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Introduction to Human Services: A Profession Responding to Social and Economic Inequality in the Tradition of Secular and Religious Pluralism 

Prof. Valerie Edwards Robeson, Saint Mary’s University of Minnesota (Winona, MN) 

Shared with Permission1 

In 2017, Prof. Valerie Edwards Robeson participated in a Teaching Interfaith Understanding faculty development seminar, run in partnership between the Council of Independent Colleges and Interfaith Youth Core, and generously funded by the Henry Luce Foundation. For information on future seminars, and to access more resources created by seminar alumni, visit

Course Description

Catalog Description: Students trace the development of human services as a profession, identify employment options for human services professionals, and examine the various social problems to which human services professionals respond, including but not limited to child abuse, domestic violence, homelessness, immigration, mental illness, needs of the frail elderly, and substance abuse. Students complete 25 hours of service in an assigned local human services agency outside of class for the laboratory component of the course. 

Comprehensive Description: Saint Mary’s Lasallian Catholic heritage is a rich resource for investigating, appreciating, and cultivating community among people who are concerned about the needs of socially and economically vulnerable individuals, families, and communities. Each of us funds, through our taxes and philanthropic contributions of time and money, the complex private and public human services system that we study in this course. We also all benefit directly or indirectly from that system. By developing awareness of one’s worldview, the course will help students develop a personal framework for engaging in civic discourse and action about issues related to human services in 21 st- century America, with an appreciation for religious pluralism as a founding and continuing influence. Students will explore the origins of the human services profession with special attention to how diverse ethical and religious worldviews inform debates about what constitutes “need”, who is responsible for responding to need, whose need, and how. Students will identify vulnerable populations with whom human services professionals work, including but not limited to persons affected by age-related frailty, child abuse, domestic violence, homelessness, immigration, mental illness, sexual violence, substance abuse, and displacement due to civil unrest, war, and natural disasters. Students will differentiate between personal and professional paradigms of “helping” and understand the knowledge, skill, and dispositional competencies that should characterize professional human services practice. There are no pre-requisites for this course. This course fulfills the Human Systems general education content area requirement. Upon successful completion of this course, a student may declare an academic major in human services. 

Experiential Learning Lab Requirement: Students are required to engage in what is essentially a service learning project engaging Saint Mary’s students and human services organizations in the local community. The project requires out-of-class work – up to two hours / week beyond the estimated 6-8 hours preparation time for each week; some in-class work sessions are also noted on the syllabus. The lab process + product constitute about 20% of the course grade. The instructor moderates the work during small-group and all-class sessions. Like doing a lab in chemistry or physics, the lab is designed to help students “see” course concepts in action, and “show” the ability to use course knowledge. The lab also functions like another assigned text – a common experience from which we can learn together. 

Course Goals and Learning Outcomes

The Human Services Program is grounded in four Enduring Understandings. This course is designed to assist students to meet eight related Course Goals along with Human Systems general education content area objectives. Students completing this course are expected to demonstrate each Learner Outcome (i, ii, etc.) 

Enduring Understanding #1: The human services profession exists to improve the daily lives of diverse individuals, families, groups, and communities. 

     a. Develop an appreciation of diverse religious, spiritual, and secular worldviews as intrapersonal and interpersonal resources for understanding the nature, causes, and right responses to human suffering.
               i. Explore personally held beliefs, articulate a personal worldview, and connect one’s worldview to one’s sense of purpose.
               ii. Summarize the historical religious, psychological, political, and socioeconomic roots of the human services profession. 

     b. Understand the range, vulnerabilities, and circumstances of populations served and needs addressed by informal and formal helping systems
i. Compare and contrast “official” and unofficial definitions of poverty and vulnerability.
               ii. Locate and report current demographic trend data associated with poverty across demographics of age, disability, education, employment, ethnicity, family structure, gender, immigration status, mental health status, military service, and sexual orientation.
               iii. Recognize the influence of worldview / belief systems in media for general audiences, related to human services populations, professionals, or services.
               iv. Compare and contrast agency or program policies and practices that emphasize human dignity vs. social control. 

     c. Understand that the human services profession and the systems in which professionals work can perpetuate systems of oppression and privilege.
               i. Scan organization or program structures, job classifications, compensation, and qualification schemas for indicators of inappropriate exclusion or preference. 

