Reflexivity and Relationality in Global Service Learning

Authors: Katie Macdonald (Athabasca University) , Jessica Vorstermans (York University) , Eric Hartman (Haverford College) , Richard Kiely (Cornell University)

  • Reflexivity and Relationality in Global Service Learning

    Reflexivity and Relationality in Global Service Learning

    Authors: , , ,


This outro is a generative collective conversation between emerging and established scholars in the field of Global Service Learning, at this moment in pandemic time. We met, on zoom, to think expansively about what these pandemic times of rupture have opened up for us in our scholarship and practice. Our orientation was towards reflexivity and relationality. We developed questions to guide our conversation in these two areas, and each of us responded to the questions and to each other. We think together about our own positionalities and ways that we are called to GSL in ways that are explicitly relational. We end by reflection on our own commitments to the field of GSL and why we stay in it knowing the contradictions, the extractive nature of the field, the deep need for decolonization and fraughtness of the space.

How to Cite:

Macdonald, K., Vorstermans, J., Hartman, E. & Kiely, R., (2022) “Reflexivity and Relationality in Global Service Learning”, Michigan Journal of Community Service Learning 28(2): 5. doi:



In her chapter “Biting the University That Feeds Us,” Eve Tuck (2018) suggests we might focus on theories of change that are embedded in our research. Tuck charts her recent thinking (Tuck, 2009, 2012; Tuck & Yang, 2012) about the embedded theories of change in research and argues that these theories are often “unexpressed and unconsidered” (Tuck, 2018, p. 157). Tuck suggests that the two most dominant theories of change in research are documenting damage and raising awareness, and she questions their efficacy. In her chapter, Tuck offers an opportunity to sit in the complexity of working within institutions and reckoning with the harm that they enact. She says, “There are parts of the higher-education project that are too invested in settler colonialism to be rescued … there are parts of academic labour that might be refused in order to generate new possibilities” (p. 149).

Of course, theories of change are also abundant in both the research and practice of global service learning (GSL) because that is the purpose of programming—through transformative learning experiences, the idea that students, and potentially hosts, will contribute to a different future. And, as many scholars have demonstrated (e.g., Greenwood, 2012), the neoliberal university is a fraught location to attempt to do something different. In this outro, we open up a conversation between four scholars in the field: Richard Kiely and Eric Hartman (who authored special sections of the Michigan Journal of Community Service Learning in 2014 and 2015) and the editors of this special section, Jessica Vorstermans and Katie MacDonald. In their special section, Eric and Richard outlined their histories and investments in GSL (Hartman & Kiely, 2014), just as Katie and Jessica do in the introduction to this section.

As four White settler scholars, we situate our learning in relation to the ruptures of the introduction (the COVID-19 pandemic, increased mainstream awareness of the Black and Indigenous Lives Matter movements, and support and need for mutual aid as one of privilege). We must ask about our investments in the structures, institutions, and programs that perpetuate harm and be curious about our desire to rescue them and ask to what end and for whose benefit. We offer this conversation between the four of us as a rumination on our relationships to practices of global service learning and how they are situated in the greater context of higher education, extractive research practices, and settler colonialism. This is one part of our answers to Métis scholar LaRocque (2010), who suggests that “sons and daughters of colonizers need, even more than us, to dismantle their colonial constructs” (p. 162).

What are some of the troubles and possibilities of GSL etc. being situated in the university context?

K: I feel like this question really pulls out some of the tension that I feel like I have been grappling with so much of my adult life—Do I work within systems or outside of them? In what ways does continuing in an institution maintain its legitimacy, especially when we know that the institution extracts and performs critical work as a demonstration of doing something different without meaningful change. How do we refuse labor, as Tuck (2018) suggests, in a way that is meaningful?

