Academic Exchange Quarterly     Fall  2009    ISSN 1096-1453    Volume  13, Issue  3

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Critical-Service Learning Confronts Homelessness

 

Ron Caro, The Richard Stockton College of NJ, NJ

Bradley Porfilio, Lewis University, IL

Alishia Valeri, Saint Louis University, MO

 

Caro, Ed.D is Assistant Professor of  Education, Porfilio, Ph.D., is Assistant Professor of Educational Leadership and Valeri, is a Lecture of Educational Foundations.  

 

Abstract

This essay documents the findings from a critical-service learning project.  Through their experiences tutoring urban youths over two academic terms, four future teachers got beyond blaming urban children and their families for their struggles and the debilitated conditions impacting their community. They recognized the systemic nature associated with homelessness and poverty. They also recognized the need for educators to bring awareness to what forces cause homelessness. However, the cultural work at the shelter did not alter the perceptions of six pre-service teachers in relation to homelessness, social inequality, and teaching for social justice.

 

Introduction

Like the majority of citizens in the US, many scholars in the field of Critical White Studies[1] have documented that most White pre-service teachers hold a pedestrian view of what accounts for the growing intensification of poverty and homelessness within the US and across other social contexts (Sleeter, 1993; Marx, 2004; McIntyre, 1997). We, three teacher educators, implemented a critical service-learning project at a homeless shelter located within a decaying urban community in the Northeastern part of the US to help White pre-service teachers get beyond viewing poverty and homelessness as purely individual phenomena. Rather than having future teachers at “Casino College”[2] blame impoverished and homeless parents and children for their struggles and challenges as well as for the social problems permeating their communities, we sought to have them connect the economic and political movements to embrace corporatists’ logics, practices, and arrangements to the proliferation of homelessness and poverty impacting communities across the globe. We feel that it is imperative for pre-service teachers to understand how policies, practices, and entrenched inequalities, such as classism and homelessness, impact students’ educational performance, events outside of school, and their identity formation, if they are to teach for personal and social transformation in K-12 classrooms (McLaren, 2005; Grant & Gillette, 2006).

 

In this paper, first, we will briefly explore how neoliberalism has increased poverty and homelessness in the US in particular and within the site of this study “Casino City” specifically. Next, we will describe the nature of the participants’ cultural work at a homeless shelter in “Casino City.” Third, after examining the extant literature and theoretical insights surrounding White pre-service teachers’ views of social stratification and the impact service-learning has on sensitizing future teachers to the social nature of poverty and homelessness, we will document how the critical-service learning project impacted ten future teachers’ perceptions of social inequality, of impoverished youths and their families, and of teaching and learning in K-12 classrooms. Finally, based on the findings of this project, we suggest several steps teacher educators and administrators must take to prepare the next generation of teachers to become stewards of social justice in their schools and in their communities. 

 

Neoliberalism and Homelessness

In the US, the shift to having market imperatives guide social and political policies, to eradicating the State’s role in providing entitlements for citizens, and to giving corporations control over our social life has been largely responsible for gutting social entitlements for the elderly and the impoverished, increased incarceration of minoritized populations, and the swelling of abject poverty and homelessness, especially within urban contexts (George, 1999; Giroux, 2004;  Porfilio & Malott, 2008).  The neoliberal agenda is responsible for spawning the current economic crisis, which has has been particularly pernicious for families with children in the US.  Joblessness, mortgage foreclosures, domestic violence, higher fuel and food prices, declining wages, decreased federal support of low-income housing and a shrinking supply of affordable housing are causing families with children to live out of their vehicles, makeshift housing, such as tents, boxes, caves, and boxcars, and moving in and out of homeless shelters (National Coalition for the Homeless #12, 2008; National Coalition for the Homeless #2, 2008).   The impact of the crisis becomes even more telling when currently 1 in 50 US children are homeless and “about half of all school age children (in the US) experiencing homelessness have problems with anxiety and depression and 20% of homeless pre-schoolers have emotional problems that require professional care” (National Center on Family Homelessness, 2009).