Enduring Understanding #2: Saint Mary’s Lasallian heritage is a resource for creative, significant action to study and improve the human condition. 

     a. Identify relationships between one’s worldview (intrapersonal), the Catholic intellectual tradition(s), and the Lasallian charism(s).    
               i. Map alignments and between principles of Catholic intellectual tradition(s), Catholic Social Teaching, Lasallian Core Values, and your own worldview. 

      b. Differentiate between the knowledge, skills, and dispositions required for civically engaged interfaith commitment to the needs of the vulnerable vs. generalist professional human services competencies. 
 i. Compile, synthesize, and categorize information from observational and reflective experience.
               ii. Apply demographic trend information to anticipate changes / effects in human services delivery for specific vulnerable populations, and / or for employment in the human services profession.
               iii. Recognize the causes of poverty and persistent inequality embedded in economic and social class systems.
               iv. Reproduce the major models used to conceptualize and integrate prevention, maintenance, intervention, rehabilitation, and healthy functioning.
               v. Apply the ecological model to analyze the organizational structures of communities.
               vi. Apply the biopsychosocial model to analyze individual identity, development, and functioning. 

Enduring Understanding #3: Competent professional human services practice is rooted in an examined, transcendent commitment to human dignity. 

     a. Demonstrate commitment to honoring the dignity and uniqueness of individuals in terms of culture, ethnicity, race, class, gender, religion, ability, sexual orientation, and other expressions of human diversity. 
               i. Explain the value of self-reflection as a disposition that sustains awareness of one’s beliefs and self-directed appreciative inquiry about other belief systems.
               ii. Explain the significance of religious pluralism as a resource for constructively encountering and responding to stereotypes and bias in workplaces and community life. 

Enduring Understanding #4: The human services profession is ethically obliged to respond to adversity and inequality in solidarity with isolated, marginalized or oppressed people.
     a. Understand the need for clarification of personal and professional values. 
               i. Differentiate between a personal worldview as a resource for civic identity development and engagement, and professional ethical practice standards as a resource for professional identity development and practice.
               ii. Understand the NOHS Ethical Standards for Human Service Professionals (NOHS 2015).
               iii. Demonstrate sustained behavior patterns congruent with the values and ethics of the profession. 

     b. Develop introductory-level proficiency in communication and dialogue skills to speak and write in an informed and reflective manner about human diversity, dignity, civic engagement, and religious pluralism.
               i. Demonstrate the attributes of openness, curiosity, empathy, and respect while participating in faith-inclusive community-based dialogues or action.
               ii. Write and speak about one’s participation with sociolinguistic competence. 

Required Learning Materials

This course will expose students to a variety of short readings and videos from diverse sources. Through the course Blackboard (Bb) Learning Management System, the instructor will provide either active links (to online content) or electronic files (typically PDFs) for all learning materials except the following, which students must obtain independently. We will begin reading this text in Week 2 – so be sure to have it available! 

Eboo Patel. 2016. Interfaith Leadership: A Primer. Beacon Press: Boston, MA. 

Assessment Opportunities/Activities

Engaged Learning Assignments (ELs): 20 x 10 pts each = 200 pts, 44% of course grade
Each EL is tied to a class session, of which there are about 30. EL “evidence” is due & collected at the beginning or end of each class period. Examples: brief discussion board posts/responses; basic ideas quizzes; 30-60 second spoken responses to videos, readings, or experiences; out-of-class small-group text analysis assignments; and in-class dialogue facilitation. Since each of the assignments is essentially optional, no late work is accepted. Students may complete more than 20 ELs; this is the only form of extra credit offered. 