Something that this question makes me think about, though, is a repeated experience that I have had when presenting on critical perspectives of international service learning (ISL)—and especially when I make the suggestion that perhaps people should just not participate in programs. The reaction is something like this: “But, look at YOU! You are so critical now, and you are working in ISL differently, and surely this critical, engaged scholar before us is worth this learning experience, even if it is fraught!” And what has always struck me about this kind of response is the pedagogical assumptions: that my experiences participating in GSL (ostensibly two different trips of 2 months each) were the pedagogical crux of any learning (what Shea, Grenier, and Harkins in this issue call the power of proximity) rather than extensive studies through my degrees, which were focused on GSL or the mentorship and conversations with community members, academics, and activists after these trips. While they may be a part of my learning, they are certainly not a part of GSL programming. Also, the benefit of this work in the long term is framed in the transformation of the student-participant. Not once in any of the presentations in which these issues come up has anyone asked me about the lasting impact on communities.

J: This piece of “Do I work within systems or outside of them?” really resonates for me too. Tuck (2018) asks us as researchers in the neoliberal university to ask ourselves whether we “need research or do we need organizing?” (p. 155). I guess my orientation is toward organizing, and it is helpful for me to remind myself that the university is a site of struggle (Walcott, 2020). What does this look like for GSL research and practice at this time?

R: The university as a “site of struggle” is an apt description for how I view my ongoing relationship with institutions of higher education as a place where GSL might thrive. My first experience with GSL was in 1994 as an adjunct instructor teaching at a community college in Upstate New York, at the same time bell hooks’s book Teaching to Transgress was published. The experience engaging in a GSL program focused on public health issues with mostly nursing and some pre-med students, a faculty partner (a nursing professor), and community members (doctors, nurses, health practitioners, church leaders and members, patients and families, and a network of many other stakeholders) in Puerto Cabezas, Nicaragua, was an expression of transgression—what hooks (1994) calls “a movement against and beyond boundaries” of what it meant to be an educator, researcher, and administrator pushing against and going beyond the boundaries of the institution I was a part of (p. 27). That initial GSL experience made me fundamentally question my assumptions on the role and purpose of higher education (that is, the culture, norms, policies, resource allocations, organizational structure, and relationship with communities) and my role within the institution. At the same time, given how counter-normative GSL was at the time as the only program of its kind at the community college, I had no theoretical framework or set of principles to point to or draw from to guide my practice. And, importantly, other than a graduate degree in international relations, teaching experience with adults, and fluency in Spanish, I had absolutely no specific practical training or professional experience in GSL that might have equipped me with the skills and knowledge to facilitate such a complex educational endeavor. And, yet, it was the most powerful teaching and learning experience I had been a part of.

E: GSL is terminology I no longer use. I’m looking at this question as the challenge of situating ethical, robust, community-based global learning (CBGL) within higher education institutions (MacDonald and Vorstermans cite our 2018 definition in the introduction to this issue, which is our definition of CBGL). And I always think this question is backwards. What are the dangers of continuing “higher education” the way it has been done—at least in terms of the dominant model—for the last couple hundred years?

My roots with CBGL trace to doing work outside of institutions and formal learning structures. As we say in our book, universities (the colonialist arbiters of where recognized knowledge lives) will decide what gets accredited. But we know—through a variety of lived, felt, experienced, and studied interactions—that robust and transformative learning occurs through community-led, situationally relevant, carefully mentored, collaborative work to deepen our understandings of one another and co-create more just, inclusive, sustainable communities and structures.

Yes. The university is a site of struggle. As a person who has had opportunities to facilitate accredited recognition and/or university funding of BIPOC-led story-sharing and language advocacy, I see the struggle not through the lens of the troubles of GSL, but rather as the ongoing effort to make space for CBGL as a better kind of learning, acting, and enacting toward justice. I take direction from la paperson (2017), who writes of the actions that individuals (cyborgs) may undertake to leverage higher education systems (s-) toward decolonizing activities within, against, and beyond those existing systems. Thus, “scyborgs” within university landscapes may take decolonizing actions:

The scyborg loves dirty work… . Categorical thinking is not the point. Nothing is too dirty for scyborg dreaming: MBA programs, transnational capital, Department of Defense grants. Scyborgs are ideology-agnostic, which creates possibilities in every direction… . This is why some of you are not always decolonial in behavior. Thankfully, your newly assembled machine will break down. Some other scyborgs will reassemble the busted gears to drive decolonial dreams. (la paperson, 2017, p. 65)

