The Community as Teacher

Owen SalleeBy Owen Sallee, Coordinator for Urban Involvement


Sitting in a vacant classroom at Union Gospel Mission’s Youth Reachout Center (YROC), Seattle Pacific University senior Corbin Sheffels described how his connection to the John Perkins Center’s Urban Involvement (UI) has shaped his thinking about the future. He explains, “I’ve realized over the last couple years that this is the direction my life’s taking.” Corbin began working with UI programs during his freshman year at Seattle Pacific.

Since that time, he has developed a love for middle school students — a group he thinks is misunderstood by most adults. Along with SPU seniors Daniel Kessler and John Huebner, Corbin spent Summer 2008 as an intern with YROC’s youth program in Seattle’s Rainier Valley neighborhood. This program provides day-camp programming and academic enrichment for children across South Seattle.


A Growing Appreciation

According to these interns, the opportunity to volunteer in Seattle’s less affluent neighborhoods has meant gaining an increased appreciation for learning from the communities’ members. Developing the capacity to “listen to the community,” is one of the core values taught to student volunteers involved with the John Perkins Center at SPU. During our conversation, it became apparent that on-site experiences have further enhanced these student’s cross-cultural skills. Gaining the skills to navigate cross-cultural engagement is the key to success in an inner city internship.

The art of listening as a foundation to work in a different socio-economic context has transformed these SPU students’ view of the world and their own self-understanding, as well. UI-volunteer preparation inculcates students with the values that allow them to engage communities with humility as learners who seek to understand what is already happening before implementing new ideas. Because UI volunteers tend to come from backgrounds that are different from the youth in their programs, student interns are encouraged to take advantage of opportunities to learn from YROC’s full-time staff.

Daniel arrived in South Seattle with a desire to be taught by long-term community residents. “I came in wanting to learn from the people who were here,” he shares. “I didn’t come in with my own agenda of what I was going to try to do.” Consequently, Daniel has deliberately spent time observing students in the Rainier Valley to learn about their lives and absorb their way of life.

Providing an example of this strategy, he explains: “I wouldn’t turn off their music; I wouldn’t shoot down their ideas or their [heroes]. You need to set aside what you think you know and learn what you need to know.” Recognizing the need to “set aside what you think” resonates with a core tenet of Christian community development: the strategy of listening to community. Humility is a must for the students who are seeking to master the social competencies needed to listen to the ideas, thoughts, and dreams of their host community.

Cross-cultural engagement often fosters an appreciation for service work in our students. Interns find themselves experiencing an increased zeal for two other core principles: development and relocation. John and Daniel are spending their second summer at YROC. John learned, he says, during his earlier experiences in south Seattle, that urban students “are so smart; there’s so much potential in them.” This revelation moved John closer toward his vocation and relocation. He shares, “I want to help them achieve their [academic] goals.”

This year, Corbin spent his first summer with the program. He had already invested three years of volunteer service with UI partner programs. In White Center, Corbin served as team leader for Choose Life Youth Ministries and later with Union Gospel Mission’s White Center middle school outreach program. When a hiring complication placed him at UGM’s YROC site instead of White Center, Corbin recognized the opportunity to broaden his experience working with urban youth. While cultivating relationships and increasing his sphere of influence, Corbin’s investment has garnered him firsthand knowledge as an educator and mentor.

Hands-on Teaching Experiences for Interns

YROC draws on interns’ academic knowledge base to bolster its summer programs, while providing excellent hands-on experiences for our interns. The local youth involved in these summer camps begin their mornings with academic enrichment. Afternoon sessions include field trips, recreation, and “choice classes.” The choice course curriculum allows day camp attendees to study arts and crafts, dance, and the performing arts. In the process of leading these sessions, SPU interns augment their own classroom knowledge into a form of cultural and pedagogical expertise that can only be gained in the urban setting.

Corbin is majoring in English literature and will obtain his secondary teaching certification; Daniel is pursuing a major in special education and teaching certification; and John is an educational ministries major. In the coming school year, Corbin, Daniel, and John’s involvement in JPC internships will give them greater confidence and competence when they enter student teaching and internship placements. As school districts across the country become more ethnically, culturally, and socio-economically diverse, the ability to manage a diverse classroom is highly valued.

After graduation, Corbin, Daniel, and John’s involvement in inner city internships, under the auspices of the JPC, will translate into future employers viewing them as well-qualified candidates for placement in urban schools and other inner city settings.

The John Perkins Center and Urban Involvement seek to produce students prepared to engage the culture, and change the world by modeling reconciliation and contributing to community wholeness. As SPU students engage communities through Urban Involvement’s programs, and then pursue deeper engagement through activities such as the YROC summer program, leaders are supported as youth and interns develop academic skills, build new cross-cultural understanding, and see God at work in new and exciting ways.


Owen Salle is the coordinator for Urban Involvement and Latreia at Seattle Pacific University.

This is the John Perkins Center video Learn more about The John Perkins Center by watching the video This is the John Perkins Center on iTunesU.