Beyond Charity:
Service Learning for Social Justice


Rahima C. Wade

What is the best way to educate young people about the value of community involvement and civic participation? Children will not fulfill the social studies’ mission of informed and active citizenship through book learning alone. They need practical experiences in their schools and communities: to identify real problems and work with adults toward solving them. Through hands-on activities such as running a voter registration campaign, conducting oral histories with elderly nursing home residents, or cleaning up a local riverbank, students learn about their communities, the problems facing them, and the democratic processes needed to effect change. I believe that service learning projects are a step in the right direction—but that they could often be a lot more.


Service Learning: An Opportunity

service learning is the integration of community service projects that benefit the school or community with academic skills and content as well as structured reflection on the service experience.1 Students perform school- or community-based work projects that (ideally) put their academic skills and knowledge to work. Asking the student to reflect on their service experience is often part of the assessment of service learning. service learning in K-12 schools has mushroomed in the last decade. Teachers at all levels and in all subject areas—with support from federal funding and newly published service learning curriculum materials—are finding ways to teach curricular skills and content in concert with their students’ projects. Quality service learning projects include all of the following components: preparation and orientation, student input and ownership, community collaboration, clear goals for service and student learning, meaningful service, curriculum integration, opportunities for reflection, and well-planned assessment. 2

The umbrella of service learning encompasses a wide variety of activities, from projects that emphasize money and materials, such as fundraisers, canned food drives, or clothing collections, to experiences with people in need and the environment. Service learning can also incorporate advocacy activities, such as writing a letter to a public official about a community concern or circulating a petition to try to pass a new law. Creative teachers integrate these service activities in the curriculum not only with social studies content, but also with reading, writing, science, and math skills. Reflection activities often include opportunities to talk about the service experience in class discussions or presentations as well as writing journal entries or essays.

Social studies teachers who engage in service learning do so for a variety of reasons. Many are concerned about the development of empathy and social responsibility in their students. Others see hands-on involvement in the community as a means for motivating reluctant learners and applying social studies concepts to the real world. Some social studies teachers incorporate service learning in the curriculum because they believe that volunteering or helping others is an important part of being a good citizen.

I would argue that working for social justice is an essential characteristic of a democratic citizen. Rather than just focusing on a local need, teaching for social justice involves helping students learn how to question prevailing practices and develop new ideas for making the world a better place for us all. service learning should be about social change, not just filling a gap in services. It should be about questioning the conditions in society that create the need for service in the first place and seeking to alter those conditions. In this article I will explore what teaching for social justice could look like and how elementary social studies teachers and their students might construct service learning projects that promote change, rather than charity.


Social Justice: The Goal and the Reality

In a just society, all members would have their basic needs met. They would be physically and psychologically safe and secure, free to develop their natural capacities to the fullest, and comfortable interacting democratically with others.3 Social justice, therefore, is incompatible with prejudice or discrimination based on ethnicity, class, gender, sexual orientation, age, or ability. Unfortunately, even as it strives toward “a more perfect union,” our society at present maintains an institutional framework that reinforces many injustices. Those who hold power in the economic and political system use this framework to their own advantage and to dominate and discriminate against others.

In a society characterized by social justice, there would be no room for oppressive beliefs or behaviors directed at individuals from a specific social group. There would not be institutional injustices such as unequal treatment of ethnic minorities and the poor by the justice system, discrimination against gays and lesbians in housing and employment, or unequal access to quality education for poor and working class children. In a just society, every person would be of equal worth and value. Each person would be treated according to his or her needs toward the goal of becoming a fully capable and contributing member of society.


The Beginnings of Social Justice

Social justice education begins with children’s personal experiences and then moves toward fostering a critical perspective and action directed toward social change.4 Starting with respect for students, the teacher who is concerned about social justice organizes classroom life so that all students will be emotionally and physically safe. Students’ ideas are valued, they make important contributions to their own learning, and they are actively involved in making connections between their own lives and the subjects they study. Social justice classrooms ask students “to develop their democratic capacities: to question, to challenge, to make real decisions, to collectively solve problems.”5

Critique is an essential aspect of the social justice classroom, particularly the analysis of the roots of inequality in curriculum, school structure, and society. Students can investigate the following questions: “Who makes decisions and who is left out?” “Who benefits and who doesn’t?” “Why is a certain practice fair or unfair? What alternatives can we imagine to change the situation for the better?” “What is my role in relation to this issue?”

Along with questioning prevailing standards and practices, students must be given opportunities to act. While it is not the teacher’s role to direct students to particular political beliefs or to organizations, it is the teacher’s role to encourage students to act on their ideas and to provide opportunities for them to do so.6 The empowering teacher asks students to think about how we are involved and what we can do to make a difference. In particular, students might be encouraged to work in settings where they will meet people who are different from them in terms of ethnicity, life experience, ability, or age. When these service learning projects are really successful, all participants—those serving and those being served—are empowered.

