Service Learning and Critical Philanthropy in Environmental Studies
“How do you change the world?”
That is a question I asked my students at the beginning of my class, “Environmental Activism.” Although they do not know it at the time, the question is both an intellectual and personal challenge. On an intellectual level, the challenge is to understand the history and development of the American environmental movement, how various activists, groups and organizations went about trying to improve natural conditions, save endangered species, and protect their children and families from toxic waste. But personally, it is also asking them to think about the work that needs to be done to create real social and environmental change, and how they see themselves engaging in that work.
Each part of this question represents one part of the class. “Environmental Activism” is a sophomore level class taught at the University of Cincinnati Blue Ash College (an open-access branch campus). The class is cross-listed in the history and environmental studies programs. It is designed as part of a core of classes to introduce students to different ways of approaching, and understanding, environmental issues outside of a solely scientific and technical context. But since it also fulfills general education requirements, the course attracts students who are simply interested in the topic, as well as a smattering of history majors. In terms of disciplinary learning outcomes, it is designed to introduce students to the structure, development and diversity of American environmentalism, as well as the broader field of environmental history, which examines how human and natural forces interact and shape human societies over time. In order to help students connect theory to practice, it has a service-learning component, [GR(1] where students complete a service project with a local environmental organization over the course of the semester.
This was the structure of the class when I taught it for the first time in Spring 2016. In addition to regular lectures, readings and discussions, students were required to identify and volunteer with a local environmental organization, and then provide a final presentation on their experience, that connected the history and structure of the organization to what we had learned in class about the American environmental movement. Although I identified about twenty-five environmental organizations in advance and matched one to two students with each group, overall I provided little supervision for the service learning projects. This was a good model for the first time teaching the class, as it allowed students to follow their interests, and I was able to survey the diversity of opportunities in the Cincinnati area, and which organizations would be good partners in the future. The level of student engagement was mixed. Some got very involved with their organizations and continued after the class was over, while others simply fulfilled their service hours, and did not make any real effort to connect, even critically, with the organization.
About a year later, as I was planning to teach the course again, myself and a cohort of University of Cincinnati colleagues received a Pay it Forward grant from Ohio Campus Compact, which provided my class with $1,000 to distribute to a local non-profit organization as part of a larger service learning and student philanthropy class. I realized that in order to successfully take advantage of this opportunity, I would have to significantly restructure the service learning component of the course. With this in mind, my first step was approaching local environmental organizations in the fall of 2017 to see if they would be interested in partnering with the course. My goal was to divide the class into four to six groups, with each completing a significant project that would provide a real benefit to the organization. After multiple meetings, I eventually decided on four nonprofits: Groundwork Cincinnati; the Greater Cincinnati Civic Garden Center; the Miami Group of the Sierra Club; and Scrap it Up Cincy. These organizations represented the breadth and diversity of the environmental movement both locally and nationally, and all four were eager to partner with the students.
By about a month into the semester, the majority of students had begun working on their projects but others were having difficulty. Some of these challenges were their responsibility in terms of procrastination, etc., but for other students, there were issues with the partner. One group of students was working with the local chapter of the Sierra Club on a campaign to create a “bag tax” to reduce the use of plastic bags in the City of Cincinnati. Although this was an important effort, the chapter had no full-time staff, and for this campaign, was also part of a larger coalition that was also all volunteer. This led to a lot of miscommunication and lack of direction, especially for the students. To help provide direction, I attended a coalition meeting with the students to assess the situation and open up lines of communications, and afterwards, helped the students decide on the best ways they could support this effort. This raises an important issue with service-learning classes. Personally, my instinct is to let students solve issues with partners on their own. That is part of the experience. But sometimes assistance from the professor is necessary. After this meeting the student group had a lot more direction, and required very little assistance from me. Service-learning instructors need to strike a balance between giving students independence but also providing direction and direct support when necessary.
By the midterm break, most of the students were engaged in their projects, and I had introduced the Pay it Forward opportunity. I gave students detailed instructions on how to approach their partners about the program, how to develop the funded project, and their responsibilities with the final presentation and grant “pitch.” This would take place at Mediated Minds, UC Blue Ash’s undergraduate student research conference. Each group was split up into two teams for their fifteen-minute presentation: “Team Grant” and “Team History.” The history team would be responsible for outlining the organization and connecting it to the history of environmental activism, while the grant team would present what the Pay it Forward grant would be used for. Two days before Mediated Minds we had presentation run-throughs in class and the students completed peer evaluations.
The overall presentations at the conference went well, and one of the groups, Groundwork Cincinnati Mill Creek, actually won the best presentation award for the entire conference. In order to make sure all students attended each presentation, I had them fill out peer review sheets. I also invited the executive director of Greater Cincinnati Green Umbrella, our local sustainability consortium, to serve as outside evaluator. She gave excellent critical commentary and raised issues some of the students had not even considered.
The final task was for us to decide which organizations got the Pay it Forward grant. The class had $1,000 from Ohio Campus Compact, and I decided that we would award two $500 grants. Based on the advice of Ohio Campus Compact staff, I decided to have the students debate and then vote on the projects at the next class meeting. This was arguably the best class session of the semester. A few weeks before, I had the students brainstorm what they believed a grant officer should consider when awarding an environmental activism grant. We had an excellent discussion about balancing feasibility with potential impact, thinking about long-term goals vs. short-term accomplishments, and funding established groups versus new startups, with new idea. I took all of their ideas and boiled them down to a one-page rubric where they had to rank each proposal based on four factors: feasibility, need, impact and passion. Each group had to complete the evaluation for the other three groups in the class.
