Envisioning the Future: Exploring the Tenets of Critical Service Learning

Laura Weaver, Director of Professional Development and Engaged Learning, Indiana Campus Compact, Dr. Cristina Santamaría Graff, Assistant Professor of Special Education and Urban Teacher Education at IUPUI, Dr. Kiesha Warren-Gordon, Associate Professor of Criminal Justice and Criminology at Ball State University, Dr. Susan Crisafulli, Professor of English at Franklin College, Dr. Jessica Lee, Assistant Professor of Social Work at IUPUI, Dr. Adam J. Kuban, Associate Professor of Journalism at Ball State University

The focus of this XL Spark Session is to consider, examine, and discuss both theoretical and concrete applications of Tania Mitchell’s (2008, 2014) original three tenets of Critical Service Learning (CSL)—authentic relationships, a social change orientation, and power relations—as well as a recent fourth tenet, futurity (Mitchell & Latta, 2020). Presenters include five faculty representing four institutions across Indiana and one state-level community engagement professional who represent the current cohort of the 2020 – 2021 Indiana Campus Compact Faculty Fellows Program. As scholarship around CSL continues to emerge and evolve, one visible trend is the limited amount of research centering on the applicability of CSL tenets as conceptualized through operationalized, systematic, and measurable processes and outcomes in university/college – community partnerships.

This session will provide a brief overview of CSL and its four tenets and then move to a more informal structure whereby the presenters (i.e., Spark Group Facilitators) will lead small group discussions with audience members who will comprise four groups. In each group, the facilitator will engage audience members in conversations around one CSL tenet for the purpose of co-generating knowledge about ways to apply and put into practice that tenet. These conversations will be documented through group notes capturing emergent themes and ideas, which will then be shared with the whole group for further discussion. The intent of the large- and small-group sessions is to co-create shared knowledge and experience that will enrich and inform CSL practitioners’ ability to apply CSL tenets in community-engaged projects.

We, the authors of this Spark Session, are the current cohort of the 2020–2021 Indiana Campus Compact Faculty Fellow’s Program—five faculty representing four institutions across Indiana and one state-level community engagement professional. At present, we are in the midst of a year-long investigation of critical service-learning. But more specifically, we are interested in how each tenet of critical service-learning can be operationalized and then measured. Through this journey, we aim to add our voices to this important conversation, while providing a transferable tool for those across the field to use not only when approaching critical service-learning (Latta et al., 2018) but also when providing greater context for institutional annual reward processes.

This session will offer a brief overview of critical service learning as conceptualized by Mitchell and Latta (2020) before moving into facilitated Spark Conversations. The Spark Conversations will be formatted in a similar manner to semi-structured research focus groups, with each Spark Group focusing on one of the four tenets of critical service-learning. Session facilitators will serve as Spark Group Facilitators and will have a list of reflection questions connected to each tenet but will allow for the conversation to flow naturally among the members of the Spark Group. Participants will return to the main workshop session in order to share out themes with the larger group with a possible outcome of generating movement around a learning community further devoted to knowledge growth and generation on other areas of critical service-learning. Participants of each Spark Conversation will have the opportunity to serve as Conversation Reporters to share themes and ideas, or the Session Facilitators can serve in this capacity if Group participants so choose. Session Facilitators will offer suggestions for ways in which participants can continue to engage beyond the Session; possibilities include the creation of organically formed learning communities on specific tenets or critical service learning as a whole, reading groups focused on specific texts, or cross-unit (or cross-institutional) research further examining additional aspects of critical service-learning.

The purpose of this Spark Session is twofold, with neither goal superseding the other. First, we aim to engage participants in a way that has them reflecting on their own practice as engaged scholars in order to generate data and new knowledge on an essential yet still emerging area of critical service learning—how one might go about assessing their critical service learning activities. Second, we seek to expand the community of scholars who are committed to critical service-learning (Latta et al., 2018) practices, with a desire to spark action in all participants, but especially in Hoosier participants to further collaborate as a way of building this area of the field.

Mitchell’s (2008) seminal literature review highlighted the differences between traditional and critical forms of service-learning while adding her voice to those calling for a shift from the charity and project-based models towards social change models. She called for greater “attention to social change, work to redistribute power, and the development of authentic relationships” as the central strategies to enacting “community-based pedagogy with explicit aims toward social justice” (Mitchell, 2013, p. 263). These components would become known by many as the three tenets (or Mitchell’s three tenets) of critical service-learning.

