Mission: Possible, 2015 Good Practice Recipient
In addition to Mission: Possible and Justice in January, Luisa Gallagher oversees the incoming student pre-orientation Reality Camp, where students are immersed in the local Spokane community and can engage with over ten community partners. This program is a good way for students to enter the Gonzaga community, and understand the mission of service at the university. A new program on the horizon is Serve in South Africa, where Louisa will be traveling with ten students to Cape Town, South Africa for three weeks of service learning with a focus on the social justice issue of peace and reconciliation. Louisa and the students will be working with local non-profits around the issues of education, and health care, which were greatly affected by apartheid. Students will be oriented to the city through a semester of preparations and in country lectures of history, and culture.
What most interests you about service learning and how did you become involved in the field?
I entered the field of service learning unintentionally. I first came to Gonzaga for the doctoral program, and joined the service learning office to work with student leaders. I have always cared about social justice, and have enjoyed serving with students, and this position has enabled me to engage with student leaders in service in a purposeful and meaningful way.
I have been working with student leaders in the field of student development/student affairs for over ten years. I love experiential education, and prior to this position worked in outdoor experiential leadership, with international students, as an RD for four years, and then for the past four years have focused on service learning.
Can you speak about the start-up and history of Mission: Possible? What were some challenges and successes?
Mission: Possible began in 1998 as collaboration between Gonzaga’s Center for Community Action and Service Learning and University Ministry. Following that initial year we have continued to serve in over twenty cities, and have built some lasting relationships with community partners throughout the years. The program is strongly student led, with student leaders advertising for the program, running meetings throughout the year, creating reflections, keeping a budget, leading the trips throughout the week, and being involved in process of hiring student leaders for the following year. I believe this to be one of our biggest successes. This is a great leadership development opportunity for our students. Challenges to the program include maintaining a level of quality and consistency while balancing student leadership development, as well as educating students on over ten different social justice issues each year. We have made changes to the program over the years, the last four focusing on risk management and safety at each unique site. We have kept strong student interest in the program throughout the sixteen years, and have had large success in creating a campus wide awareness of the importance of service and civic engagement.
What are some innovative aspects unique to Mission: Possible?
What makes the Mission: Possible program unique from similar programs is the framework and reflection connected with social justice issues at each site. The purpose of Mission: Possible is to enter into mutually beneficial relationships with community partners, focusing on student learning, as well as community impact. We do this through the use of our four pillars, focusing on core themes of simplicity, spirituality, community and justice.
Students are often outside of their comfort zones, working with marginalized populations, different cultural groups, and unexplored issues of social justice. Through reflective activities each evening, students are able to think through their day, discussing either systemic issues of discrimination, or societal neglect, along with the non-profit organization’s answer to such concerns. Students are faced with difficult issues on Mission: Possible in a community of care, reflecting on their role in society, and how to make meaning of these experiences.
What factors do you think attribute to the success of this program?
I believe one of the greatest factors to the success of Mission: Possible are the student leaders themselves. Each student gives a full year of unpaid leadership to the Mission: Possible program, and have helped to create a strong and sustainable program throughout the past 16 years. Their level of commitment to service learning and social justice has been influential to the overall Gonzaga student body, and has been instrumental in leading many students towards service following graduation as well. During the week of Mission: Possible students will often meet for dinner with a group of students in the Jesuit Volunteer Corps and talk about post-graduation service opportunities. For the last two years Gonzaga has been ranked first in the number of undergraduate alumni volunteers serving in the Peace Corps.
How did you come up with the name for Mission: Possible? How does this relate to the overall goals of the program?
The name Mission: Possible was a designed to be a play on words used in the 1970’s TV show and 1990’s movie Mission: Impossible. The idea being that it is very possible to serve others and to live in solidarity for one week while getting to know people in the host communities. The goals for the program are included in the four pillars of Mission: Possible; simplicity, spirituality, community and justice. The intentional living of these four goals is attainable, but requires participants to move beyond their comfort zones in unique and personalized ways.
