Skip to main content

Institutional Racism and Power Dynamics in Community Service

Privilege, Power, and Public Health ProgramsA Student Perspective on Deconstructing Institutional Racism in Community Service Learning (Taboada 2011)

Many public health programs and schools use a community service-learning framework for teaching social emotional learning while promoting cultural awareness. This study focuses on institutional racism in the context of community service — a barrier that creates unbalanced power dynamics, ultimately obstructing true social impact and learning. Consider a graduate student of public health who signs up for a community service-learning program. She is to volunteer for some time each week tutoring at a local underprivileged school. According to Taboada (2011), the power dynamics between the grad student and the student she’s supposed to serve are highly imbalanced in more ways than one. The hierarchal nature of the pairing is, by virtue, imbalanced. On one hand, you have an educated, financially secure, most-likely-White (the study finds that 67% of students under the Association of Schools of Public Health are White) university student. On the other hand, you have a low-income person of color who is expected by the public health program to receive and accept the university student’s knowledge. The result is a questionable power dynamic where resources seem to flow one way — knowledge from the university student to the underprivileged one — but instead flows the other — the satisfaction of supposedly carrying out a greater good flowing from the underprivileged student to the university one.

Existing literature on the practical effectiveness of community service-learning is limited, largely because the studies focus on the personal growth of the university students instead of measuring the impact on the supposed beneficiaries. Even with the lack of literature, Taboadoa (2011) pulls from her own personal observations and experiences to conclude that community service-learning frameworks are ineffective in public health programs because of the power dynamic that erupts from institutional racism. The university students are placed in the setting at a charity angle, paying limited attention to actually forming relationships with the people they serve. The disrupted power dynamic results in lack of true social impact — or, increased academic capability for vulnerable communities — as well as a falsified, self-indulgent view of a structure intended to be mutually beneficial.


Leave a Reply

Blogging Calendar

October 2019