Students in New Course to Create Sustainable Solutions in Fairfax

October 31, 2014

I am very pleased to announce a new course for Spring 2015, that will engage Mason students in the community in a whole new way: social enterprise.  Historically, solutions to community challenges have been the role of the non-profit and government sectors.  But what if we created solutions that were profit-generating, and integrated efforts across local government, nonprofits and the private sector to make them more transformative and sustainable over time?

native plant rescueNCLC 475: Social Innovation in Action, Section 007

In this section of NCLC 475: Social Innovation in Action, taught by myself (Wendy Wagner), students will work with the City of Fairfax Office of Sustainability and local groups around the city (such as high schools and community centers) to reduce waste through composting programs. As a course focused on social enterprise solutions, these projects will have the added goal of being profit-generating for the community organizations and schools who do them.

Mon/Wed 10:30am-1:10

Mondays we will meet in the classroom, with local experts as both guest speakers and consultants to the student teams.  Wednesdays, students will be on-site in the community, gathering research and first-hand experience in order to generate and test their innovative solutions.  This is an NCC Capstone Course, so students will engage in facilitated discussions assessing and reflecting on their own competence in the skills needed to be successful professionals and citizens.

Community Partner: City of Fairfax Environment & Sustainability

If Fairfax residents learned to compost, they would reduce their waste by 60% and save the city nearly one million dollars per year.  How can we accomplish this?  Students will: learn about the logistics of composting by establishing a program in Fairfax community; research successful composting programs in other cities across the country; and propose/test a sustainable plan to engage local schools, community centers and other community groups in regular composting.

For more information:


Posted by: Wendy Wagner,
Assistant Professor, New Century College
SAIL, Director of Community Engagement

Course supported by the Center for Social Entrepreneurship and Social Action and Integrative Learning in New Century College.

The People’s Climate March: Hypocrisy Accusations

September 25, 2014




I have been fascinated by an on-going social media discussion related to the piles of litter left by the 400,000 people who attended the People’s Climate March in New York last Sunday.


 Several photos available from a local NYC paper here.





A brief summary of what I’ve seen posted on a variety of social media outlets:

  • The sheer amount of litter on the streets is an embarrassment, and a symbol of the hypocrisy of these environmental activists.
  • There were no garbage cans on the route, a safety measure, and 400,000 people in addition to the usual New Yorkers on the street.
  • Photos of the garbage clearly contain products from the kinds of multi-national corporations the march was protesting against.
  • This event was a huge success, the litter is not the point.
  • Marches like this do not accomplish anything.
  • Marches like this are a crucial aspect of a participative democracy

I’d be interested to hear from Mason students who have participated in marches, and from those who intentionally do not.  What do marches accomplish?  If their point is largely to be symbolic of the people’s will, what other symbols do their organizers need to attend to?  Is it possible for the organizers of an event like this to control the messages and symbols that emerge? What is your responsibility as a participant?


Mason Service Corps Class: Community Partner Panel

March 31, 2014

For those of you who haven’t heard of it already, Mason Service Corps is a neat program we run here at the CLCE office. It’s a really great way to satisfy some experiential learning credits while also having a say in how you spend it. Here’s how it works: you pick what community organization you want to volunteer for over the semester (or we help you find one), complete 45 hours for one EL credit or 90 hours for two EL credits, and take NCLC 294 that meets once a week for an hour and a half!

Our MSC class this semester is partnering up with some really incredible community organizations, and we had the privilege of hosting them this past class in a discussion panel. We had two guests, Paula Gaudino from the Northern Virginia Mental Health Institute, and Kerry Tousignant from Bethany House of Northern Virginia.

Paula Gaudino and Kerry Tousignant

Paula Gaudino and Kerry Tousignant

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Alternative Break in Jamaica

March 19, 2014

By James Green

ATTENTION STUDENTS! If you aren’t familiar with Alternative Break offered by the Center for Leadership and Community Engagement, I hope I can persuade you to become acquainted with it! My name is James Green and I am a freshman student at George Mason University. Throughout the beginning of the year I noticed a plethora of pamphlets around campus regarding study abroad trips to many exciting places, but never looked too deeply into them. I’ve always wanted to travel the world, but I brushed the idea of traveling abroad off because I feared the expenses.

Alternative Break trips offer the opportunity for international and domestic service at relatively low costs (compared to traditional study abroad trips), less duration of time from home (average of a week), as well as scholarship availability to help offset the costs! I researched more into the programs offered and found that they span from cultural emersion trips in Israel, to sustainability awareness trips in Florida. The trip I found fitting to my service interests was a trip to Jamaica focusing on elementary education.

After arriving in Jamaica, our group of twelve Mason students dove right into our educational mission. When we went to the school for the first time, I immediately took notice to how tarnished the buildings were. The school contained two small structures, totaling four classrooms, and around sixty students –only staffed by two teachers. We decided to find some ways to help around the school other than solely assisting with teaching. JimmyOur group decided that half of us could aid the teachers with their curriculum in the classroom, and the other half could stay outside to repaint the faded pink walls of the school. We also agreed that it’d be nice to switch the jobs of the groups halfway through the day, allowing everyone the opportunity to impact the students in the classroom. I enjoyed both painting and teaching because I knew that we were having a large impact on the school physically as well as with the students. Inside the classroom we read books, played games, and talked about our lives. The kids loved us, and we loved them!

