Social Justice in the City


Students spend the summer in Des Moines making connections with the community, and each other.


When a student chooses the word transformative in reflecting on the effect of your program, you know you’ve developed something special.

This something special was an immersive hybrid between a service-learning class and an internship program this summer, all focused on social justice. The 8-week program took students out of the classroom and into the day-to-day work of organizations throughout Des Moines.

For the first half of the program, five students spent two hours each morning in class learning about social justice issues and then the rest of their day as interns for various nonprofit organizations, including Children and Family Urban Movement (CFUM), Youth Emergency Services & Shelter of Iowa (YESS), Des Moines Social Club, Boys & Girls Clubs of Central Iowa and the Altoona Police Department.

“We sought out internships based on a student’s career and personal goals,” says Cheri Doane ’98, director of Community-Based Learning at Central. “These were hand-picked, so it’s very personal and individual for them, yet they’re contributing to something bigger and much greater—the common good.” Community-Based Learning is all about engaging students, faculty and community members in sustained partnerships that foster collaborative learning and civic participation in a diverse society.

It’s because of the holistic partnerships Central fosters that students can make meaningful matches with community organizations. Central currently maintains relationships with approximately 120 community agencies and grassroots organizations throughout central Iowa.

These partnerships seek to benefit both the student and the organization. Students and facilitators actively work to determine what the organization needs, and how students can best use their skills to make an impact with lasting effects. Both parties stay in conversation to look for ways the college can support partners while leveraging students’ expertise for the education of the college community. Kim Koza, associate professor of English, who taught the summer social justice class along with her husband, Michael Harris, professor of English, believes the real value of the program is the experiential learning at its core.

“The students are learning a lot through their internships, they’re getting a lot of great experiences, but they’re also learning about issues in the classroom that are relevant to what they’re doing at their sites and reflecting on them with others,” Koza says. “All those things together make the learning experience more potent than when you’re just doing an internship, more or less on your own and not necessarily sharing it with other people.”

Koza says being in Des Moines was an integral part of the experience. “Our classroom was really the city; we held class at the four internship sites, rotating each week, and guest speakers from CFUM, Creative Visions, EMBARC, Gateway Dance Theatre and other organizations shared their expertise and engaged in dialogue with our students. It was a fantastic learning experience for us all.”


Hannah Marcum ’18 became interested in applying for the program after taking a course about writing for nonprofits with Koza, which also included a service-learning component. The English major spent the summer working with students at the Baker Club at Hiatt Middle School, part of the Boys & Girls Clubs of Central Iowa, helping run daily programs like Summer Brain Gain, as well as leading kids on excursions around the city. She also had the opportunity to work at the main office of the Boys & Girls Clubs, helping revamp the Torch Club, a student-led community service and leadership program for middle schoolers.

Students spent the summer in Des Moines focusing on social justice. Photo of students, left to right: Michaela Van Dusseldorp ’18, Hope Skeen ‘18, Marissa Hirschman ‘16, Samantha Moss ‘18, Associate Professor of English Kim Koza and Hannah Marcum ‘18.

Students spent the summer in Des Moines focusing on social justice. Left to right: Michaela Van Dusseldorp ’18, Hope Skeen ‘18, Marissa Hirschman ‘16, Samantha Moss ‘18, Associate Professor of English Kim Koza and Hannah Marcum ‘18.

“The culmination of my work came July 30, when the Baker Torch Club put on a soccer tournament to fundraise a donation to Justice for our Neighbors, an organization that assists immigrant families in Iowa,” she says. The cause was chosen and the tournament planned largely by the students.

Hope Skeen ’18, a psychology major, assisted with programming for Awesome Summer Days, a program for elementary children, while interning at the Children and Family Urban Movement. She remembers an especially rewarding day when they took a field trip to Climb Iowa, an indoor rock climbing facility. “A lot of the kids who had told me they were afraid of heights or were normally very timid got up on the wall and did outstanding,” she says. “It was amazing to see the community these kids had built with one another that will continue throughout their whole time growing up at CFUM.”

Marissa Hirschman ’16 was drawn to the program because she liked the idea of experiencing an internship through a social justice perspective. At Youth Emergency Services and Shelter, she was able to work directly with youth and families, completing trauma assessments, connecting families with services like counseling and day camps and making discharge plans with parents. For Hirschman, who graduates this fall with a degree in psychology and Spanish, the experience also helped solidify her future plans. “This summer taught me that I want to work with children and families who have experienced trauma once I have finished graduate school.”


For all the rewards afforded the students by the immersion in the nonprofit organizations, it was what went on outside the internships that made this a particularly singular experience. In the classroom, the students explored issues related to social justice, from white privilege and racism to poverty and even how the arts play a role in social change.

They used local events to serve as extensions of the classroom, attending two plays and a music performance, all pertaining to social justice in some way. A favorite was the production of “Hooded: Or Being Black for Dummies” by Tearrance Chisholm at the Des Moines Social Club.

The students all lived together at Grand View University, accommodations arranged by the Greater Des Moines Partnership. “We thought it was important that the students live in Des Moines, so they could immerse themselves in the city and build community,” says Koza. “This also allowed us to do activities with students on the weekend. One Saturday students helped set up the Global Green Farmers Market, run by Central alumna Hilary Burbank ’09, program supervisor for Refugee Community Services with Lutheran Services in Iowa. Students interacted with the farmers, who are refugees from Burma, Burundi, Nepal, Rwanda and several other countries, and we visited the Global Greens Farm in West Des Moines, where we got out into the fields and pulled out thistles.”

Students visited Lutheran Services in Iowa’s Global Greens garden, which helps refugees reconnect with the land.

Students visited Lutheran Services in Iowa’s Global Greens garden, which helps refugees reconnect with the land. Left to right: Hannah Marcum ‘18, Colyn Burbank ‘10, Hope Skeen ‘18, Samantha Moss ‘18, Marissa Hirschman ‘16, Hilary Burbank ‘09 and Michaela Van Dusseldorp ‘18.

Marcum credits her four classmates and suitemates as being one of the best parts about the summer. “We did just about everything together, from homework to nights out on the town. We each cooked supper for the group one night a week, and as we shared the meal we also shared the best and worst things about our day.” Koza calls the bond the women created “pretty remarkable.” Marcum agrees. “I know I have four lifelong friends.”

Doane references the “immense body of research” validating the cognitive outcomes of service-based learning compared to traditional learning, giving the example, “How could we not learn more about international politics from working with Sudanese refugees?” This spills into civic life as well. “Students are more likely to vote, they’re more likely to run for office in their local communities like school boards and city council,” says Doane.

Service-based learning with experiential activities focused on social justice can transform students’ lives even more.

“We know that this type of activity helps students realize things are not as simple as the news media sometimes pings it,” Doane explains. “We hear sound bytes about issues, especially now during the political season, whether it be about immigration or any hot-button issue you can think of, we just hear these bits and pieces painted in a sort of right and wrong, black and white, yes and no. What we want students to understand is that the issues are more complex than that.”

Skeen, a psychology major, believes the experience taught her to be a change agent in her community. “Absolutely, without a question, it was one of the most rewarding ways I could have spent my summer,” she says. Marcum simply calls the experience transformative.

Experiences like these help to advance Central’s mission. Students gain confidence that aids them in preparing for a career, but they also prepare to be of service to their communities — local, national and international. The idea is that they become better global citizens if they’ve had these experiences, not only in summer programs like this but in classes and other opportunities throughout the school year. It’s the way a liberal arts education should look, and transformative: the way it should feel.

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