Reinventing the Box: Faculty-Librarian Collaborative Efforts to Foster Service Learning for Political Engagement

Marcia Hernandez*, Assistant Professor of Sociology and Lorrie A. Knight, Professor & Reference and Instruction Librarian
University of the Pacific

A popular Government without popular information, or the means of acquiring it, is but as Prologue to a Farce or Tragedy; or perhaps both. Knowledge will forever govern ignorance: And a people who mean to be their own Governors, must arm themselves with the power which knowledge gives.

– James Madison


Eyler and Giles (1999) seminal book, Where’s the Learning in Service learning?, was a pivotal turning point in the ongoing academic discussion about service learning (SL). Their book reports that SL activities resulted in students’ increased tolerance for diversity, compassion for others, commitment to engaged citizenship, and increased cognitive skills. In the years since, a review of the literature reveals several major themes. One is that SL is a response to the decline of national civic engagement (Barber, 1992; Bennett, 1997; Hildreth, 2006; Loeb, 1994; Smith, 2006). A second theme is that SL bridges the perceived gap between the academy and the community through reciprocal partnerships (Blouin and Perry, 2009; D’Agostino, 2008; Lewis, 2004). Some researchers found that students who engage in political or social activities become more informed and participatory citizens (Colby, Ehrlich, Beaumont and Stephens, 2003; Colby, Beaumont, Ehrlich and Corngold, 2007). However, there is not universal agreement as to the reciprocal benefits of SL. Several scholars argue that notions of “othering” of populations served can lessen the positive learning outcomes. These authors argue that students may not acquire a critical structural analysis of social institutions or gain an appreciation for community engagement that are touted as goals in many SL courses; instead the activities may reinforce notions of individualism or “othering” of the populations students are required to work with through SL activities (Blouin and Perry, 2009; Palmer and Savoie, 2002; Strand, 1999).

Of particular interest to the authors of this paper is the relative dearth of publications connecting information literacy (IL) with undergraduate SL activities. Kezar and Rhoads (2001) observe that uniformed students may do more harm than good. The lack of scholarship devoted to the connection between information literacy and SL prompted an examination of a possible missing component in the SL pedagogy. The authors frequently collaborate as co-teachers to design learning modules for students to effectively use the University’s library services. Typically the library instruction sessions emphasize basic research skills to utilize social science databases and to highlight the importance of information literacy. The authors decided to create more student-centered library research sessions to mirror the active learning agenda of SL. The primary goal of our collaborative efforts was to instill in students the belief that the ability to critically evaluate multiple information sources is an essential tool of citizenship. A second goal, to encourage students’ self-directed learning, was gradually realized through a shift in presentation from lecture to a more participatory library session.

The authors are colleagues at the University of the Pacific, a comprehensive university located in Northern California’s Central Valley. The University emphasizes a student-centered learning paradigm in which experiential learning is promoted as way to offer students an opportunity to utilize knowledge gained in the classroom in a variety of settings to enhance their learning experiences (Pacific Rising 2008-2015). Faculty and staff are strongly encouraged to develop learning experiences for students with the potential to expand the relationship between the University and local community. “Experiential learning” is often used as an umbrella term in the research literature to describe a wide range of community based learning models in higher education including service learning, internships, practica, community service and volunteerism. Service learning is not simply volunteerism nor is it an internship. Rather it is characterized by structured activities that are meant to purposively enhance the learning experience of students through integration of out-of-classroom experiences with course material, assignments, and student reflection as well as providing important service with community stakeholders (Michigan Journal of Community Service Learning, 2001; Cress, Collier, Reitenauer & Associates, 2005).

By definition, service learning offers faculty the ability to meet multiple learning goals simultaneously. By integrating SL activities into course work, faculty provide students with new opportunities to hone their intellectual and professional skills, and work with, as well as learn from community partners. Service learning also serves as a means to meet the goal of doing intellectual work for the public, rather than an academic audience, by encouraging practitioners to make Sociology a practiced and practical discipline. The increase of SL courses has lead to “an emphasis on the public role of sociologists and the production of knowledge that benefits society” (Weeber, 2006, p. 63; see also Buraway, 2005). Although our paper focuses on building collaborative instruction sessions to increase information literacy in a SL component for a Sociology course, we believe our discussion is relevant to other fields, particularly other social sciences.