 

Neoliberalism and “Casino City

The critical-service learning project was situated in “Casino City”, New Jersey, a community with a population of approximately 39, 958 inhabitants (Job Tipster, 2008).  Like many urban residents across US, the population in “Casino City” is faced with conditions of growing poverty, homelessness and despair. The history of poverty in this context is not a new phenomenon, but has become more prevalent over the past decade. With the implementation of neoliberal policies and practices, working-class families are no longer provided social entitlements to purchase food and clothing, secure medical coverage, or procure affordable shelter. The vast majority of jobs available to the working-poor in the area are contingent in nature and fail to provide sufficient and stable income and benefits to support their families’ social needs. Therefore, poverty is a paradoxical contrast to the richness displayed to the casino gaming players and the affluent tourists who frequent the area and the amount of wealth amassed by the casino industry. Not coincidently, wealth that circulates within the confines of the casinos is halted at the doorsteps of highly occupied homeless shelters in “Casino City” (The Press of “Casino City”, 2005).

 

Specifically, the average median household income in “Casino City” is $26, 969, and 23.6% of population live below the poverty line, in comparison to only 8% within the entire state of New Jersey (Job Tipster, 2008). Again, they are casted there by the rising cost of housing, lack of stable employment, and the gutting of social entitlements. Specifically, in “Casino City”, house prices rose 23 percent in 2005, and on average a house sells for $300,000 (The Press of “Casino City”, 2005). In addition, many families are unable to afford market-rate rent for two-bedroom apartments. According to the director of the homeless shelter, which was the site of this critical qualitative research study [3], rent costs are minimally $700 a month, and job wages are typically $10 an hour in the service-oriented economy.  This disparity in wages and in housing leads to the inability of many to sustain “livable housing.”

 

Casino City” ranks seventh out of 574 districts in the Southern New Jersey area in terms of impoverished families (The Press of “Casino City”, 2005).  There is also a corresponding rise in the number of children in Southern New Jersey, an estimate of 744 youths between 2006-2007, who lived in poverty. With increasing poverty, homelessness, and urban blight, schools and their staff are pushing for greater acknowledgement of providing services beyond education to impoverished families, such as breakfast and after-school programs and health-care services.

 

Project Description

We called the critical service-learning project, Teacher Training with a Mission (TTM). The project, with a focus on bringing equity to children living in poverty, is unique to the state of New Jersey (Jenkins, 2008). In 2007-2008 academic year, there were thirty-four pre-service teachers who spent their time providing educational and social support to homeless children and their families. Although many of the pre-service teachers attended school full-time and worked full-time jobs, they found the project enriching. According to one pre-service teacher the service-learning project served as an “unofficial class” on diversity and equity (Jenkins, 2008, p. 34).

 

A total of ten male and female pre-service teachers took part in this research study. All of the participants identified as being White. They were willing to share their insights and perspectives in relation to what perpetuates homelessness, to the value of tutoring homeless children, and to the role schools and educators must play in extinguishing systemic barriers and subverting unjust practices that propel poverty, suffering and greed in “Casino City” and other urban contexts in North America. The participants gave their time, between six to ten hours per week, tutoring children in homeless shelter. They assisted children in the areas of academics, extracurricular activities, the arts, and informal counseling. Five participants also assisted the homeless youths’ parents in their preparation for the GED exam.

 

Data Collection

To complete this critical qualitative research study, data were collected using four processes. First, pre-service teachers completed a pre-survey on their reasons for joining the critical service-learning project. They detailed their expectations of working in a homeless shelter with homeless youths and their families, and highlighted what they perceived as barriers that homeless children face in becoming educated. Second, after each visit to the homeless shelter, the participants completed reflective journals on their experiences and thoughts in relation to tutoring children and working with families at the shelter. Third, upon completion of their service-work at the homeless shelter, the initial survey was recompleted to determine whether or not any changes occurred in their thoughts and attitudes towards homeless children and whether or not they held the critical capacity to recognize what constitutive forces, policies, and practices were responsible for the students’ and families’ unjust social realities.  Finally, the pre-service teachers participated in a focus group interview with the researchers. The duration of the interview lasted approximately 40 minutes. The researchers elicited the participants’ thoughts, experiences and pedagogical practices in relation to tutoring homeless children and whether they recognized the structural dynamics responsible for the debilitating conditions faced by homeless people inside and outside of this context.