K: I am so struck by Richard’s story, here, of this transformative experience at the beginning of GSL or CBGL, as Eric has said here. My research interests are less taxonomy of programming types right now and more the structural inspired, as this section was, by the calling out of unequal systems that is modeled by BLM, Idle No More, and other BIPOC-led movements. There are two things that I am thinking here. First, what are the reforms to GSL that we should oppose? I am thinking here of Mariame Kaba’s work but especially her 2014 piece about which police reforms to oppose—What are the reforms that serve the institution (or that the institution will exploit to serve its purpose)? Second, how might we remember this legacy of GSL being something radical, as Richard says? I have been sitting a lot with this history of internationalism in Nicaragua (Helm, 2014; van Ommen, 2016) and how strategic and structured visits by internationals were by the Sandinistas. I have thought a bit about it in the context of GSL (MacDonald & Vorstermans, 2022), but I think really grappling with the complexities of histories in place (including settler colonialism where our universities stand), centering hosts, and carefully refusing reform is a way forward.

What is the role of reflexivity and relationality in GSL?

J: These two huge complex areas are what came up for the four of us as we thought together about this moment of rupture in GSL. As we discussed Tuck’s calls to us as researchers, Richard named reflexivity and how this informs ways we work with communities and what it means to be relational as central to thinking about GSL research. Recent interviews with organizers in the U.S. context about the practice of hope brought out this statement from Hope Praxis Collective: “Hope has been difficult for me to resonate with because it’s been very tied to whiteness” (Hayes, 2022). I think a lot about ways that my positionality informs my relationship to hope and ways this has been ruptured, to some extent, by the pandemic. Things certainly feel less hopeful now, and I guess being in relation with others is what keeps me committed to hope as a practice (Kaba, 2021).

My introduction to GSL was through a small organization called Intercordia Canada. I was a third-year undergraduate student and went to live with a family in Cuendina, Ecuador, for 3 months, where I volunteered in a school. The heart of the program was relationships across difference. But before this, my introduction to transnational movements and struggles was through my childhood in L’Arche (, an international federation of communities where people with and without intellectual disabilities share life together, intentionally, in community. I grew up in a community in Canada, welcoming delegations from India, Ukraine, and Honduras: the language of relationship across difference being at the heart of social change has been a truth that I grew up with and the messiness of which I have experienced in practice. I recently read an interview with abolitionist educator and organizer Mariame Kaba (2021), where she talks about growing up with a father who was an organizer and how this formed her orientation in the world as an internationalist. She reflected on him saying, “You are interconnected to everyone, because the world doesn’t work without everyone” (Kaba, 2021, p. 178). I felt this orientation to relationality deeply. For me, growing up in a radical alternative community, I, too, was steeped in a mutually shared belief that we are interconnected and that those most marginalized, people with intellectual disability labels, must be part of the collective as they bring beautiful gifts to the relationship. For me, GSL has to be relational, has to be rooted in relationships of mutuality, which take time, work, and care.

R: As a graduate student at Cornell University 1998 to 2002, conflicted about whether higher education was a place to engage in impactful change-making, social justice work, I found a home away from home as a member of the Cornell Participatory Action Research Network (CPARN; Armstrong, 2014). I received substantial mentorship from faculty and graduate student peers in CPARN who introduced me to a research process and design that critiqued conventional social science research and that involved collaboration with community members to generate knowledge that was meant to be actionable and useful for addressing a shared problem or need. Their mentorship exposed me to a network of scholar-practitioners across the globe who engaged in various forms of participatory action research (PAR) and popular education (Barazangi, 2006; Greenwood, 2012; Greenwood & Levin, 1998; Park et al., 1993) and led me to critically examine different research paradigms and ask questions about power, positionality, knowledge construction, and social change. Engaging with the CPARN and community of practice offered multiple opportunities to engage in dialogue and to critically reflect on assumptions pertaining to the research process: that is, Who constructs knowledge? Whose knowledge counts? Who benefits? And who is harmed by the research process? As mentors, Deshler and Grudens-Schuck (2000) explain, “Talking about power in the research process alerts us to the way that elites may shape researchers’ questions or use outcomes of research to maintain exploitative relationships” (p. 592). Emily Morrison, who wrote about the value of reflexivity in the previous MJCSL special section on GSL, articulated this sentiment: “to prevent doing harm, increase the quality of our research, and deepen our understanding of GSL, we need to engage in a continuous practice of reflexivity, paying particular attention to our research paradigm(s) and assumptions” (2015, p. 56). In terms of reflexivity in GSL, the central question for me is, How might we ethically engage with communities to democratize knowledge generation and apply that knowledge and learning to transform relations of power in order to affect social change?