Appreciative Knowledge Assignments: 4 x 25 pts each = 100 pts, 22% of course grade
Students will contribute individual research about sources of expertise on worldviews, faith traditions, and informal and formal helping systems in the form of written or video material in a class-curated collection. Further instructions provided separately; source examples include: 

  • Short selections from texts related to our institution’s Lasallian heritage and mission
  • “Pluralism” and “Rivers of Faith” pages, The Pluralism Project, Harvard University
  • Recent reports on religion and worldview, Pew Research Center on Religion and Public Life
  • Islamic Resource Group – Minnesota
  • Islamic Center of Minnesota
  • Jewish Community Relations Council of Minnesota and the Dakotas
  • Just Babies: The Origins of Good and Evil, Paul Bloom
  • Why God Won’t Go Away: Brain Science and the Biology of Belief, Andrew Newburg, Eugene D’Aquili, and Vince Rause
  • INTER: Interfaith Ideas for American Life (IFYC Digital Magazine)
  • Minnesota Department of Human Rights resources
  • United States Census or other federal agency reports 

Appreciative Civic Engagement Lab (project), Better Together Day 2018: 1 x 100 pts = 100 pts, 22% of course grade
To complete this project, class members develop and host an on-campus panel comprised of leaders among local faith and worldview – diverse action groups (persons who orient around religion differently) in conjunction with the national Better Together Day campaign – in ways that contribute to the working agendas of the Winona Interfaith Council and/or the Winona Human Rights Commission. The event will facilitate story-telling about religious pluralism with a focus on the experiences of local immigrants. This assignment concludes with an Appreciative Knowledge Mashup assignment. 

Closing the Loop (Final Exam) Assignment, 1 x 50 = 50 pts, 11% of course grade
Students have three options for closing the loop to end the course with a personal worldview statement or interfaith engagement plan, which may be in one of three formats: (a) written and printed Interfaith Leadership Manifesto, (b) an in vivo This I Believe statement, or (c) a Moral Bucket list presentation. (Extensive instructions for each option provided separately.) 

Weekly **optional** Plan for Success sessions @ Prof. ER’s office, Fridays, 2:30 – 3:00pm
Stop in if you like, leave when you must. We start by making a loose agenda – what questions, concerns, or thoughts are we bringing together? Then we work through the issues together, or just go more deeply into readings or topics or assignments that have your attention. These are not good sessions to discuss your grade specifically, because they are open group sessions (not private), but participation is a great way to get less formal feedback on how you’re doing and insights about how to focus your time or attention. 

Course Calendar

Class meets 3 times per week for 16 weeks

Note: The calendar is a bare bones list of sources to know and material to hand in on specific dates. Blackboard (Bb) Learning Modules have the complete set of resources / activities for each unit. 

Week 1

Monday: Getting Started on Our Shared Journey

  • Before class: Read the syllabus with special attention to the learning objectives and the assessment section.
  • During class: Syllabus review – basics. Lab orientation. Dialogue about individual interests within our course topic area. Prof. Edwards Robeson will finish the syllabus with individualized assignments based on this discussion.
  • After class: 12:15 PM – Attend MLK Jr. Day Address: Carlyle Brown in Acting Black (Page Theater). 

Wednesday: Getting Started on Our Shared Journey – With Some Traction! ☺

  • Before class:
    • Asynchronous Discussion:
      • Due before 11:59pm Monday, post to thread on Bb.
      • Due before 5pm Tuesday, respond to 2 classmate posts on Bb.
      • Due before class Weds, read all Bb discussion posts; prepare for dialogue. 
    • Lab activity: Before class, read think about the four webpages under the About tab at
  • During class: Prof. Edwards Robeson will facilitate dialogues re: Acting Black + discussion posts, and about lab plans, and respond to questions / suggestions about the syllabus. 

Friday: Why Study the Human Services Profession + Religious and Ethical Worldviews? 