 

Data Analysis

During the course of this study, we collected the participants’ journals and surveys to help us make sense of whether their perspectives were altered in relation to whether they recognized the social and economic forces causing poverty and homelessness. Part of our analysis also consisted of determining whether the participants incorrectly blamed the children and parents at the homeless shelter for the struggles they faced and for the blighted conditions within “Casino City.” Finally, we gauged whether the future teachers recognized the need for educators to bring awareness to what policies and practices cause homelessness and poverty in the US and other social contexts. Once data collection was completed, we collaboratively hand-coded the data into common themes that were evident across all of the pre-service teachers’ reflections, thoughts and experiences. As well, we situated the data within the framework of Critical White Studies to understand how the participants’ viewed homeless youths’ intellectual abilities, viewed the power dynamics (or lack thereof) impacting the social relationships between themselves and homeless youth and their families, and viewed their role as transformative intellectuals and cultural workers to improve the lives of homeless youth and other impoverished citizens.

 

White Pre-Service Teachers

Numerous scholars in the fields of multicultural education and Critical White Studies have documented how White pre-service teachers’ view the nature of social stratification in North American society (Marx, 2004; Sleeter, 1993, 2000; McIntyre, 1997; Muller & O’Conner, 2007; Carr & Lund, 2007; Solomon & Daniel, 2007). They tend to view the social fields in North America as open, fair, and equitable contexts, where individuals’ success is predicated on their hard work, intelligence, and effort.  In essence, they have unconsciously embraced the salutary discourse of meritocracy, which has blocked them from recognizing the systemic barriers and unjust practices that K-12 students and other social actors, who are marginalized on the structural axes of race, class, gender, and sexuality, encounter on an everyday basis in schools and in the wider society.  This has parlayed to many White pre-service teachers embracing “deficit perspectives” of the “Other,” as they (mis)cast their marginalized counterparts’ culture as being the raison d’être for their marginalized subject positions. 

 

In terms of schooling, White pre-service teachers tend to believe, incorrectly, that minoritized students and low-income students from the dominant culture perform poorly in school because they have “ limited intellectual abilities, linguistic shortcomings, lack of motivation to learn and immoral behavior” (Valencia, 1997, p. 2).  For example, Marx (2004) documents how White pre-service teachers held pernicious views of ELL students’ linguistic capabilities, families’ home values, and intellectual capabilities, when they conducted fieldwork in the Southwestern part of the US.  They felt the aforementioned factors, rather than systemic inequalities, were responsible for the students’ poor academic performance. 

 

Service-Learning and Teacher Education

Wade (2007) defines community service-learning as community-based service activities with an integration of academic skills and structured reflection on that service and its connection to course content (Mitchell, 2007). In the field of education, service-learning programs have extensively grown in K-12 classrooms across the nation as well as in college and universities, and seek to be used as a mechanism for promoting students’ self-esteem and civic responsibility (Wade, 2007). It is one key pedagogical approach that has been used in schools of education to push White pre-service teachers to have positive views of minorities students’ culture, to recognize the constitutive factors and unjust practices inside and outside of K-12 classrooms that account for impoverished students’ poor educational performance, and to recognize the importance of schoolteachers working actively outside the classroom to dismantle social inequalities. Unfortunately, many service-learning programs have failed to broaden the perspectives of pre-service teachers so as to position them to hold socially just educational personas. This method of community service is often neglectful as it pushes pre-service teachers to view charity as the solution to the economic marginalization of impoverished youths and families, without critically examining the root causes of institutional classism, racism, and homelessness and their concomitant effects on the intellectual performance of minoritized youths (Wade, 2007).

