"Suburban Nation" and a Service-Learning Project on Homelessness

Nancy A. Parkes
The Evergreen State College


In the interdisciplinry program, "Suburban Nation," a small group of students joined the City of Olympia's public/non-profit/faith community/business community effort to conduct the annual Homeless Census. In the process, they examined who is homeless and why, and how communities can respond to the complex problems associated with poverty and homeless.

Course Size:

Institution Type:
Public four-year institution, primarily undergraduate

Course Context:

"Suburban Nation" was an interdisciplinary academic program in which students examined the history, design, community, and social justice aspects of suburbs. At Evergreen, we teach many programs in interdisciplinary teams. Students who engaged in this program were half-time in the first quarter, and gained a foundation for their service learning in the second, when they became full-time.Fulfilling an obligation for service learning, a small group of students in this program joined the City of Olympia's public/non-profit/faith community/business community effort to conduct the annual Homeless Census. They helped to examine 1) who is homeless 2) why; and 3) how all these communities can respond. The in-program internship provided excellent experience in public policy; local governance; inter-sector collaboration; community-based research; and statistical analysis.

Course Content:

In "Suburban Nation," our approach was to give students a firm foundation and understanding of the history, design, culture, and social justice factors connected to suburbs and suburban design. Students gained a substantial foundation in fall quarter, in addition to participating in library research, so that they could participate in practical internships during winter.
Students critically examined past, present and possible futures of the American suburb through the lenses of history, cultural studies, and environmental sustainability. They examined the factors that led to the United States' pattern of suburban development and considered alternative models to urban sprawl. The program studied policies that resulted in suburbanization and examined issues of economics, class, and race and that underlie many continuing urban/suburban problems.

Course Goals:

* Gain a foundation in the many aspects of urban and suburban studies and associated, complex problems
* Understand how both social and environmental inequities in law and practice have shaped suburban and ex-urban areas.
* Pay attention to social injustice as part of "sustainability," from low-income housing, to the need for access to services.

Course Features:

As this was an overall program taught through environmental/public policy and cultural studies lenses, our approach was complex.

The shape of the program

In fall quarter, field trips to local housing developments and to Portland, Oregon, allowed students to analyze the social, environmental and design features of the landscape. Through small group projects, students applied historical research, census data analysis, and policy development skills to a project focused on a specific community. Seminars, workshops, presentations, and papers provided students an opportunity to synthesize the ideas offered by authors and guest speakers and develop critical thinking and citizenship skills. Books included Crabgrass Frontier, by Jackson; Suburban Nation, by Duany, Plater-Zyberk & Speck; Black Wealth, White Wealth, by Oliver & Shapiro; and Modern Housing for America, by Radford.

In winter, the second quarter of "Suburban Nation," the internships related to Suburbs and Homelessness were designed by M. Anna Schlect, Housing Program Manager for the city of Olympia, and an Evergreen MPA graduate. Ms. Schlect has demonstrated an outstanding ability to immerse students in meaningful internships, while helping them to develop demonstrable skills they will be able to use in further academic and professional work. (For model field supervision guidelines for in-program and academic internships, please see the attachment, adapted from Ellen Shortt Sanchez, director of Evergreen's Center for Community Based Learning and Action.)

In winter, field work allowed students to analyze the social, environmental and design features of the local landscape and to imagine repurposing blighted sub/urban areas. The focus on cultural studies allowed students to analyze suburbs as depicted in popular culture. Students analyzed and interpreted novels, films, and television programs that reflect our ambivalence about the United States as a suburban nation. Seminars, workshops, presentations, and papers provided students an opportunity to synthesize the ideas offered by authors and guest speakers and develop critical thinking and citizenship skills. Books included Building Suburbia: Green Fields and Urban Growth, 1820-2000, by Hayden; Introducing Cultural Studies: A Graphic Guide, by Sardar and Van Loon; Daughters of Suburbia: Growing Up White, Middle Class, and Female, by Kenny; and the iconic 20th century suburban novel Babbitt, by Sinclair Lewis.

During winter, students had the option to add 4 to 8 credits to their workload with a community service project related to Suburban and Community Studies, in many cases with the theme of sustainability. (At Evergreen, 12 or 16 credits are full-time.)

Students practiced library research and academic writing by developing an individual research project and creating a 15-source, properly formatted annotated bibliography of their research. In winter, this group participated in an additional advanced seminar on cultural studies with both faculty members and with a variety of challenging readings and documentaries. They produced a more sophisticated culminating project. This prepared them for their community service work.


To find "real time" opportunities for students to examine housing and homeless issues in a local community, we tapped Anna Schlecht, Olympia Housing Program Manager to serve as a community partner who would provide key ingredients to successful academic internship within a program.

The academic program offered the Theoretical Level, which presented a context for housing and homelessness in society. The internship then allowed students to work at the Local Government Level to learn about our municipal framework of housing and homeless policy and regulations. Going next to the Street Level, students conducted an environmental scan to examine the Impact of local policy by looking at existing housing and homeless resources. By working on the Homeless Census students were able to assess the existing system by conducting the point in time count of who is homeless and why, and to look at how well homeless shelter and services are working.

