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Local Lessons: Teaching Place-Based Social Justice through Historical Case Analysis and Service-learning

Local Lessons: Teaching Place-Based Social Justice through Historical Case Analysis and Service-learning by  Benjamin C. Graham

Author(s): Benjamin C. Graham


Community-based Service Learning (CbSL) is a demonstrated pedagogical method for integrating theory and practice, transgressing ivory tower walls, and offering undergraduate students early exposure to real-world settings in which many wish to engage (Bringle & Duffy, 1998; Hofman & Rosing, 2007).  Teaching the history of specific social movements has been widely lauded among some educators as a component of education (Teaching Tolerance, 2018).  While there have been a limited number of models proposed for integrating historical case histories into service learning (e.g., Wade, 2007), none to date have incorporated specific community psychology features such as the Competencies for Community Psychology Practice (Dalton & Wolfe, 2012).  This article will provide a four-step curricular design process for identifying local historical cases and developing pedagogical strategies for teaching students how to apply local historical lessons in addressing contemporary issues via service learning.  Using the historical case illustration of northern California’s ‘Redwood Wars’, the article demonstrates how historical local movements and contemporary social action can root students in their communities while learning important community psychology principles and concepts.


This article was originally published in a Special Issue of GJCPP titled, “Developing Undergraduate Community Psychology Pedagogy and Research Practice,” edited by Eylin Palamaro-Munsell, Lauren F. Lichty, & Jen Wallin-Ruschman. Download the PDF version to access the complete article, including Tables and Figures.


The California coastal redwood (sequoia sempervirens) would appreciate Julian Rappaport’s classic 1981 article, In Praise of Paradox: A social policy of empowerment over prevention.  As the tallest living thing on earth, the coastal redwood exists in a paradox of scale: Towering up to 380 feet tall, it has a root structure a mere 6-8 feet deep.  Its frame can weigh up to 4 million pounds, but its primary water source is fog captured on tiny needles no longer than a fingernail.  The coastal redwood presents a paradox worthy of not simply praise. In the 1980’s-1990’s, the issue of saving ancient redwood forests prompted a social justice movement known as the Redwood Wars to protect the remaining privately owned ancient groves of northern California (U.S.A.) (Speece, 2017).

If the coastal redwood’s paradox is one of scale, the community organizer’s is one of power. The organizer’s individual vision must exist within the visions of many.  Reaching objectives and goals requires letting go of how they were initially formed and shaped. As Rappaport (1981) adeptly observed, this re-shaping process must derive from where the true expertise of community problem-solving lies: among a community’s members and its (often complex) history. A powerful way to teach undergraduates in community psychology and related courses about the paradoxes and mechanisms of social change is to engage them in the real-world complexities--past and present--of their local communities.

This article is not centered around the struggle to save the coastal redwoods of California, but rather the broader notion that we can learn social change by first understanding the struggles that exist geographically and historically under our feet, and then step solidly forward to create change in the communities in which we situate ourselves.  Embodying the principles of community psychology, including the Core Competencies for Community Psychology Practice (Dalton & Wolfe, 2012), this article presents an adaptable four-step framework for creating place-based learning structured around historical case analysis in undergraduate service learning courses.

Learning in Place:  Local History, Social Justice, and Service Learning

Community-based Service Learning (CbSL) is a demonstrated pedagogical method for integrating theory and practice, transgressing ivory tower walls, and offering undergraduate students early exposure to real-world settings in which many wish to engage (Bringle & Duffy, 1998; Hofman & Rosing, 2007).  Derived from experiential learning theory (Kolb, 1984), CbSL situates learning within the praxis of real-world experience and traditional academics.  Numerous studies have established the positive impacts of properly implemented CbSL, in areas such as civic engagement (DePrince, Priebe, & Newton, 2011), multicultural skill-building (Einfeld & Collins, 2008), empathy (Bernacki & Jaeger, 2008), and adult volunteerism (Bowman, Brandenberger, Lapsley, Hill, & Quaranto, 2010).  Evidence for the value of CbSL has been further supported by several meta-analyses (Celio, Durlak, & Dymnicki, 2011; Yorio & Ye, 2012). 

Teaching the history of social movements has been lauded among some educators as a vital component of broader education (Teaching Tolerance, 2018).  Goodwin and Jasper (2004) define social movements as “conscious, concerted, and sustained efforts by ordinary people to change some aspect of their society by using extra-institutional means”.  While there have been a limited number of models proposed for integrating historical case histories of social movements into service learning (e.g., Wade, 2007), none to date have incorporated a specific community psychology perspective.  Additionally, when historical case analyses of social change is utilized, the focus is typically on well-known national and global activism (Goodwin & Jasper, 2004), rather than direct local action.  There is a need for a method for designing pedagogical strategies that combine the power of historical case analysis with contemporary CbSL in the context of students' local communities in which they are a part.