 

Critical-Service Learning

Fortunately, over the past twelve years, several scholars and practitioners have recognized the limitations of service-learning. They have taken the traditional concept of service-learning and reconfigured it to be “critical service-learning.”  This form of service-learning is embedded with a social justice orientation and a commitment to guiding pre-service teachers to develop the skills, ideas, and attributes necessary to foster social justice and equity in K-12 schools and other contexts (Mitchell, 2007). It pushes pre-service teachers past doing simple volunteer work and meeting school course requirements; rather, critical scholars illustrate how service-learning can be transgressive when future teachers are asked to question the distribution of power in society as well as asked to reflect on ‘Why are conditions like this in the first place?’ rather than ‘How can we help these people?’(Mitchell,  2007).  Critical-service learning projects also ask in-service and pre-service teachers to examine what gives rise to social inequalities and to analyze the persistence of “systemic barriers that thwart the achievement of students coming from marginalized backgrounds” (Brathwaite & Porfilio, 2004). They also attempt to forge authentic relationships between higher education institutions and the community served (Mitchell, 2007; Wade, 2007; Swaminathan, 2007).

 

The critical service-learning project presented in this article was designed to permit the future teachers at “Casino College” to mentor and tutor homeless youths at a homeless shelter located within “Casino City”.  However, they were enrolled in various sections of a course—Family, Schools, and Communities—which was designed to provide them with the theoretical insights in relation to how the larger structures of power in North America perpetuate the oppression that homeless youths and their families experience in urban contexts across North America.  The course content was also supposed to help them grapple with how their racial class status affords them and their peers’ unearned privilege within the various social contexts they traverse.  Finally, the course was supposed to help them reflect upon what types of pedagogies and curricula are most aligned within guiding K-12 students to understand what causes injustice and inequity in schools and in society.

 

As we will illustrate below, the coursework, along with the critical-service project, was only moderately successfully in preparing future teachers to possess the critical insight and courage necessary to join the emancipatory project to eliminate oppression at today’s historical juncture. 

 

Homelessness and the Perception of Deficits

Through the participants’ initial surveys and journal reflections, it became apparent that eight participants held the hegemonic view of why homeless youths and their families are impoverished and required the homeless shelter to provide them with food, clothing, and living quarters.  They, like the majority of US citizens, believed the homeless youths and their families embraced values and character traits that perpetuated their economic and social marginalization, rather than viewing their social and economic marginality as a product of unjust social and economic structures that are inextricably linked to plundering humanity and the environment.  The virulent narrative that has been internalized by most US citizens and most schoolteachers holds that poverty emanates from the “Other” holding a poor work ethic, from lacking motivation to succeed in schools or in the working world, or upholding values and dispositions that are not in line with the dominant culture. (Prins & Schafft, 2009, p. 2).  The narrative, therefore, also upholds Whiteness as the social marker that confers intelligence and social and economic power to people in North American society.  Seemingly, this means that poverty could be washed away if people who are marginalized by their racial class status deconstructed their identities and embraced attributes and characteristics, such as intelligence, work ethic, positive view of schooling, language, and stable family structures, which have been socially attached to the White middle-class strata in the US since the 17th century.[4]

 

Deficits in Intelligence and Work Ethic

For example, five of the participants embraced the virulent narrative associated with being impoverished or homeless in the US.  Their comments indicate that they feel homeless children and their families might not be as intelligent or hardworking as compared to people who embrace values supposedly attached to the White middle-class, or who seemingly are enlightened by merely their dominant racial position.  After her first foray of tutoring homeless children, Grace implied that the youths’ cultural background perpetuated their lack of focus and lack of drive to succeed in school, rather than questioning the neoliberal policies and practices inhibiting their ability and/or lack of drive to succeed in school.  Unlike their more affluent White peers, she felt the underprivileged children lack the ability to “concentrate and train their brains.” Janet also held a deficit view of children in poverty.  She equated their marginalized subject position with a lack of intelligence. She felt that being impoverished prevents homeless youths to have “intelligent people around them.” To further their pedestrian views of homeless youths and what fuels some of their social dislocation inside and outside of K-12 classrooms, Katie, in a focus group session, suggested her Whiteness gave her the power to “further (her) education and her work ethic, whereas minoritized youths’ cultural background a priori prevents them from having this “type of drive and easily distracts them and makes them give up so easily (in school). This is unfortunate.”