In an ideal world, SL seemingly provides faculty multiple opportunities to practice engaged teaching and scholarship in new and exciting ways, to educate students beyond disciplinary boundaries to take their knowledge and apply a critical analysis to contemporary social issues and increased political awareness. Yet, there is not consistent agreement in the literature on the benefits of SL for student’s increased intellectual development and civic engagement. Our collaborative efforts were guided by themes in the SL pedagogical literature. Many authors have explored both learning theories and contemporary practice in an effort to understand the true efficacy of SL and its relationship to both an engaged citizenry and academic achievement (Colby, et. al., 2003; Colby, et. al., 2007). Rhoads (2003), for example, poses the question, “In what ways might we structure students’ educational experiences to promote the kind of citizenship that is important to democracy?” (p. 27). The acquisition of information, as articulated by James Madison, is one answer to this question.

There is a recurring need for a research-based understanding of the service organization and its place within the community. Many authors suggest that it is crucial for both students and faculty to have an objective knowledge of the social issue that they will address and the role of their community partner in the issue (Bennion, 2006; Blouin and Perry, 2009; Smith, 2006). Simons and Cleary (2006) found that learning outcomes increased when students and professors developed a close understanding of the community partner and the local political climate. The educational experience is enhanced through targeted research efforts by students, facilitated by librarians and professors, to understand the context of the organizations and the environment in which they will work prior to the SL experience. Collectively these studies indicate that information literacy should be part of SL preparation.

Information literacy and political engagement

As colleges and universities increasingly encourage student participation in socially responsible activities, academic libraries should also seek opportunities to facilitate civic literacy and engagement. Nancy Kranich, (2005/2006) a former President of the American Library Association, feels that libraries are natural partners for civic engagement. Libraries have a pivotal role in the fostering democratic ideals. They serve as a neutral meeting point for civic discourse and provide citizens with the tools to access and use information effectively.

Despite this seemingly intuitive relationship, there are only a few articles that report connections between academic libraries and political engagement curricula. Westney (2006) argues “Academic librarians continue to be conspicuous by their absence within the literature of their discipline and the engagement literature” (p. 203). Riddle (2003) describes a “research void abutting these two areas of higher education scholarship: service learning and information literacy.” (p.71) He suggests that SL professors and librarians have shared goals for their students in terms of information gathering, critical thinking, and life-long learning. Riddle (2003) presents new models of library instruction that foster the connections with service learning, information literacy, and student development. He also proposes a “service learning/information literacy research agenda” (p.79).

Herther (2008) agrees that libraries must develop new methods to partner with SL classes. She feels that many professors may have inaccurate estimates of student abilities, assuming that SL students have high levels of community or political knowledge. In fact, SL students may have more in-depth needs for locating and evaluating information to form successful relationships with the community agencies and their social issues. Smith (2006) compared a SL political science class to one that required research papers. Her study found that the active learning agenda of SL led to an increase in political knowledge. Moreover, the readings and data collection for the research paper resulted in students having a greater degree of understanding and concern for the social problem being investigated.

A first-year composition course at York University in Pennsylvania is based on collaborations between information literacy instruction and civic goals. DelliCarpini, Burkholder and Campbell (2007) describe the linked program requiring students to question information, sources, and their ways of gathering information to support their rhetorical arguments. The authors report that students find that their intensive research has deepened their understanding of how information can influence civic deliberations and actions. The article argues that linking information literacy and a course in political rhetoric helps develop citizen leaders.

The challenge of including librarians in SL classes is partly due to the organizational structure of higher education with a separation of different units (i.e., academic departments and student life) and the reward structure of tenure and promotion (Kezar and Rhoads, 2001). Service learning courses, despite the popularity of the pedagogy among campus administrators and some faculty, remain largely unrewarded and unrecognized in the promotion and tenure process. SL classes are time intensive and require a focus on different aspects of the learning process, extensive community engagement on the part of faculty and organization, in short a redirection of resources away from scholarship in one’s discipline. Even at liberal art colleges where teaching is touted as the focus of academic life, Fairweather (2005) reports that publications garner higher wages for faculty, not teaching. The Library stands at the crossroads of student services and academics; partnering with librarians as co-teachers may be seen as a risky venture, particularly for junior faculty. However, the rewards of doing so may outweigh the risks as library instruction for SL students can also strengthen the relationships between librarians, professors, and students.