Institutional and Community Context

To illustrate the model described in this article, an example of its application will be shared.  This model was developed as part of a semester-long undergraduate community psychology service-learning course in northern California.  It involved a historical case analysis of the Redwood Wars as well as contemporary interventions in six nonprofit community organizations.  The institutional context is a mid-sized, primarily undergraduate serving public university situated in Humboldt County, California in the United States.  The university is one of 23 California State Universities.  The psychology department is robust, with over 650 undergraduate majors, 12 full-time faculty, and four masters programs.  However, community psychology is relatively unknown, and the current service-learning course was the first offered in the department in recent years.  The past 10 years have seen demographic changes in the student composition (Humboldt State University, Office of Institutional Effectiveness, 2018).  During this time the university has transformed from a mostly White, rural student body to a far more diverse one, approximating the overall demographics of the State of California.  This specific CSU university (Humboldt State University) is designated as a Hispanic-serving institution by the Hispanic Association of Colleges and Universities (“Hispanic Serving Institution Definitions,” 2019).  This designation is given to universities where over 25% of student enrollment identifies as Hispanic.  

All students in the course were psychology majors.  Demographic data was not collected for the 33 students.  However, the demographics listed below are collected by the university and are specific to students majoring in psychology (Humboldt State University, Office of Institutional Effectiveness, 2018).  The 2018 department student body is 54% Pell Grant eligible (a widely recognized proxy for low-income status), 59% first generation, and 72% female (28% male; intersex and transgender data are not collected by the university).  Students identify as 40% Hispanic/Latinx, 40% White, 4% African American, 3% Asian American, 1% American Indian, 5% multi-ethnic/racial, and 7% unknown/not reported.

The university houses an office for community-based service learning, with two full time staff.  Additionally, the university has a community-based service learning taskforce (on which I (the author) serve as a member).  The office was highly instrumental in developing site partnerships.  Specifically, they leveraged existing community relationships to secure 4 of the 6 sites, and worked directly with me to complete university paperwork related to off-site work (for instructors without such resources, see Faculty Toolkit for Service-Learning in Higher Education (Community Campus Partnerships for Health, 2007)).

The course described was my fourth time integrating service learning into my undergraduate courses. As a lifelong practitioner of community-based applied psychology, I had worked or partnered with over a dozen nonprofit and governmental organizations prior to accepting my first tenure-track position mid-career (in Fall 2016).  While this did not dissolve the many challenges that come with community-academic partnership, I believe it helped me orientate to connecting the students to sites. As a White, male-identified person living in a community that is 25.7% people of color (U.S. Census, 2017), at a university where our student body is over 53% students of color (Humboldt State University, Office of Institutional Effectiveness, 2018), I felt it was critical to integrate multicultural and cross-cultural research into the course, in new and expanded ways compared to my non-service learning courses. Specifically, the topic of how student identity experiences interacted with the organizational culture and identity statuses of those working in and being served by the sites was an important area to create reflective space. This was done via small group discussions, individual reflection assignments, and ongoing class discussions.

As with all communities, Humboldt county has rich past and present social justice stories.  Historically, this has included efforts to protect the ancient redwood forest ecosystem, first by early preservationists purchasing land at the turn of the 20th century and then later through litigation and confrontation during the Redwood Wars of the 1980’s and 1990’s (Speece, 2017).  This struggle involved multiple stakeholders and interests, the four primary ones being environmentalists, multigenerational logger families, Native American people (primarily from the Hoopa, Wiyot, and Yurok Nations), and the corporate interests of the timber industry. At the onset of the Redwood Wars, most ancient redwood forests and their ancient trees (some over 2,000 years old) had been either cut down or preserved within national and state park systems. The Redwood Wars era involved the struggle to protect the remaining ancient forests that were then privately owned.  The story of the Redwood Wars involved a rich array of tactics, including strategies such as sabotaging the ability to cut trees (‘tree spiking’), human blockades of logging roads, local and national protests such as the Redwood Summer of 1990, dozens of legal challenges including the first use of the Endangered Species Act, and multiple tree sits including Julia “Butterfly” Hill’s two-year sit in a tree named Luna (Hill, 2000). 

