Much has been said about the relationship of power and privilege in service-learning. Those students providing the service are in a position of power and privilege in relation to the people that they serve. The two sides are not equal. For example, the students tend to be comparatively more educated, healthy and affluent, enjoying higher social status, more freedom of movement, and better outlook in life. It is, of course, a great opportunity for the students to learn. But students are not always aware of these relationships. And even when they are, they may not have the skills to analyse the specific relationships, the implications on their interaction and conduct themselves properly. As a consequence, the students often do not learn as much as they could. Worse, they may draw the wrong conclusions and cause offence unintentionally. We cannot blame them. They are students after-all. It is the responsibility of us teachers to guide them. But are we always capable of doing so?
For example, some students conclude that at least part of the reason that people living in the slums is that they do not work hard enough. Some derive a lot of satisfaction from giving small gifts to the under-privileged. Others use gifts to compel the under-privileged to change their behaviour in the way they expected. Some treat the under-privileged only as research subjects. With presumably good intentions, they contribute to perpetuate the unequal power and privilege relationship, and worse, abuse that relationship. Sad to say, some of the teachers do not behave any better. I feel a great responsibility towards my students as well as fellow teachers. We encourage people to get involved. But are they ready?
On the other hand, often the people that we are supposed to be serving turn out to be more agile, physically stronger, and be able to function under difficult environments (such as extreme heat or cold) than our students. It is often because of the harsh conditions that they are living under. Mentally too, I suspect they may be more resilient. It is often said that suffering builds character. If it is true, then the people our students serve have much to teach our students (and us teachers) in resiliency and character. When I think of how fragile some of the young people today can be, service-learning takes on additional importance as part of whole-person education.
So the traditional view of a one-sided power and privilege relationship in service-learning may not be complete. Complex as it is, there is even more to it. As a human being, I feel I have to face up to it whether I want to or not, because it affect my relationship with everyone I come into contact with, not just in service-learning.
I started to get involved in service-learning wanting to do something good. Little did I realise I would be learning so much about life from it. God is gracious and He has been leading my every step.