When I graduated from college ten years ago, I thought my service learning days were over. It never occurred to me that I would have the opportunity to bridge classroom learning and community engagement in an MBA program, but Simmons School of Management is full of these sort of pleasant surprises.
Professor Stacy Blake-Beard is somewhat of a legend on the Simmons campus. Talk to any student who has taken a class with her and they will gush about her infectious energy, her engaging teaching style, her high standards, and her dedication to the success of her students. For her "Gender, Diversity and Leadership" course last Spring, Professor Blake-Beard collaborated with the Scott/Ross Center for Community Service at Simmons to transform a tried and true assignment from her curriculum into a service learning project.
Our class had the great pleasure of working with students from Beacon Academy on a project to analyze gender in film. Us Simmons students spent the first few sessions of this condensed weekend course together, learning about the topic before being joined by the Beacon Academy students. On the first Saturday that these 14 -and 15-year-olds came into our classroom we were nervous. Many of us were afraid that they wouldn't want to engage with the project - that they'd be bored and forced to come by their teachers. Some of us worried that we would only be able to have very simple, surface conversations about gender with these younger students. Others were just generally wary (teenagers! yikes!). What happened next blew our minds!
We started out with a group ice-breaker suggested by a Simmons student. One by one, we stood up, shared our names and what we were hoping to get out of the project. We also shared something we enjoyed (music, French fries, science fiction, you name it), which served as the connector - the next person who shared your interest would jump up, link arms, and take their turn. Every single person in the room eagerly participated, and shared generously of themselves. Right away, our fears were put to rest.
Next, we broke into small groups of a few Simmons students and a few Beacon students. We ate popcorn and watched our films (A League of Their Own, Whale Rider, and Real Women Have Curves, to name a few). In my group, we watched Norma Rae, and the discussion we had afterwards dissolved any assumptions I had about what this experience would be like. The Beacon students jumped right in, passionately pointing out ways they saw gender being enacted in the film, and the way it impacted the characters' experiences at work and in their homes. They noticed things in the film that I never would have seen on my own. Then they shared their own experiences with gender norms, how they see men and women in their families accessing and demonstrating leadership. They were curious, courageous, and wickedly intelligent. They even tied the film back to some readings on gender that Professor Blake-Beard had assigned for them to read before joining us.
In the following weeks, we met several more times, deepening our analysis of the films and preparing our presentations. On the last day of our class, we welcomed Beacon parents, staff, and faculty into our classroom and presented our findings. The presentations were insightful, professional, moving and deeply collaborative - Simmons and Beacon students shared the stage equally, and beamed with pride alike.
I will never forget this impactful class - it took our learning way beyond the text into the realm of the experiential. I will always remember to check the assumptions I make about others, and to remain open to the powerful learning that happens when people engage across lines of difference. Us MBA students had a lot to learn from those teenagers after all.