The course in which the model was piloted was a semester-long undergraduate community psychology service-learning course.  Thirty-three students were enrolled, 30 of whom were junior or senior psychology majors.  The service learning component involved 25 hours of service, completed during the semester.  Six sites took part, and included a racial equity coalition, K-6 school, community garden, mediation services nonprofit, disability arts center, and tiny house homelessness initiative.  Students were assigned to site-based teams of 3-6 students.  The bridging of the historical case of the Redwood Wars and the contemporary cases of the sites (including the broader social issues each addressed) occurred through a set of activities and assignments described below.

Description of the Model

For purposes of this article, historical case analysis refers to the systematic study of a specific social justice movement, including its context, values/issues, key stakeholders, strategies/tactics, processes, and outcomes, with the intent of extrapolating this analysis to other contexts.  It thus shares several features of case studies used in traditional psychological research (i.e., a single case with extrapolation of findings), but focuses on groups of people and multiple levels of analysis (Bronfenbrenner, 1979).  This includes the individual lives of leaders and influencers, the roles of organizations (and their interactions) within the movement, the locality in which the service learning is occurring (and how local action relates to the broader movement), and macrosystemic forces such as specific laws, policies, and social norms challenged or championed by the movement.

The four goals of the model described here are to:

1) Develop undergraduate knowledge of the structure, processes, and impacts of social justice movements through historical case analyses

2) Anchor local service-learning experiences in deep knowledge of systems change from both historical and contemporary local perspectives

3) Apply goals 1 & 2 to create meaningful change around contemporary issues in local communities

4) Deepen how students and faculty understand a community psychology approach to pedagogy in psychology departments where the subdiscipline is relatively unknown

What follows is a description of four steps in designing a place-based historical case analysis to be used in conjunction with contemporary CbSL courses, with an illustration of its application using the history of the Redwood Wars.  The four steps include 1) learning and connecting to local history; 2) designing the module; 3) implementing the module; and 4) evaluating and improving the module.  An implementation checklist is included at the end of each step for those wishing to design their own activity.

Step 1: Learning and Connecting to Local History

Case illustration.  For the current activity, the Redwood Wars of Humboldt county were selected as a social justice topic, for several reasons.  First, the region’s natural beauty, epitomized by the towering coastal redwood, is commonly cited as a reason students decided to attend this remote, northern California university (81% of enrolled students come from outside the area) (Humboldt State University, Office of Institutional Effectiveness, 2018).  Second, the university in which the course was being taught was an epicenter for environmental activism during the period of the Redwood Wars, with university students being some of its primary participants.  Furthermore, multiple pedagogical resources exist in close proximity to the university, including guest speakers and historical archives.  Lastly, it is also a short drive from Headwaters National Reserve, the most identifiable outcome of the two decade-long struggle to save the remaining privately owned old-growth redwood forest.

Several books have been written documenting the Redwood Wars (Bari, 1994; Bevington, 2012; Speece, 2017; Widick, 2009).  Additionally, many know of the Redwood Wars through the publicity garnered by Julia “Butterfly” Hill, an environmental activist who lived at the top of an old-growth redwood tree for 738 days (Hill, 2000).  In the selection of sources it was important to include perspectives of environmentalists, logging workers, and Native American people.  For this project, I selected excerpts from policy-oriented writings (Bevington, 2012), Hill’s (2000) autobiography, an essay on Native American perspectives on national parks (Dowie, 2011), and a 56-minute video The Last Stand: Ancient Redwoods and the Bottom Line (Gutierrez, 2000). 

Several resources were available in the local area during the design of this activity.  A central figure to the Redwood Wars, Darryl Cherney, graciously agreed to guest lecture in the course, providing firsthand experiential knowledge of the struggle, the important role of Judi Bari (who has since passed away), and discussing the strategies and tactics employed by Earth First! and other organizations.  Additionally, the Headwaters Forest Preserve offers guided ranger tours (the preserve is otherwise off-limits to people), which allowed students the opportunity to see the area for themselves and learn from the local ranger (students were offered extra credit to attend the field trip).  Collectively, the key readings and in-person resources formed a viable modular curriculum for sharing the story of the Redwood Wars.

General Description.  The first step is to identify and select a historical case study to delve into. Local histories can offer rich examples for students, and can be found in all communities.  Depending on the location one is based, information on the social justice issue may be readily available or require a more purposeful investigation.  This step is very much open to the creativity of the instructor, and can include diverse social justice histories spanning the breadth of community psychology.  What is critical is that there is a clear ‘story’ to the social justice history, including identifiable goals, stakeholders, documented processes, and outcomes, with a preference for issues that can root in tangible ways in the local community.