Service learning for political engagement in a sex and gender course

Sex and Gender is an upper-division Sociology course cross-listed with the Gender Studies and Ethnic Studies programs at the University. Prior to implementing service learning for political engagement, the primary learning objectives of the course was to provide students with a broad foundation to discuss issues of gender and sexuality. The class assignments included content analysis of films and popular news sources, as well as exams and a research project, and most classes featured a lecture or student presentations on course material. In the spring of 2008, the class was revised to meet the requirements of the California Campus Compact-Carnegie Foundation Faculty Fellows: Service Learning for Political Engagement Program.

The new course design required a retooling of the class activities and readings as well as identification of sociological concepts that would serve as a foundation for students to engage the new learning goals. Mills’ (1959) concept of “sociological imagination” along with Heimer and Staffen’s (1998) concept of “sociology of responsibility” served as a cohesive theoretical framework for students to engage the reading and perform service learning assignments. The new syllabus emphasized, “students will explore the various ways in which using their ‘sociological imagination’ is a vital component for being an engaged citizen, to understand the relationship between individual experiences and social institutions in society.” Introducing Mills’ sociological imagination was crucial to remind students that all areas of sociological inquiry are suitable for exploring the relationship between individual’s experiences and political, social and economic trends (Hironimus-Wright and Wallace, 2009). An additional learning goal was to increase students’ political engagement by enhancing critical thinking skills regarding the gendered nature of social institutions and social problems through service learning, class discussion, information literacy and research assignments. To “facilitate learning and meaning-making” of the service learning activities students were assigned written and oral reports reflecting on their experiences (Cress et al., 2005, p. 3).

The fellowship program required SL partners and activities to include the goal of increasing political engagement, but through nonpartisan activities. Integrating SL into the Sex and Gender curriculum was complicated by the need to work with community partners whose mission is to highlight public policies and the political process while addressing gender as a key component of this work. Dr. Hernandez specifically sought agencies that would discourage students from thinking about service learning as “a form of altruism and charity.” Instead they would highlight how “civic responsibility [must be] grounded in social obligation” (Cook, 2008, p. 6). She chose to work with two different community partners, the League of Women Voters of San Joaquin County and the Emergency Food Bank of Stockton as both organizations met the requirements of the fellowship program. The League of Women Voters is a nonpartisan organization with the goal to increase citizens’ political awareness and involvement in government. The Food Bank’s mission is to serve the needs of poor individuals and families whose voices are often marginalized in political debates and policy decisions. The SL sites represent different models of community engagement, the League through traditional political activities such as voter registration and the Food Bank through distribution of resources such as food and nutritional information for families.

In a SL course, it is necessary to facilitate students’ learning to reach a heightened level of understanding about being an engaged citizen and an increased commitment to improving their community. One of the goals of this course was to encourage students to move beyond thinking that the “service” in a SL class could be only for someone else’s benefit. By linking SL with information literacy students were forced to consider the importance of having the critical thinking and research skills for being well-informed citizens. The authors sought opportunities for students that would highlight how partnering with community based could have the potential to “increase our capacity for applying knowledge and skills to civic issues” and to “enhance our “civic capacity” (Cress, et al. 2005, p. 12). Following the lead of Collier and Williams (2005), among others (see for example Toole and Toole, 2001), the authors agreed that information literacy skills were required for student reflection at various stages of the SL activities prior to beginning the service, during service and for post-service reflection as a necessary skill for increasing political engagement.

For the pre-service reflection, students researched issues important to the local community and the SL partner. Students were also asked to consider the potential challenges that they might face while doing SL work. During the SL process student reflection included making direct links to the course readings, lectures and discussion with the community partner and SL activities. Post-service reflection included an analysis of the SL work, the process of partnering with a community organization, and the connection between the SL work and political engagement. Students were also required to expand their analysis beyond the local community organization, to discuss the impact of SL activities on community-university relationships, and how SL has the capacity to increase political engagement.

