Connecting classrooms with communities

Ibasaralyne Thabah and Samhita Barooah

Social Work Education has been pivotal in encouraging an intensive praxis which values realities of individuals, groups and communities to be blended with experiential learning for the students and teachers as well. Community camp or rural camp or field work camps in diverse contexts are some of the most interesting foundations for learning social work practice, theory and interventions.

Martin Luther Christian University Social Work Department has been conducting the community camps on a yearly basis through their consistent engagement with some of the community leaders. This year the team of 104 students and 5 faculty members went with the theme of promoting the importance of human relationships which happens to be the theme of World Social Work Day. “We promoted interactions and team bonding by going to places where technology has not engulfed the communities,” said faculty members Ms. Ibasaralyne Thabah and Mr. Emideiwahun K Rangad. The village chosen for the community camp was Thyllaw in the Mawsynram block of East Khasi Hills District in Meghalaya.

The focus this year was on health, sanitation and nutrition. Data collected during the camp through observation, community living, home visits and community interactions indicated that there was no proper health care services, inadequate waste management system, food habits were nutrition deficient without local herbs, wild edibles and common farm produce. After an intensive participatory research exercise with the community the students along with the key stakeholders of the community devised a strategy to initiate proactive action for change. Another faculty member Dr. Lindsay Murray M Sangma shared, “Team collaboration and dedication are some of the guiding cornerstones of the learning process.” Keeping this in mind, MLCU Social Work Department collaborated with NESFAS for promoting community awareness programme cum demonstration on wild edibles for health and nutrition. A team of doctors and allied health personnel from Allied Health Services Department MLCU and Bansara eye care centre also conducted a day long health camp in the local school premises of the village where all the members of the village and even neighbouring villages actively participated. The patients were given free medicines during the health camp which was sponsored by MLCU. The students of social work volunteered to raise awareness for the health camp previously and engaged in helping the people to avail the health care services.

These community camps also enhance the leadership skills and strengthen social work practice for the students in different settings. Students were divided into groups to take up duties for living, food, health, sanitation, cultural programme and social analysis processes. As the head of the social work department Dr Marba Syeimlieh reflected, “The community camp focused on the theme of social work day which is ‘promoting the importance of human relationships’ through acceptance and adapting to local culture.” This was evident in the cultural programme which was showcased during the programme on the last day of the community camp. The community members participated in large numbers for this cultural event. Cultural programmes were designed in such a way that they provide both information and entertainment for the community members. One of the viewers from the community said after the programme, “We wish that this kind of programmes happened more often, our children benefitted so much from this experience.” Students engaged with the community members at various levels with the children, women, elderly and the village council members to share about the findings of the survey done during the camp. Social Work encourages students to learn from each other even during their daily living activities. Students had to cook, wash, clean, fetch water from the perennial water source located at a distant place from their place of stay. The makeshift pits created with temporary bamboo and wood superstructures for the 106 students and faculty members were used for sanitation purposes during the camp. These pits were later covered with ashes and soil by the students and faculty themselves. Students also conducted cleanliness drives for the community to ensure that the waste disposal practices are adequately placed in the community. It was a process of learning by doing where every student had a task at hand to perform and necessary inputs were provided by the faculty at various levels.

Some of the strengths of the community were their natural resources like perennial water sources, cohesive community bonding, vibrant women and youth institutions, proactive community leadership through the Dorbars and Headman, cash crop cultivation of organic pepper, betel nut and leaves, ginger, bay leaves which grew abundantly in the homesteads and on the farm slopes. The community members were educating their daughters in Government schools in Shillong as well and some of them studied in the community itself. Students of social work found the experience enriching and helpful for their grounded understanding of the local context.

Social Work Practice does not end with a single community camp but it sustains the engagement with the community through diverse interventions as per the needs and priorities of the community and the university. This activity was done rooted in the core social work values of integrity, competence and importance of human relationships. Apart from the professional development the personal transformations towards community relationships were very evident during the course of this initiative. “The students blended into the community fold through their diverse activities and reflected a sense of belongingness which was otherwise confined to the theoretical learning within the four walled classrooms,” said faculty member Ms. Ibasaralyne Thabah who accompanied the students during the camp.

Authors teach Social Work at Martin Luther Christian University, Shillong (India)