Capacity Building—A Mindset Shift
For many people, getting involved in service-learning, civic engagement, community engagement, or other forms of community work comes from a deep motivation and commitment to helping those less fortunate than themselves. This charitable mindset, though laudable in many respects, can be a barrier to real and lasting community change—especially if its focus is mostly on the giver's altruistic feelings and the relief of the sufferer's immediate needs (Munsil, 2003, pg. 8). This charitable mindset also reinforces the relationship between "the haves" and "the have-nots" instead of affirming the idea that all people have important gifts, talents, and capacities to contribute. Very often, community work framed by a charity mindset focuses on immediate solutions over longer-term improvements that create sustained change.
For community work to be sustained in the long term, community partners must be given the opportunity to strengthen their own confidence, increase their own knowledge, build their own skills, and expand their own resources. This alternative approach to community work recognizes the reciprocal and generative nature of collaboration with community partners and focuses on the goal of capacity building for sustained change.
A Different Type of Education
This capacity building mindset calls for a rejection of banking education. Paulo Freire (1921-1997), a Brazilian educator who worked in the field of adult literacy, describes this type of education as a form of the teacher, or expert, making knowledge deposits in the heads of his or her students. Freire condemns this type of education because it reduces the student to a simple vessel, or receiver, of knowledge, with no capacity to partake in knowledge creation or development. As Freire worked to liberate through education, he made it clear in his teachings and writings that learning and teaching are reciprocal relationships in knowledge development, and that all members are active participants – each individual, through his or her ability to critically reflect on his or her experiences, has the power to understand and change his or her conditions. This acceptance of the theory and practice of education recognizes that each human being is an unfinished person, actively seeking to grow, develop, create, and be curious, through and within his or her social, cultural, and historical intersections. In community engagement activities, to recognize each person as an individual capable of both teaching and learning through the project, is to allow another (and ultimately, oneself) the room to search, to be curious, and to become a greater participant in the world in which he or she lives.
Starting at the Riverfront Development Organization
Alicia is a senior writing and rhetoric major. During her freshman and sophomore years, she participated in a number of service-learning activities in and out of class. At first, she was a little hesitant about working with community people, but after a while, Alicia had fun getting to know new people. It felt really good to help them out with various writing projects, like press releases, newsletter articles, and webpages. All of those writing samples added a lot to her portfolio.
For her senior capstone class, Alicia made sure she signed up for the section that had a service-learning requirement. On the first day of class she was assigned to the Riverfront Development Organization, a nonprofit group dedicated to making the area along the river clean and friendly to businesses and everyday people. She was super excited and set up a meeting with the executive director of the Riverfront Development Organization for the second week of classes.