Describe how the core themes: simplicity, spirituality, community and justice, are emphasized throughout student’s service learning experiences.
Simplicity: The Mission: Possible experience focuses on the concept of simple living, specifically our use of food, transportation, water, and technology. With this in mind, students eat a simple diet, limit shower use, and technology. Students also sleep on the floor at most sites and are housed at local churches. Each site is encouraged to adopt this in a unique way & create a group contract for their community during the week.
Community: students build relationships with their peers, as well as the community in which they serve, realizing that often service can be as simple as having a listening spirit, and a posture of learning.
Spirituality: students are encouraged to make meaning out of their Mission: Possible trip, aligning their values with their lived experiences. They are prompted to think about spirituality through the meetings prior to leaving, through reflection during the program, and through the evaluation questions and re-entry gathering following the close of the program. During the trips students spend each evening in reflection, many participating in the Jesuit examen, written reflections, highs and lows, and reading articles about social injustice and relating them to their own lives and current experience.
Justice: each program site focuses on a particular issue of social justice. These issues are explained in the site descriptions below:
Mission: Possible New York City works with the OPUS prize winner Hour Children with incarcerated women and their children. Noting the hour of incarceration, release and eventual reconnection between mothers and their children.
- Mission: Possible Portland works with non-profit organizations addressing the basic needs of the vast homeless population in the city. Work sites include the Portland Downtown Chapel, Portland Homeless Family Solutions, and the Blanchet House of Hospitality
- Mission: Possible San Francisco focuses on environmental justice issues and works with the parks conservancy. There are opportunities to work at one of the largest farmers markets in San Francisco and to work at local urban farms as well.
- Mission: Possible St. Louis focuses on serving at the St. Patrick’s Center through assisting their clients. St. Patrick’s is a combination center for the homeless providing a soup kitchen, dental clinic, job placement and job training.
- Mission: Possible Phoenix will work with three non-profit agencies around the topic of poverty, incarceration and education. Particularly, students will connect with refugee children, homeless families, and men transitioning from incarceration.
- Mission: Possible Tacoma serves the Hill-Top neighborhood of Tacoma. Partnering with Guadalupe House, also known as the Tacoma Catholic Worker, students live and work amongst the local homeless population in addition to working on L’Arche Farm, a community for developmentally disabled adults.
- The Mission: Possible Neah Bay group works on the Makah Reservation in elementary, middle and high schools and provides residents with service projects as needed.
- Mission: Possible Knoxville works with Operation Backyard, part of the Knoxville Leadership Foundation, which is in charge of everything from painting houses to yard work. The group also works at the Boys and Girls Club, located two blocks from the church where they stay during the week.
- During Mission: Possible Denver students work with the African Community Center (ACC), an organization that helps refugees from all over the world to settle in the Denver area and Escuela de Guadalupe, a bilingual catholic elementary school. They spend their mornings working in community with local immigrants and refugees at ACC’s local thrift store “Safari Seconds” and their afternoons at Escuela de Guadalupe playing and communicating with the school’s students.
- Mission: Possible Browning works with children at the Blackfeet Boarding School and at the “Immersion School” at De La Salle.
What are some favorite experiences identified by students from their experiences of Mission: Possible?
I have included selected student qualitative feedback from a survey conducted in 2014 following last year’s trip. There was a 46% student participation response rate to this online survey.
Selected student responses to memorable moments during the Mission: Possible program:
Memorable moments: I met a man named Orlando when my group and I were having lunch with the homeless population and our friendly conversation allowed me to stop viewing the homeless as people to be avoided.
Memorable moments: One thing that stood out to me was when me and some other people in my group were casually conversing with Lavon in the church on our last night in Jonestown, and she asked us if she could pray with us. Of course we said yes; we all bowed our heads and listened as she thanked God for all of her blessings and asked us to keep us safe on our journey home. Lavon’s prayer and evident faith that she shared with us throughout the week was very inspiring for me and allowed me to explore my faith while serving the community of Jonestown.
