Latinos in Rural America: A Public Humanities Community-Engaged Learning Project

 

Clara Román-Odio

Professor of Spanish

Kenyon College

 

A significant body of research on mastery of academic content, career choice, and civic engagement substantiates community-engaged learning as a high-impact pedagogy.  As Adler-Kassner et. al (1997) claim, “service learning in the context of Composition can increase students’ conception of the social far more effectively than either textbooks or experience alone” as students address the “causes of social problems and not just the symptoms”. Other scholars assert the ethical and civic promise of community-engaged learning because it can foster democratic and social justice values and encourage students to take on the perspectives of others.[1]

Reflecting on the role of the university as a public good, this note explores the intersection of a public humanities project, Latinos in Rural America, and community-engaged learning as a powerful strategy to open up new spaces for social dialogue.[2] I used community-engaged learning in my Introduction to Chicano/a Cultural Studies course (Spanish 380) to connect Chicano/a history and culture to the present experience of Latinos in Knox County, Ohio.  I also wanted to build into my course strategies for immersive inquiry and undergraduate research.  I found that at their best, public humanities and community-engaged learning can strengthen undergraduate research and create, as Cantor (2004) suggests, a context for the exchange of peoples and ideas that bolster the university as a public good.

Latinos in Rural America (LiRA) sought to broaden knowledge, engagement with, and understanding of the Latino/a experience in rural Ohio. Rooted as it was in an oral history approach, it offered an intimate window into the lives, journeys, and aspirations of Latinos representing diverse areas of activity, social and economic conditions, and stages of life, within the broad social fabric of Knox County, Ohio. The project culminated in a public bilingual exhibit, currently archived at Digital Kenyon (http://digital.kenyon.edu/lkca/ ), which traveled locally and throughout Ohio, December 2015 – Summer 2017.  The exhibit was organized into three distinct but complementary elements: a series of ten bilingual panels that offered snapshots into the lives of Latino families in Knox County; a video that provided the audience with an opportunity to hear Latinos sharing their stories; and a reflection piece in which the audience was asked to provide feedback after having seen the exhibit.

Through LiRA, the experiences of Latinos and Latinas in Knox County, Ohio were documented; their collected stories gave visibility to this community and offered them the opportunity to voice their challenges and aspirations. The community response to the exhibit demonstrated that attendees made connections between local issues and national debates and questioned the dynamics of the world in which they live. They faced disparities, social tensions, and alternative views, and this led them to reflect on their changed perceptions.

We found that the audience effectively embraced cultural difference, from the bilingual / bicultural content of the text, pictures, and video, to the discovery of social tensions and educational disparities. The exhibit survey also indicated that people truly enjoyed learning in the company of others and being informed by diverse perspectives. When asked for ideas that would further increase knowledge about Latinos in the community, the audience urged us to open up more spaces that would enable cultural exchanges and social dialogue. These reactions speak to the promise of public humanities and of the critical role it can play in addressing important societal issues of the day.

Regarding the community-engaged learning dimension of the project, I connected LiRA to Spanish 380, a core course in the Latino Studies program at Kenyon College. The course objectives are: 1) to expose students to Chicano/a cultural productions from the Mexican-American civil rights movements to the present; 2) to analyze Chicana/o history and culture as oppositional expressions to sexist, racist, classist, and homophobic ideologies; and 3) to offer students meaningful opportunities to learn through community engagement.  The key enabler was LiRA through eight weeks of research by two Kenyon Summer Scholars and three community-engaged learning projects developed during fall semester. Students enrolled in the course applied academic research on education inequalities, the Latino/a Civil Rights Movement, and standardized testing strategies to develop community-engaged learning projects that ranged from the translation of interviews, to the creation of a flyer for cross-cultural development in the local community, to the creation of the Bilingual College Preparation Program (BCP), which the Latino families involved in LiRA identified as their top priority.

The BCP program sought to empower Latino/a students to achieve at the highest level in preparation to enter college by focusing on both assets of the community (such as bilingualism and strong family values) and four potential areas of improvement: barriers to college entrance and tools for navigating them, a curriculum with five lessons plans per ACT / SAT subject area, parent and student workshops on college application and financial aid, and a framework for tutor training and for a sustainable Kenyon-community partnership. Currently supported by student mentors and Kenyon Office for Community Partnerships, the BCP handbook is free to download under a Creative Common license (http://digital.kenyon.edu/lkca_pub/1/).

The initial outcomes of the BCP program are quite remarkable. The first junior in our cohort improved her ACT results by 4 points in ACT Reading and 2 points in ACT Math. The BCP program also provided Kenyon seniors with professional experiences necessary for future careers in bilingual education, not-for-profit collaboration and minority rights activism. Perhaps most importantly, the collaborative efforts of Kenyon’s Office of Admissions, faculty and students empowered first-generation students and their families to successfully navigate the complicated college admissions process.  Students enrolled in Spanish 380 highlighted the value of a direct connection with the Latino community to ground and inform textual translation and academic work.

The community-engaged learning projects helped students to recognize the necessity of thinking about, and committing to, applying what is learned in academia to what is needed in society through civic engagement efforts. Still others recognized that there can be, in fact, an underlying and direct connection between what an individual learns and how he/she will be able to implement it to effect social change. These outcomes strongly validate research on the value of community-engaged learning as a high impact pedagogy vis-a-vis mastery of academic content, career choice, and civic engagement. As LiRA has shown, projects like this can take on lives of their own.  In our case, LiRA enabled an interesting triangulation where the voices of people and culture propelled intercultural development, college admission, and civic responsibility.  We believe that this opening of new spaces for social change constitutes one of the greatest promises of public humanities and community-engaged learning.

[1] A fuller version of this article, including all citation references, can be accessed on the GLCA web site with this link:  Latinos in Rural America

[2] LiRA was made possible in part by the Ohio Humanities, a state affiliate of the National Endowment for the Humanities.  Any views, finding conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this exhibition do not necessarily those of the National Endowment for the Humanities.