From Victims to Problem-Solvers

How to get students involved in community development
Developing Just Leadership

Khalil Abdul-Rahman

Shawwal 17, 1439 2018-07-01

Islamic Movement

by Khalil Abdul-Rahman (Islamic Movement, Crescent International Vol. 47, No. 5, Shawwal, 1439)

During the fall of 1389ah (1969ce) a group of students at Virginia State University (VSU) in the US decided that they did not need a college degree to make a contribution to the local community. This core group reached out to other students who had the same desire to do something in the community.

One of the students shared his viewpoint with a faculty member who suggested to work with preschoolers from the neighborhood just below the college. The preschoolers could be chaperoned to campus to watch the Sesame Street television program. This broadcast focused on teaching concepts like reading, recognizing shapes and colors, working with numbers, and understanding language.

Many homes in the community did not have access to this program, so the students could record each broadcast and show them to the children each weekend. This could be followed by engaging the children in various mental and physical exercises to reinforce the concepts.

The students then went to the community and talked with parents to determine if they were willing to have their children participate in the weekend program. The idea got overwhelming support and the decision was made to get started right away.

Students were paired with families. A date was set and the students walked to the community to pick up the children and bring them to the campus. After completing all the planned activities for the day, the students walked the children back home. But during the activities some of the children said they were hungry and the students were not prepared to feed them.

Moving forward they knew that the food situation had to be addressed. Another faculty member was asked to look into possible resources to help with this. In a short period of time enough resources were found to provide food for all the children for one complete school year.

Though pleased with the good progress made up to that point, the students wanted to accomplish more. They ap-proached another faculty member to see if a permanent place could be found to house the community program on campus. With the support of the faculty within the psychology department, not only was a place found but also the student-led community effort was integrated as an ongoing service of the department.

Some of the same students went on to become the core of a group of students and faculty who led a two-year long university- and community-wide effort to stop the transfer of the School of Agriculture from VSU to Virginia Tech. Had the transfer been allowed to take place, the result would likely have been to weaken the university to the point where it would be absorbed by a nearby college that aggressively wanted to become the only university in the area. After all, a land grant university such as Virginia State would cease to be one if it failed to satisfy the primary criteria that defined its existence, namely the School of Agriculture.

Certainly, there are other examples of students becoming involved in community development activities, but few of them have made such a lasting and influential impact. One way to try to improve the performance of student efforts is to engage them in the use of a tool that makes it easy for them to establish a forum where issues/problems can be understood; get broad participation when deciding on the best course of action to take; and provide structure to help them coordinate the actions of stakeholders while working toward desired objectives.

Community development work often involves many stakeholders whose needs are not properly addressed. Sometimes, just gathering information from the diverse set of people included in the conversations can easily end up being “the solution.” Add to this the complexity of dealing with ongoing oppressive behaviors from governmental, educational, and financial institutions, and then we have difficult circumstances that exist today in many places in the world.

Now is a good time to engage in the effort to transition from being victims of this oppression to becoming problem-solvers who build the capacities of individuals, families, and organizations within their own communities to solve their problems.

How might we help student teams overcome obstacles to community development? Let’s provide them with the right training and support as they find and try to understand a problem. As students at VSU demonstrated, a problem to solve can be found by asking for ideas from others whose insights might be in tune with the situation more than theirs. The role that shura (consultation) plays in problem solving is key.

Experiences and diverse viewpoints that other people have can often bring fresh thoughts to the discussion. You may remember that the core Virginia State students consulted with faculty, parents, and other students all along the way. This enabled them to gain their trust and support, which allowed them to solve additional problems (food for the children and a permanent place to house the program).

Another way to help students find a problem that needs to be solved is for them to volunteer and work with an individual or organization that is already engaged in addressing a social issue they care about. We could help them set up a meeting with someone who has been working on this issue and schedule time to work alongside them. This would provide students opportunities to understand their approach and assumptions.

Students could also interview and engage with people who are directly affected by this issue. Doing this creates learning situations where students could come to know of better ways to meet the needs of people. A critical part of how a solution evolves is getting feedback from the people you are trying to help. By continually refining and improving their work, students put themselves in a place where they will have more ideas. This will allow them to try a variety of approaches and arrive more quickly at successful solutions.

To jumpstart this process, the nonprofit organization Shura For All has set up an annual $10,000 scholarship for the student team who wins a service-based competition. Each team, consisting of 2 to 5 students, would identify a problem in their community that requires a coordinated effort to solve. Using its tool ShuraForAll to define and document the problem, teams would engage community members and others in the Discuss phase to offer recommended courses of action to solve the problem.

To be awarded the scholarship, a team must progress through the Decide phase and far enough into the Deliver phase to provide evidence of making a positive impact. The award goes directly to the team, giving it control over how money would be distributed among team members. The award date is scheduled for early spring of each year.

Shura For All wants to stimulate interest in high school and college students across the world to actively participate in resolving social issues facing their communities. It also wants to give them access to tools and other valuable resources that will help them sustain their work. And most importantly, it wants to build the broad community capability to solve its own problems in consultation with others.

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