Fighting Against Single Stories Through Service-Learning

Written by Service-Learning Team Manager Anika Krause

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Education in the Community was my first introduction to service-learning. It was my very first class on my very first day of my freshman year, and I’ve been hooked ever since. Education in the Community was the first class I was an S-LTA for and, this past semester, the last class I was an Service-Learning Teaching Assistant for. Needless to say, this class has had a huge impact on my college career!

In that first class of my first year, we watched a TED Talk that has stuck with me throughout my time at Northeastern. The talk was by acclaimed feminist author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and was entitled “The Danger of a Single Story.” In the video, which you can watch here, Adichie discusses how stereotypes and misconceptions of others can create a single story, a message without nuance, that pigeonholes people. As the title indicates, such thinking is dangerous, because a single story limits the way that we view others and, potentially, the way others view us. Single stories are the side effects of bias, misinformation, and, to be brutally honest, downright racism. So Adichie puts the onus on us to combat the single story and work to build what Chinua Achebe term “a balance of stories” – to educate ourselves about the experiences of others so that we can move beyond the single story.

The power of this lesson didn’t just impact me. When I transitioned from Education in the Community student to Education in the Community S-LTA, I got to see just how much this concept impacted my students as well. They continued to return to it time and time again, in class discussions, online blogs, and paper assignments. The associations between this course concept and their service-learning were strong. My students talked about how, when they first came to Northeastern, they heard and often believed in really negative single stories that they were told about neighboring communities, particularly Roxbury. Adichie’s talk helped them realize that they carried this single story with them, which led them to carrying a desire to create “a balance of stories” to their service-learning. In my time as an S-LTA, I read countless discussion board posts and reflective papers where students realized that, by working with the young people at community partners sites like 826 Boston and Ellis Memorial in Roxbury, there is so much more to our surrounding communities than single stories of crime, poverty, and violence. For people who may someday be educators in an increasingly diverse country, this is a powerful lesson to learn to help educators see their students for the wealth of stories they bring and not just the stereotypes society teaches us.

For me, these reflections were a concrete reminder of the impact service-learning can have and the power of connecting in-class learning to real world experiences. I got to watch my students grow from their service and what they learned in class, and support them as they worked to develop “a balance of stories.” For me, this is what service-learning is all about: individual growth, learning, and change as a part of work towards community growth, learning, and change.

As Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie says, “Stories matter. Many stories matter. Stories have been used to dispossess and to malign, but stories can also be used to empower and to humanize.”

Here’s to a future of service-learning stories that empower, humanize, and help ourselves and our community grow!

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