 

Three other participants’ initial journal reflections also illustrate that they held prefigured views of how homeless youths’ perceived themselves and whether they held any redeemable social qualities associated with having a positive self-concept. For instance, Jimmy’s narrative is representative of three participants’ comments. He was surprised that homeless children had a “positive attitude and grateful outlook on life, and were capable of loving.”  What Jimmy’s narrative failed to say is equally important for how he viewed homeless youths.  It seems that he expected them to be depressed, withdrawn, lack enthusiasm, and be incapable of developing caring and supporting relationships with each other and their tutors. 

 

Deficit in families and of values surrounding schooling

Like other critical service-learning studies, which have mined pre-service teachers’ perceptions of tutoring minoritized youths, six of the participants’ initial narratives also suggest that they felt the homeless parents’ cultural background was a detriment in positioning their children to succeed in school (Marx, 2004; Sleeter, 1993, 2000; Valencia, 1997). Andy mistakenly believed that education was not high on the parents’ “list of priorities,” rather than pointing out that many parents at the shelter wanted to provide their children with the best education possible so as to help them grow emotionally, intellectually, and socially through the schooling process. Judy also notes that homeless youths’ families fail to make education a priority at home because the children’s “moms are off worrying about themselves,” instead of taking a “strict role-model approach” to helping their children succeed in school.  She, like her pre-service teacher counterpart Andy, also fails to see how debilitating conditions within “Casino City” are causing homeless families to “worry about themselves” and are left by themselves to continually remedy their “unstable” living situations. They also were not cognizant of how the capitalist system makes finding jobs, securing housing, and procuring clothing the immediate realities and chief priorities for the families at the shelter. Finally, Judy fails to recognize how a “strict role-model” to teaching does little to improve children’s educational performance, reduce corporate downsizing, and provide daycare, food, clothing, shelter, and other essential services for US families. In reality, a “strict-role model’ approach, along with the lack of social entitlements, not only accounts in large for homeless youths’ disengagement from the schooling process, but also contributes to White pre-service teachers and other members of the dominant culture “blaming the victims” for the unjust conditions that are of no fault of their own.

 

“I feel sorry for these kids:” White Guilt perpetuating a “White Savior” Approach to Ameliorating Homelessness

Since none of the participants encountered the stark social conditions faced by homeless youths and their families in “Casino City”, many of them started to take inventory, possibly for the first time, of how their racial class status shielded them from having to endure pain and alienation experienced by impoverished people at the homeless shelter in particular and in other debilitated social contexts in general.  However, there are often risks associated with having White future teachers unpack the unearned privileges they accrue from occupying privilege subject positions along the structural axes of race, class, gender or sexuality.  As several transformative scholars note, when White pre-service teachers decenter their racial, class, gender or sexual privilege, they often become sadden or feel guilty that the social and economic structures of North American society function to oppress most citizens, while operating simultaneously to privilege people who control the means of production, who hold the power over knowledge production in various discursive sites or who are shielded, due to their skin color or gendered status, from grappling with systemic barriers and unjust practices (Sleeter , 1993, 2000, McIntyre, 1997; Lawerence &Tatum, 2005; Marx, 2004).  In this case, having a mole’s-eye view of how the larger social structure oppresses many families and children of color in “Casino City”, led several of the participants to feel “bad,” “tremendously sorry,” and wished they “could do more” for the people inhabiting the homeless shelter. However, the modus operandi of their tutoring and mentoring work was very similar to that of other White middle-class reformers who set their sights on “uplifting” the poor in urban contexts in the age of industrial capitalism in the US.[5]  It was about validating their own apparent sense of goodness and righteousness and reinforcing their belief in the myth that the social and economic structures are fair and open, instead of thinking of creative ways to work with the “Other” to challenge the social and economic status quo and to build a society that is predicated on eradicating racism, classism, and other unjust formations.

