“Mother Nature Was Not Their Enemy; It Was the People”

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Abstract

There is a growing recognition of the impact of the climate crisis and related disasters on coastal communities around the world. This qualitative study examined written reflections of nine graduate social work students from a public university in the Midwest region of the continental United States, following a service-learning course focused on disaster relief work in San Juan, Puerto Rico. The course linked critical reflection and service activities during the reconstruction phase following successive hurricanes. The activities were coordinated in partnership with Proyecto ENLACE, a public corporation that unites eight communities and twelve grassroots organizations located along the Caño Martín Peña waterway in center of San Juan. Students engaged in dialogue, daily group debriefings, and journaling. Service activities, determined by Proyecto ENLACE, included debris removal, clean-up, and painting of a community building that served as a hub for communication and distribution of food and water, medicine, and supplies. Following completion of the service-learning activities, students wrote papers critically reflecting on their assumptions, experiences, and learning processes. A qualitative analysis of students’ papers revealed three themes: 1) understanding the dynamics of power, privilege, and oppression following a disaster; 2) increased knowledge of social, economic, and environmental justice issues in Puerto Rico; and 3) recognizing community agency, caring, and resilience. Findings support the use of critical reflection as a valuable pedagogical tool to teach students how to practice reflexivity, examine the dynamics of power and positionality, and prepare for the complexities of professional practice.