Lessons from outside the classroom: Community Based Learning at Occidental


Author: Kevin Liu


The Center for Community Based Learning (CCBL), located on the fourth floor of Fowler Hall, serves as the on-campus resource for faculty, students and community partners to create community-based learning courses (CBLs) and research (CBRs). The CCBL has partnered with the instructors of over 30 courses to plan field trips, foster relationships with community partners, bring speakers to campus and support courses based on their specific needs. The instructors of CTSJ 257: Lyrics on Lockdown; PHIL 275: Logic, Problem Solving and Education; UEP 306: Food and the Environment; and CTSJ 352: Spatial Justice all have worked extensively with the CCBL to create meaningful connections and integrate community voices into their syllabi.

History of the CCBL: from Maria Avila to Celestina Castillo

Celestina Castillo is currently the director of the CCBL; her vision is grounded in years of organizing experience. Castillo’s story with the program starts with Maria Avila, who was the founding director.

The CCBL was founded in 2001 by several faculty members and the president of the college at the time, Ted Mitchell, to create connections in the surrounding neighborhood, establish long-term relationships with the community and move away from direct service and volunteerism.

“A group of faculty, including Regina Freer, Robert Gottlieb and Peter Dreier led the charge to establish community engagement that was curriculum-centered,” Castillo said. “With this, they went about looking for a director and were very intentional about hiring a director who came from a community organizing background.”

When Castillo was hired by Occidental, she began reaching out to educators of all levels in the neighborhood to create a network of faculty and potential community partners.

“[Avila] was bringing them together to talk about the culture of education in [the Highland Park] area,” Castillo said. “That’s the organizer approach, getting people together.”

Castillo met Avila through YouthBuild, an organization that teaches counseling and education skills to unemployed adults. Castillo enrolled in the program where Avila, who was still the director of the CCBL at the time, was teaching classes. Castillo cites this as the beginning of her formal community organizing training.

Avila invited Castillo to join a series of CCBL networking meetings open to community members, educators and school board members. After making connections with multiple members of the CCBL, including Freer, Castillo took on an assistant director position under Avila. After Avila left in 2013, Castillo assumed the role of director.

Like Avila, Castillo’s organizer philosophy has pervaded her work with the CCBL. In a chapter that she wrote for an organizing textbook, “Putting the Local in Global Education,” Castillo discusses the ways in which privileged institutions like Occidental can develop a sense of responsibility for the community.

“The experience and skills [that] faculty and students gain through community-based learning and research can help them engage in and develop reciprocal relationships with diverse communities in Los Angeles and many other places in the world,” Castillo wrote.

Lyrics on Lockdown

Students arrive at Los Padrinos Juvenile Detention Center and are asked to turn in their belongings. Guards constantly monitor the students, making sure that they follow procedure as they walk through the halls of the facility. But these students aren’t here for visiting hours; they’re here to attend class.

Lyrics on Lockdown is taught by Ella Turenne, the assistant dean of community engagement, and Desiree Zamorano, director of the Community Literacy Center. Twelve Occidental students are registered for the class, joined by seven incarcerated students.

The incarcerated students are participants in a program called Inside Out Writers (IOW), an organization that works with imprisoned youth to empower them through creative writing. IOW essentially acts as the class’ liaison to the facility, helping Occidental students get clearance and partnering them up with incarcerated students. On Monday nights, the whole class meets and sits in a circle to reinforce the solidarity between students.

“Solidarity not charity: we want to make sure that we are there not as some gift from the heavens, but as somebody who has chosen to work alongside [them],” Zamorano said.

While Turenne and Zamorano instruct the course, they see themselves more as facilitators. The students determine the workshops, activities and discussions that the group has. Before the Occidental students began visiting Los Padrinos, they spent four weeks reading about the prison industrial complex, power and privilege and many other topics in preparation.

The syllabus and idea for this course come from Turenne’s experience with a New York-based organization called BLACKOUT Arts Collective. In 2002, Turenne toured 14 different cities with BLACKOUT to raise awareness about the prison industrial complex through performance art. In 2004, as an educator at New York University, Turenne began teaching a Lyrics on Lockdown course; she brought the class to Occidental in 2012.

Turenne still has to work around some of the challenges that arise out of teaching this class. For example, students are forbidden from bringing in many of the items that are required for art projects into the detention center, such as scissors or other potentially hazardous materials.

“This is a class where you have to be incredibly flexible,” Turenne said. “It really requires people to think outside of the box because the more you have the easier it is to come up with ideas.”

Tess Langseth-Depaolis (senior) has faced some of the challenges related to physically being in a detention center: She constantly feels the gaze of guards and avoids using the restrooms because of the security hassle. She also feels that the class has helped her to navigate relationships with incarcerated youth.

“Something I’ve been struggling with all semester is figuring out not only how much is appropriate to share, but what is appropriate to share,” Langseth-Depaolis said. “I guess I insert my voice where I think it could be most helpful.”

The goal of the class is to integrate the arts into prisons. The result is a deeper connection between students: some live inside, some live outside, but all of them are together in solidarity.

Logic, Problem Solving and Education

The mission of the Philosophy 275: Logic, Problem Solving and Education is to spread the idea that philosophy can be for everyone. Taught by Professor Carolyn Brighouse, this course acts as both an introduction to non-classical logic and an opportunity to teach high school students formal logic.

The idea originated from a pilot study conducted by Brighouse and her husband, Tom Cuda, that investigated the benefits of learning formal logic in high school, such as higher test performance.

“We did a pilot study where if high school students learn some formal logic, their SAT scores will increase as a result,” Brighouse said. “So we thought it’d be cool to partner with a high school and have my students go around there to teach formal logic, and also for [the high school students] to come to campus.”

