Considerations for International Service Programs: A Book Review

John Nordquist, Cross-Perspective Consulting
May 12, 2023
Considerations for International Service Programs: A Book Review
A review of Community-Based Global Learning: The Theory and Practice of Ethical Engagement at Home and Abroad. By Eric Hartman, et. al. 260 pp. Stylus Publishing. 2018.

Over the past few years, there has been a lively discussion around international service learning programs within the GEBG community of schools. For some of us, international service projects served as our introduction to global education. I was involved in creating the global education program at a California independent school. At the time the school was actively involved with the Round Square network and its ongoing commitment to service projects, which grew out of a relief effort in the ‘50s following an earthquake in Greece. Now, seven decades later, through the engaged work of global educators and collaborative dialogues within communities such as GEBG, the concept of service has evolved. Concerns about power dynamics, time and resources, environmental and cultural impact, learning outcomes, and social justice have called into question the international service project model.

Recently I read Community-Based Global Learning, a thoughtful, nuanced, research-based exploration of the topic. As summer approaches, this book should find its way onto your reading list if you are thinking about international service programs at your school.

The authors, led by Dr. Eric Hartman of Haverford College, define Community-Based Global Learning (CBGL) as both a curriculum and a pedagogy. CBGL is

a community-driven learning and/or service experience that employs structured, critically reflective practice to better understand global citizenship, positionality, power, structure, and social responsibility in a global context. It is a learning methodology and a community-driven development philosophy that cultivates a critically reflective disposition among all participants. (p. 21)

Building on that definition, the book explores seven themes that are essential to CBGL:

(1) community-driven learning and/or service, (2) intercultural learning and the development of cultural humility, (3) seeking global citizenship, (4) continuous and diverse forms of critically reflective practice, […] (5) ongoing attention to power, privilege, and positionality throughout programming. […] These components should be carefully integrated and facilitated to ensure (6) deliberate and demonstrable learning with (7) safe, transparent, and well-managed programs. (p. 203)

Moving between theory and practice, the book provides a solid foundation for evaluating and building a global learning program. Three key concepts stood out for me: 

  1. Perhaps the greatest attention is given to the concept of community-based programming, with thoughtful discussions of what it means to be “community-based,” as well as helpful examples from their personal experience around the world.
  2. “Criticality” is also a core concept in designing reflective learning experiences to develop the ability to recognize one’s own biases and perspectives, primarily through critical reflection and discussion.
  3. The authors outline how “cultural humility” combines with “criticality” to play a major role in developing global citizens. “Cultural humility… simultaneously encourages listening, sensitivity, humility, and appropriate action to question and transform oppressive systems” (p.87). 

Reflection on these three concepts, as well as their intersection, is where an examination of traditional service projects can take place. Schools might also consider if they have the resources, both time and money, to be able to build or sustain programs that are truly community-based partnerships, something that can be a struggle for even well-resourced universities.

The book has two weaknesses, as I see it. First, although the authors refer to “service learning” and “service projects,” they do so in contradictory language. On the one hand, they remark on the potential problems that can and do arise in some project programs; On the other hand, even though they include “service” in reference to CBGL, they provide little guidance on how one might design a CBGL program that might include “service” done well (a possible topic for a future blog post!). Second, their chapter on providing a safe experience for students gives a good amount of theory and suggested practice; however, in my opinion it is insufficient as there are more rigorous risk management resources available.

While Community-Based Global Learning is not exactly a “beach read,” it does provide thoughtful and practical reading for those responsible for developing and leading ethical and effective global education–and might be especially helpful for those schools considering or even considering their international programs with a focus on service.