In Gratitude for the Learning4Life Program

As Learning4Life members and enthusiasts, we were so pleased to see Naomi Park’s article in the Phoenix about the recent Staff Art Showcase hosted by Learning4Life.  We write in gratitude for the recognition of learners and teachers on Swarthmore’s campus that are rarely foregrounded. Hourly wage staff are all too often marginalized both implicitly and explicitly in communities of higher education; they are a group of people literally encouraged to work in the shadows without acknowledgment, keeping the campus clean while the rest of us go about our days and nights oblivious to their hard and invaluable labor. Swarthmore is, at its core, an institution with its values oriented towards social justice through learning, and our students are encouraged to seek out injustices and address them through involvement and activism. On the heels of Learning4Life’s twentieth anniversary here on campus, however, we are reminded that this activism must remain not only external but reflexively internal. It is tempting, at times, to be a school upon a hill, to attempt to hold the world accountable for all its inequities while remaining blind to our own hypocrisies.  The Learning4Life program offers a much-needed opportunity for the crossing and merging of boundaries between staff, students, and faculty, and an invitation for the mixing of identities. 

For those who aren’t familiar with the program, Learning4Life is a club first founded on our campus in 1998 with the goal of providing a low-load opportunity for reciprocal and mutual learning experiences between students and staff members. Both groups sign up to be paired with each other and are then given the opportunity to learn something of their choice together on their own schedule, and through that engagement begin to build a relationship.  How this collaboration works in practice is different in every partnership. Pairs are encouraged to discuss expectations around time commitments and expectations at the beginning of their time together in order to build the relationship that works best for them.

In the past, Learning4Life partnerships have learned countless skills together including but not limited to carpentry, gardening, DJing, fitness, computer coding, and cooking.  In addition to these partner activities, the program also hosts group workshops and events where students and staff can have fun and learn together. Some of the events this year have included the aforementioned Staff Art Showcase as well as fungi foraging, a hip-hop class, a Halloween movie night, and an astronomy workshop. At the astronomy workshop, Dr. David Cohen opened up the campus’s telescope and for some of us, it was the first time we’d ever laid eyes on the moon magnified in real-time. 

While these events may initially seem topical in nature, one would be hard-pressed to find another organization on campus that so wholeheartedly commits itself to blurring the divides between socioeconomic, racial, religious, gender, and cultural identities.  Moving out of one’s comfort zone is never easy, but we have found that it is undeniably refreshing to not be a “student” or “staff member” but rather to simply be a respected person, to be ready to learn from and contribute to the broader community.  

It is, however, important that the Learning4Life program not be misidentified as a charity or service organization. Reciprocity is the core foundation of our message. The club, as with any non-homogeneous community, deals with many power imbalances, the most obvious of which is that of educational advantage and privilege. But instead of ignoring that imbalance, we address it head-on, recognizing where privileges lie and questioning who has authority in defining what learning and teaching, learners and teachers, look like. For this very reason, students are not there just to tutor staff members in what they know, nor are staff members encouraged to spend all their time together teaching students their trades and skills.  The learning is a pathway to a relationship and only then does the relationship become a pathway to learning. 

Paulo Freire, a leader in radical and liberating pedagogy and one of the strongest influences of our club’s mission, once said: “If the structure does not permit dialogue the structure must be changed.” And so we challenge ourselves to begin asking questions. Where is there a lack of dialogue in our world and on our campus? How can we build meaningful and challenging dialogue into our everyday lives? Who are the people that we can learn the most from being in dialogue with? And what are some creative and exciting ways that we can connect with others to start a conversation, one that might lead to solving problems others identify or practice everyday inclusion? If you are interested in learning more about the Learning4Life program or becoming a member, please don’t hesitate to contact any member of the Steering Committee (Rozella Apel, Hussain Zaidi, Keyanna Ortiz-Cedeno, or Diane Anderson) or visit our webpage.

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