When a topic has been selected, the next step is to research the topic.  This process includes identifying key sources, triangulating references, and reaching an adequate point of knowledge saturation appropriate for a brief undergraduate psychology curricular module.  It is important to note that one does not need to develop deep historical expertise in all the nuances of the movement (although this can certainly benefit the process); what is critical is that enough of the story is told in a way that is comprehensive to the key features of the movement including its context, values/issues, key stakeholders, strategies/tactics, processes, and outcomes.

An important component to this step is identifying the multiple perspectives, identities, and motivations involved in the social justice issue.  For example, a local effort to provide affordable housing via rent control policies must take into account both the perspective of low-income families struggling to pay rent but also the needs of aging seniors who rely on tenants’ rent to remain in their local communities as the cost of living increases. 

As part of the process of researching the area, the instructor then identifies the key readings and resources to be shared with students so that they might adequately understand the historical case.  Given that this activity exists within a broader semester-long curriculum, the challenge is to identify enough sources to adequately share the nuances of the case without overburdening the students.  A blend of reading, video and guest speakers can help to balance the sources of information and keep the activity on track.

Local allies should be sought out when possible and can include historical societies and museums, interdisciplinary collaboration with history departments, and local community organizations.  When possible, it can be very useful to bring in guest speakers who were involved with the movement itself, or who represent other perspectives involved in its history.  This can prime students for creating linkages to their sites.  In the case illustration, when Redwood Wars lead organizer Darryl Cherney visited the class, he strongly emphasized the need to understand and see humanity in those you disagree with.  This point later became a cornerstone for the student team placed at a racial equity coalition; in their work, they emphasized being able to understand the long, multigenerational rural history of White residents in Humboldt and the need to create greater dialogue between the university and the changing landscape of a county once defined by the logging industry and its predominantly White workforce. 

Implementation Checklist:

  • Gather sources
  • Encompass multiple perspectives
  • Contact local sources of knowledge
  • Select course material

Step 2: Designing the Module

Case illustration. After selecting the sources of the modular activity, I dedicated two and a half sessions (80 minutes each, 200 minutes total) to presenting specifically on the Redwood Wars.  This included both a 56-minute video and the guest lecture by an elder from the movement, as well as two assigned articles (Bevington, 2012; Dowie, 2011) and one book (Hill, 2000). 

The goal of developing undergraduate knowledge of the structure, processes, and impacts of social justice movements was operationalized by the key community psychology learning objective of understanding strategies and tactics used in community organizing.  For this objective I used the framework outlined in Kloos, Hill, Thomas, Wandersman, Elias, and Dalton  (2012); this chapter was part of the existing course readings and, in addition to other chapters from the text, provided a sufficient overview of community organizing which could then dovetail with materials specific to the Redwood Wars.  Its seven strategies of consciousness raising, community coalitions, social action, community development, organizational consultation, alternative settings, and use of technology, as well as policy advocacy, provided a useful framework for reaching this goal. 

In designing my assessment approach, I chose to create a series of interconnected, sequential assignments at individual, site team, and classroom levels that occurred across the second half of the 15-week course.  This approach was an attempt to model ecological levels of analysis (Bronfenbrenner, 1979) and deepen learning by having students visit and revisit the learning objectives through tasks novel to each level.  Tasks spanned the breadth of the course’s assignments, and included individual written input (via a quiz), a facilitated workshop using the whole class, a site team assignment and presentation, and an individual final paper.  The set of materials can be found in Appendix A.  This approach worked well in this context, but it should be noted that the objectives of this model can be met with simpler assessment structures.  For example, if modelling ecological levels of learning (i.e., individual/group/class) is not central to the goals of the activity, the core learning concepts could be integrated into a single presentation, paper, etc.

General Description. This framework offers a flexible set of guidelines in which a user can apply their expertise and judgement in designing their own historical and contemporary case analysis module.  These general design principles are intended to guide an educator’s decision-making in this process. 

First, it is important to establish key community psychology learning concepts.  The specific concepts will depend on the overall course goals and objectives, the nature of the historical case selected, and/or the instructor’s area of work.  One recommended key learning concept is identifying strategies and tactics of social change, as it is action-oriented and helps students (especially students in traditional psychology majors) understand the sociopolitical and policy implications of social science research.  However, many pathways exist for building linkages between local history and contemporary action across the rich set of community psychology concepts. 

Next, it is worthwhile to assess service learning sites for linkages to the historical case based on objectives.  Students will ultimately identify and describe these linkages, but familiarizing oneself with these linkages ahead of time can help in determining how best to present the material.  Once the linkages have been appraised, the third component is to select a structure for the assignment and how it will integrate into the course grading structure.