Four specific learning outcomes were tied to the service learning reflection cycle:

  1. SL is not volunteerism and had to be introduced as an intellectual, academic component that required critically analyzing information about the SL community partners and activities (Pre-service reflection);
  2. Information literacy is a transferrable skill that extends beyond the coursework for one’s toolkit as an engaged citizen. (Pre-service reflection);
  3. Research projects for the course required students to successfully blend popular and academic sources to evaluate current policy debates and the political trends related to the SL partners. (Reflection during service and post-service reflection);
  4. Gender plays an important role in political decisions, policy debates and conversations about engaged citizenship as is demonstrated in both the in popular and scholarly articles. (Reflection during service and post-service reflection).

In preparation for integrating SL into Sex and Gender, the authors of this paper meet several times to discuss how to efficiently blend the planned library sessions to compliment the service learning activities. Extra class time was devoted to the library information sessions during the semester. Students were required to attend two class sessions facilitated by Lorrie Knight, an academic librarian. The first session focused on how to find a range of sources ranging from recent policy decisions made by Congress found in Congressional Quarterly, to scholarly articles exploring the underlying themes and sociological constructs that were addressed by the service organizations. Students were instructed in how use to the library’s databases and how to differentiate between scholarly, peer-reviewed sources versus popular sources for a general audience. The second library session was organized so that each student, or group, received individual assistance from the authors to locate appropriate academic sources for their specific research project.

The SL and research project goals were ambitious; as such the authors decided it was best to offer multiple writing and research assignments scaffolding each other for students to complete in small groups throughout semester. Three research papers were assigned as part of the SL project. The first assignment required students to locate at least three popular sources from local newspapers that discussed activities of their SL community partner. Students were also required to investigate the community partner’s website to learn about the history and mission of the organization, as well as track changes to the organization over time.

The second assignment required students to investigate a specific political issue or public policy that directly impacted the organization. Students who chose to work with the League highlighted the organization’s history in securing voting rights for women, and the local chapter’s involvement with water rights in the California’s Central Valley. Students who partnered with the Food Bank discussed the impact of the financial crisis on social safety net institutions, and the social and political consequences of having limited resources to meet the basic living needs of a local population. The second paper had the goal of increasing both public and private benefits of political learning for students (Colby, et. al., 2007). Public benefits of SL for political engagement include the goal of cultivating “competent, responsible citizens for the sake of a strong democracy (Colby, et. al., 2007, p. 57). The private benefits of political learning range from “expanding intellectual capacities, engendering a meaningful sense of personal fulfillment or identity… [to] civic and social gratification from political participation” (Colby, et. al., 2007, p. 58).

The library research activities provided a context for students to understand SL activities within a broad context of political engagement by linking community organizations with political and economic realities of the populations they serve. For the final paper, students combined various elements of previous group papers, as well as individual reflections from the service learning experience. Specifically, students were required to address the following questions: “How has this experience influenced your understanding of how gender influences both individual and group dynamics?” and “What changes have occurred since the beginning of the semester in your perspective regarding the value of being an engaged citizen in your community?” The final assignment required students to fully embrace their “sociological imaginations” and link personal experiences with SL with larger social issues; information literacy played a large role in this process. Through critical analysis of a variety of scholarly and popular resources, the students were able to articulate their intellectual shift from an individual to a communitybased perspective of their understanding of the relationship between SL and political engagement. Increasing students’ information literacy skills proved to be a crucial step in facilitating a change in their perspectives about how groups compete or share resources within political arenas (Rietenauer, 2005). Student were also required to discuss their SL experience as a process of “demystifying politics, making political participation more transparent” which the goal of increasing capacity for future political engagement (Colby, et. al., 2007, p. 150).

Evaluating the faculty-librarian partnership

The library sessions worked well, although some students initially resisted the idea of having two planned sessions during the semester. Dr. Hernandez requires a library information session in each of her classes, and students claimed to be well-versed with all of the library’s resources. Yet, during informal conversations in office hours and during class discussion, students described the additional time in the library and with Lorrie Knight as “extremely useful” by the end of the semester. After completing the first paper and having spent time with the SL partners, students understood the goal behind scaffolding of research projects and the need for additional library sessions. In their journal reflections, many students also reported the additional library time as useful throughout the semester.