  •  Before class:
    •  Explore the “why” behind these two themes, and the “how” of appreciative inquiry, by reading and marking up (annotating) these two sources from our Bb course. Before you read, please download the prep/reading guide
    • Prepare your first Lab Report.You will not have much activity to report,but you can at least get the formatting down, and report on your efforts and the results so far. Bring a printed copy to class. 
  • During class: [Notes + Dialogue] Have the other two readings and your notes handy to support your active participation in dialogue about what you have learned from the two sources. Lab reports due; peer review in class.

  • After class: Friday, 2:30 – 3:00pm – Prof. ER will hold the first optional “plan for success” session of the semester, at or near her office. Stop in if you like, leave when you must. We will look at the readings and other sources for next week, to help you plan for success in the course – and of course, answer any lingering questions you might have from the ending week. 

Week 2

Monday: Worldview: What Is It?

  • Before class: Explore the concept “worldview” by reading and marking up (annotating) these two sources from our Bb course. Print / Download the reading guide and sources, then read / annotate / digest! Some of the vocabulary is challenging; be prepared to look up terms, and to read each source more than once! 

Wednesday: A Personal Worldview Committed to Pluralism for the Common Good

  • Before class: Explore the concept “pluralism”, along with “civic engagement” and “common good”. Read and annotate these sources; bring them and your notes to class.
    • Harvard University Pluralism Project, “From Diversity to Pluralism
    • Reza Fakhari,“ Educating forReligious Pluralism and Inclusive Citizenship”  

Friday: Institutional and Professional “Worldviews”: Two Other Types of “Community” for Understanding and Building the Common Good 

  • Before class:
  • In class: Appreciative Civic Engagement Lab in-class work, last 1⁄2 of class.
  • After class:
    • 2:30–3:00pm–Weekly optional“ plan for success” session @Prof. ER’s office.
    • 11:59pm–Lab Reports due. Topics: Availability (3 blocks of time) for out-of-class group work; brief statement of strengths and concerns about group work; sense of developing class community at this point. 

Week 3

Monday: Worldview Reveal! 

  • In class: Appreciative Knowledge Assignment 1 due. Discussion Questions:
    • What do you believe is the morally correct way to handle one’s own needs and suffering?
    • What do you believe about an individual’s obligation to respond to the needs or suffering of others? If you believe in any level of obligation, what are the limits or conditions of that obligation?
    • Is “helping” others gratuitously–for free–more morally correct or valuable than helping others as part of one’s job?
    • Is it possible for a person’s help to others to be motivated entirely by altruism? 

Wednesday: Introduction to Interfaith Leadership in a Pluralist Democracy 

Friday: World Interfaith Harmony Week (First Day) 

Week 4

Monday: World Interfaith Harmony Week 

  • Before class:
    • Complete Reading/StudyGuide, includes Media on Religionin Public Life
    • Revisit Harvard University Pluralism Project, “From Diversity to Pluralism” 
    • Read Eboo Patel, Interfaith Leadership, Chapter 2:The “Inter” in Interfaith 
    • Read Eboo Patel, Interfaith Leadership, Chapter 3: The “Faith” in Interfaith 

Wednesday: World Interfaith Harmony Week (Last Day) 

  • Before class:
    • Complete Reading/Study Guide
    • Watch Models of Religious Diversity – a short video
    • Review “Preamble”, “Responsibility to the Public and Society”, and “Responsibility to Self”, Ethical Standards for Human Services Professionals, National Organization for Human Services, 2015
    • Discussion Board – Post and Respond
    • Read Kate McCarthy, Interfaith Encounters in America , “Chapter1: Theories of Religious Difference: The “Experts” Map Interfaith Relations (Bb) 
    • Watch Social Capital – a short video 
    • Complete Your Social Capital Diagram 

Friday: The State, the Community, and the Individual: Complementary Roles in Helping Those in Need 

  • In class: Appreciative Civic Engagement Lab work day; share results of environmental scan for Better Together Project; update tasks and timeline.
  • After class: Lab Reports due by 11:59pm. 