E: I want to share here a quote that may be problematic in some ways yet is, I think, also extremely important. The potentially problematic pieces are the reduction of people to categories, such as “the poor,” and the potential implication that it is the job of “the poor” to teach people who are better resourced in economic terms. But I think it’s much more complicated than that. The quote comes from a key founder in liberation theology, Gustavo Gutiérrez (1983):

If I define my neighbor as the one I must go out to look for, on the highways and byways, in the factories and slums, on the farms and in the mines—then my world changes. This is what is happening with the “option for the poor,” for in the gospel it is the poor person who is the neighbor par excellence… . But the poor person does not exist as an inescapable fact of destiny. His or her existence is not politically neutral, and it is not ethically innocent. The poor are a by-product of the system in which we live and for which we are responsible. They are marginalized by our social and cultural world. They are the oppressed, exploited proletariat, robbed of the fruit of their labor and despoiled of their humanity. Hence the poverty of the poor is not a call to generous relief action, but a demand that we go and build a different social order. (pp. 44–45)

The first piece about this that I find powerful and relevant is the suggestion that everyone is a neighbor, coupled with the directive to seek neighbors where one might not identify them already. Gutiérrez calls us to think more expansively than the relationality and sense of “community” that we tend to get conditioned into, at least in the Western imagination. I think this critical question is constantly surfaced in quality CBGL: Who am I, how am I formed by and through others, and what must we do together to co-create more just futures moving forward? For me personally, this especially includes work on myself and in my communities that I personally need to do as a White man in the United States! Our own identities and positionalities are important in the work we must do, and as educators and facilitators, it’s vital that we make space welcoming for students of all identities as we cross various borders in CBGL (Hartman et al., 2020).

The questions, “Who am I, how am I formed by and through others, and what must we do together to co-create more just futures moving forward?” can only be answered through relationships and, especially, through unlikely relationships. CBGL draws folks into one another across perceived differences and inherited fault lines and asks, How can we be generative together, toward more liberatory futures? That requires profound critical reflection to reimagine what is possible and identify entrenched assumptions and practices that continue to cause harm. This is the case whether that relationship building occurs three or three thousand miles from home, if the reflection is rooted in better understanding of self in a global context or rooted in the sacred dignity of the people and ecologies that surround and support us. It leads to very specific actions at home, in community, and with consciousness that extends beyond immediate relationships. We continue, in both broader data and individual stories, to see learners shift their perspectives, beliefs, and behaviors to connect specific actions with more global orientations.

K: It’s powerful to hear people’s stories of transformation. For me, as a White settler scholar, reflexivity is about really thinking about my role—is it my turn to speak here, should I be offering something or is listening better, what work can I do to make space for others, how can I refuse the institution and power? I am a (sort of) sociologist, and I teach in areas of community development, inequity, and policy. When I talk with students about social problems, one of the things I try to highlight for them, inspired by the relational poverty network and Nicaraguans who I lived and worked with, is the connections between power and privilege. So, for example, when I talk about climate crisis, we will talk specifically about cases like destructive mining practices that are enabled by the Canadian government’s policies and how that mirrors extraction and dispossession on Indigenous land here (Thomas & Coburn, 2022). How can we bring these stories and these questions to GSL? Not just a vague kind of global citizenship where we care about all others but instead a specific kind of growth that enables students to engage in action. I am thinking of Bob Huish’s articles about student experiential learning being to fundraise to help people escape North Korea (Huish, 2018) or to organize a protest (Huish, 2013). How do we provide learning experiences through mutuality and solidarity and enable students to continue to enact this learning in their lives?

What are some ways that we might refuse extractive and exploitative relations in GSL both in individual programmatic ways and in the larger institutional home?