Memorable moments: The experience overall was amazing. It was so great to be in community with the people of Tacoma. Whether it be sitting and having a conversation or participating in a protest it was a life changing experience.
Selected student responses to the question “what did you learn” during the Mission: Possible program:
What did you learn? I learned my passion for service is a lot deeper than I had first thought. I also learned the importance of service trips and how they are not meant to make a long-lasting impact on the people we work with or for, but ignite a fire within ourselves to continue working in this spirit of service throughout our lives.
What did you learn? I learned how to openly communicate with others, and to not judge people by the way they look and realize that anyone can become homeless at some point, there is no difference between me and any homeless person. Every person is human, and everyone deserves to be loved and accepted.What did you learn? I learned that I need to pursue my passions, listen to others, embrace the uncomfortable, and just lean into things.
Selected student responses to the question “how did this program cause you to think and reflect differently about social justice?”
“As I mentioned, I was so affected by the service aspect of this trip that I feel called to realize it in my future career. The organizations we worked with were not only making a huge difference in the community but also were able to explain their role and the role of injustice in St. Louis.”
“I definitely feel I need to stop talking a sideline seat and get active in the ways I can now that will prepare me to do more later on in life.”
“I need to do more research. This trip showed me I need to work harder on discerning how I feel about particular topics. Coming back, my group has continued to spend time together and go to social justice events on campus to better educate ourselves and this has been an amazing thing to share.”
Describe Justice in January and how the program was created.
The Justice in January program was started in 2011 based on a desire to expand Gonzaga University’s civic engagement for students interested in service and advocacy. Our longest standing program Mission: Possible currently sends over 130 participants during spring break to over 10 sites across the United States. Demand for the spring break Mission: Possible trip has been high throughout the past ten years, with a waiting list for over 40 students each year. The interest in the spring break program spurred our decision to create a winter break program to offer students further opportunities to serve.
During Justice in January: Tucson students visit a court trial, tour a border patrol facility, meet with the founders of the sanctuary movement, hear from recent undocumented immigrants, and work with humane borders. Justice in January: San Diego partners with advocates for immigration reform, speak with border patrol agents, and work with children through educational assistance at Nativity Prep Academy.
The development of Justice in January began with a desire to expose students to complex social justice issues that were not as visible in our community of Spokane, Washington. Immigration is a global issue, with poor and displaced people throughout the world seeking refuge and financial security through whatever means possible. Immigration in the United States is currently on the world stage, as many people, including unaccompanied children, continue to cross the border without documentation, at times dying in the process. It is a humanitarian crisis that needs to be addressed in our nation, and addressed in our understanding of social justice, and student access to education. Immigration is also very close to my personal experience; my family immigrated to the United States from Australia when I was just nine years old.
What has been your most rewarding experience with either of these programs?
I am grateful for the opportunity to continue to do meaningful and fulfilling work. Walking with students through challenging situations, and encouraging difficult conversations can help bring about such lasting growth in students. As students develop spiritually, finding meaning in their lives and aligning them with their personal values, I am deeply encouraged.
Based on your experiences with Mission: Possible and Justice in January, what general advice would you give to higher education professionals who are working with service learning programs?
I believe there are three areas that have greatly benefited our service immersion programs:
1. Empower students. Some of our greatest opportunities in student learning have come from empowering students to take leadership in guiding their peers. The student leaders are involved in every element of the program, including leading reflections for their peers on difficult social justice topics, and this has been significant in the success of Mission: Possible.
2. View service as learning. I would advise professionals working in service learning to view alternative break programs not only as a service program, but as a time of deep intentional learning. We attempt to create the learning elements of training and preparation on the four pillars, intentional learning and reflection during the program week, and encouraging students to engage in service opportunities when returning to campus.
3. Underpin your program in theory. The final piece of advice I would give professionals working in the field is to use a model of experiential education in the learning process. The intentional combination of reflection and action has added great depth to our programs. Likewise, framing these programs with the four pillars of spirituality, community, justice and simplicity has helped our students to engage in service in a unique and meaningful way.