The need to move beyond simply reporting or synthesizing research could only be accomplished through multiple sessions in which both the librarian and faculty member were present to work with students. However, it took considerable energy and time to help students negotiate the difference between a traditional library research paper that relies almost entirely on scholarly peer-reviewed sources and a research paper that blends reflection of SL activities, popular sources and scholarly research. Based on student’s reflection papers, the multiple librarian sessions required students to think more deeply about the need to be critical consumers of popular news sources, as well as scholarly research.

While the authors believe the collaborative efforts were successful in facilitating an increase in student’s capacity to research, analyze and reflect on their SL activities there were challenges along the way. Primarily, time was (and remains) an issue for collaborative work between librarians and faculty. Multiple service, teaching and research commitments, make collaborations a labor-intensive activity. Our experience mirrors that of Caravello et. al. (2008) who note that successful partnerships should be reciprocal and closely attuned to mutual time constraints.

Other priorities, such as research, fall behind with SL classes, which require additional energy and time to organize. Due to the labor-intensive nature of this work the authors strongly suggest collaborative efforts begin as early as possible. Because there is institutional variation in valuing and supporting SL courses, the authors recommend that faculty discuss with their department chairs, and refer to promotion and tenure guidelines, how time and effort to implement a SL course counts in a performance review. The authors also suggest faculty confer with their colleagues to learn about best practices and strategies for implementing SL courses as there is also a great deal of flexibility between departments and institutions in the resources available to support SL courses (McCallister, 2008).

Students also have competing demands for their time, including research for other classes, family commitments, employment and co-curricular commitments. An unexpected surprise was the need to negotiate student expectations, as the revised course with the SL component was very different than the previous iteration of the course. The authors recommend that faculty advertise far and wide in advance if drastic changes are to be made to a course. Although Dr. Hernandez announced the new revisions on student list-serves and posted flyers, many students were surprised about the changes to the course on the first day of class.

Re-inventing the box through information literacy and service learning

Information literacy and service learning have a synergistic relationship. The learning goals of SL can be enhanced by intentional inclusion of information literacy in the curriculum to foster a broader understanding of the relationship between agencies and the communities they serve based on the social, political and historical issues at play. Students in service learning classes are often strongly influenced by the situational context of the community partner. However, the issues encountered locally are rarely unique, a fact sometimes surprising to the students. Involving the library in the learning process increases the students’ awareness of the larger domain of the social issue and its place in history and culture. Because many service learning research projects blend primary reflection with secondary sources, the students benefit from examples in published ethnographic research. The students can also build on the connection between SL and IL throughout their academic and personal careers. A structured discussion of the relationship between information literacy and sociology students can be found at

Similarly, SL can encourage information literacy. Students, engaged in realworld activities, can recognize the importance of being able to efficiently locate and evaluate information. The two community partners for Dr. Hernandez’s class offer concrete examples. The students who worked at the Food Bank needed reliable statistics about the relationship between poverty, education, and gender to understand their clientele. They assessed the value of social services by obtaining information about nutrition and consumer behavior. The students who worked with the League of Women Voters needed demographic and social data to understand how political involvement is a gendered activity. They gain an appreciation for the influence of information on electoral processes. In their final papers, the students demonstrated how their SL experiences were informed though a combination of personal, popular, and academic information sources.

Based on their collaborative activities, the authors encourage other professors to meaningfully engage the library and librarians in SL classes. In today’s digital environment, it is easy to understand students’ preference for freely-available websites. However, a sequenced process of library instruction, interwoven with course content and assignments, allows students to recognize, use, and evaluate multiple information sources. In addition, observing the collegial relationship between the professor and the librarian encouraged the students to form similar collaborative relationships.


Overall, the professor-librarian partnership was successful. The authors shared joint goals for the students. The first paper, in many ways, was the crucial turning point for students to realize a variety of community organizations practice political engagement. The second paper was most similar to other papers traditionally assigned in the course, but because students had completed reflection papers about the community partners and SL activities they were able to integrate a political analysis with the scholarly sources found in the Library fairly well. For most students, the third paper resulted in a decent blend of personal reflection, popular press and scholarly research about the SL experience with direct links made between course material, discussion and research on the barriers and rewards of political engagement. Because collaborating for a SL course was brand new for both authors, we did not have an evaluation system in place to formally assess the effectiveness of our partnering efforts for students’ learning enhanced media literacy skills. Nevertheless, as stated earlier, based on informal conversations with students and their journal reflections, the collaborative efforts between librarian and teaching faculty were appreciated by students to coordinate the research goals of the course.