Implementation Checklist:

  • Establish key community psychology learning concepts
  • Assess service learning sites for linkages to historical case based on concepts
  • Select structure of the assignment and integrate into course grading structure

Step 3:  Implementing the Module

Case illustration. In the current activity, the primary concept was identification of social change strategies using the framework provided by Kloos et al. (2012).  Appraisal of this framework occurred through items on the subsequent exam, but more importantly via reflection exercises, quizzes, and group products occurring at different points during the implementation of the module (see Appendix A.).  This allowed me to assess student learning and recalibrate how the material was being taught if students were demonstrating confusion on the different types of social change strategies.  For example, as community development was not the most obvious of the strategies employed by the Redwood Wars, it became clear through these assessments that students would benefit from clarification on this strategy and how it differed from similar approaches such as community coalitions and social action.

General Description. Putting the module into action will flow naturally from the module’s design.  How this manifest will depend on the structure and components of the overall assignment, determined in Step 2.  While multiple assignments, like the individual, group, and class assignments presented here, are not inherently critical to the design, what is important to consider in Step 3 is having a plan for monitoring the progress of student learning.  This includes correcting the direction of learning if it becomes evident that core concepts are not being fully absorbed.  This is why developing ideas about the linkages (while leaving room for new innovations from the students) is important in the success of the model.  For each of the key community psychology concepts selected, it is useful to pre-plan appropriate assessment for each feature of the module.

Implementation Checklist:

  • Develop plan for monitoring progress
  • Monitor and adapt activity as needed

Step 4:  Evaluating and Improving the Module

Case illustration.  An evaluation of the model’s application is described in the next section.

General Description. The final step involves planning and conducting the evaluation of the activity, with a focus on refining it for future use.  Many of the general best practices for evaluating pedagogy apply, which will not be discussed in detail here (for examples, see Savory, Burnett, & Goodburn, 2007).  Others may be unique to the features of the activities chosen in Step 2.  Several features in evaluating the model include 1) soliciting student feedback on their experience; 2) appraising the history-contemporary link ; and 3) assessing key community psychology concept objectives.

Implementation Checklist:

  • Select and plan evaluation methods
  • Collect data
  • Analyze data and integrate into future implementation

Time Allocation in Creating and Managing the Model

Like any pedagogical strategy, it is good to consider the time involved, both for the instructor in preparing the activity and for students in terms of time in and outside of class.  In terms of instructor time, the many design decisions described above when applying the four step model will influence the amount of time required.  For my case illustration, I set aside time in the 6 months leading up to the course to collect and read key sources on the Redwood Wars.  This involved a thorough read of approximately 500 pages from sources, as well as briefer scans of approximately a dozen articles and books.  I also reviewed about 3.5 hours of video documentaries and short film clips.  On a personal level, as a relative newcomer to the area and a city-dweller for all my life, the exercise held personal value as it helped me understand a new community that I have come to call home (at least during the academic year).  As you consider your local issue and begin to triangulate sources, it may very well be that you may require less time to ascertain the main points of the story, identify guest speakers to engage, and explore potential parallels between the historical case and your service learning sites.

My application of the 4-step model in class was on the more comprehensive and integrated end of the range of time involved, with elements of the activity present most weeks between Weeks 6 and 15 of the 15-week course.  This allowed for a deeper integration of the Redwood Wars into our understanding of community psychology and our sites.  However, it took up space where other community psychology topics or small-group reflections could have taken place.  Overall, material from the Redwood wars, both in and out of class, comprised approximately 20% of the course material.  Overall students overwhelmingly supported the inclusion of the activity, with little to no pushback or resistance.  However, a few students commented at the end of the semester that the unit could be shortened.  Based on my own reflections and student feedback (see below), I will in the future retain the strong, integrated approach but reduce the material to 15% of the overall course.  

Evaluation of the Case Illustration

This section provides evaluation insights on the model from three perspectives: students, site coordinators, and the instructor.  As the original activity was not designed as an educational research project, these data can be considered formative toward the continued research and refinement of the model. 