 

In the tutors’ jaundiced eyes, impoverished peoples can be just like them, so long as they mirror the values and behaviors that supposedly kept the tutors out of poverty and put them on the course to become educators. The tutors’ actions in and of themselves seemingly have the power to create an angelic path to lift their tutees out of poverty. The tutors seem to perceive that their privileged racial and class position affords them “god-like qualities”. According to several participants, their tutoring is “like heaven because we are one of the few who care,” it instills in children “an intrinsic level of motivation when it comes to education, it has the power to help children “succeed in life,” and it will give children “social skills and self-confidence” that the participants seemly garnered from their privileged racial class background. 

 

 

 

 

Raising Awareness and Disrupting Stereotypes: Pre-service teachers’ newfound perspectives of homeless families, youths, and homelessness

 

During the start of the second semester of their tutoring, four pre-service teachers began to reconceptualize their perceptions in relation to the youths and their families located at “Casino City’s” homeless shelter.  Instead of holding a deficit view of the families and youths at the shelter, as social actors whose values, behaviors, and dispositions are responsible for their displaced state, the future teachers perceived them as holding character traits that are aligned with social and economic success in North American society.  For instance, unlike her initial characterization of homeless families as not concerned about their children’s well-being, not concerned for their children’s educational success, and as lacking ambition to gain stable employment, Betty believed many of the homeless mothers were “friendly and supported their children’s educational development,” the families provided “supportive networks” to help their children succeed in K-12 classrooms, were “very concerned” about their children’s well-being, and the families actively forged a community to find employment and to provide emotional and social support for the various youths residing at the shelter.  Similarly, four participants who initially felt the youths, like their parents, held some of the same negative character traits and lacked the intellectual capability to obtain educational and economic success came to hold a positive view of youths and their potential to succeed in schools and to contribute to the betterment of society.  For instance, they felt the children had a “wide-range of abilities,” were “smart and independent learners,” and were “caring, kind, and thoughtful.”

 

Three participants also made the important link that abject conditions, such as lack of food, clothing, safe or permanent living quarters, transportation, educational resources in and outside K-12 classrooms, hinder youths’ ability to socialize and to learn. They no longer held a deficit view of the urban youths and their families’ attitudes, character traits, and values, and no longer “blamed the victims” for the oppression they grappled within the shelter and within their daily lives. (Valencia, 1997; Huus, 2009).  For instance, they will now consider “students’ situations outside of school before labeling them as the disruptive kids in class,” will “look at a situation in the community or how homelessness affects kids’ performance in the classroom,” and will “look at the whole picture to determine what is causing students to misbehave.”

 

Finally, one future teacher provided a deeper level of analysis in relation to what steps must be taken to bludgeon structural impediments that foster poverty in various urban communities. She also appeared to hold a socially-just persona. She recognized that schoolteachers must work with other concerned citizens to eliminate social inequalities in K-12 classrooms and in the wider society. For instance, during the focus group session, she noted that the educational and social systems in North America must be altered to build a participatory democracy at the “grassroots” level, where the social and economic concerns of all people are considered, where policies are created to “meet the needs of citizens”, and where the purpose of education is designed to “produce critical thinking adults who will eventually participate in this world and in a democratic society”.  She also believes that schoolteachers must join other cultural workers outside the classroom to eliminate poverty, to create a curriculum that is relevant to urban youths’ lives, and to make homeless youths aware of how North American social structures operate to cause social and economic problems in their communities.