Leaving them on the final day was the most difficult part. In a week’s time I had grown close to many of the students, and I didn’t want to go so soon. They all walked out of the class and into their vans to go home, hugging each of us at the door. It was a sad moment, but a moment that allowed me to feel as if I did truly have a positive impact on their lives –it felt great!

Our last two days were our “fun” days (even though the entire trip was a blast), where we were able to explore the area surrounding Treasure Beach. We went on a boat tour in the serene blue ocean where we were greeted by dolphins, we traveled through Black River –greeted by sunbathing crocodiles, and visited the most amazing set of waterfalls I’ve ever seen! The Jamaican people were kind and accepting, and taught us a lot about their culture! Last but not least, the food was spectacular! Jamaican food seems to be simple, but it tastes like you’re eating food from the finest of restaurants!

These priceless memories and experiences are not available to anyone and everyone, but as a George Mason student, they are accessible to you! I encourage everyone to look into the programs, as you will find life changing experiences in each and every alternative break trip offered! Your life is an adventure, you just have to choose how interesting you want that adventure to be!

Innovation Food Forest

February 19, 2014

When I mention the Innovation Food Forest, most people don’t know what I’m talking about. However once I say “All of those bushy green plants along the walkway beside Innovation Hall,” usually people know exactly what I mean.

Russian Comfrey in IFF, August 18th, 2013

I myself slowly became familiar with the Innovation Food Forest and the famous bushy green plants (which, by the way, are called Russian Comfrey). Finding out that it was actually a permaculture garden, naturally I jumped at the chance to volunteer as part of my service learning hours for Sustainable World (NCLC 210).

What is permaculture you might ask? It’s a method of gardening that strategically groups plants that will foster each other’s growth, whether it’s by attracting certain pollinators or enriching the soil with vital nutrients. In the concept of a food forest, a garden or “forest” will eventually be able to sustain itself with little to no care.

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Questioning the value of “Voluntourism”

February 20, 2013

I recently came across this article, “Does Voluntourism Do More Harm than Good?“” It is a good read and I encourage you to click over.

Students on CLCE’s Alternative Break trips ask this and other important questions of themselves – before the service, during and after it.

  • What is our impact here?
  • What are the root causes of the challenges being face here?
  • What are the needs here?
  • What assets does the community here have? Are we acknowledging them and helping to maximize them?

For me the most important question is a matter of learning to serve with our heads as well as our hearts.  Yes good intentions and a spirit of care matter.  But we need to think critically, do the research, and understand the issues and the community.

  • How can a group smart college students make a bigger impact here?  

While most of the time we can feel proud of the service we do within the confines of the Alternative Break trip, the true potential for impact is seen in what happens next.  What do we do with what we have learned on these trips?  Many students come home full of gratefulness to the community who welcomed them and taught them so much.  They are often fired up about raising funding to send back.  Go for it, and let me know how I can help.  What about advocacy?  What about influencing policy – governments, corporations, the World Bank or IMF or other organizations that need to hear about this community.

A more long term question is: What will you do with the privilege of a college education to make a difference?

Alternative Break trips can be incredibly powerful.  Some students come home and change their major, or shift their professional goals in ways that value making a difference over making piles of money.

If you choose to join us on an Alternative Break trip, or if you choose to engage in “volunteourism” (please choose a reputable agency to work with), please do so with mindfulness.  What is your impact here?  What are you learning?  What is needed in the long term that you can address?


Still thinking about Jamaica

February 11, 2013

Reflections on Alternative Break, January 2013.  

Hope School – Treasure Beach, Jamaica.

As always, my latest Alternative Break service experience has left me with a mash-up of conflicting thoughts and emotions. The attempt to reconcile them is no doubt very good for my growth.

As it happened, on the flight to Jamaica I read a compilation of research studies on positive psychology.  In particular, about the factors shown to contribute to feelings of wellbeing and happiness. Some of these include: positive close relationships with family and/or friends, having a sense of life purpose and meaning, and taking time to count blessings and be grateful.

The Jamaicans we lived among this week have an abundance of these things. In many ways they showed us how to live the good life, focusing on what is important.

Hope School






– Hope School, with view of the Caribbean Sea

But then I am asked by well-meaning friends, “Oh you were in Jamaica? Which resort?” reminding me of the Jamaica we didn’t see.

Jamaica Pool








It’s an image intended to tempt you there, but after the week our Mason team had there, it makes me sick to my stomach. A major challenge facing Jamaicans is a lack of water.  In the town near Hope School where we served, 500 people share a single spigot.  Imagine starting each day with a walk to fill a bucket with all the water you will have for the day.

The reality of “no water” is hard to fully grasp without living it.  Hope school is a two room school house with 25 children age 2-6.  Consider the daily bathroom breaks, the 50 little hands covered in playground dirt, needing to be washed before snacks and lunch. The teachers have a single bucket of water for washing and pouring into toilets that aren’t connected to water pipes.