J: This has been a constant for Katie and me in our research and practice. Something that just came up at my current institution, a large research university in Canada, highlights the irreconcilableness of doing critical community-engaged work within a colonial institution. I was sending funds to a community partner in the Global South. The only mechanism to do this is through our institutional bank, which employs Western Union to make the transfer. The community partner expressed their opposition for ethical and also logistic reasons. Western Union, charging high fees, preys on their communities, and they have experienced significant problems with receiving money from Canada through Western Union. They asked whether we could make the transfer a different way. The response from my university was that it was Western Union or nothing. How do we do different relations in this context? We proceeded with the transfer, and it took over 6 months to complete due to complications, causing significant labor and difficulty for the community partner. We were unable to refuse. The only offering was a redistribution of budget to compensate for the labor, but the complicity with Western Union remained. I have since presented at a global health workshop with researchers at my institution and have connected with others who expressed their own challenges of doing things differently within institutions. We have started to discuss places within the institution where we can speak back to harmful policies and practices and have community-centered policies and practices in all sites of the university (e.g., finance office).

R: There is still so much work to do in terms of “disrupting,” shifting, and transforming the culture of institutions of higher education so that the mission, resources, policies, norms, and practices align with and support ethical and equitable engagement with local, regional, and international communities. When Eric and I first conceived of establishing what is now the Community-Based Global Learning Collaborative as a knowledge hub and global network of educational institutions and community organizations advancing ethical, critical, aspirationally decolonial community-based learning and research for more just, inclusive, and sustainable communities, our central goal was to share knowledge with a growing GSL community on relevant theories and good practices to address the potential harm caused to participants and communities because of community-engaged activities performed by unprepared volunteers and poorly managed GSL programs. In fact, our first website (the precursor to the current CBGL Collaborative website) had a specific tab called “danger” meant to alert people to the complex and unpredictable nature of GSL work in community, the potential to cause harm, and the need for well-planned GSL programs that are driven by a collaborative process guided by an explicit set of ethical principles and practices. As an example, the work over time to develop and socialize the fair trade learning (FTL) principles with the broader GSL community was a concrete field-building effort to address potential unethical and poorly conceived GSL programs that serve to reproduce and perpetuate colonizing, extractive, and exploitative relationships.

E: I appreciate the points above from both Jessica and Richard, and they also both remind me that the co-creators behind the Collaborative intentionally positioned it as a movement-building space (rather than a research association and deliberately not getting too many resources from any single institution but calling many separate institutions to chip in to sustain it). This is because we need to lean on one another sometimes to resist normative assumptions of powerful structures and systems. We have seen some evidence of success with this strategy. For instance, in the United States, both the Gap Year Association and the Forum on Education Abroad have adopted FTL guidelines, which call for community-driven and ethically remunerated partnerships inclusive of financial transparency and clarity on theories of change and intentions. These standards are now externally validated with those two congressionally recognized standards-setting organizations and provide those of us doing this work with tools we can point to that other offices and disciplines recognize. I know some other institutions have found it helpful to sign the Collaborative commitments we have put together—essentially a pledge to continuously work toward enacting the highest standards of FTL—at a center, office, and even institutional level, because that act of signing gives other campus stakeholders a frame of reference and set of policies they are working toward. The University of Dayton, for instance, intentionally and carefully was the first institution to have the Collaborative commitments signed at the presidential level, and they continue to refine campus practices through dialogue across business operations, student affairs, and academic affairs partly as a result. Finally, one of the things I’ve been fortunate to be part of on my own campus is shifting the funding guidelines for student and faculty projects so that community-led and community-desired outputs are criteria with significant influence over what gets funded.

What are some wins in your experience of this work, or what does “success” look like?

