Betsy Alden Award Winner Michaela Stith Reflects on Service-Learning

Friday, June 15, 2018
michaela stit

Duke’s service-learning courses have allowed me to reflect on the real-world impacts of systems and institutions in ways that neither service nor classroom learning could have achieved alone. I completed three service-learning courses and participated in the Service Opportunities in Leadership Program during my first two years at Duke.

I enrolled in Dr. Christy Lohr-Sapp’s course “Acts of Engagement” about service traditions in Abrahamic religions first semester freshman year. I was immediately attracted to the Religious Coalition for a Nonviolent Durham (RCND), which aims to alleviate the pain felt by gun violence victims’ families, because my father had a history of imprisonment and eventually committed suicide. Part of my service was dedicated to helping lifelong Durham resident Brenda James create a WordPress blog about her life stories. I learned more about Durham’s history from Brenda – who had become pregnant with her first child at 13, lost her sons to jailing and gun violence, and was now confined to her home from serious health problems – than from any course I took at Duke. I was particularly upset to learn about Duke’s systemic gentrification of Durham, which led to the destruction of Brenda’s Hayti neighborhood once Highway 147 was built. Brenda was the first to teach me to be critical of Duke and use my power to change the institution.

The Service Opportunities in Leadership Program (SOL) promised to deepen my commitment to service and enhance my change-making capacity over a year-long set of courses and summer research experience. The official service-learning component of the “Border Crossing” course was much less direct than what I completed the semester prior: I prepared a research project on the housing justice impacts of the proposed Orange County subway line for DurhamCAN. When I returned to my hometown, Anchorage, Alaska, for the summer research project, I used this new knowledge to combine direct and indirect service at the Downtown Soup Kitchen (DSK).

In the morning I passed out free coffee and pastries, cleaned showers DSK’s patrons had used, and distributed clothing to individuals experiencing homelessness. In the afternoon I helped DSK in its transition toward becoming the “Downtown Hope Center.” DSK’s directors wanted to create a social enterprise by opening up the dining area for homeless women to sleep at night, teaching them employable baking skills in the morning, and selling their baked goods to fund the program, but they did not have enough time to plan the details. Over 8 weeks I collected survey data from 18 local restaurants, business owners, and nonprofits to produce market research and pitched the enterprise to potential business partners. Although it might have taken the organization a year to get the enterprise running otherwise, the “Feed Me Hope” women’s program started just two months after I returned to school.

Sherrie Laurie, Executive Director of DSK, said that the soup kitchen and showers gave hand-outs, but the new Downtown Hope Center endeavored to give a “hand up.” By teaching employable skills and helping people get back into the workforce, the Feed Me Hope helped solve Anchorage’s homelessness problem. Sherrie’s work transitioning DSK helped me realize one distinction between traditional service, which can sometimes placate instead of solve social problems, and critical service.

Critical Service-Learning Research

I returned to Duke after studying abroad for an entire year with an ambition to pursue my true passions, and began working as Duke Service-Learning’s Civic Engagement Assistant Researcher. Duke Service-Learning wanted to create a conversation tool that would help faculty incorporate critical theory and social justice concepts into their service-learning classes. The project staff had some content and ideas prepared, but needed a student to spend time fully developing the project. Service-learning courses had been my most impactful Duke experiences, so I was eager to bring my social justice lens to the project.

During Spring semester my junior year, I completed a thorough review of critical service learning literature. Meanwhile, I rearranged the department’s original questions into themes found in the literature: Teaching Social Change Orientation, Social Change Skills Development, Authentic Relationships, Redistribution of Power, and Decolonizing the Classroom. Then, I added questions to the tool and chose resources from the literature for faculty to consult when they needed extra help. Once a draft was completed, I presented the tool alongside David Malone and Dane Emmerling at PACE Gulf South Conference. The room in which we presented was full – indicating the growing importance of critical service-learning – and we received multiple requests from other universities to follow up after the conference.


I have recently accepted an offer to become a Hart Fellow from July 2018 to May 2019. During the fellowship I will work with the Arctic Council to research how rural and indigenous residents have dealt with climate change. The fellowship will be an extension of my service-learning work because I will continue to research about Arctic climate change while donating my time to the non-profit Arctic Council and northern peoples they serve. I will carry at least two lessons into this post-graduation work.

Firstly, authentic relationships with my community partners and superiors are vastly important. To this day I reflect fondly on my time with Brenda and my friends at DSK. Although “Acts of Engagement” and the summer research project ended, I continued to work with RCND for another semester and have volunteered in the soup kitchen every time I return home to Anchorage. My academic mentors Alma Blount and Christy Lohr-Sapp have continued to be my friends throughout college and provided essential advice. Moreover, I have been able to share some of my most difficult times and personal successes with my colleagues at Duke Service-Learning. Just as I hope to have made a positive impact on the organizations with which I have worked, they have provided meaningful service to me.

Secondly, I will continue to build my critical lens. Brenda James’ critique of Duke and Sherrie Laurie’s ambition to change systems absolutely influenced my critical conversations research. In the year that I worked for Duke Service-Learning, I crafted the tool so professors would depart from a traditional service model to treat their community partners and students more equitably. Moving forward, I endeavor to implement those lessons I have shared with others by performing service that changes systems, transforming my institutions to be more equitable, and redistributing the privilege I am given.