Student Perspectives

Student data consisted of responses from the university’s standardized student evaluation form as well as a course reflection activity from the class.  Of the 33 students enrolled in the course, 20 submitted standardized student evaluations (61% of the class; the university average is 50% (M. Le, personal communication, November 28, 2018)).  Since article preparation and IRB review for use of this data occurred after the course, consent for use of the reflection activity was obtained after the semester had concluded.  Of the 31 students who completed this activity, 14 (45%) consented for their evaluation to be used.  The other 17 did not respond to the email invite; no students actively refused. This low response rate may be in part due to the fact that the request occurred in the summer, after the course had ended and most of the students had graduated.  All student voices presented here stemming from the reflection activity agreed to have their feedback incorporated, and the process was approved by the university’s institutional review board. The fourteen student responses were reviewed and thematically coded, generating the themes listed below.

Standardized Course Evaluation.  The course evaluation included ten items structured on a 5-point scale from “hardly ever” to “almost always”, and explored student experience of the relevancy of course material, respect for diversity in class, critical thinking, and several other areas.  Results from the evaluation suggest that for the 20 respondents the course was a very positive experience, with rankings averaging 4.4 (SD = .9) and no item mean lower than 4.2.

Student Reflection Papers.  During the course, students completed 5 reflection activities related to their site, the course material, and their own personal reflection.  The final reflection included the prompt:

“A feature of this course has been learning about the Redwood Wars of the 1980’s-90’s.  At several points during the semester, we considered strategies based on the elements of community organizing described in the textbook.  Do you feel that learning in detail about the history of the Redwood Wars in Humboldt county helped you to develop strategies for your site?  In no, why not?  If yes, why so?  Optional addition: What recommendations do you have for improving this portion of the course?”

Responses of the 14 students who consented to have their reflections used were content analyzed by the author.  The themes are summarized below.

Knowledge of the historical case.  Exploration of the natural environment including the many nearby redwood forests is part of student life at the university.  In their reflections, several students commented on how, despite their familiarity with the area, they had never heard of the Redwood Wars.  Thus, one of the themes was the role of the model in raising awareness around historical social justice events that had occurred locally.  One student expressed, “It taught me about the Redwood Wars, a topic I knew nothing about before taking this class and which I never thought I would learn about in a psychology course”, and another reflected “if it weren’t for this class I wouldn’t have ever known about the Redwood Wars”.

Personal connection to site and local community.  Students frequently mentioned how the experience helped to personally connect them to the local sites, with reflections such as:

“Learning about the Redwood Wars helped when completing hours at my site.  It helped to feel a greater sense of importance for the mission of the site as well as a greater sense of commitment and responsibility...learning about the history and mission of various [Redwood Wars] grassroots organizations and then connecting these concepts with my site was an important element of the experience.” 

One student described how understanding the Redwood Wars helped her better understand the culture of Humboldt county and its residents.  This student was placed at a site where they took phone calls from a diverse set of community residents seeking mediation services.  In reflecting on the activity, they shared:

“Humboldt County has a rich history in community organizing that has been shown to be successful in environmental conservation.  By understanding the history, I have been able to further understand the culture better and be able to apply this knowledge to find further connections when working at my agency.”

Another student remarked simply, “What was special about the Redwood Wars was that it happened right here in Humboldt County, the community we live in.”  While most in this theme discussed connections to sites, one discussed how understanding strategies of social change helped her in a conversation with a friend while crossing the university’s common space: 

“I was walking with a classmate through the quad during a rally when I heard them say, ‘I don’t understand why people do this it does not do anything… Although the comment did anger me slightly, I took a deep breath and remembered what I had learned in my community psychology course. It was then I explained to her the concepts of community organizing and how much goes into making real changes for the betterment of our community.”

Linking social change strategies between historical case and service learning site.  One of the primary objectives of the activity was to help students understand the linkage between strategies used in the past and tools they can use in the present.  Several students expressed a deepened understanding of this linkage, with specific examples such as

“Community coalitions were utilized by Judi Bari to arrange communication between Earth First!, EPIC, and lumber unions. With the community garden we have coalitions with local growers, business owners, and university affiliation to support the community collectively.”

“Darryl Cherney’s emphasis on music and theatrics [during the Redwood Wars] really encouraged me to take the street theater outreach project more seriously.”

Other students spoke more broadly about the bridge between the two settings, such as one student’s reflection:

“I think the Redwood Wars was a great example to use because of the fact that the redwood wars was a real issue in our university and community. Drawing examples of the material covered in our book and lectures to issues that are very near and dear to the community put an emphasis on how we should approach our sites and members of the community.”

Other students reflected on how the linkage helped inspire them to take action in the community during the semester, including a “celebration of life” event for an African-American student who was murdered in our community on April 15, 2017 and whose legal investigation has been wrought with procedural injustices (Whitford, 2018):

All the social advocacy that has occurred from the Redwood Wars is very similar to that of our sites…I attended many events to be involved like the walkouts, marches, and celebration of life. This really made the lesson much more personal and more of an experience I was part of rather than something you hear of.

