Covenantal Ethics in Community Based Practice

This past week, we began to unpack the ethics of Community Based Work. We read a variety of perspectives on this issue ranging from Institutional Review Board Ethics to EcoFeminist Ethics. Yet, what I, and I hope those who are engaged in community-based practices, find is that this work requires a different set of ethics. For me, I found the idea of Covenantal Ethics helpful in defining this greater call within higher education civic engagement.

At this point, you might be wondering, what are covenantal ethics? Briefly, it’s an concept established by action researcher Anna Hilsen and grounded in the Christian belief in the Covenant. Hilsen argues that argues that having partnership with a community is akin to being “given a gift that can never be reciprocated” (p. 27) because we live in an interdependent world.

I think that this idea is easy to gloss over, and say “well that’s nice.” However, if we really take a moment to unpack this, then be “reciprocal” in our relationship is no longer the goal, but merely the minimum criteria. Reciprocity implies that both parties equally  benefit, as though the transaction is fair: our students learn and you gain a report or strategic project. But the covenant says that when we engage with our community partners, we can never repay the gift they are giving us, and therefore we are to act in in their best interests.

The even more radical interpretation says, because they have given and we have received, the needs of our partners superseded our own, even if it opposes the demands of external stakeholders. It calls a commitment to the redistribution of power.

I’m still grappling with what this means for our work as service learning practitioners, and my own values. I find this aspirational, and a guiding principle. Yet, it may also be naïve considering the realities of our work.