J: I mentioned that my GSL introduction was with Intercordia Canada. I worked in the organization in different roles until it closed in 2018. Intercordia was a small GSL organization that partnered with Canadian universities to send students for 3 months to live with a host family and work with a community partner organization in countries in the Global South: teaching in a school in Ghana, working on a reforestation brigade in Dominican Republic, or working in a workshop with folks with intellectual disability labels in Ukraine. In our work with host families, they would ask when their community members could come to Canada for their own GSL experience. In the last year of Intercordia’s work, we committed institutional funds for two community members from the partner organization in Dominican Republic, the Federacion de Campesinos Hacia el Progreso, to come to Canada (only one was granted a visa). They stayed with students that they had hosted in their own homes, they visited and spoke at the university, and we hosted an alumni gathering to welcome them. It was a small but meaningful win.

R: Looking back over time, there have been a number of wins that give me cautious optimism for the continued growth of a still nascent field of GSL in higher education. The theories and principles that inform GSL practice are more robust in how we are working against, disrupting, and expanding the boundaries of teaching and learning, research methodologies, community partnerships, and culture change in higher education. In 1994, the field of international education did not have a set of standards for quality GSL, whereas today, the Forum on Education Abroad has a set of guiding standards aligned in many ways with the FTL principles that inform a wider community of practitioners as well as a more recent systematic review of principles guiding GSL (Hawes et al., 2021). In addition, there has been an increase in GSL publications that focus on community and international development theories as well as research that emphasizes community voice, participation, and impact (Larsen, 2015; Reynolds, 2014; Rios et al., 2021). In addition, there are a number of journals that have focused on ISL/GSL in special issues (Furco & Kent, 2019; Hartman & Kiely, 2014; Hartman & Roberts, 2000; Kiely & Hartman, 2015; MacDonald & Tiessen, 2018; Mlyn & McBride, 2013). Along with growing publication outlets, there are a number of regional networks of higher education institutions in Asia, Australia, North America, Europe, Africa, Latin America, and the Caribbean that have emerged to foster shared commitment to setting standards and sharing knowledge to support ethical engagement in GSL (Kiely & Ma, 2021). From a movement-building perspective, the above wins over time show promise and the need to continue to commit, connect, and collaboratively work together through networks and communities of practice to push against and go beyond the boundaries of the GSL field to advance ethical engagement for more just, inclusive, and sustainable communities.

E: There is more left to do than is already done, that is clear. And yet we have had some meaningful moments. I say “we” because this work is always necessarily done in partnership and networked. A few things I have been fortunate to play some small role in: First, the articulation of fair trade learning and spreading it in a way that institutions can recognize as requiring some change from them (this has had clear and tangible community impacts in respect to remuneration, project development, and labor valuation, as well as numerous significant instances of funded multi-directional and bi-directional exchange, including scholarshipping a student to university). Second, at my current institution, the language and terms have shifted sufficiently that more and more faculty colleagues are recognizing the importance of community-led work, and we as an institution are fortunate to partner with networks in ways that advance an open-access Zapotec language dictionary (as requested by Zapotec language activists), a historical archive of rights abuses in Guatemala (again as requested), and the co-creation of a digital literacy curriculum specifically supporting Spanish-speaking individuals in the City of Philadelphia, among other projects and partnerships. All of these partnerships are community led, drawn on faculty and community member mentorship, and produce tangible results aligned with community desires while developing students’ skills, learning, and capacities to thoughtfully collaborate with diverse teams. Increasingly, that is my formula for success: community-led, faculty mentorship and guidance and student contribution to outputs desired by partners while developing their own skills and their attentiveness to the kinds of world-building we can do together, with intention, toward more justice, inclusion, and sustainability.

K: I wish I could answer this question with something structural and long-lasting. One of the things we heard from a partner with Intercordia is that they would like a scholarship for a student in their community to attend university here, and we were never able to make that happen.

When I think about the wins in my work in GSL that I can look back on and feel good about, I think about the students that I mentored through Intercordia and the hosts that they lived and worked with and seeing those relationships continue 12 years later. I have seen simple connections, like “feliz cumpleaños” every year, but I have also seen students attend protests against Canadian mining, write theses about solidarity, return to Nicaragua for years, work in intentional community-building refugee settlement programs, organize information sessions about civil conflict in Nicaragua, and attend a virtual memorial for the abuela they lived with for 3 months, 10 years ago. These relationships are expansive and transformative, and they feel like they are the meaning from this work.

What keeps you committed to the work of GSL?