Finally, students had an opportunity to work on the analysis of all the homeless data gathered and to participate in the development of the Homeless Census Report. This final stage of the internship offered a comprehensive Analysis of their entire experience in which students examined the theoretical framework; local government policy frameworks; local housing and homeless service networks; and, looking at statistics of who is homeless, why the current resources and the gaps between needs and resources exist. Together, this allowed a comprehensive examination of how theory feeds policy, which feeds programs, which feeds services and ultimately provides results for real people.

Ms. Schlecht has developed a highly structured internship based on the County's annual homeless census. This internship offered experiences that fall in the following general areas:

Community Outreach: Explore a variety of means to seek volunteers and generally promote census participation from rural, suburban and urban core areas, specifically tapping social service, faith-based communities, civic organizations, businesses, homeless communities and other stakeholders.

Community Based Research: Work with stakeholders to develop the framework of the 2012 Homeless Census Report, including social service providers, faith-based communities, homeless people and their advocates. This activity is also referred to as Social science research, both qualitative and quantitative.

Statistical Analysis: Examine the results of 2012 homeless census, compare 2012 with previous homeless census results; compare Thurston County results with other Washington Counties; compare Thurston County and Washington with other U.S. regions.

Examining Service Models: Research local services as currently provided by social services and faith based communities; examine emerging service models from other regions of the US and abroad.
Public Policy Opportunity to observe community leaders develop public policy as it relates to homelessness, primarily through fiscal policy, i.e. funding specific programs and projects.

Inter-sector Cooperation: Opportunity to observe and participate in cooperative efforts between public sector (local government), faith sector (faith-based communities) and non-profit sector (social services).

Learning Outcomes:

Of the students who worked with Anna Schlect, one made a career decision to pursue ways to work with youth at risk. She recognized the complexities of being a homeless youth, and also of working within a system of government and non-government stakeholders to address their needs.

Another student made a decision to go into environmentally just design, a "career I didn't know could exist." He became convinced that, as communities must tend anyway to blighted areas, he could help to re-envision and design these areas to take into account the needs of low-income and homeless people.

All of the students came away with some "depression," having been acquainted for the first time with the difficulties of making change within a set system. Yet they also came away with tools to bring disparate interests together by finding common ground. This has to do with making the "invisible become visible."

When my teaching partner Sarah Ryan and I reviewed the outcome of the two-quarter program, we concluded that the internships helped with the inevitable depression faced by all undergraduate students who study complex social justice and environmental issues. First, the students had to learn that we are indeed in a complex web of problems. Yet then, they had the opportunity to apply well-earned strategic thinking to possible solutions and to gain preliminary skills that will help make those solutions possible. This ultimately allowed students to consider "sustainability" as a meaningful frame in which both ecological and social justice should exist.

Course Philosophy:

Our teaching philosophy is to offer students an interdisciplinary approach to learning about complex problems that engage several disciplines. In this program, we spent extensive time reviewing discriminatory laws and practices, that, even when removed from the books, have continued to have both environmental and social injustice impacts on low-income persons relegated to poorer areas for living space.

We wanted students to learn library research skills so that they could used peer-reviewed materials to find solid information for the complex problems they studied, as well as useful templates for solutions.

Much of our teaching at Evergreen is designed to link theory to practice. Thus, we spent time in the field with all students engaging in such exercises as having them re-map the downtown area to reflect the need for low-income housing.

The internships built upon this linkage. In the case of those who worked with Anna on the Homelessness Census, students were required by Anna to submit regular work plans, as city employees do. They participated in the census of various homeless populations, including teens. Many of these counts are muddied by the many reasons that the homeless may not want to be counted, ranging from being returned to a violent home situation, to mental illness. The students then assisted Anna with planning for roundtable discussions with large segments of the community. These included those who work with teens at risk; downtown business owners; the faith community, and others. In all cases, the students were required to write up their findings and observations. They also attended City Council and other governmental meetings, which afforded them the opportunity to see how staff and elected officials work together, and, at times, conflict.


At Evergreen, we write narrative evaluations of the students' work. Expectations are clear in a "class constitution" or covenant. Community partners send short evaluations of our students to faculty members. We incorporate these in faculty evaluations. We also meet with students quarterly in evaluation conferences.


Suburban Nation Fall Syllabus (Acrobat (PDF) 2.4MB Jan15 13)

Suburban Nation Winter Syllabus (Microsoft Word 359kB Jan15 13)

Teaching Materials:

Guidelines for Community Internships (Microsoft Word 2007 (.docx) 22kB Jan15 13)

References and Notes:

For this subject, we found these texts especially useful:

Black Wealth, White Wealth: A New Perspective on Racial Inequality, by Oliver and Shapiro (Routledge, 2006)

Suburban Nation: The Rise and Sprawl and the Decline of the American Dream, by Duany, Plater-Zyberk, and Speck (North Point Press, 2010)

Crabgrass Frontier: The Suburbanization of the United States, by Jackson (Oxford University Press, 1985)