Service Learning 101: Experiences that should last beyond a personal statement

Early September has a “back to school” feel, even for those whose school days are far behind us. We can remember the combination of excitement and anxiety as we began a new chapter of our lives, moving up a grade, shifting schools, and anticipating new people and challenges.

For high school students, especially those in their last two years, anxiety can dominate this season. They’ll be choosing course work, sports commitments, and extracurriculars, many with at least a bit of preoccupation about how it will all look on their college applications. They know the competition is fierce, especially for the more elite institutions. The pressure to make themselves stand out can be intense.

This competition sometimes leads teens to seek out service learning opportunities –- but when the motive is an application over the substantive experience or personal growth, there will likely be little true service or real learning involved. As Frank Bruni wrote in a recent New York Times editorial, this kind of travel “turns developing-world hardship into a prose-ready opportunity for growth, empathy into an extracurricular activity.”

Grow Racial Justice
Participants in Grow Racial Justice came together for five-days at the Center for Ethical Living & Social Justice Renewal in New Orleans. A collaborative effort of UUCSJ, the Thrive Program for Young Adults of Color, and Standing on the Side of Love, this gathering equipped young adults (18-34) with skills, tools, a sense of community, and the opportunity for spiritual practice and reflection to deepen their commitment to racial justice activism.

The UU College of Social Justice views our service learning journeys through a different lens. We believe that the best “service” we can ever give to other, in particular oppressed, communities is our commitment to the long work of justice in our own home communities. A short-term immersion is often a truly transforming experience, especially for young people just beginning to explore the world around them. It can be well worth the journey, but only when it brings us into genuine relationship with our host community, prepared to hear sometimes uncomfortable truths.

Activate Boston: Climate Justice participants learned about grassroots organizing to oppose the spread of fossil fuel infrastructure and joined a People Over Pipelines march.

Immersion trips help us understand our place in the tangled matrix of privilege and power, and so engage in more sustained and effective efforts for change.

Stepping out of our comfort zones can help us understand the deep interconnections between oppressed communities (whether in the developing world or here in the U.S.) and our own experiences. Immersion trips help us understand our place in the tangled matrix of privilege and power, and so engage in more sustained and effective efforts for change. The College of Social Justice is committed to offering these transformative kinds of service learning journeys because they put everything else into a new perspective, and wake us up to all of the ways we can make a difference. And a extra bonus for high school students—these impacts last much longer than their stress about writing the perfect college application essay!

Visit UUCSJ’s website to learn more about how to sign up for a short-term immersion or volunteer trip.

Stop the Deportation Raids

Thousands of women and children fleeing violence are targeted for raids and deportation this month. Tell the Department of Homeland Security to offer them protection instead.

Rights Reading

Growing movements

Our weekly roundup of what we’re reading: a few select articles from the front lines of human rights that we don’t want you to miss.

1.How can we fight Islamophobia in America?” by Erik K. Ward, Ford Foundation

“It’s clear that there has been a troubling rise in xenophobic political rhetoric, hate speech, and brazen incidents of violence against American Muslim, South Asian, and Arab communities in the United States. In the months following the peak of the Syrian refugee crisis, hate crimes against American Muslims tripled.” 

This piece from the Ford Foundation’s program officer for gender, racial, and ethnic justice features highlights from “Confronting Islamophobia in America Today.” This conversation the foundation cohosted brought together leaders from the nonprofit, government, social service, and philanthropic sectors to discuss strategies to counter increased xenophobic and Islamophobic rhetoric and behavior. Participants shared their views on how to decrease such rhetoric and behavior, bolster intersectional responses, and support Muslim communities.

UUSC has a long history of fostering interfaith and intercultural understanding (at one time through the Building Bridges program) and is dedicated to continuing that, especially as some in the United States use the global refugee crisis to push forward bigoted views and policies. In April, look out for UUSC’s Refugee Support and Advocacy Tool Kit, which includes a section on ways you can counter Islamophobia. Contact Hannah Hafter, UUSC’s senior program leader for activism, at hhafter @ if you would like to get on the distribution list for the tool kit.

2.U.S. top court rules against Tyson Foods in class action case,” by Lawrence Hurley, Reuters

“Workers at the meat-processing facility, which employs around 1,300 people, sued in 2007, claiming they were entitled to overtime pay and damages because they were not paid for time spent putting on and taking off protective equipment and walking to work stations.”

UUSC was happy to hear that the Supreme Court ruled in favor of workers yesterday in the Tyson v. Bouaphakeo case. The court ruled against Tyson, who was objecting to the use of statistics to determine liability in class action lawsuits. The case in particular involved workers from a Tyson plant in Iowa who were suing after not being paid for time they clearly worked.

Tyson has a bad track record in terms of treating its workers with respect. Arkansas poultry workers routinely face wage theft, poor safety conditions, discrimination, and harassment, according to a troubling report from UUSC partner the Northwest Arkansas Workers’ Justice Center that was released in conjunction with Tyson Foods’ shareholder meeting in Springdale, Ark. Learn more about the challenges poultry workers face, tell your friends and family, and take action.

3. “Water Affordability Is A New Civil Rights Movement in the United States,” by Brett Walton, Circle of Blue

“‘Where water infrastructure is crumbling are the places without the ability to absorb the cost increases,’ Stephen Gasteyer, a Michigan State University sociologist who studies water access, told Circle of Blue. ‘The people who were left in these cities are predominantly minorities. Where you see things falling apart are predominantly minority communities.’”