It is important that education for social justice be academically rigorous. “A social justice classroom equips children not only to change the world but also to maneuver in the one that exists.”7 Thus, children in social justice classrooms acquire important and necessary skills and knowledge in social studies, science, reading, writing, and math. They then use these skills and knowledge to enhance their own learning and academic success as well as to work for a more socially just society.


From Charity to Change

Too often, service learning projects focus on providing a one-time service without questioning why the need for such service has arisen in the first place. For example, students may serve lunch at a local soup kitchen without analyzing the reasons for poverty in the community or they might visit seniors at a nursing home without exploring why older people are often isolated in our society.

Fortunately, many charitable service learning projects can be shifted to a social justice orientation with the addition of two key activities. First, students can be encouraged to analyze a social problem. With guidance from the teacher, they can discuss the situation, observe behavior and take notes, seek out experts and service providers in the community, and go to the library or search the Internet for relevant information. Second, students can get involved in efforts to change the root causes of a problem, rather than just respond to the immediate needs at hand.

A couple of examples illustrate how charitable projects can be transformed into service learning projects that reflect an awareness of social justice. A charitable project to help the homeless might involve collecting clothing for people who live at a shelter or serving a meal at the local soup kitchen. Perhaps the teacher would have students reflect on the universal need for food and clothing and the cost of these things in our society. Academic activities might include reading children’s books about the homeless, using math skills to measure ingredients in a recipe or to count and inventory clothing, or writing short papers about why it is important to help others in the community.

With a few changes, this project could include a concern for social justice. First, teacher and students should discuss the different reasons why people become homeless and the needs homeless people have beyond food and clothing. The services that are available to the homeless (such as meal services, shelters, housing offices, and job training centers) in the community could be described.8 If possible, students might, in the company of a teacher or parent, interview a shelter resident to hear his or her personal story and to ask, from this person’s perspective, what service or resource might help a homeless person move toward the goal of working and living on one’s own. Finally, students could write to or speak with service providers and public officials about the condition of homelessness, what public assistance is already available to this group, and what new programs or services might help—such as setting up a mail service, health clinic, counseling program, or job training class. Setting up a simple telephone message service at a homeless shelter can help employers and job-seekers contact each other. A search in the library or on the Internet by the teacher and students will reveal additional ideas for advocacy and action based on the efforts of individuals and organizations around the country.

In a second example, a teacher might take her class to a local park to pick up litter. A service learning project based on this charitable activity might include having students reflecting on the importance of keeping one’s community clean, adding up the amount and classifying the types of garbage collected, and learning about pollution, citizenship, community recreation programs, and so forth.

To add a social justice orientation to this experience, the teacher might ask students why they think there was so much trash in the park. The students could discuss the types and amount of trash they found and guess why so much was there. Students could then visit the park with an adult at different hours of the day and record their observations: Who is littering? When does most littering occur? In the evening, such sociologic observation can be done from the safety of a parked car. On the basis of such observations, students might be able to compose relevant questions and even to propose some solutions or improvements. “Are there enough trash receptacles available?” “Are these emptied frequently enough?” “Do any nearby stores provide adequate trash receptacles on their own property?” Students could then prepare a report and give it to local officials responsible for the care of public recreational space (like park and recreation officials, police officers, and public health officials). If some of the “litter bugs” prove to be children of the same age as the student researchers, this may be an opportunity for students to reflect on their own behavior and to discuss their concern with their peers.

Even if students are not successful in bringing about the changes they are advocating, they can learn about critical inquiry, social research, how local government works, and the effort and perseverance needed to effect lasting social change.


Close to Home

Some service learning projects with social justice goals can be implemented without ever leaving the school grounds. For example, kindergartners could discuss the dolls, books, hats, and toys in their classroom. Are they representative of different cultures, ages, and abilities? If not, the class could compose a letter to the school principal or superintendent to request funds to purchase additional items. Older elementary students could examine the school library collection. Are there books that portray diverse cultures, abilities, ages, and family structures positively? If not, students could review and recommend for purchase new books, set up a display of these books, and present a public story hour for younger children and their parents to feature several of the better books. Does every parent know about the availability of school lunch or breakfast programs for low-income families? If not, students can help advertise this service (and help remove any social stigma about it) by making posters and leaflets that describe the program. Is litter a problem on the school ground? Maybe students can go beyond just picking it up and begin to tackle the greatest challenge of al#151;changing human behavior.