R: In 2002, while a newly minted assistant professor at the University of Georgia, I wrote my first publication in a professional journal for community college educators, describing three important principles of practice (i.e., collaboration, connection, and commitment) based on my learning experience co-facilitating the GSL program in Puerto Cabezas, Nicaragua, which at that point was entering the eighth year of our evolving and growing relationship. Taken together, the meaning and practices embodied in the three principles represented for me what helped cultivate the relational trust necessary for sustaining a campus-community partnership aimed at alleviating the health disparities experienced by marginalized community members in distress with very little access to education, employment, clean water, and health care in the region. In spite of ongoing institutional, resource, and structural barriers, environmental calamities and ongoing social and political unrest, and faculty and staff turnover, the quality and depth of the relationships formed through GSL continue to endure after 25 years. GSL is, at its core, deeply relational and necessarily transcends any one person or institutional context (Grenier et al., 2008).

My formative GSL experiences working with and learning from students, faculty, GSL peers, and BIPOC communities in Nicaragua and witnessing the impact that comes from relationships developed through GSL aimed at cultivating and sustaining more just, inclusive, and healthy communities have fueled a part of my ongoing commitment to GSL. In addition, because of the lack of infrastructure, training, and support that I experienced early on in my career, I resolved to focus my work on structural and culture change in higher education to support more robust forms of GSL through organizing efforts within the institutions where I have had faculty and administrative positions as well as through field-building efforts to develop networks like the CBGL Collaborative. When Eric and I wrote “Pushing Boundaries: Introduction to the Global Service-Learning Special Section” (Hartman & Kiely, 2014), it represented an evolution of our thinking about what it means to move against and expand the boundaries of the nascent field of GSL in order to develop and sustain ethically grounded, community-engaged learning and research within the institutions and communities we work with in this space.

E: So frequently, too frequently, international volunteering or global service learning is not done well. That has led me and my co-authors to publish various pieces in a variety of formats warning about the dangers of everything from the horrors of orphanage tourism and medical volunteering to the persistent paternalisms that enter so many well-intentioned spaces (Hartman, 2016, 2017; Hartman et al., 2018). Those kinds of work need to end or be radically reformed. It is vital that those of us who understand the value of ethical, community-led CBGL are involved in the efforts to clarify what is not ethical or critical and what thoughtlessly reproduces colonialist approaches to philanthropy, service, development, or community-campus partnerships.

What keeps me committed to the work is knowing that CBGL done well is responsive to community-led desires; delivers on those desires; awakens students’ whole-bodied, whole-person learning; frequently results in transformative experiences for faculty or educators as well; and—overall—feeds a network and a practice of calling us (all of us) in to recognize our inescapable interdependence and imploring us to better address it. I know this through experience but also through drawing on scores of different studies and research and—most essentially—listening to the voices of people situated off-campus. It’s telling to me that many colleagues set out fully prepared to critique GSL, even hoping to gather the evidence to do so, then, upon careful conversation sustained over time with diverse individuals in and among the communities most affected, they develop more nuanced pictures—and typically recommend continuation of mindful, thoughtful, intentional programming (Balusubramaniam et al., 2017; Larsen, 2015; McMillan & Stanton, 2014; Reynolds, 2014; Toms, 2013).

In an increasingly divisive and fractured world, where major regions are seeing a resurgence of xenophobia and totalitarianism, where we somehow manage to ignore the realities of climate crisis and global health, we need more CBGL, not less. Education as the dominant model has delivered it—cognitive and neither whole-bodied nor affective, with people selected into classrooms in ways that frequently reproduce exclusions—is insufficient at best. We need more learning conditions calling us into respectful relationships, challenging us to reimagine structures and possibilities, planting seeds of collaborative change with profound respect for historically marginalized voices and communities. The belief that it is a superior learning, organizing, and collaborating methodology keeps me committed to CBGL.

