Getting to the Why: Service Learning for Social Justice

By Tanya Friedman

Illustrator: Adolfo Valle

“We’re focusing on hunger and I want to do something where the kids can actually see some impact. I need some ideas,” 3rd-grade teacher Mohini said from her Zoom square one afternoon in September 2020. Mohini was meeting remotely with a multi-grade team of educators to plan service learning projects for their students at Young Leaders Elementary, a pre-K–5 public school in the South Bronx. 

“Do you think they could help with the food bank here? Sorting the deliveries?” 

“What about the community fridge on Willis?” 

“Or the restaurant La Morada. They’ve been cooking for first responders since the beginning, and now they’re making meals for anyone who’s lost a job. Someone there might have some ideas.”

As the group’s equity coach, I noted how much these teachers knew about local efforts to combat hunger. Young Leaders Elementary is in Mott Haven, one of the most food insecure neighborhoods in the United States. The pandemic turned an already dire situation into a daily crisis, leaving many families at the school without a source of income, due to death, illness, and job loss. 

As the brainstorm slowed, Adela, a pre-K teacher, said, “I’m thinking about how we have this conversation in our classrooms when so many families receive food boxes or use the fridge [a public refrigerator where neighbors give what they can and take what they need]. I’m curious how we do this sensitively and in an affirming way.”

Adela’s question launched a collective inquiry that influenced how the group planned service learning projects, and ultimately transformed their vision for service learning altogether.

The teachers had come together as Equity Scholars, a monthly professional learning community focused on critical literacy and equity leadership that I facilitated for four years. Part of a neighborhood initiative, funded by the United Way of NYC and coordinated by ATAPE Group, Equity Scholars received stipends for their participation, developed inquiry projects in their classrooms, and led professional learning sessions for colleagues. 

Following the lockdown in spring 2020, their district instituted service learning in all elementary schools. Navigating the return to school, hybrid instruction, frequent school closings, and learning to plan and teach service learning felt overwhelming, especially in the midst of a still raging pandemic. The teachers asked if we could use our time together to plan equity-based service learning. 

At monthly meetings over the course of the year, I supported them to apply a critical lens to service learning projects and reflect on their work. Initially, the teachers’ discussions centered on strategies to prevent feelings of shame or sadness in students who might be experiencing hunger or whose families relied on food donations. Soon, though, concern about individual students gave way to questions about how to ensure service learning didn’t reinforce deficit perspectives of people and communities in need. 

What Is Service Learning for Social Justice?

Service learning, the integration of academic learning standards into community service, has gained popularity and traction in elementary schools over the last 30 years. In contrast to community service, service learning emphasizes students’ growth and skill development through experiential learning and real-world problem-solving. A canned food drive is a community service; if students study nutrition to determine which canned foods are healthiest and employ persuasive writing strategies to encourage participation, the can drive becomes service learning. 

Although service learning has the potential to make both the service and the learning more meaningful, the common framing of a group of fortunate people donating their time, energy, and expertise to help less fortunate people can be problematic. David Kirkland of NYU wrote that, in some cases, “service learning has come to mean something equivalent to an extended and sustained field trip for privileged learners who often imagine their roles in communities as agents of salvation as opposed to agents of service.” When teachers and students conceptualize the service as charity, participation can intensify feelings of difference, rather than break down barriers. Without conscious efforts to reject stigmas around need and weakness, children absorb societal messaging that insists if people worked hard enough, they could improve their lives, reducing poverty to the result of individual choices.   

Service learning for social justice (SLSJ) probes the roots of the issue. In an SLSJ approach to the canned food drive, students would explore racialized, socioeconomic, and geographic patterns of food insecurity as they sought to understand why food isn’t distributed equally. 

 Rahima C. Wade, an expert in SLSJ, explained that “too often, service learning projects neglect to include a focus on the root causes of the problem at hand; nor are students often encouraged to question why the need for service exists in the first place.” By looking beyond individuals and into systems, SLSJ disrupts the hidden curriculum that positions people who need support as deficient, and instead helps build students’ critical consciousness, their understanding of how power works in the world. 

Focusing on Hunger

The teachers I worked with at Young Leaders Elementary co-planned a project on hunger. Initially the project had three modules: 1. What is hunger? 2. How do people work to end hunger? 3. What can we do to end hunger in our community? 

A few weeks into the project, Mohini shared her concern that her 3rd graders were distancing themselves from people who needed food. “They talk about it like ‘we need to get some food for the poor people.’ It’s not exactly disdain but it’s closer to pity than connection.” 

