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Sweat and Dirt: A Topsy Turvy View of Service-Learning

We were sweating, full of dirt, and looking up at a beautiful Miami skyline in one of

Miami’s historical Black neighborhoods. Aileen comes up to me to ask me some questions about

the garden project we were doing. She is not in one of my classes, but it does not matter. We

have seen each other before on campus and she felt comfortable speaking with me.

Aileen is taking ENC 1102 with my friend Alex Salinas. She’s curious as to how I feel

about “…the garden and helping the poor.” I’m tired, I think to myself; it’s Saturday morning

and I would rather be in my cool and comfortable bed, but she wants to know how I feel about

the garden and the poor.

I’ll come back later to my response; maybe it will shed some light as to my theory and

practice of service-learning.

For the past six years or so I have been on a journey of deep exploration in reference to

how I embody this pedagogy. Even this last sentence is a wrestling match. I was going to

choose the word use rather than embody, but doing so would falsify part of what I’ve been

discovering. Objectivity is not really a viable option. We are all connected and we are all


Service-learning is a critical pedagogy which if allowed, turns one’s life upside down and

leaves one asking, “What have I gotten myself into?” This is not an altogether terrible thing. In

fact, it is probably a lifeline inviting each of us to do something beautiful and powerful with the

small but precious life we now have.

I started using service-learning in my classes as an add on. I created an extra credit

project I called Miami Nice. I gave students a list of hundreds of pre-approved agencies and told

them to find one that appealed to them and complete 10 hours of service. During their

experience, they needed to keep a journal and then write a paper reporting back to the class how

their agency was contributing to the wellbeing of the community.

Students liked this project very much, but something was missing for me. I was not

involved. A year later, I realized that I needed more and sought out a community partner that I

could work with and take all of my students. I’ve always believed that I teach who I am, so it

wasn’t surprising that I first connected with Kellie Westervelt of the American Littoral Society.

(I love the outdoors.)

Her organization had been in charge of the ecological restoration efforts in Bill Baggs

State Park in Key Biscayne. I created a leadership program for interested students and had the

park people train them in principles of restoration and also in leading groups working to restore

the area. Through this first approach, I got to know some incredible students. One of them,

Adela, was a Cuban doctor trying to learn English so that she could take her medical boards.

Before she took this step, she explained one day, she needed to become a nurse; she had to pay

her bills and support her daughter. (Adela was working as an orderly in a psychiatric ward in a

local hospital.)

I mention Adela because it was through the restoration project in Cape Florida that she

opened up to other younger students and her language skills developed in ways that the regular

classroom did not allow. Being outside reminded her of her homeland and the hours of service

she had contributed while a student and as a doctor serving in Angola. Her stories filled

everyone with awe and made each session magical.

We had about five three-hour sessions throughout the semester. Each took place on

Saturday. I was there for all of them. Students complained, swatted bugs, and wrote the most

amazing papers from the experience. Best of all, friendships were made that I know made a

difference in many of them succeeding not only in my class but also in their academic careers

beyond MDC. Currently, Adela is a nurse, was able to purchase a house for herself and daughter,

and is studying to pass her boards. She keeps in touch and remembers quite well the many

knickerbean vines we pulled for two semesters. Much of this work is described in a University

of Wisconsin publication called Ecological Restoration.

Cape Florida began as a solo experience for me, but over the course of three semesters, I

was joined by three other professors from my campus. We shared the responsibility of the work

and began personal friendships that have stood the test of time. Through my work with them, we

developed another project that focused on the neighborhood where we work.

My next step in my service-learning experience involved working with others to create a

layered and thematically rich project that engaged students and community alike. We called it

Little Havana Voices. Our effort involved working with students taking ESL courses and

college-level composition classes in interviewing community residents for an oral history

project. You can find some of the interviews and reflections from this project in the following


Doing the oral history project in Little Havana awakened in me a desire to explore the

diversity of cultures in South Florida and to find ways to bridge the many different communities.

As always, the opening to this new phase of my work was relational. I began working with my

good friend Alex whom I mentioned earlier in this text.

He had started some powerful connections with two key community partners two years

before. One was with a psychology professor out of FIU doing community gardening in

Overtown, and another, with the director of the I Have a Dream Program at Phillis Wheatley


As Alex and I spoke, I realized that part of my deep interest in gardening and the

outdoors could be of use to both programs. I started working with Roots in the City in Overtown

back in 2005 and applied many of the things I learned in the restoration project in Cape Florida

into this experience.

In the Cape Florida project students often spoke about the fear of snakes and spiders

(biophobia); with Roots, however, the fear was cultural and deeply rooted. I applied many of the

principles I had learned from people like John Seed of the Rainforest Network to working and

naming fear, despair, and hopeless in ourselves. It was interesting to discover that most students
in our classes in Little Havana had never visited Overtown, although it is less than five minutes

away from where they live, work, and go to school.

I realized that part of the work of the community garden involved planting internal seeds

of trust and understanding in each of us. I also noted that students became less fearful when

working with younger children. It was then I realized that starting an organic garden at Phillis

Wheatley Elementary was critical in doing this deep heart work of overcoming fear and


I can’t possibly begin to describe what has taken place since we started the work at the

school, but I would invite you who are reading to visit the blog we created to document the

process. There you will find thousands of pictures many of the kids took over the past year with

digital cameras that were donated for us to use, a running narrative of the year’s events, and the

most amazing student created video documenting the work of this project. Here’s the address:

I’m almost out of space and I have not mentioned that part of my work with service-

learning has been institutional. I hate this word, so I always translate it to relations and

connections. I think I’ve done a great job at reaching out. I’ve helped organize workshops,

lunches, award ceremonies, committees, and just about any possible activity to encourage faculty

and students to become curious and involved with service-leaning.

I’ve gone as far as helping dream and create a graduate certificate program out of FIU

that would allow faculty to explore what it means to be engaged scholars and practitioners. This

certificate program offered its first graduate level class this last fall with 12 students from around

MDC and one from a charter school. Six of the thirteen students were from my campus.

So I’m back to Aileen’s question regarding the garden and helping the poor. My answer

was something like this: Aileen, the garden is about reconnecting us to our ancestral past, one

where our great, great grandmothers had wisdom enough to know the seasons along with the

plants and animals that would nourish their bodies and in doing so provide a future for us. This
garden is no different. We do not help the poor in this work. We help ourselves and plant deep

seeds of hope and possibility. We do this today as we pull weeds and we do it tomorrow as we

research, write, and present our findings about what it means to live well as human beings in

relation to one another and to the community of life that sustains us.

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