center. Along with Ms. Andi Horde, who has been an Associate Director with the program for 10 years, one immediately sees the center as an intuitive, loving environment that is labor intensive and intimate.

An initial question comes to mind:  What kind of methods of teaching do they use in their program? Ms. Andi explains as one of the children leaned on her and she kissed her on the head and said, “We are a nurturing education-based program, lots of hugs around here.” While Ms. Andi and Ms. Miriam are extremely humble in how they describe their work, it is clear that it takes extraordinary expertise and time to understand and relate to the kids on a level much deeper than hugs.

“There is a certain amount of respect that we try to embody so that they don’t feel that they need to act out. We respect them. They respect us. Everything is pretty much communal around here. The older children look out for the younger ones and give them pointers.”

Prince Hall is an active partner with several USF literacy projects including America Reads, the Masters in Teaching Reading/reading specialist program, and the Xochitl Book Project and as such, ties into the values USF holds close to heart:  education, social justice and leading to succeed. Collaboration with families is essential, especially to the Prince Hall Learning Center.

The Center is a program of Bethel AME Church and the Allen Community Development Corporation, which is the for-profit arm of AME Church along with the parishioners who support the program by purchasing snack items of need that are listed in the church newsletter. Ms. Miriam and  Ms. Andi also contribute snack items as well as learning aides such as  flashcards, vocabulary cards and books. They provide transportation to the after-school program from some of schools on a daily basis.

When asked what items they needed, they said, “state of the art equipment, like learning tools, some technology, standing desks, writing materials, educational supplies, equipment, toys, materials.” Given additional resources, they would formalize their teen group; facilitate more conversations and mentorship with the Center’s graduates who return home from college and meet up to discuss the transition to higher education, and build out their technology program. It is clear this program is rich with vision, inspiration, deep intergenerational relationships, and succeeding despite many unmet resource needs.

Prince Hall reflects the values and vision of USF and Engage San Francisco, which is why it is great partnership site for USF students to learn. In addition to the teaching the Center does with Western Addition children, they also offer a supportive learning environment for USF undergraduate and graduate students who work with them.

If you woud like to support Prince Hall Computer Learning Center, or USF’s partnerships with them, visit to see how you can support them or contact Karin Cotterman, Director of Engage San Francisco,

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Women Organizing! Inspiration at Mujeres Unidas y Activas and The Women’s Building

Amanda Smith

Amanda Smith
Master of Arts in Urban Affairs candidate (’16)

This past week I had the opportunity to attend one of Mujeres Unidas y Activas’ (MUA) regular meetings at The Women’s Building in the Mission District. Through research that the Urban Affairs graduate team is conducting this semester, I have been able to connect with and observe the important work MUA is spearheading in San Francisco. MUA’s mission statement says: 

Mujeres Unidas y Activas (MUA) is a grassroots organization of Latina immigrant women with a double mission of promoting personal transformation and building community power for social and economic justice. Their work includes creating an environment of understanding and confidentiality, empowering and educating our members to provide mutual support, offering trainings to build economic security and leadership, working in diverse alliances on the local, regional, national, and international levels, and organizing campaigns to win immigrant, workers’ and women’s rights.

The meeting started off with a viewing of a short documentary on the 43 students who have been missing from Iguala, Guerrero in Mexico since September 26th, 2014. While not all of the MUA members are from Mexico, many of the women shared stories from their native countries detailing similar experiences of friends or relatives becoming desaparecidos. The video and the stories shared by the women at the meeting were highly emotional. Many women spoke of family members left behind to an unknown fate, and of fear of police and other authority figures due to violent forms of retribution if they chose to speak out. While I had heard of the missing Mexican students, and have learned about desaparecidos under Peron in Argentina in the 1970s, to hear personal and more recent stories of this type of violence moved me. These women fled their families, their homes and their communities. But let me be clear – these women are not helpless victims. They are empowered by each other, and moved to organize for change.

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The next half of the meeting filled me with hope. We watched another short news video detailing the execution deaths by militants of 142 students in Nairobi, Kenya just last week. One of MUA’s lead organizers reminded us that we are not alone. It does not matter the differences in details between what happened in Mexico last year and what happened in Kenya last week –militant groups, drug cartels, and governments – they all rule through fear and terror. They attempt to immobilize and weaken those who will not speak out. We are all a part of the same movement, fighting, sometimes inch by inch, for common decency and humanity. The women at MUA do not see themselves simply as Mexican, or Guatamalan, or as immigrants. They are a part of a larger movement of women fighting and organizing. They are empowered by their past experiences and by their networks of support in their new homes. Their work is not limited to their communities in San Francisco, but extends globally.

I was moved by the momentum I felt, and the community I observed at The Women’s Building this past week. The women of MUA come together to offer each other support, and they come together to organize for change locally and globally. This strength, to overcome one’s own struggles and use that knowledge to help others do the same, is truly inspirational. I am looking forward to working with MUA for the next couple of weeks as our research continues, and I hope to stay involved in their efforts beyond this project.

An Afternoon With MAGIC ZONE


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My fellow members of Urban Cohort 2 are super humans: juggling a full class schedule, adjusting to being back in the classroom, working full time or multiple part time jobs, volunteering for incredible causes all over the Bay Area and … Continue reading