Danesha, a 2nd-grade teacher, concurred. “I’ve noticed something similar, like they don’t get that anyone might experience hunger, that some of them have, or are right now. There’s an othering even when we’re talking about our own community.”

To better understand their students’ conceptions and misconceptions about hunger, the teachers initiated small-group conversations. They asked students to describe someone who might be experiencing hunger and to share some reasons why someone might not have enough food. They realized many students conflated hunger with homelessness and that, despite the number of students who had experienced some form of being unhoused, whether living in a shelter or doubled up with family or friends, they associated being unhoused with stereotypical images of people sleeping on the street. Several students expressed surprise that white people might experience hunger, while others described malnourished children in Africa. Understanding the schema their students had already developed was instrumental to expanding it. 

As the teachers considered next steps, 2nd-grade teacher Kiana said, “We need to find a good read-aloud to make the issue more relatable.”

As the group previewed picture books, Alex, a 4th-grade teacher, summarized the challenge. “It feels like a fine line in some of these between celebrating helping, which is OK, and sort of reinforcing a savior narrative.” 

A few books, including Maddi’s Fridge and Lulu and the Hunger Monster stood out for offering a child’s perspective without a subtext that blamed their parents.

“Usually I’m hunting for books with Black and Brown characters, but I don’t hate that Maddi is white. Maybe that can help break down the idea that all poor people are BIPOC,” Kiana said.

Together the teachers honed questions about the characters’ choices and contexts to support students to explore ideas about hunger. During a debrief, Danesha said, “I’m glad we got them thinking about why both Maddi and Lulu wanted to keep their hunger a secret. My students had a great conversation about not being embarrassed to ask for help.” When a student in Mohini’s group suggested Maddi’s mother needed a better job so she could buy more food, several classmates shared what they had witnessed about how hard finding a job could be. These discussions helped develop students’ vocabulary, demystify hunger, build empathy, and provide inspiration for ways they could help, including being sensitive to the many invisible challenges their classmates might be experiencing. 

As the teachers planned curriculum they hoped would interrupt students’ negative perceptions, they began to rethink some of their default approaches to service learning, such as taking students on a needs assessment walk to generate project ideas. Service learning literature commonly advocates neighborhood walks where students carry clipboards and make lists of things they don’t like and want to change in their neighborhoods. Conceived as a strategy to center student voice and validate student perspective, the teachers now saw inviting students to focus on problems as problematic. “It’s pretty much the opposite of being asset-based,” Andrew, a 5th-grade teacher, observed. 

The neighborhood needs assessment felt particularly troubling in a neighborhood highly impacted by poverty. Kiana commented, “It just seems like if what you hear and see about your neighborhood has to do with the level of crime and poverty and how everyone is trying to get out, that’s a different frame of reference than if you start from a place of feeling like where you live is desirable.” 

 To counter a deficit view, Kiana and Danesha revised the module about how people work to end hunger to center local community leaders taking action to address hunger. Students interviewed a local restaurant owner who pivoted during COVID to cook and donate hundreds of meals daily, first for emergency responders working around the clock and then for anyone who lost work during the pandemic. The parent coordinator at their school visited their classroom to share how she had formed partnerships with multiple food banks so families could pick up food when they picked up their kids. The students went on a virtual field trip to a community garden and talked to a volunteer who organized neighbors to grow and harvest vegetables for a nearby shelter. 

Though the teachers in this group didn’t incorporate conversations with local union organizers and picture books about unions (see Resources), it seems like both would also generate rich discussion

Nevertheless, learning about local activists changed the dynamic from the students doing something for people who were hungry, to learning from and working with people and initiatives already in place. Investigating community heroes disrupted the idea that the community was too flawed to fix its own problems. 

Inspired by mutual aid societies which gained visibility during the pandemic, a few teachers raised the idea of reciprocity versus service. “I think part of it is focusing on the idea of being in community,” Alex said. “When we’re in community, we work to make the community healthy for everyone. Everyone has ways they can help, and everyone needs help and sometimes some people need more help than others.”

Adela expanded on the idea: “Yes, and then the motivation kind of shifts from helping someone because I have more resources or time or whatever, to helping the community because I’m part of it and this is how we want the world to be.”  

Exploring the Root Causes of Inequities

As the teachers focused on incorporating elements of social justice education into their service learning projects, Kiana said, “I feel like if we don’t address why some people have so much food and some don’t have enough, it still comes back to a deficit, like the answer is for individuals to get better jobs.” 