Recommended areas of improvement.  Several students responded to the optional prompt to suggest ways in which the approach could be improved.  One student felt that there could have been more than one historical example to guide the design of interventions for their local site: “we were limited by the amount of examples from the Redwood Wars to draw from and explore.  I would recommend presenting multiple examples of community issues to give a wider range of strategy uses and examples to draw from”.  Additionally, several students remarked that while they appreciated this activity it could have been condensed into a shorter time period.  Lastly, one student made the excellent recommendation that students begin service at their sites earlier in the semester so they could contribute more to their sites. 

Site Coordinators’ Perspectives

Each of the six sites had a designated site coordinator, whose role was central to the success of the service-learning collaboration.  It should be noted that the historical case analysis component of the course did not explicitly direct students to share historical insights with their sites, though this component did result in exploring/implementing specific contemporary site strategies.  Nonetheless, in this subsection it is worthwhile to share site coordinator perspectives on the service-learning experience overall, including whether or not the Redwood Wars were discussed.

Approval from the university’s institutional review board was secured for surveying each site coordinator about their experience of the student service learning teams.  Of the six coordinators, all chose to participate in the survey, which consisted of 6 questions.  The first asked “Overall, how satisfied were you with the students’ contribution to your agency last spring?”, and was measured on a 5-point semantic differential scale of “Not at all satisfied” to “Very much satisfied”.  Coordinators were positive (M = 4.33, SD = .81), with the lowest ranking being a single neutral 3. The second question asked coordinators to rate their agreement on the question “I would be interested in having another community psychology service learning team work at my site in the future.”  All respondents answered positively (either 4 or 5) to this 5-point Likert item (M = 4.66, SD = .52). 

Two open-ended questions explored the impact of service-learners on the site.  The first asked “In what specific ways did the students contribute to your agency?”  Site coordinators described several specific contributions, including teaching “K-2nd Grade student lessons from the Second Step socio-emotional curriculum” and creating “a video,…posters, and interpretive materials for our alternative housing models, and researched and catalogued a homelessness criminalization timeline from 2010-2017.”  Other coordinators shared how students “provided community engagement, art assistance, and a great attitude”.  One coordinator reflected the trust they felt in their student team’s performance: “because of the alignment of their values and their commitment, I felt confident in encouraging them to use and mature their judgement in deciding on the spot how to interact with callers…Clients felt safe and began asking for the particular students with whom they’d begun a relationship.”  The second question on impact asked “Were there ways in which the presence of the students burdened the staff and/or presented problems for your agency?” All six statements reflected the sentiment that the overall experience was not burdensome, with only one citing specific shortcomings on the students’ behalf: “The lack of participation of half the students of the group felt like a burden.”  Other problematic factors mentioned was the coordination of student schedules (2 coordinators mentioned this) and lack of participation by the agency’s board members tasked with supporting the students.

Two questions inquired as to whether the site coordinators experienced or witnessed students linking the Redwood Wars to site strategies and tactics.  In general, this was not the case.  For the quantitative question “In your conversations with students during the semester, were the Redwood Wars (i.e., the environmental/timber conflicts in Humboldt county during the 1980’s and 90’s) ever mentioned or discussed?” five sites answered “No” and one site answered “Yes”.  The second question allowed for a further extrapolation of how any mention played out, but no substantive responses were offered, reflecting the previous item’s responses.

In sum, the site coordinators overall found the experience to be positive, valued specific contributions made by students, and would be very willing to work with courses in the future.  Several important barriers to successful CbSL were noted and are fairly common in the literature (Seifer & Connors, 2007), including coordination of schedules and having mixed staff/board support for the students’ work.  The Redwood Wars themselves were overall not mentioned to site coordinators.  This last finding is consistent with the design of the course, as this was not asked of students.  However, multiple sites (in this data and in personal communication throughout the semester) did consider and use specific contemporary strategies generated by students.  For example, one student team extrapolated the use of music and theater in the Redwood Wars (e.g., music during environmental rallies and dynamic interruptions of state assembly proceedings (Speece, 2017)) to write a street performance theater script to raise awareness around free or low-cost mediation services.  Another group discussed how policy advocacy during the Redwood Wars helped inform how they could better leverage support for their schools’ integration of socioemotional learning curriculum.  One important takeaway here is not so much to ensure mention of the historical case when working at the sites, but rather challenge students to create these linkages earlier in the semester, such that the contemporary strategies could be shared and implemented more fully during the semester. 