New Agendas, New Skills

service learning projects with social justice goals may require students to learn additional skills involved in changing their schools and communities. Teachers may need to teach students how to write letters to public officials or even press releases. Students may need guidance in how to conduct surveys, circulate petitions, or telephone a community agency. As students attempt to initiate change—whether by writing a letter, setting up a web page, designing a leaflet, lobbying legislators, or talking with their peers—they will not only be learning new skills but will also be developing greater understanding about the democratic processes citizens of all ages use to improve their communities. Finally, they will learn that “service” is not just about meeting someone’s immediate need; it is about working toward the ideal of a just society that upholds the worth of every individual and supports the potential of all its members.

Too often, public education emphasizes individual achievement over group effort. Even social studies textbooks often uphold change as the province of individual politicians, inventors, or reformers, rather than as a result of the work of many people—collective action. Through service learning, students can learn skills in communication and collaboration. They might discover the power of working together and the beauty of each person being able to contribute according to his or her strengths and interests. While working as a group is not always easy going, students might learn that they can accomplish greater things, and that there really is “strength in numbers.” As Margaret Meade once said, “Never doubt that a small group of concerned citizens can change the world. Indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”



Our society is admittedly a long way from being socially just. While elementary students may not change the nation, they can make small and meaningful differences in their own schools and communities. service learning projects can reflect social justice goals if teachers encourage students to examine the root causes underneath community needs and take action to address those causes. With small steps toward justice, social studies teachers can help fulfill the profession’s mission of creating informed and active citizens. At the same time, teachers can give their students the values, skills, and knowledge needed to function as effective democratic citizens. They can transmit the hope that together we might create a better world for everyone. G



1. R. W. Cairn and J. C. Kielsmeier, eds., Growing Hope: A Sourcebook on Integrating Youth Service into the School Curriculum (Roseville, MN: National Youth Leadership Council, 1991).

2. R. C. Wade, ed., Community Service-Learning: A Guide to Including Service in the Public School Curriculum (Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 1997).

3. M. Adams, L. A. Bell, and P. Griffin, eds., Teaching for Diversity and Social Justice: A Sourcebook (New York: Routledge, 1997).

4. M. Adams, ibid.; S. Kreisberg, Transforming Power: Domination, Empowerment, and Education (Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 1992).

5. B. Bigelow, L. Christiansen, S. Karp, B. Miner, and B. Peterson, eds., Rethinking Our Classrooms: Teaching for Equity and Justice (Milwaukee, WI: Rethinking Schools, 1994), 4.

6. Ibid.

7. Ibid. 5.

8. Students may have personal experience with homelessness or the threat of it. The class might be asked to write about its housing situation, but students from poor families should not be singled out or asked to speak on the topic due to the social stigma that still accompanies homelessness in the eyes of many people. One survey found that about 4% of the students in the Chicago school district are homeless. Kerry A. White, “Chicago Homeless Effort Faulted,” Education Week (September 8, 1999): 4. See also Jessica Sandham, “Home Sweet School,” Education Week (January 26, 2000): 24.


Derman-Sparks, L., and the A.B.C. Task Force. Anti-bias Curriculum: Tools for Empowering Young Children. Washington, DC: National Association for the Education of Young Children, 1989.

Fleisher, P. Changing Our World: A Handbook for Young Advocates. Tucson, AZ: Zephyr Press, 1994.

Hatkoff, A., and K. K. Klopp. How to Save the Children. New York, NY: Fireside, 1992.

Howard, T. A., and S. A. Howard. Kids Ending Hunger: What Can We Do? Kansas City, MO: Andrews and McMeel, 1992.

Kroloff, B. A. Fifty-four Ways You Can Help the Homeless. West Orange, NJ: Behrman House, 1993.

Lee, E., D. Menkart, and M. Okazawa-Rey, eds. Beyond Heroes and Holidays: A Practical Guide to K-12 Anti-racist, Multicultural Education and Staff Development. Baltimore, MD: McArdle, 1998.

Lesko, W. S. No Kidding Around! America’s Young Activists Are Changing Our World and You Can Too. Kensington, MD: Information USA, 1992.

Lewis, B. A. The Kid’s Guide to Social Action: How to Solve the Social Problems You Choose -– and Turn Creative Thinking into Positive Action. Minneapolis, MN: Free Spirit Publishing, 1991.

National Service Learning Clearing House,
University of Minnesota, 1954 Buford Avenue, St. Paul, MN 55108. (800) 808-7378.
Web site:

Schniedewind, N., and E. Davidson. Open Minds to Equality: A Sourcebook of Learning Activities to Promote Ethnicity, Sex, Class, and Age Equity. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1983.

About the Author

Rahima C. Wade is an associate professor in the Department of Elementary Social Studies at the University of Iowa and is Project Director of the National Service Learning in Teacher Education Partnership.


A Checklist for Social Justice-Oriented
Service Learning Projects