Over the next few meetings, the root cause question persisted. The teachers grappled with how to introduce structural inequities and systemic racism to young children. With the youngest students, they framed the discussions around the unfairness of hoarding resources. 

Alex offered her students a scenario: “I said to them, ‘What if my mother happened to work in a store that sold crayons and she gave our class so many boxes. But Miss Anne’s class only had one box to share with everyone.’ They got it right away. Of course we should share. I even pushed them, I was like, ‘What if we share and now we don’t each have our own box?’ But they looked at me like I was a greed monster, like of course it’s better for everyone to have some than for a few people to have a lot and others to have none.”  

While curriculum looking at root causes of hunger can certainly go much deeper and broader depending on grade level, subject area, and time available, the goal of these projects was to begin to peel back the layers underlying the issue. 

Upper elementary teachers helped students map sites of food insecurity across the city, the country, and the world. Students recognized the connection between food insecurity and wealth, as well as other disparities including access to Wi-Fi, which had been and remained a significant issue for remote schooling. 

Andrew showed his 5th graders images of subway stations around New York City and had them guess which neighborhoods they were in. “The interesting part was when I asked them how they knew, because the truth is they already know a lot about inequity and racism,” Andrew said. “But the hard part is how to explain why the world is this way. That’s not an easy conversation because there’s no good answer. Why have people stacked the decks against immigrants, against poor people, against people of color? How do you talk about that in an affirming way?” 

In Andrew’s 5th-grade class, noticing injustices in the world around them became a significant part of the project. Before the teachers had identified the neighborhood needs assessment walk as problematic, Andrew’s 5th graders spent an afternoon walking the blocks near their school, listing what they wanted to change. Litter topped the list. “The walk was useful because the issues they identified are so tangible. But if I did it again, I’d start with listing the great things about the neighborhood because there are so many,” he reflected. 

The group’s reflection led the teachers to revise the needs assessment walk to be more asset-based, but in Andrew’s class, the walk planted the seeds for a powerful project. Students initially focused on a campaign to educate people about why they shouldn’t litter. In their preparation for the education campaign, they did a survey of local garbage cans. 

“That’s when they started asking really great questions,” Andrew explained. “First, why are there so few cans? How are we expecting people to use the cans if they’re overflowing? And second, why are they so gross?” 

A student’s casual question about how to get better garbage cans sparked an in-depth advocacy project. “So, the class was calling the sanitation department and writing to the city council to figure out who’s in charge of getting new garbage cans,” Andrew continued, “and then, coincidentally, we went on a field trip to the Metropolitan Museum, and, of course, the kids noticed the garbage cans on the Upper East Side. And they’re clean and big and new. I think that’s when the inequity really hit home for them and lit a fire. After that, they were unstoppable.”

The students learned that their city councilperson had discretionary funds that she could direct toward new garbage cans. They wrote persuasive essays that became letters to her. When Andrew could not reach her by phone, the students decided to deliver their letters in person and spent a recess walking to her office. She agreed to visit the classroom via Zoom to hear the students’ letters and to answer their questions. 

“I think she was really impressed, and the students were pumped. But the students noticed what I did: She said she agreed with them. but she didn’t make any promises.”

A reporter at the local news station heard about the councilperson’s visit and invited the students to come on the news. Nearly the whole class showed up one afternoon during summer vacation to read parts of their essays on TV. “Garbage in the streets is ugly and unhealthy, and we deserve to grow up in a clean neighborhood like kids in Manhattan.”

Becoming agents of change in their own neighborhood affirmed the students more than any classroom discussion could. When their councilperson found a way to include new garbage cans in the 2021 budget, she invited the class to a ribbon-cutting event scheduled for summer. The students learned another real-world lesson when, as of this writing and despite the promises and ceremony, no new garbage cans showed up. 

Imagining a Better World

In the beginning, a social justice approach felt necessary so that students living in poverty wouldn’t internalize deficit views of their own families or community, but over time the teachers came to believe that a just world demands that students everywhere investigate root causes of inequity. 

Danesha described the trajectory of her thinking. “At first, I was like, oh, we really need to be thoughtful about how we set up the service part of the project. It feels dangerous to involve kids in something which is supposed to be good but could make them feel bad about their neighbors or themselves.” She shook her head in her Zoom square before continuing, “But now I’m like, everyone needs to be thinking about this. Maybe even more if you teach kids with a lot of privilege.”