– Hope School with students and teacher, “Auntie Merdi”

As the children fall down in the dirt during games of tag and rides down the slide, we have to pause and think about the parents who will have to wash the stains from their clothes. We know they don’t have a washing machine. Do they have any more water than the schoolhouse has?  How far do they have to walk to acquire even that much?

Slide Hope School






Mason students enjoying a break with Hope School students

The people we lived with this week do not have a lot of the material things that we think will lead us to happiness and wellbeing. No iPods, designer clothes, or flat screen TVs. Most are without electricity and running water.  Those who do manage to pay for power and water have such unreliable service, those who don’t (including our hosts) don’t believe they are missing much.

Jamaica has enough water for people to live more comfortably than this.  But they don’t have enough for both that and this.

Jamaica waterpark











For a hotel with access to the best beaches in the world, why is having a pool with waterslides more important than “Auntie Merdi” at Hope School having enough water to wash 50 little hands?

I already hear the arguments about what resorts do for the struggling economy.  With investments the owners can easily afford, water conservation technology could make a huge impact.

Please don’t visit a Caribbean resort without asking about this.

For now, I’m in a familiar state of limbo I call post-AB brain. I don’t pity the Jamaicans. In most ways they have taught me a way to live that is infinitely better for wellbeing than the rat race I live.  But I’m still spitting mad about the inequity of their situation.  The world will never be one where luxuries will be enjoyed equally, but basic human necessities for all should be a given before anyone goes around wasting them for entertainment and leisure.

A Critique of Canned Food Drives

December 5, 2012

Submitted by Wendy Wagner.

This year is the Governor’s First Annual Holiday Hoops Classic.  In addition to a basketball tournament, the four participating Virginia Universities (Mason, Univ of Virginia, Old Dominion U. and the Univ of Richmond) will be competing to collect the most donations of non-perishable food.  Capital Area Food Bank, an excellent organization in our region, will be our recipient.

I’ll come clean.  I wrote a provocative title to get you to look. Oldest trick in the book.  You’re thinking, “Seriously Wendy? You’re going to critique a canned food drive?”

Yes.  Yes, I am. Something we strive to do in the Center for Leadership and Community Engagement (CLCE) is challenge students to apply the values of higher education (critical thinking, problem solving, communication, civil discourse, awareness of social problems) to their civic roles.  Just because an effort has good intentions doesn’t mean it is above critical evaluation of impact and effectiveness.

Given the efforts to support the victims of Hurricane Sandy and the spirit of giving that comes with the holidays, the time is ripe for a discussion that gets us all to think a bit more critically about what we’re doing.

This small issue is also a good illustration of a larger one: that community engagement isn’t simple.  We have to have more than just good intentions.  CLCE’s interest is in deepening the discussion as a campus about how we support the community we are a part of.

In this case, at CLCE we would suggest an alternate route:  give money instead of cans.  Do you know what a foodbank can do with money that it can’t do with cans?  Whatever it needs to.  They can buy fresh produce, milk, bread, eggs and other healthy options.  They can provide food that is healthier and a closer fit to their clients’ tastes and cultural preferences.

It’s also important to be aware that food banks often have arrangements with the food industry to have access to surplus food for pennies on the dollar.  In some cases it is a simple buying in bulk issue.  According to one report, they can acquire your two dollar can of food for about ten cents.

So here’s the good news.  CLCE is fully behind the Governor’s Holiday Hoops Classic Food Drive because…  money counts too.  Any funds you donate via THIS WEBSITE  apply toward Mason’s “count” in our contest against the University of Richmond.

Additionally, the CLCE staff is collecting cash for Holiday Hoops in the Johnson Center on December 5th and 12th (Wednesdays).  Four shots in the basket gets you a free t-shirt.

Some may feel this makes the decision of dollars vs cans a “six of one, half-dozen of the other” issue.  We can now give whatever is more convenient to us.  That’s really thinking about it from the giver’s perspective.  We hope the Mason community thinks a little harder and considers the receiver’s point of view when we engage in the community.

Is Mason going to win the Holiday Hoops Classic Food Drive showdown against the U of Richmond?  Of course we are, we’re awesome.  But our donation of money as well as food is going to benefit the Capital Area Food Bank in a much more robust way – and THAT is what really “counts.”

The Holiday Hoops Classic basketball tournament is Dec 22nd (go Patriots!) at the University of Richmond.   Money and cans are being collected from Nov 15 to Dec 15th. 


The Mason Student as Voter

September 25, 2012

As I gather my thoughts for my first CLCE blog post, it is an election year.  As a Washingtonian and an educator focused on fostering civic engagement and leadership for social change, I can’t help but have the political engagement aspects of community engagement on the brain right now.

It’s also the beginning of a new school year.  There is some freshness in the air and many college educators are thinking about the subtle changes we see in each new student body as historical and social contexts continue to shape each generation.  (I was reminded this year on Sept 11th that our current Freshmen were about 7 years old that fateful day).  So I’m wondering – what  are today’s college student voters thinking about as they head into the last 5-6 weeks of campaigning?

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