Recently, Mitchell and Latta (2020) have added a fourth tenet that calls for those engaged in critical service-learning to “consider how (or if) critical service learning should be concerned with futurity”(p. 4). Futurity, or the “ways that groups imagine and produce knowledge about futures” (Goodyear-Ka’opua, 2019, p. 86), challenges scholars and practitioners to reflect deeply on how the operationalization of each tenet might produce changes within the future. For instance, when we focus on creating authentic relationships between all stakeholders, what types of outcomes might these relationships create? Or how might an equally distributed power dynamic across all partners change the outcomes of an authentic relationship? Mitchell and Latta (2020) also remind us that “we should not lose sight of the future we hope to build” (p. 5), and it is here that their fourth tenet begins to take shape in the imaginings of us all.
This Spark Session has been developed with the explicit intent to capture how community engagement scholar-practitioners operationalize (or envision operationalizing) critical service learning to build a more just, equitable, and inclusive future.

Three of the six presenters are either regionally or nationally known for their knowledge and expertise on critical service-learning (Santamaría Graff, Warren-Gordon, and Weaver). These three have also presented and published on the topic numerous times in the last three years (e.g., Latta et al., 2019, April 5–9; Latta et al., 2018; Santamaria-Graff & Boehner, 2019; Santamaria Graff et al., 2019, May 29–31; Warren-Gordon, 2020; Warren-Gordon et al., 2020; Weaver et al., 2018, March 26–28). All six presenters are accomplished service-learning practitioners who routinely incorporate community-engaged pedagogies into their work and are adept at creating reciprocal community partnerships that have led to lasting authentic relationships.

This session is appropriate for moderate- to expert-level community engagement practitioners and scholars. This would include/be appropriate for the following groups:
– chief community engagement officers charged with institution-wide decision making and implementation of community engagement efforts,
– faculty who have repeatedly incorporated community-engaged pedagogical practices into their courses and/or incorporate community-based (-engaged, and/or -driven) research as part of their scholarly work,
– community engagement professionals with at least 2+ years of experience in community engagement and who currently support/collaborate faculty, plus professional staff and/or students working to create larger unit- or institution-wide community partnerships,
– other professional staff (e.g., student affairs professionals, institutional research/assessment professionals, senior administrators) who support/collaborate on community engagement projects, either in a professional or para-professional manner, and
– graduate students who are familiar with community engagement and the way in which it may intersect with critical theory and/or have repeatedly participated in (or taught) community engagement activities.


Goodyear-Ka’opua, N. (2019). Indigenous oceanic futures: Challenging settler colonialisms and militarization. In L. T. Smith, E. Tuck, & K. W. Yang (Eds.), Indigenous and decolonizing studies in education: Mapping the long view (pp. 82–102). Rutledge.

Latta, M., Kruger, T. M., Payne, L., Weaver, L., & VanSickle, J. L. (2018). Approaching critical service-learning: A model for reflection on positionality and possibility. Journal of Higher Education Outreach and Engagement, 22(2), 31–56.

Latta, M., Santamaría Graff, C. C., Warren-Gordon, K. & Weaver, L. (2019, April 5–9) Critical service-learning (CSL) enacted across three universities: Examining CSL through a critical co-constructed auto-ethnography [Paper presentation]. American Educational Research Association 2019 Annual Meeting, Toronto, Canada. https://convention2.allacademic.com/one/aera/aera19/

Mitchell, T. D. (2013). Critical service-learning as a philosophy for deepening community engagement. In A. Hoy & M. Johnson (Eds.), Deepening community engagement in higher education: Forging new pathways (pp. 264–269). Palgrave Macmillan.

Mitchell, T. D. (2008). Traditional vs. critical service-learning: Engaging the literature to differentiate two models. Michigan Journal of Community Service Learning, 14(2), 50–65. http://hdl.handle.net/2027/spo.3239521.0014.205

Mitchell, T. D., & Latta, M. (2020). From critical community service to critical service learning and the futures we must (still) imagine. Journal of Community Engagement and Higher Education, 12(1), 3–6.
Santamaría-Graff, C., & Boehner, J. (2019) Forming a mutually respectful university-community partnership through a “Family as Faculty” project. . Engage! Co-created Knowledge Serving the City, 1(1), 50–70. https://journals.iupui.edu/index.php/ENGAGE/article/view/22816/22547

Santamaría Graff, C., Warren-Gordon, K., Latta, M., & Weaver, L. (2019, May 29–31). Critical community engagement and the ethical consideration of community partnerships [Pre-conference workshop]. 2019 Midwest Campus Compact Conference, Minneapolis, MN, United States.

Warren-Gordon, K. (2020). The power of storytelling building trust and connections between community members and police. Liberal Education: Quality and Equity in Service to Democracy, 106(3), 46-51. https://www.aacu.org/liberaleducation/2020/fall/warren-gordon

Warren-Gordon, K., Hudson, K., & Scott, F. (2020). Voices of partnerships within the critical service-learning framework. Journal of Community Engagement and Higher Education 12(2), 17–25.

Weaver, L., Payne, L., Latta, M., Kruger, T. M., & VanSickle, J. L. (2018, March 26–28). Approaching critical service-learning: Examining social change during a year-long faculty fellowship. [Conference session]. National Campus Compact Conference, Indianapolis, IN, United States.”