Week 5


  • Before class:
  • In class:
    • Elizabethan Poor Laws and Social Welfare in America, Mini-lesson (Prof.ERonBb) 
    • Institutional and Residual Perspectives on Social Welfare, Mini-lesson (Prof.ERonBb) 
    • Vulnerable Populations-Mini-lesson (Bb,Prof.ER–handout+video)
    • Activities of Daily Living (ADLs), Katz; Instrumental Activities of Daily Living (IADLs), Lawton (Bb) 


  • Before class:
    • Complete Reading/Study Guide
    • Read Eboo Patel, Interfaith Leadership, Chapter 5:The Knowledge of Interfaith Leadership 
    • Read Eboo Patel, Interfaith Leadership, Chapter 6:The Skills of Interfaith Leadership
    • Eboo Patel, Interfaith Leadership, Chapter 8: The Qualities of Interfaith of Interfaith Leadership
    • Catherine Cornille. 2013. “Chapter 2. Conditions for Inter-religious Dialogue.” Hospitality– pgs 28 – 30. The Wiley-Blackwell Companion to Inter-Religious Dialogue (Bb) 
  • In class:
    • Knowledge, Skill, and Disposition Competencies for Professional Human Services Practice– Mini-lesson (Prof. ER on Bb)
    • Urie Bronfenbrenner’s Ecological/Ecosystems Model (PersoninEnvironment) – Mini-lesson (Prof. ER on Bb)
    • George Engel’s Biopsychosocial-spiritual Model–Mini-lesson (Prof.ERonBb) 


  • In class: Appreciative Civic Engagement Lab work day; requires pretty heavy preparation. 
  • Before class: 
    • Complete Reading/Study Guide, includes exercises
    • Watch “Defining an ethic or theology of interfaith cooperation”–a short video
    • Revisit “Rivers of Faith” from the Pluralism Project
    • Revisit IFYC resource on developing an ethic or theology of interfaith cooperation
    • Watch “Ethics of Interfaith Cooperation from the Field”–a short video
    • Watch “Building Relationships Across Difference”–a short video
    • Read Dialogue Principles from the Dialogue Institute and the Journal of Ecumenical Studies
    • Apply Knowledge to Plan for Action–an Interview Planning Exercise
    • Contribute to “Sharing Ethics and Theologies o fInterfaith Cooperation”–an Act/Reflect Discussion Board
    • Review Harvard University Pluralism Project, “An Invitation to aTri-Faith Neighborhood” Part A and Part B
    • Complete“From Asset Map to Action”–An Exercise (Bb)
  • After class: 11:59pm – Lab Reports due. 

Week 6


  • Before class:
    • Read Eboo Patel, Interfaith Leadership, Conclusion
    • Watch “Interfaith Leadership in the Field” – a short video
    • Watch “Creating Spaces for Interfaith Cooperation” – a short video
    • Watch “The Interfaith Movement Now – Could I Contribute?”
    • Complete “Integrated Personal / Professional Worldview” Exercise (Bb – Flipgrid)

Wednesday: Social Welfare: Defining, Counting, and “Helping” Vulnerable Populations with Tax-based (Public) Expenditures

Friday: Economic Self-sufficiency and Measuring “Justifiable” Dependence

  • Before class: Complete Activities of Daily Living (ADLs), Katz; Instrumental Activities of Daily Living (IADLs), Lawton (Bb).
  • In class: Employment, Poverty, and the Welfare State – Mini-lesson (Prof. ER, Bb).
  • After class: 11:59pm – Lab Reports due.

Week 7

No Class – Academic Recess

Week 8


  • Before class:
  • In class: Persons Experiencing Housing Insecurity / Homelessness – Mini-lesson (Prof. ER, Bb).


  • In class: Children and Youth as a vulnerable population – Mini-lesson (Prof. ER, Bb).
  • Before class: Read 2017 Kids Count Data Book, (assigned sections, Bb) Annie E. Casey Foundation.


  • In class: Appreciative Civic Engagement Lab work day.
  • After class: 11:59pm – Lab Reports due.

