Part 4: Service Learning

Part 4: Service Learning

In my opinion, the journey thus far is typical of a road trip. I am a lover of road trips, as they allow me to explore and appreciate new things. Road trips also are unpredictable, forcing me to adapt to changes that were not anticipated at the beginning of the journey. If I were to sum up my experience with the course called Service Learning, then “road trip” would be the most appropriate phrase. This course was the most practical of all the courses offered in the MA Sociology program, and it gave students the opportunity to form a partnership between the community and the university, engaging in projects that both parties would learn and benefit from.

As a student of Caribbean background, I was pleased to partner with the Nottingham News Centre, to undertake a project focused on former Afro-Caribbean coal-miners in England, and the tremendous work they have contributed to the coal mining industry. In typical road trip style, I mapped out the journey in this Reflective Report, required as partial fulfillment of the course. The Sociologist Journey continues…



To borrow from the Service Learning module guide for the MA Sociology course offered by Nottingham Trent University (NTU), the module’s aim is “to make a real world contribution to addressing contemporary social challenges experienced by the local, national and global communities we are part of”. Service learning is considered as a form of community engagement (Bandy 2016) which allows mutual benefit to both the student and the community. This mutual benefit sometimes sits in conflict with Sigmon’s (1997) typologies of service learning, where in three out of four types, the outcomes are either one-sided or non-existent. However, for it to be deemed successful, the student and the service partner should equally benefit from the service and the learning (Furco 1996). 


At NTU, one of the ways in which students practice service learning is by joining with a not-for-profit organization in the local community to address a social issue. This reflective report will give an overview of the organization with which I worked, and the service that was undertaken. The service will be looked at within the wider context of public sociology and social justice. Then I will critically evaluate my contribution to the project using two models of reflection and  examine how the module links to others within the course. Finally, I will speak to the social and political issues within the type of service, as well as the overall context of the organization, and how the service undertaken links with the principles of service learning.  

Basic overview of the organisation and the nature of the service 


Nottingham News Centre (NNC), under the direction of Norma Gregory, boasts itself in being the “first port of call for heritage management and heritage media production” (Nottingham News Centre 2017). Since its inception in 2013, it has been diligent in a three-fold philosophy to “Collate, Inform and Grow” by means of education and research for the benefit of local and global communities. NNC collaborates with organizations that are engaged with various heritage projects, to offer management and production services such as: heritage management, heritage content creation, heritage research, heritage consultancy, and heritage education (ibid).


Over the years, the NNC has partnered with various organizations such as The Nottingham City Council, The National Coal Mining Museum for England, The Nottingham Trent University and others, to carry out their mandate of heritage promotion and production. With the collaborative effort and funding of the National Heritage Lottery Fund, the NNC has worked on several heritage projects that highlights the often underrepresented and unmentioned members of the Afro-Caribbean community. Some of the projects include, but are not limited to: the Coal Miners of African Caribbean Heritage, Narratives from Nottinghamshire of 2016, the Digging Deep: Coal Miners of African Caribbean Heritage, National Narratives from across the UK of 2017, and the Black Miners Museum Project of 2019. 


The latter project serves as the umbrella for the service being undertaken by myself and the service partner. This consists of laying out the coal mining experiences of many Afro-Caribbean ex-miners in the form of a photobook, which will not only serve as a memoir to them and their relatives, but as a publication of proof that these former coal miners have played their part in enhancing what was one of the major income-yielding sectors for many years in Britain, prior to the complete halt of coal mining in England in December 2015 (Arnold 2018). 


The photobook will contain the photographs and narratives of the Black coal miners who served in various collieries across England, with a focus on events that were held in honour of the ex-miners, and a reflection from the author and backbone behind the project who identifies herself as a product of the Afro-Caribbean community, but more so as the daughter of a former miner. One of the main reasons for the production of this memoir, apart from the fact that there currently exists none of its kind, is that the group which it represents are considered to be forgotten, being a part of the Black community, whose voice among writings are “mostly silent” (McKenley 2001). The book will cause their stories to be a part of the history that is remembered when issues of socio-economic contribution in England, especially within the Afro-Caribbean community and in the area of coal mining, are mentioned. 


Currently, the layout of the book is complete and undergoing revisions by the service partner to ensure that what is published reflects the intention, purpose and standards of the Nottingham News Center and partners of the Black Miners Museum project. 


