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The Avodah Blog

So, What’s the Real Impact?

In conversation with Corps members, the question “How did you first get interested in social justice work?” often comes up. The answers are as varied as the participants themselves, but one common thread runs through many narratives: many AVODAHniks first became drawn to transformative community work during short-term service programs, often called ‘alternative breaks’. These one-to-four week programs, offered by organizations such as American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC), American Jewish World Service (AJWS), and Jewish Funds for Justice (JFSJ) offer the participants the chance to immerse themselves in an international community, usually working during the day and spending evening programs discussing the intersections of Judaism and justice.

Few question that these trips profoundly and positively impact participants. To date, however, there has been relatively little research conducted to analyze the effect of short-term service-learning projects on the communities who are the recipients of these brief trips. To address this gap, Repair the World commissioned a report – released yesterday – to analyze this phenomenon.

The research team – a collaboration between Repair the World and BTW – attempted to address the widely-held belief among observers of service-learning programs that such short-term trips may do damage to the host community, leaving projects uncompleted and relationships strained. The research group was also aware of the potential for bias as they interviewed members of host communities – most often NGO representatives who worked directly with the short-term service learning projects. Recognizing the uncomfortable power dynamics inherent in relationships between service organizations and host community NGOs, the interview protocol was purposely designed to mitigate against this bias.

While you’ll have to click here to read the full study (or here for a summary of findings), consider these direct quotes from NGO hosts:

“Kids from the neighborhood don’t want to make a garden. They don’t want to move horseshit around to fertilize it. But if they’re doing it with college kids from New York, that’s different.”

“Their commitment to the learning end of service-learning is the key. Building community involves a learning process. There’s a lot of service that is just help, but not real learning … The [volunteers] do it right. The relationship between faith and service and community organizing really shows.”

“We have general rules here in [this country]— we don’t expect ladies or girls to work on village projects. And then we see the American girls—they mix the mortar, they are doing the hard work just like the men…After the Americans leave, the community knows that women can do more. They are seeing their women and girls with different eyes. The [volunteers] have given our women a new place of honor.”

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