Week 9

De La Salle Week Events: Many events will be relevant to our course topics/themes. At the time the syllabus is written the schedule is not final. I will post the schedule to our course as soon as it is available.


  • Before class:
    • Complete online Maltreatment of Minors Mandated Reporter Training
    • Read Melinda Anderson, “Where Teachers Are Still Allowed to Spank Students.” The Atlantic, December 15, 2015
    • Read The Use of Prone Restraint in Minnesota Schools (sections) (2013). MN Dept. of Education



  • Before class: Read “Left to Suffer”, Star Tribune, Nov. 12 – 16, 2017.
  • In class: Older Adults as a Vulnerable Population – Mini-lesson (Prof. ER, Bb).
  • After class: 11:59pm – Lab Reports due.

Week 10



  • Before class: Read The State of Mental Health in America, Mental Health America.
  • In class: Persons Experiencing Mental Illness or Substance Use Disorders – Mini-lesson (Prof. ER, Bb).


  • In class: Appreciative Civic Engagement Lab work day.
  • After class: 11:59pm – Lab Reports due.

Week 11



  • Before class:
    • Read Shane Claiborne, The Irresistible Revolution: Living as an Ordinary Radical, (2006)
      • “Pledging Allegiance When Kingdoms Collide”
      • “Growing Smaller and Smaller until We Take Over the World”
    • Watch Imams in the Vatican, Heart and Soul Series, BBC World Service (30 mins)
    • Watch Chris Stedman, brief talk (20 mins) at Wheeler Centre, Melbourne, Australia; author of Faitheist: How an Atheist Found Common Ground with the Religious
    • Read Laurie Patton. “The Right Way to Protect Free Speech on Campus.” The Wall Street Journal, June 9, 2017, accessible here

Friday: No Class – Academic Recess

Week 12

Monday: No Class – Academic Recess

Wednesday: Historical Examples of Interfaith Cooperation - Global


  • In class: Appreciative Civic Engagement Lab work day.
  • After class: 11:59pm – Lab Reports due.

Week 13


  • In class: Last Better Together Day collaboration day – it is almost here!

Tuesday: Better Together Day 2018: Walking the Talk of Our Hearts and Minds

  • Student participation on Better Together Day events planned in collaboration with Winona Interfaith Council members and utilizing resources from the Knowledge Toolkit.

Wednesday and Friday: Appreciative Knowledge Mashup

Week 14

Monday and Wednesday: Group Project about Immigrants and Refugees as Vulnerable Populations

  • In-class work sessions. Bring laptops & other resources you wish to use.
    • Groups will also meet at a mutually agreed-upon time Tues and Thurs.

Friday: Presentation / Appreciative Knowledge Sharing Day

  • Teams (TBD, see Bb): national demographics, biopsychosocial-spiritual analysis team, ecological analysis team, KSDs team, and interfaith perspectives team.

Week 15

Monday and Wednesday: Group Project about Formerly Incarcerated Persons as a Vulnerable Population

  • In-class work sessions. Bring laptops & other resources you wish to use.
  • Groups also meet at agreed-upon times T & Th.

Friday: Celebration of Scholarship

  • Class attendance requirement is reassigned to participation in the day’s events. See assignment instructions in our course on Bb.

Week 16

Monday: Presentation / Appreciative Knowledge Sharing Day

  • Teams (TBD, see Bb): national demographics team, biopsychosocial-spiritual analysis team, ecological analysis team, KSDs team, and interfaith perspectives team.


  • Final Exam work day during class; meet in lab (TBD, see Bb), bring laptops if you wish.

Saturday: Final Exam Session

  • The last assignment for our course will be presented during this session. Students have three options for closing the loop on your original worldview statement: (a) written and printed Manifesto, (b) an in vivo This I Believe statement, or (c) a Moral Bucket list presentation. (Extensive instructions for each option provided separately.)

1In consultation with the author, this syllabus has been edited for length, removing details particular to the author’s context such as office hours and location, absence policies, honor codes, and other instructor-specific (or institution-specific) details.