In their final session, Kiana reflected, “When I plan service learning again, I will be more thoughtful and intentional from the beginning about the language we use and the connections to bigger issues.” 

“It’s not that we don’t want kids — or anyone — to feel good about helping, but if we’re teaching them to feel good about putting band-aids on without ever getting to the why, how is the world ever going to change?” Danesha commented. 

“And that means I need to understand the why better myself and also do more thinking about the perspectives I bring,” Mohini added.

Together the teachers created a list of questions to support themselves and other educators to plan service learning for social justice (see below). The questions guide planners toward an asset-based approach that centers exploring root causes. 

Alex described her current thinking, “It’s not a paradox, but almost, because we want kids to feel like helping out is part of the responsibility of being in a community, but we’re also wanting them to see that there doesn’t need to be this level of need.”

Adela said, “It’s both-and, right? We take care of our community because that’s part of how we take care of ourselves, and we work to make the world more fair because we believe it should be and it can be.”

Questions to guide planning for service learning projects for social justice:

  1. What affirming language can you use to describe the population being served?
  2. What affirming language can you use to describe the population being served?
  3. What misconceptions or deficit perspectives do you and/or your students carry about the issue or the population being served?
  4. How can you ensure that students understand the project as a reciprocal experience that happens with and not for other people?
  5. How will students investigate root causes of the issue?
  6. How do you understand the issue as connected to structural and systemic inequities?
  7. How will you communicate the inequities and root causes in accessible and affirming ways to your students?
  8. How will you help students imagine a world without this issue?

Children’s Books to Support Asset-Based Discussions of Hunger 

Lulu and the Hunger Monster / Lulú y el Monstruo del Hambre by Erik Talkin

When their van breaks down, Lulu’s mother spends their food money to get it fixed. The hunger monster makes it hard to concentrate at school, especially because Lulu thinks it’s her fault.

Maddi’s Fridge by Lois Brandt

Maddi and Sofia are best friends who do everything together and like all the same things, but Sofia’s fridge is full and Maddi’s is empty. Sofia wants to help but Maddi asks her not to tell anyone. 

Saturday at the Food Pantry by Diane O’Neill

At the food pantry with her mother, Molly runs into her classmate, Caitlyn, who is embarrassed to be seen there. Molly tries to convince Caitlyn that everyone needs help sometimes.

Books to Support Discussions about Mutual Aid and Community Solidarity

A Hat for Mrs. Goldman by Michelle Edwards

Mrs. Goldman makes hats for everyone who needs one. Sophia figures out the perfect way to thank her.

Fair Shares by Pippa Goodhart

Bear and Hare both need chairs to reach the pears, but they don’t need the same number. Together they figure out that fair doesn’t always mean equal.

Joelito’s Big Decision/La Gran Decisión de Joelito by Ann Berlak

When Joelito sees his friend protesting for higher wages, he has to choose between a juicy burger and standing with his friend.

The One Day House by Julia Durango and Bianca Diaz

Wilson dreams of all the ways he can help improve his older friend Gigi’s house so that she’ll be warm, comfortable, and happy.

¡Sí, Se Puede! / Yes, We Can!: Janitor Strike in L.A. by Diana Cohn

Carlitos figures out how to support his mother and other janitors on strike for higher wages. 

Boyle-Baise, Marilynne. 2002. Multicultural Service Learning: Educating Teachers in Diverse Communities. Teachers College Press.

Cipolle, Susan. 2010. Service-Learning and Social Justice: Engaging Students in Social Change. Rowman & Littlefield Publishers.

Germán, Lorena Escoto. 2021. Textured Teaching: A Framework for Culturally Sustaining Practices. Heinemann.

Ginwright, Shawn. 2015. Hope and Healing in Urban Education. Routledge.

Picower, Bree. 2012. Practice What You Teach: Social Justice Education in the Classroom and the Streets. Routledge.

Wilhelm, Jeffrey D., Whitney Douglas, and Sara W. Fry. 2014. The Activist Learner: Inquiry, Literacy, and Service to Make Learning Matter. Teachers College Press.

Tanya E. Friedman ( is an educator, writer, and equity facilitator. For more than three decades she has worked with students, teachers, and parents to create liberatory classrooms and schools. She is writing a memoir about anti-racist teaching.

Illustrator Adolfo Valle’s art can be seen at

Purchase PDF of this Article

Included in:

Volume 38, No. 2

Winter 2023-24