Circle of Blue is a hub for “relevant, reliable, and actionable on-the-ground information about the world’s resource crises.” Highlighting the work and voices of UUSC’s partners and our own Patricia Jones, this article outlines the growing movement for water affordability. Families across the United States —most in low-income communities of color — are being denied their human right to water because of soaring water rates. UUSC has been working with groups throughout the country — including the Michigan Welfare Rights Organization — on this issue and will be releasing a series of reports in the coming months to help move the human right to water forward.

Rights Reading

Children and workers in danger

Our weekly roundup of what we’re reading: a few select articles from the front lines of human rights that we don’t want you to miss.

1. “Lessons from Flint’s Water Crisis,” by Sharmila L. Murthy, WBUR Cognoscenti

“Municipal water service is so essential for public health — and for life itself — that it should not be treated as merely another budget line-item. . . . We need to create a financial safety net so that municipalities faced with slash-and-burn budgeting are not forced to compromise the health and welfare of their citizens. We must draw a line in the proverbial sand and not cross it.”

This opinion piece highlights the damage done — to communities, to families, to children — when money is prioritized over human rights. As people throughout the country and the world take a closer look at what is happening in Flint, many are beginning to learn that this is not an isolated occurrence, another vital point made by the author and also shared by Patricia Jones, UUSC’s senior program leader for the human right to water. UUSC has been working with grassroots organizations in Flint and throughout Michigan to address the gross violations of the human right to water that too many communities are dealing with.

2. “Texas Officials Want Controversial Family Detention Centers To Be Labeled As ‘Child Care’ Centers,” by Esther Yu-Hsi Lee, ThinkProgress

“Calling them ‘child-care facilities’ makes people forget the main thing about detention: you’re not allowed to leave. . . . No matter how rosy a picture the government may paint of these facilities, restraining children in a place that they’re not allowed to leave can cause them ‘long-lasting psychological, developmental, and physical harm.’ That doesn’t sound like ‘child care’ to me.”
—Nicholas Marritz, a pro bono attorney with Legal Aid Justice Center

The latest on Texas efforts to reclassify family detention centers as “child care” facilities (um, no, they’re not). As the article details, much to the dismay of advocates for children’s and immigrants’ rights, Texas is putting this up for consideration with the state’s Health and Human Services Commission. What we know — from our work with RAICES, our partner in Texas, and the findings of No Safe Haven Here, our report on the conditions that mothers and children face in immigration detention — is that these facilities are unhealthy and traumatizing to families who have already been traumatized. To designate them as “child care” facilities is dangerously ridiculous.

3. “‪Meet the minors risking their lives to come to America — alone,” by ThinkProgress Video

“I see myself having a great future here. I want to study and I want to be a doctor when I grow up.”

When you read the news about refugees from Central America seeking safety in the United States — many of them minors, on their own — you see a lot of numbers and hear a lot of political grandstanding. Some might forget that we’re talking about people. Individuals with hopes and dreams — and more fears than anyone should have to shoulder. This video from ThinkProgress brings it back to that fundamental, and moving, truth.

4. “Wage Theft, Sexual Assault, And No Sick Leave: The Horrible Conditions Facing Poultry Workers,” by Esther Yu-Hsi Lee, ThinkProgress

“It’s not an issue of simple disagreement over a particular wage. . . . This is about dignity and justice for the workers. It’ll take quite systemic change for these things to be in line for full rights and dignity for workers.”
—Amber Moulton, UUSC Researcher

What can we say, ThinkProgress and Esther Yu-Hsi Lee are rocking it this week! It’s awesome to see them focus in on the conditions facing poultry workers in Arkansas after our partner the Northwest Arkansas Workers’ Justice Center released an eye-opening report last week.

Remembering the Holocaust

Today is the U.N. International Day of Commemoration in memory of the victims of the Holocaust. As an organization first created to help people flee Nazi oppression, UUSC has deep ties to this day. Martha and Waitstill Sharp, two of UUSC’s founders, worked to help hundreds of people, including children, in their struggles to escape what would become the Holocaust. Their work will be memorialized this fall in Two Who Defied the Nazis: The Journey of Martha and Waitstill Sharp, a PBS film produced by Ken Burns. Watch the trailer above.  

Join UUSC on Medium!

You may already be obsessed with Medium (I know I am). You may have never heard of it. Either way, we want you to check out UUSC on Medium and join us there for some compelling conversations!

What is Medium?

In their words: “a community of millions of thinkers and doers offering their best ideas and moving conversation forward on the biggest issues and interests of the day.” It’s basically a beautifully simple publishing platform that really effectively facilitates interaction and dialogue.

Why do we love it?

  • Engagement: you can follow, highlight, comment, and share in a more dynamic way than most websites, and it really helps build connections and conversation.
  • Design: it’s clean, simple, striking, beautiful, and super mobile-friendly (their app is great).
  • That awesome “time to read” function: at the top of each article, there’s a small note that indicates how long it will take to read.
  • Great writing: Medium is wonderful at highlighting well-told stories.

What is UUSC doing on Medium?

We’re sharing select articles in our Rights Now Medium publication. We’re publishing reports, like No Safe Haven Here, in a way that’s a little more exciting and easy to read than a boring PDF. And we’re reading, too (we’re particularly interested in The Development Set, Medium’s new publication focused on global health and social impact). So join us over there — follow us, follow our publications, and start reading!