The wider context for the project and subject area


Among the various stories published about mining, such as closure of the mines (Arnold 2018), and health impacts (McIvor and Johnston 2016), the Black voice was absent specifically as it relates to the Afro-Caribbean ex-miners’ contribution to the mining industry (Norma Gregory via The Guardian 2016). This absence is a part of a bigger issue of social injustice and inequality that migrants face in developed countries across the world (UN DSEA 2016). Specifically in England, there was a political move to ‘get rid of’ migrants, with no regards to the fact that (i) many of them were invited to build back Britain after the effects of World War II (Whitfield 2006), and (ii) many of them worked tirelessly in industries, such as coal mining, to increase revenue collection in the country (Phoenix 1998) though their own standard of living was below par, due to low pay (Solomon 2014). This presents the notion of dual invisibility (Royster 2003) which is faced by the black man from Afro-Caribbean countries, first because of skin color, but also from having to work underground (Turner and Blackie 2018). Though the product of their labour was visible and beneficial, they often were not. Thus is the drive behind awakening the voice and strengthening the visibility of the remarkable contribution to the coal-mining industry by the disadvantaged (Purdie-Vaughns and Eibach 2008) “double invisible” men. Such contributions should be made public, and celebrated, as the service that they have rendered matters and their stories should not be archived. 


Though NNC is based in Nottingham, the projects it undertakes spread across England, and as such aligns with the concept of local sociology (Fine 2010), which suggests that within local contexts social worlds are constituted and social order is created, when links are formed with common groups. The organization’s projects are in tandem with Burawoy’s (2005) public sociology which makes the “invisible visible” and the “private public” with their concentrated focus on the Afro-Caribbean ex-miners. Burawoy (ibid) argues that in the traditional form of public sociology, written publications are produced to bring awareness to social issues that affect particular groups within society. As such, the production of the photobook, which contains the narratives of the coal miners would be a form of traditional public sociology. Additionally, in order for the stories to be captured, the researcher, who identifies as a historian, made use of Burawoy’s organic public sociology, engaging in dialogue with the members of the community and vice versa. 


Waterton and Watson (2013) speaks to the notion of community heritage, in which “professional heritage managers… seek to genuinely engage with communities who are seen as owners in a particular heritage”. Certainly the Afro-Caribbean miners are the owners of their narratives, having multiple experiences in the coal mining industry. While community heritage is commendable, there is a concern that exists when service learning is conducted with members of the “urban community” (Maybach 1996) with a precaution to ensure that the service is not pernicious, even when following proper protocols. 


Critical review of my contribution to the ‘problem’ 


With the “social inequalities and acts of injustice” that exists within the society, through service learning projects, students are empowered to act as “agents of change” (Tinkler et al 2014). Such empowerment seems noteworthy but Eby (1998) warns against service learning, suggesting that students do not possess the autonomy to influence the structural changes to already existing social issues. In contrast, Miller (2014) posits that through service learning, students develop an awareness of underlying conditions of social issues that they would not know, without engaging in their service learning projects. This awareness results from reflection, which I shall focus on, through the use of Kolb’s learning cycle and Gibbs’ model of reflection. Reflective practices have been modeled by key thinkers such as Dewey (1997), Kolb (2007), and Gibbs (2017). 


Kolb (2014) suggests that in order for knowledge to result, experience has to be grasped and transformed, showing the direct link between knowledge and experience. Kolb’s learning cycle (Fig 1.) includes the following steps: concrete experience, reflective observation, abstract conceptualisation, and active experimentation. 


Through concrete experience, I was able to make use of my years of working in the education sector with a focus on information technology, to successfully research and use an appropriate software to create the photobook. Reflective observation came into play however when my service partner realized that she was being incorrectly charged for the paid version of the software, allowing me to infuse abstract conceptualization in recognizing the need to read product reviews before using or recommending a product. With the service partner’s insight, I arrived at active experimentation, learning that in such instances I should exercise my consumer rights to prevent fraud.  


Gibbs (1988) suggests that if reflection is not done, it is as if the experience did not happen, thus enabling each student to approach service learning from the onset with a reflective mindset. Gibbs’ reflective model (Fig 2.) includes: description, feelings, evaluation, analysis, conclusion, and action plan


At the initial meeting, after introductions were exchanged, the service partner and I decided that creating the photobook would provide mutual benefit. Working on this project would give me an opportunity to learn about the miners' experiences that I was never aware of, prior to my postgraduate studies. I felt honoured to see people who have significantly contributed to the socio-economic construct of Britain, being recognized for their contribution, through the efforts of their fellow folk. However, when I had the opportunity to read the stories, and attend a function with some of the ex-miners (Fig 3.), I felt a sense of indebtedness recognizing first-hand (through a museum tour) what their underground experiences were. But as often as I would work on the photobook, I would realize that I am helping to give them the recognition that they deserve. It does not feel sufficient to get invested into the project, and then leave because the assignment is complete, so I intend to continue working alongside my service partner in any other upcoming projects that will allow me to pay homage to the ex-coal miners and by large Afro-Caribbean migrants in the United Kingdom. 



