SOMOS students continue to struggle with their role in “service learning,” “engaged scholarship,” and “helping.” We began several years ago with a motto that seemed accurate and appropriate: “Empowering students to empower a community.” Four years on, student team members are sensitized by our accumulating experiences and worry that, good intentions notwithstanding, the theme may be arrogant, hierarchical, or just not sufficiently accurate. In similar ways, they struggle with naming our activities: “community development,” “community building,” “social change.”
Was there “community” before we came? Have we done anything that “builds” more of it? Who are we to imagine that we know what is appropriate social change? The questions are not new, and the concerns are very much on target. What is remarkable in my experience is how well-grounded the puzzling and struggles are. These are not abstract musings but pointed, real-world questions that must inform our every decision and effort as we continue to work in Paraiso. I have a bias, which I share willingly with students: Effective collective action requires understanding, intentionality, and systematic empirical data. Probably no community in the world accidentally has that combination of resources. It is not demeaning to suggest that we have something to offer to people in Paraiso. We could make the same claim to people of Kingsmill! Our offer to help with community efforts to improve health include the knowledge from systematic research and research skills to provide data to guide collective action. It is not our job to decide what people within the community should want, but we can help them to articulate their needs and to finds ways to organize that have some proven efficacy. So goes the bias of a social scientist!