Author’s Perspective

In this final subsection of the evaluation, I would like to share my own assessment of how the model functioned, and where it should go from here.  Overall, I found the endeavor to be rewarding, and although a small handful of students were somewhat disengaged, the vast majority of the class was deeply involved with their sites and very passionate about the material.  Setting aside the more subjective personal meaning this course held for me (it was my first time teaching a dedicated community psychology course), there were several specific and practical aspects I realized in teaching it.  One of the most central was the realization that community psychology—especially as an upper division course with a service learning component—can serve as an excellent segue into the world of work.  Needs assessment, organizational consultation, working with diverse staff, understanding grant-writing and the role of foundations, and other topics were taught in class and applied at their sites.  I witnessed students eagerly adopt these skills, in ways that can inform their career aspirations.  This I believe is a valuable aspect of service learning, especially at universities with majority first-generation college students navigating new career pathways.

Another reflection in the way the model was used during the semester was that the design effectively embodied many of the Competencies for Community Psychology Practice (Dalton & Wolfe, 2012).  It incorporated the five foundational principles by offering students opportunities for community partnership aimed at empowering culturally diverse organizations through an ecological lens that includes self-reflection.  Central to its goals were the five competencies of community and social change, where students learned both historic and contemporary strategies for organizing, collaborating, and promoting the work of their community partner organizations.  Lastly, the use of the adapted 4-step evaluation model (Linney & Wandersman, 1991) offered students a unique and personalized experience with detailed program evaluation, a core competency to community research. 

Whereas virtually all had taken a research methods course (this will be required in future iterations), multiple students independently remarked that this activity was the first time they had ever been asked to create or be part of an involved real-world program evaluation.  This underscores the importance of challenging students to learn and apply real-world community research as part of their undergraduate education.  While the Core Competencies (Dalton & Wolfe, 2012) were in part designed to provide transparency of graduate training programs, linking undergraduate pedagogy to the Competencies showcases the ability of undergraduate community psychology courses “to give community psychology away” to diverse undergraduates and their varied career pathways, while inspiring a subset to pursue community psychology at the graduate level.

Reflecting back, several things could improve the model.  First, in listening to student responses I think the historical case analysis, while worthwhile, could be shortened.  While the initial objective was to develop “deep knowledge”, the amount of time spent on the module could be condensed to make way for deeper application of key community psychology concepts to their service sites.  Second, I think the strategies for social change need to be more thoroughly explained to students, over multiple sessions.  While a description from the textbook reading was very useful as a framework, more operationalization of the specific strategies was needed during class to make the framework useable in a more involved way.  Future iterations will involve more direct source readings such as Saul Alinsky’s classic Rules for Radicals (1972) and newer works such as Eric Mann’s Playbook for Progressives (2011).  

Another enhancement to the model would be to work closely with partnering organizations on the evaluation of strategy and its development, in terms of enacting social change for their sites.  In several of the six sites, clear demonstration of application was present (e.g., creating a condensed local history summary of racial injustices for a racial equity coalition).  Providing more structure and monitoring in the future could help ensure that all sites receive similar level of results-based application of the historical strategy. 

This model can be further developed by studying it within the context of formal educational research.  Providing robust data on the unique contribution of the historical case analysis aspect of the activity would be of great value in deepening understanding of the student evaluation feedback.  Some research suggests CbSL can help improve student retention (Bringle, Hatcher, & Muthiah, 2010).  Research into this specific service-learning module could help identify specific mechanisms for promoting retention, an issue of central importance to faculty, students, and administration. 

As a final reflection, all pedagogical designs are only as effective as the people who engage with them.  The energy, openness, and optimism of the students and site staff involved in this iteration of the activity taught me once again how critical these features are to successful CbSL.  More than a simple “thank you”, I wish to recognize how vital this ingredient is, for our or any iteration of community-academic partnership.


When an ancient coastal redwood is abruptly cut down, a reaction within the trunk is triggered, sprouting up saplings along the circumference of the tree’s massive base.  Decades later, what results is a visually striking cluster of second-growth trees over a hundred feet high, circling the base of the former giant.  Contemporary action is indelibly tied to the past.  Whether undergraduates are attending college far from home or in their own backyard, understanding local histories of social justice issues within the context of service learning can help develop a sense of place, purpose, and agency for students studying community psychology.


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Benjamin C. Graham Benjamin C. Graham

Benjamin C. Graham, community psychologist and assistant professor at Humboldt State University. His current research examines supports for sexual and gender minority communities, interventions to help student and nonstudent veterans, and the impact of service learning.

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