The course originated through a collaboration between Brighouse, Castillo and Cuda, who was a mathematics instructor at the Los Angeles River High School.

Occidental students learn non-classical logic from lectures and problem sets with Brighouse. As opposed to formal logic (also known as classical logic), in which true and false are the only truth values, non-classical logic problems can also be neither true nor false. Teaching classical logic to high school students at LA River High allows Occidental students to sharpen their skills in classical logic in order to better understand non-classical logic.

“It helped keep [classical logic] on the forefront of my mind as we were learning the non-classical logics,” Kathleen McKenzie (senior) said. “Having the classical logic background and reinforcing it by going into the school and teaching it, yeah, it helps a lot.”

Occidental students travel to LA River High School once a week to teach logic to Cuda’s Algebra II in the 21st Century class. Occidental students instruct LA River High students through lectures and problem sets, but also through the textbook and online tutorials that they have created. Cuda recognizes that often times students’ lack of understanding of Algebra II material becomes a barrier to learning more advanced forms of mathematics. He incorporates non-traditional units like formal logic into his curriculum to show students something new and exciting about math.

“I think [the high school students] have also enjoyed working with the college students and learning what it’s like to be a college student,” Brighouse said. “I think that dimension has been very valuable because [these high school students] begin to see college as much more of an option when they’re interacting with college students in a positive way.”

Brighouse is especially excited about this course because it is the first time that the philosophy department has partnered so extensively with the CCBL. Brighouse’s desire to spread philosophy to all audiences made her class a good fit for the community engagement program.

“I think philosophy is very relevant to the real world, and other philosophers think that too,” Brighouse said. “But it’s the non-philosophers, those are the ones that need convincing.”

Food and the Environment

Food and the Environment is taught by Rosa Romero and Sharon Cech, both of whom are full-time staff at the Urban Environmental Policy Institute (UEPI). According to their website, the UEPI engages in research, policy and advocacy for a more just, livable and green society. Food and the Environment is a course about sustainability in food systems in the context of power and privilege.

“[Romero and I] were really excited about teaching this as a community-based learning class because we don’t know how we would able to teach this class without going into the community,” Cech said.

Through the UEPI, the class has been given opportunities to partner with organizations like Sustainable Economic Enterprises of Los Angeles (SEE-LA) and Los Angeles Community Action Network (LA CAN). Romero and Cech have also both been actively engaged in food justice work for years, and their experience has translated well into their instruction.

For example, Romero’s and Cech’s previous experience incentivized them to cover food systems in addition to food justice. Romero is the Farm to Preschool program director at UEPI and has a rich background in social justice activism. Cech leads the California Farm to School, Farm to WIC and Regional Food Systems programs at UEPI and has focused on increasing access to quality, affordable foods in underserved communities.

“[Food and the Environment] is taught by people who work now on issues of food justice,” Elena Lopez (senior) said. “They bring an extremely relevant and firsthand perspective, and they’re just really knowledgeable sources.”

The class’ work will contribute to Good Food for All: Guide for Farmer’s Market Managers, which is “a community based learning project that outlines best practices for farmers’ markets to accept and process federal food assistance,” according to the syllabus. In addition to reading and writing about food systems and food justice, the class is also expected to create a “deliverable product” to give to their community partners.

Students in the class also support Proyecto Jardín, a community garden with a 15-year legacy in Boyle Heights. Proyecto Jardín leases a plot of land that now belongs to White Memorial Medical Center and is facing displacement, as White Memorial refused to renew their lease for 2016. Food and the Environment students administered a survey to the members of the garden and plan to use the data to create infographics for funding proposals.

From their work on the affordability of farmer’s markets to their contribution to the survival of Proyecto Jardin, Food and the Environment students challenge the dominant system by learning from the community and organizing with them.

Spatial Justice

New restaurants and shops open constantly in Highland Park, replacing some of the longstanding businesses and families who can no longer afford to stay. The Spatial Justice course considers this replacement not as harmless change, but instead as harmful displacement.

Spatial Justice is a CTSJ course that focuses on gentrification and the displacement of peoples in Los Angeles neighborhoods. Instructed by Professor Donna Maeda, the class reads about displacement from both a social science and humanities perspective in order to broaden the discussion on gentrification. Students also participate in a one-hour lab where they utilize mapping software to digitally represent the effects of gentrification.

Professor Maeda feels that her background in the humanities has presented a unique angle on studying gentrification and displacement; in her opinion gentrification is typically viewed as an issue for social scientists.

“As a humanist, I look at questions from a different angle than those that are usually considered to be practical or useful for community partners,” Maeda said. “I’ve been really trying thinking about what are the right kinds of projects to bring that into the CTSJ [department].”

Castillo is involved with this course as well. While Professor Maeda constructed a large portion of the syllabus, much of the impetus for this course comes from Castillo’s organizer mentality.

“There have been all these conversations about what’s going on in Highland Park that Celestina from the CCBL has been leading,” Maeda said. “She will also come to meetings with me with John Urquiza from Northeast Los Angeles Alliance so she’s been at every step of the planning.”

Castillo came and spoke to the class about her experience as a community organizer. Her participation allowed the students in Spatial Justice to hear about gentrification from community voices, rather than read about gentrification from a scholarly source or a removed perspective.

The community-based component of the course has involved field trips and community organized events. While the syllabus included a field trip to see Highland Park’s mural art with a local muralist, students added their own component of community engagement as well. Students organized a visit from Northeast Los Angeles Alliance (NELAA) to come to campus and perform a play called “Gentrification is Colonization” April 8. The performance was especially powerful for some.

“[Seeing the play] was a great experience because you could really see the academic side of it, where they discuss the history of [displacement],” Raihana Haynes-Venerable (junior) said. “But then there’s this component that’s so emotional and so powerful because this is their lives.”

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