How the service learning module linked to studies in Public sociology 


There is a tremendous amount of literature regarding service learning and its concepts, models, benefits and limitations. One major concern is deciphering from the continuous engagement that higher education institutions have with their local community, if such engagement should be considered as public sociology. As mentioned previously, service learning connects to both the traditional and organic forms of public sociology as purported by Burawoy (2005). However, it leans more to the organic form, as it lends itself to a more ‘intimate’ connection between the university student and the not-for-profit organization that is serving the members of various groups within the community.  Whereas in some cases, the student might get the opportunity to interact with the community members as part of the service, other times that interaction does not happen, but the student operates in a ‘behind-the-scenes’ role to campaign for the demise of inequality and injustice in the system. This can be described as critical service learning, which distinguishes itself from the traditional form of service learning by focusing more on social justice rather than on citizenship (Mitchell 2008). 


Einfeld and Collins (2008) suggests that social justice within service learning focuses much on the concepts of equality and empowerment. This brings to the fore the many issues of inequality and injustice that exist within communities especially of marginalized groups that service learning seeks to address. Nottingham is a prime example of this seeing that in 2019, it ranked 11th out of 317 districts in England (Nottingham Insight 2019). As such, there continues to be a drive to stamp out inequality and injustice through the efforts of organizations such as Nottingham Citizens whose main aim is to “organise communities to act together for social justice and the common good” (Citizens UK 2020), and Nottingham News Centre who through heritage production centers their initiatives around “cultural identity, societal connections, knowledge transfer and a sense of belonging” (Nottingham News Centre 2017). Their individual and ongoing partnerships with the Nottingham Trent University to enhance community engagement through service learning thrusts, remains as a glimmer of hope that “through dedicated service learning placements [students] will apply [their] sociological imagination in work with practitioners, academics and community members to propose and test solutions to some of the challenges [marginalized] groups face” (Nottingham Trent University 2020).


Through the Contemporary Approaches to Public Sociology module, we are made aware of the benefits and limitations of Community-University Partnerships in Practice (CUPP) as done by the University of Brighton. This type of engagement between community and university focuses more on the use of “academic expertise to address a significant community-based problem” (Hart and Wolff 2006). CUPP is often criticised for issues of relationship (Muse 2018) which Eby (1998) blames on ignoring “possible harm done to communities by short term volunteers”. As such, service learning aims to build and maintain relationships between universities and communities, encouraging long-term relationships where possible. 

Social and political issues and the principles of Service Learning 


It appears that the long-standing plague of most first-world/developed countries, where migrant members of the populace face issues of injustice and inequality (Dorling 2015), has been deep-seated in the fabric of Britain. The social issues of racism and classism are areas of discomfort that Afro-Caribbean people have experienced since they entered the country via the Empire Windrush in 1948 (Mead 2009). Though they were requested to aid in the restructuring and rebuilding of the British economy after World War II, they were not very welcomed (Grant 2019). Many found employment in the coal mining industry and during their tenure, there were national concerns regarding the negative effects of coal mining, along with other issues, that led to miners' strikes and closures of mines over different periods of time (Mitchell and Mitchell 1984). As previously mentioned, articles were written about these events, but none with a predominantly black voice or representation. This is necessary to note considering that not many scholarly articles are written that focus on the intersectionality of race, gender and migration (Alegria and Branch 2015), and in a bid to address the absence, researchers are urged to “ consider how national and transnational structures of inequality are produced and reproduced” (Choo and Ferree 2010). Hence the need for the photobook to highlight migrants making contributions to the welfare of the countries that they migrate to. 


However, for the migrant community of England, one sore political issue emerged, with the declaration in the house of Parliament, by the then Secretary of the House, Theresa May, to "create in Britain a really hostile environment for illegal migration" (UK Parliament House of Lords Debate on Immigration: Hostile Environment, 14 June 2018), giving way to the creation of a Hostile environment policy, "ill-conceived", as described by Hewitt (2020). The narratives of the ex-miners serve as proof that they and others of the ‘Windrush Generation’, were not illegal migrants as they were being classified. However, even after years of working in the industry, aside from compensation schemes, not much has been done from a policy aspect to represent the Black miners for their tenure. The photobook will be a welcome change, alongside the other projects coordinated by NNC, but the 2020 publication date had to be postponed, due to the effects of the Coronavirus pandemic.

Overall, working with this service learning project some essential principles were dominant, which are in line with Howard’s (2001) good practices, and include: a demonstration of service and learning, merging experiences with other modules within the course, and active learning through active participation. These principles are supported by the notions of experiential learning and participatory action research which eradicates the unmutual relationships of service and learning that exists with other forms of university and community partnerships (Reardon 1998). 


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Published By
Davene Harris (MA, BSc, Dip, Cert)
Davene Harris, is a life-long learner and educator, who has over 15 years of teaching, counselling and administrative experience in the education industry. Her work experience has allowed her the opportunity to serve students and staff in early childhood, secondary and post-secondary institutions in several countries. Her range of qualifications vary from a Certificate in Supervisory Management, a Diploma in Secondary Education, a Bachelors in Information Technology, to a Masters in Sociology. Davene has a passion for working with young people, and is on a course to secure her provincial counselling licensure, so that she can continue to fulfill her life-long passion of impacting youths to be the best versions of themselves.... Show more