 

Lessons from the Project and Future Directions

Although the critical service-learning project proved instrumental in helping four pre-service teachers understand the systemic nature of homelessness and in developing an appreciation for homeless children and their families, the project did not position six pre-service teachers to recognize the social forces responsible for poverty and for homelessness. It also did not make them aware that educators must strive to eliminate oppression inside and outside of their classrooms if schools are to become beacons of democracy and social justice during the 21st century. The most immediate barrier to guiding White pre-service teachers to become stewards of social and cultural transformation is the failure of “Casino College” to link the purpose of education to bringing awareness to and the eradication of social class inequalities.  For instance, unlike the one course and one critical service-learning activity designed to broaden White pre-service teachers’ views on social stratification and on homelessness within “Casino City”, institutions of higher education in the US, like Seattle University, ensure that a social justice perspective is infused across the teacher education spectrum as well as fostered in other disciplines.  Institutions, which aim to prepare future teachers to hold socially-just personas, also have the foresight to create numerous service-learning opportunities for pre-service teachers that continually encourage them to question what fuels power imbalances in schools, in society, and within their lived worlds. They also advocate for marginalized groups and secure resources that improve the quality of life in urban contexts (Cuban & Anderson, 2007, p.145).

 

Another instrumental barrier in the process of helping future teachers develop socially-just personas is providing them with a more ecumenical view of urban communities, one that not only makes them aware of the social arrangements causing oppression in these contexts, but also encourages them to recognize the strengths and assets of communities rather than viewing their problems (Sleeter & Montecinos, 1999; Sleeter, 2000).  This type of perspective is needed to help future teachers view their students, parents, and community members as critical subjects who hold the capacity to build movements of solidarity against the neoliberal agenda. It is also needed for them to learn the importance of crossing race and class borders to engage in true dialogue with students and to form equalitarian partnerships with urban communities. This will ensure that all constituents are involved in community-based learning projects (Sleeter & Montecinos, 1999, p.114).  For instance, Stovall (2006, p. 100) illustrates how two community groups, which are located on Chicago’s southwest, had the power to overcome the unjust schooling experiences afforded to their children. The children were force to attend dilapidated, segregated, and overcrowded buildings without either their parents’ or guardians’ voices influencing the schooling process. Schoolteachers engaged in an authentic dialogue with the constituents to determine what role they ought to play in improving the children’s schooling experiences. They assisted in creating an educational initiative, which was reflective of the needs and concerns of students, parents and other community members, to build a well-funded, neighborhood high school. This school reflected the values of the community-based partnership, as it was centered on the values of “democracy, community, ownership, and self-discipline” rather than on the ideals associated with commercialized schooling, such as competition, consumerism, and rugged individualism. 

 

To embolden the critical service-learning experience at “Casino College”, we have shared our findings with colleagues, administrators, and pre-service teachers at the institution and have connected with community leaders in “Casino City”.  The process to guide future teachers to recognize the constitutive forces behind homelessness, the importance, to take inventory of what causes social inequalities within schools and other contexts, and the need to join collective movements to build an equalitarian world will be arduous since   many of the teacher educators at “Casino College”, like teachers educators within most schools of education, have failed themselves to recognize the need to prepare future teachers to glean how neoliberal polices and practices are cutting the humane nature of education, perpetuating economic and social dislocation in urban contexts, and spawning social relations of oppression across the globe (Hinchey & Cadiero-Kaplan, 2005; McLaren, 2005; Porfilio & Yu, 2006; Porfilio, 2007).  Moreover, the administration at the “Casino College” has also questioned the feasibility of revamping the teacher education program, so that a socially-just perspective is infused in all coursework and in all service-learning activities. They believe that this will require adding additional courses to the program designated for pre-service teachers. The additional coursework may ultimately decrease enrollment and cut into the College’s profits. Some prospective pre-service teachers may opt to enroll in other teacher education programs in New Jersey to obtain their teaching credentials, as the requirements at these institutions would be less burdensome.

