Birmingham Southern College Partners with Local Communities

In addition to their standard coursework, Birmingham Southern College is finding various ways to implement service-learning programs to their module.

Located near Smithfield and College Hills, the Liberal Arts institution is partnering with neighboring communities to create effective courses for students to get involved in. For many, the programs are eye-openers.

“A lot of times, the demographic [of our students] is a privileged student, who has had lots of opportunities and hasn’t necessarily been in schools or neighborhoods or communities that are characterized by poverty, right?” said Kristin Harper, director of the Bunting Center for Engaged Study and Community Action. “We want to be sure that they first understand they are going to learn, and there’s a lot to learn from people and we don’t have all the answers. So, I think it’s important to say upfront that even though what we’re doing is community outreach and service learning, we don’t want to perpetuate the type of divisions of race or class or any of that I find is actually part of the problem.”

The Western Area Initiative and Off-Campus Engagement

Spearheaded by BSC President Linda Flaherty- Goldsmith, the Western Initiative Area was created as an effort to collaborate with communities near the campus. Additionally, the school offers myriad volunteer opportunities such as coaching the North Star soccer team, tutoring students at Bush Hill Academy and helping at First Light Women’s Shelter.

By working with an organization or neighborhood, the initiative utilizes the “expertise of faculty” and the “willingness of the student system” to learn more about their adjacent communities. Additionally, BSC can also learn what active steps the community is taking on their own.

“She[ President Flaherty-Goldsmith] helped us a community remember our physical location and commitment to engagement in the community and called us to sort of be a good neighbor and be involved in the community and not just be sort of an island to ourselves,” Harper explained.

Theatre Meets Service

In 2015, BSC launched Theatre’s Call to Action, an intense course that pairs storytelling, acting and community engagement. In the inaugural semester, students were required to interview faculty at Bush Hills Academy. The footage is then transcribed, edited and later presented to the college and community as a play.

Helmed by theatre professor Alan Litsey, the course is designed to evoke “critical reflection”. This year, the course partnered with the Smithfield Community Action Team and Dynamite Hill-Smithfield Community Land Trust. The small community is rich in history. Nicknamed “Dynamite Hill,” the Smithfield community was subject to a series of Ku Klux Klan bombings meant to scare blacks from purchasing property.

Keeping the same format, students were tasked with venturing into Smithfield and interviewing its residents, many of which were raised during the Civil Rights Movement. The class presented their plays last month on the campus’ Underground Theatre.

Throughout the semester, the class worked with community members to gather information, which is then used to help craft their characters. In the performances, students portray the interviewers as their younger selves in the 1950s and 60s.

Those interviewed included Judge Houston L. Brown, Dr. Madelyn C. Coar, Patricia Walker-Terry, William Blanding, Adrienne Reynolds BSC alumnus Kamau Afrika and Barbra Shores, daughter of the late Civil Rights attorney Arthur Davis Shores.

The final presentations go beyond getting a letter grade. Despite the course’s nature, the people documented are very much real. Without the course, some of the stories featured onstage would never see the light of day. The class is also a learning experience for students. For Litsey, Theatre’s Call to Action honors the residents in the most digestible way: performance.

“In the midst of the process, I would say that all the people involved in our collaboration have affirmed the need for these stories to be documented,” Litsey said of the service-learning program. “I see enormous value in these stories being shared with our current generation of students. Some of these stories are perhaps have never been told or never have been told in this particular way.”

More than A Campus Effort

Harper said incorporating service-learning initiatives to BSC’s curriculum enables students to grasp simple philanthropic traits that they can utilized in their post-collegiate lives. Instilling the significance of community engagement is just as necessary any other course. While the service-learning initiatives are rooted on campus, students are encouraged to extend their helping hand wherever life takes them.

“Our mission is to educate students, and that’s what we’re doing primarily but we want to sure and do that in the context of a larger community,” Harper said. “We’re not just doing it on an ivory tower, right? There are plenty of challenges in our community. In our world and they’re plenty of opportunities for students to learn in practical ways.”



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