By this point in the semester, the students had a good rapport with each other, and because of their experience constructing their own projects and presentations, had thought critically about the benefits of different types of projects at environmental nonprofits. They debated within their groups more than thirty minutes, and I allowed them to ask the other groups questions to clarify costs and timelines. They put a lot of thought into ranking their classmates projects and had strong rationale for why they had scored different projects the way they had. We then shared all of the scores with the entire class, but then I said this was not the last step. For most grant giving agencies, the scores are only a guideline, and grantmaking is done by a final vote, which we did by secret ballot. Each student was told to rank the projects one to four (they were allowed to vote for their own) and in the end there were two clear winners: The Civic Garden Center, and Scrap it Up Cincy.
Overall feedback from students on the service learning projects was tremendously positive. Students remarked that they were hesitant about the projects in the beginning, but enjoyed the experience, understanding how nonprofits worked, and making a difference in their community. Many also enjoyed and appreciated the “hands-on” aspect of service-learning, and how they could see progress in a short amount of volunteering.
There were many lessons from this course in terms of service-learning pedagogy, especially within environmental studies courses. But I want to offer some specific thoughts on helping students take a critical approach to the role of philanthropists and foundations in shaping public policy. This goal emerged from my own research practice. As a historian of environmentalism, my earliest work was on the emergence of alternative forms of environmental activism, particularly by urban minority groups, during the 1960s, what might be called the long history of the environmental justice movement. One of my unanswered questions with that book was why more “mainstream” environmental groups have, until very recently, not paid attention to the concerns and specific issues of marginalized groups. That led me to explore the history of environmental philanthropy and, specifically how, during the 1960s and 1970s, a tight coterie of America’s largest charitable foundations provided key funding to certain groups, eventually cementing environmentalism as a politics that would be reformist in orientation, focusing on the universalist concerns of white, middle class suburbanites and their allies within the socioeconomic elite.
For this class, I was hoping to be able to bring that critical perspective to the students, to help them understand that philanthropy and private giving is not value neutral, but is in fact, highly political. Depending on the context, foundations can reinforce inequality and existing socioeconomic hierarchies, or they can be quite democratic and progressive. I lectured on the role of philanthropy and foundations in shaping the agendas of environmental organizations, we conducted readings on the role of the Ford Foundation in shaping the field of environmental law, and worked to apply these themes to our discussions of environmental organizing in general.
I was also hoping that the Pay it Forward project, by putting the students in the position of philanthropists, would help them think more critically about the power of foundations and other private giving entities shaping the environmental movement, and American civic life in general. This was only partially successful, but I needed to more intentionally build in a critical discussion or reflection on the power that the grantmaker has to shape organizations, their priorities, and ultimately society and public policy. If I do a student philanthropy project again, I will develop assignments that help students make connections between our critical discussions in class and their own practice.
But I also think that the problem lies with the larger Pay it Forward and student philanthropy pedagogy. These types of projects encourage students to become involved in the community, but also to see the private action of nonprofits and foundations, and private giving in general, as fundamentally a good thing, that is an important part of American democracy and civic practice. This philosophy follows from Tocquevillian model that sees independent, civil society organizations and activism as an important part of American democracy, allowing citizens to congregate together to create community, address social needs, and put pressure on the state for more public oriented action. What De Tocqueville’s model leaves out, of course, is that not every American has the equal ability to form and fund these types of organizations (women and minority groups) and that, since the late nineteenth century, the accrual of massive personal fortunes by the likes of a Ford or a Rockefeller, or more recently, a Gates or a Koch, means that some Americans have exponentially greater power in the nonprofit sphere than others. But the Pay it Forward model, by having students work with local nonprofits in a volunteer role, and then donate small amounts of money, reinforces a model for civil society practice that is in many ways more idealistic than realistic. The policies and practices of large foundations play an outsize role in the actions of many nonprofits; nonprofits can reinforce existing hierarchies and inequalities in society, directly and indirectly; and women, minority groups and the poor often times have little access to forming and managing these types of organizations that would give them a larger civic voice in local communities.
This is not to say that there is not potential within student philanthropy pedagogy to provide a more critical perspective, and to lay bare to students the sinews of power within American civil society. But the existing structure, on its own, will not do this. Instructors need to work to have their students thinking critically, especially during and after the grantmaking stage of the course, about who has access to this money and power, and what it means for American society. In the case of environmental activism, these questions included what it means for how the environmental movement is defined, and whose environmental problems get addressed, and how.
Rob Gioielli, PhD is an associate professor of history and environmental studies at University of Cincinnati Blue Ash College, where he also directs the UCBA Honors Program. He has used Service Learning in his courses since 2016.
This article was adapted from Rob Gioielli, “How Do You Save the Planet?: Service Learning and Student Philanthropy in Environmental History,” Experience: Practice and Theory, Fall 2018.
 Robert Gioielli, Environmental Activism and the Urban Crisis: Baltimore, St. Louis, Chicago. (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania: Temple University Press, 2014).
 Paul Sabin, “Environmental Law and the End of the New Deal Order.” Law and History Review. Nov. 2015, Vol. 33, No. 4.
 Alexis de Tocqueville Democracy in America (London: Penguin Press, 2003 [1835/40])
 Olivier Zunz, Philanthropy in America: A History (Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 2012)