K: I’m not sure how to answer this—in many ways I think I am no longer committed to this work—in the years I have been participating in and studying GSL, I am constantly asking why it continues. I work at a remote higher education institution where in the foreseeable future I won’t be involved in facilitating GSL, but more than that, I feel fatigued watching programs on a larger level shorten time periods, increase in cost, and, I imagine, continue to rely on the unpaid labor of hosts. Yet in my experience with Intercordia, both as a co-director with Jessica and as a mentor in Nicaragua, I have seen students (often those with many accompanying years of education) shift their lives in response to their experiences and ongoing learning, as Eric talked about in the previous question. I was also able to be a part of 10-year partnerships with grassroots organizations with whom we had developed trust that allowed them to feel safe to tell us when students had to leave placement, to ask us to call students to a different experience, and to ask for more money. These kinds of honest, transparent relationships are fraught, especially when those in the North wield so much power.

The long-standing collaboration with Jessica has been a source of joy and of deepened learning for me. There is so much that we share in our academic and personal lives, but almost all of it is rooted in a shared desire for a different world and questions about where we can put our energy to contribute to that. A part of my commitment to this work is rooted in our shared desire to center hosts and their needs and to continue to build solidarity—one of the only ways forward. As we continue to see the corporatization of resistance (from the co-option of Pride by banks that have homophobic and transphobic policies to the individualization of climate crisis to consumer choices), we must build community, connection, and care from which we can resist, together.

J: In 2014, coincidentally the same year that Eric and Richard put out the call for their special issue in this journal, Katie and I worked with a number of RAs to ask host families in Dominican Republic, Honduras, Ghana, Ecuador, and Rwanda who hosted students from Canadian universities about their experience of GSL programs (MacDonald & Vorstermans, 2016). We asked them about their desires within GSL, and we asked them for stories of hosting, when things went well and when things were difficult. What keeps me committed to doing critical work in GSL is the responsibility to the mostly host mothers (Hernandez & Rerrie, 2018): Indigenous women, Black women, and women of color who do the essential care labor that allows GSL to function. I hold them at the center of all I do and call for in the field of GSL. They deserve so much better. Here I am also thinking a lot about Tuck’s (2018) question, “How shall I spend my time when I am not bathing my children?” (p. 157). What do any of us who do mothering work commit to when we are not bathing, holding, changing, rocking, hugging, and playing with our children? When we are not engaged in the gendered care labor that allows our world to continue? Here I think about sitting with this care labor as a place of solidarity. When we gathered data with host mothers in 2014, I was pregnant, and I thought a lot about ways that my pregnancy opened up intimate spaces for conversations with host mothers. I still remember some of those conversations, can close my eyes, and picture sitting in the kitchens and outside on front steps. This solidarity is what keeps me committed. And this commitment includes a fidelity to vulnerability (hooks, 1994).


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Author Bios

Katie MacDonald is an Assistant Professor in Sociology and the MA in Interdisciplinary Studies at Athabasca University. She grew up in Mi’kma’ki, which is the traditional ancestral territory of the Mi’kmaq people, in the province of Nova Scotia, and now lives in Treaty 6 territory in Amiskwaciy-Wâskahikan. Katie is a feminist engaged researcher, which means that it is important to her that her work is connected to what people are living and can contribute something to their lives. She has two streams of research, both of which are connected by questions of how people understand inequity: global learning and Canadian affordable housing. Katie loves to eat popcorn, read books, and garden.

Jessica Vorstermans is an Assistant Professor in the Critical Disability Studies program, Faculty of Health at York University, Treaty 13 lands. Her research makes critical interventions in the field of international experiential and service learning and global citizenship, engaging plural ideas of human rights, disability, and equity. She uses critical disability theory and the lens of intersectionality to complicate North–South encounters engaging impairment and disablement.

Eric Hartman is Executive Director of the Center for Peace and Global Citizenship at Haverford College, where global engagements include a strong bias toward the local region around Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. He has published widely on domestic and international community-engaged learning, ethical community-campus partnerships, and civic education.

Richard Kiely (PhD, Cornell University) is a Senior Fellow in the David M. Einhorn Center for Community Engagement at Cornell University. He served as co-editor of two special sections on global service learning for the Michigan Journal of Community Service Learning (Fall 2014, Fall 2015). He is a co-author of Community-Based Global Learning: The Theory and Practice of Ethical Engagement at Home and Abroad (2018) and co-founder of the Community-Based Global Learning Collaborative.