However, the authors noticed that students did not demonstrate any noticeable increased commitment to scholarly research, preferring the more editorialized sources freely available on the web. Although disappointing, this was not surprising, as an earlier study reported that changes in attitude did not always lead to changes in behavior (Prentice, 2007). Sequenced conversations between the librarian, the professor, and the students also did not reveal an increase in overall information literacy. In future classes, the professor will more specifically reinforce the relationship between library instruction and the final bibliographies.

Despite the challenges of doing collaborative work, we believe there were many benefits for students in the SL course due to our efforts. The students responded very positively to a library session that encouraged them to describe and discuss information sources. The second library session, sequenced later in the semester, addressed research anxiety and filled many gaps in the students’ bibliographies. The multilayered research process led to improved final papers. Combining information literacy with service learning is not a panacea for addressing the wide variety of experiential learning goals increasingly being introduced to higher education. However the authors hope despite the compromises of time and energy, SL pedagogy is taken seriously by faculty and librarians as viable approach to deepen students’ learning experiences and increase political engagement.


* Department of Sociology, University of the Pacific, 3601 Pacific Avenue, Stockton, CA 95211 USA. Email:
  This article was supported in part by Award No. 06LHHCA001, granted by the Corporation for National and Community Service, Learn and Serve America Higher Education through California Campus Compact. The opinions, findings, and conclusions of recommendations expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Corporation for National and Community Service, California Campus Compact, or the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching.


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About the Authors:

Marcia Hernandez is an Assistant Professor of Sociology at the University of the Pacific. She received her B.A. in Sociology from the University of Santa Barbara and a Ph.D. in Sociology from the University of Albany, SUNY. She is also a Senior Fellow with the Jacoby Center for Public Service and Civic Leadership at Pacific, and part of a multidisciplinary research team investigating quality of life issues in San Joaquin County. Her areas of interest include service-learning in Sociology courses and race, class and gender in higher education with an emphasis on Black Greek Letter Organizations. Her publications include “Sisterhood Beyond the Ivory Tower: An Exploration of Black Sorority Alumnae Membership” in Black Greek Letter Organizations in the Twenty First Century: Our Fight Has Just Begun (University of Kentucky Press, 2008) and a forthcoming chapter “Challenging Controlling Images: Appearance Enforcement within Black Sororities” in Black Greek Letter Organizations: An Empirical Approach (University Press of Mississippi). She has entries in the American Sociological Association’s Teaching Sociological Concepts and the Sociology of Gender (2000, 2005) and The SAGE Encyclopedia of Motherhood and The SAGE Encyclopedia of Gender and Society. Her on-going research projects include images of African American women in popular culture, gendered racism in higher education, and student reaction to service-learning courses. She was a member of the California Campus Compact-Carnegie Foundation Fellow Program from 2007-2009.

Lorrie A. Knight has a B.A. in Political Science from University of Texas at Austin. Her M.L.I.S. is from Louisiana State University. She is currently Professor, Reference and Instruction Librarian at the University of the Pacific in Stockton, CA. Prior to her time at Pacific, Lorrie worked at Connecticut College, Louisiana State University, and the Louisiana State Legislature. Her research interests focus on the assessment of information literacy and library instruction in general. Her articles include “Using Rubrics to Assess Information Literacy” and “The Role of Assessment in Library User Education” published in Reference Services Review. She has also published articles in the Journal of Academic Librarianship. Her work was listed as a Library Instruction Round Table Top Twenty Publications in Library Instruction 2006. Lorrie’s next project is a study of intercultural communication and use of the academic library by international students.

Community College National Center for Community Engagement (CCNCCE) sunsetted October 1, 2015. Mesa Community College hosts content from The Journal for Civic Commitment, published by the CCNCCE, to ensure it remains publicly available.

The important work of the CCNCCE was made possible through the financial support from many civic-minded foundations and organizations, including the Corporation for National and Community Service’s Learn and Serve America-Higher Education program, the Kettering Foundation, Campus Compact (through funding from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation), Arizona Community Foundation, Arizona Foundation for Women, Freeport McMoRan Copper and Gold Foundation, and The Teagle Foundation.