 

Despite some of the challenges we have faced in modifying the service-learning project and teacher education program, we have continued to take steps to guide more future teachers to adopt socially-just personas. For instance, we have begun to design a mission statement and coursework that are reflective of the need to prepare future teachers to excavate social class inequalities in their classrooms, to engage in true dialogue and formulate authentic relationships with oppressed community members, and to question how neoliberal policies impact their lives and their views of students. We have also invited various contingencies from “Casino City” to share their stories of how neoliberal capitalism has intensified suffering and dislocation in their community as well as to suggest how future teachers can join them to design initiatives, which have the power to ameliorate their schools and community. Clearly, the struggle to prepare future teachers to become transformative intellectuals will continue to be difficult, but it is needed if we are to end the destructive path of neoliberalism, the ideological doctrine insidiously responsible for the class-based oppression present in “Casino City” and the pain, suffering and misery girding social relationships across the planet. 

 

Conclusion

This essay shows that critical-service learning initiatives have the power to guide some White pre-service teachers to recognize that poverty, homelessness, and urban decay are perpetuated by neoliberal capitalism, instead of being fostered by urban children and their families’ culture, intellect, language, or home values. The students also developed a newfound appreciation for homeless youths’ intellectual capabilities. They now consider their students’ backgrounds as resources to fostering a learning environment conducive to ensuring all children learn, rather than viewing their students’ backgrounds as deficits that merely inhibit them from learning. One pre-service teacher also developed a deeper analysis of what perpetuates social inequalities and recognized the immediate need for educators to teach for social and personal transformation in K-12 classrooms.

 

Yet, the majority of participants in this study failed to dislodge their view of social stratification. They view poverty and homelessness as individual phenomena and blamed homeless children and their families for the social conditions in “Casino City,” for poverty, and for being homelessness.  They also failed to acknowledge that poverty and homelessness can only be eliminated if educators, their students and other citizens aim to eradicate social class inequalities.

 

Finally, the project shows that schools of education must strive to link a social-justice perspective to all coursework and in all service-learning activities. That is, if future teachers are to understand what causes social inequalities, to hold a positive view of homeless youths, and to eradicate injustice through their teaching and cultural work.

 

Endnotes

[1] Scholars in the field of critical white studies have examined how whiteness is socially and historically constructed within institutions in Western society. They also make sense of how the racial identity of social actors who are considered White often block them from recognizing how the institutions in Western society confer unearned power and privilege on the basis of race, class, gender, and sexuality.

 

[2] Casino College, Casino City and Casino Press are all pseudonyms. Names of the academic institution, city and newspaper have been changed to protect the privacy of our informants.

 

[3] We believed that critical qualitative research must be a transformative endeavor. Like Kincheloe and McLaren (2000, p. 291). Critical qualitative research must confront “injustice of a particular society”. Here the critical service-learning project is designed to bring awareness to the role neoliberal policies and practices are playing and perpetuating homelessness in urban contexts across the US.

 

[4] The Othering process in the US began when European colonists enslaved Africans, enslaved First Nations’ people and indentured servants and other plantation workers from the dominant culture. They deemed the masses as uncivilized, wretched, and unproductive and generated policies that blocked them from voting, from holding property, and from participating in events that concerned the colonial society, while concomitantly, characterizing themselves as  “industrious, knowledgeable, virtuous, and law-abiding” (Feagin, 2001, p. 75).  Feagin (2001) also details how the configuration of Whiteness also ensured that indentured servants and other dispossessed workers identified as being “White,” which throttled the workers during colonial times from seeing how the larger social and economic arrangements only served the interests of the elite plantation and business owners rather than supporting the interest of all citizens, irrespective if they were considered themselves as occupying the same racialized position as the dominant stakeholders.

 

[5] For instance, during the Victorian Era in the US some White middle-class female reformers engaged in charity work to support a small number of unfortunates (Hoganson, 2001). Unfortunately, their work merely created an erroneous distraction from bringing awareness to how industrial capitalism was the real culprit of the oppression face by the “Other.”

 

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