Communication Currents

After the Storm: Communication and Service Learning

June 1, 2009
Crisis Communication, Instructional Communication

Hurricane Katrina hit coastal communities in Mississippi and Louisiana in 2005. After dealing with the immediate effects of the disaster, the region turned to rebuilding. Through a grant from Learn and Serve America, 30 Northern Kentucky University Communication students used communication principles and practices to help three Mississippi Gulf Coast communities collect oral narratives after the crisis, help community members explore the support they could offer to each other, help administrators understand the organizational culture of one at-risk school district, and perform other projects relevant to interaction and understanding after Katrina.

Learn and Serve America funds student projects that benefit communities. Over a two year period, two different groups of students donated nine days of their winter breaks, as well as over 100 hours of preparation, to use skills harvested from previous studies in social supportorganizational culturemedia literacy, research methods, and documentary production. The students and I conducted research through service projects and community activities including discussion groups, town hall meetings, volunteer work in community organizations, audits of small businesses or non-profit groups, and documentary work. Ultimately, eleven different projects were completed with the communities on the Mississippi Gulf coast from January 2008 through January 2009.

“This was a life changing experience,” said Daniel Strasser, a master's student. Strasser worked on a team that collected video narratives from residents about how they supported each other during the crisis and how they felt about media representations surrounding the hurricane. “To see their optimism after such a disaster, it was inspiring.” Strasser also expressed the value of the experience for making the theories and research learned in his communication classes come to life. “It is one thing to read a book about it, but to see these theories happen. It makes it so much more real and you can see how important it all is.”

As part of the project, community members were taught basic media production skills so that they could have a part in directly creating the oral narratives. Once the narratives were placed into a documentary film, an open town meeting was held. Over 50 community members viewed and responded to the narratives.

“People had such powerful stories, the movie really made itself,” said Sara Mahle, who directed and edited the film. “It also allowed me to think as both a researcher and as a film maker about how we can make theory practical.” Mahle especially noted how gratifying it was to hear from the community that they “got it right” in capturing the stories.

Another group of students worked on a specially planned town hall meeting. The meeting used group discussion practices and social support theory to create talk-back sessions regarding the frustrations community members were feeling about lack of support or understanding after the hurricane. Leaders from the community—including the mayor, alderpersons, school board members, and concerned citizens—were divided into small groups where a number of communication issues were discussed. Students acted as leaders for the discussion sessions as they helped the group brainstorm ways they could boost community morale through direct and positive communication and offer support in frustrating times. The facilitators especially looked at ways local government could provide assistance.

“This helped me out in hearing the voices of the people I don't always get to hear from,” the town's mayor shared in an interview. “As much as [leaders] stay in touch, we can only hear so much.”

One community member who participated in the talk-back group shared how she felt the discussion impacted her emotions and what she was able to offer. “People I didn't know before, I know them now . . . I know what we shared,” she said. “And I know what I can give them. We all just sometimes just feel so, alone. Now I know what I can give others.”

Perhaps most gratifyingly, one of the town's alderpersons wrote about the impact of the talk-back session on the next city council meeting. “I thank you and your students for offering us a chance to open up. It really helped us to push the ‘little things' aside and focus on what we need to do next as a community.” She also noted that many of the ideas generated by the session, including representation from various constituencies in the city as well as citizen-reward programs, would be implemented into public policy practices or explored further through grant projects.

“It was a win-win, really,” said Aimee Shandy, a master's student who was a facilitator for one of the talk-back sessions and who served as a team leader for an organizational culture analysis team that looked at area schools. “We got to practice our skills, and the community got some valuable information for what they want to do.”

For the organizational culture analysis, a specific focus was placed upon a high school that experienced problems in locating students after displacement, rapid turnover of teachers, and frustrations resulting from disagreement between community members about the future of the high school. The school was also at-risk for not meeting accreditation standards. The research team spent eight days in the high school interviewing students, faculty, support staff, parents, and administrators as well as examining school policies, observing students and teachers as they went through their day, and analyzing the facilities.

After information was collected and analyzed, a confidential report detailing the findings was provided to the city's school administrators for their use. This allowed for a third party to help negotiate an overview of the values, assumptions, and artifacts relevant to the school's culture. It also made clearer the challenges the organization was facing as well as possible opportunities for development. The largest concern—one mentioned by people across the various levels of the high school—was lack of open and direct communication. Specific examples given by participants were included in the report so that communication practices could be considered and revised.

In addition, the after-school program for local elementary schools—also cited as being stress-filled—was audited. As Leighann Rechtin, a master's student, put it, “It was physically and emotionally draining, especially seeing some of the things kids had to go through.” The after-school programs were clearly understaffed and filled with workers or volunteers who were under prepared. As a result, children reported boredom and unhappiness. Just as the high school auditing team analyzed their data and provided a report for administrators, the after-school programs auditing team will provide a report in time for a July 2009 session being held by the school district. Much of this report focuses on organized planning, calm demeanors for mentors, and creating an aesthetically pleasing location for the programs.

The above projects were only three of the students' eleven projects. In addition, we created a set of video narratives on Katrina's impact on families for communities to archive, hosted a citizen journalism workshop, held other town hall meetings to encourage open dialogue about support, helped to build a house through a local service organization, conducted research studies about community talk networks and displaced sexual minorities, and offered feedback regarding tourism campaigns. These issues were largely selected by community leaders and members, allowing the students to respond to specifically identified community needs and to generate projects well in advance of the trips. This also allowed for a rich dialogue between what the communities needed and what one university could provide.

“For me, this was the class that convinced me I wanted to be a professor,” said Evan Center, a master's student who will continue his doctoral studies in the fall. “I used to think that academia was not hands-on enough. It was projects like this that really showed me what higher education can do. It helped me to see how important studying communication is.” With funding agencies like Learn and Serve America, and with more universities engaging community involvement, a revitalized generation of students and faculty may help to change what institutions of higher learning currently offer communities. Moreover, they help to demonstrate how strong communication practices and understandings can help communities.

As one community member put it in a follow-up interview, “We always heard we need to communicate. Now because of you all we really know what that means.”