Leah Halper, visionary organizer, melds academic and real world experienceby Jan Janes on Oct 7, 2016
A storyteller from early childhood, a poet during high school and an essayist in college, Leah Halper joined the Gavilan faculty in 1990 to teach journalism and history.
During her 27 year tenure, she has built collaborations, developed new programs and organized change to benefit students, faculty, the college and its surrounding communities.
Student Matusala Berhe gets guidance about paraphrasing and quote blocks from instructor Leah Halper.
Creating value-based change
"I see much of what I have done in the capacity of social entrepreneurship," said Halper.
Recently she launched a new program designed to fund student needs. The 2014 premiere gala, "Sowing Seeds, Nurturing Dreams," raised funds through ticket sales to a food and wine event with live and silent auctions. Proceeds funded student scholarships, emergency assistance for transportation, food and textbooks.
The event was just one of many enterprises Halper launched at the college, informed by a sense of equity through a lens of social justice.
Two decades ago she brought together faculty and staff, including the registrar, on a student retention task force, a process she attributed to informing her own teaching. In 2001, she and other faculty toured the Holocaust Museum in Los Angeles, leading to curriculum highlighting tolerance and equity. Following that shared experience, she worked to found the Stand Together Group promoting multicultural recognition. Activities included environmentally friendly events, promoting bike days, attracting guest speakers and sponsoring the first LGBTQ coming out day.
Sabbatical leads to new degree programs
Approved for a one-semester sabbatical in 2007, Halper focused on service learning. She visited other programs, conferred with Gavilan faculty and staff and reviewed available literature. Her efforts culminated in new degree programs when the college added the Community Studies AA degree and certificate and the Social Science AA degree with emphasis in global studies.
During her time with Gavilan, Halper has taught 25 different classes and developed new ones, notably conflict resolution. Students invest their education in real life situations with local community service agencies. As they learn the background of the client population, students develop a greater understanding and empathy while interning as support staff. The agency clients benefit by interacting with college students who serve as role models.
The conflict resolution group also offered a 'reality tour' of local communities. Staff – many of whom live outside the district's communities – visited three agencies in each city, shared a meal with clients of the agencies and listened to their life stories.
"Understanding communities translates to understanding your students," said Halper. Any class can incorporate service learning as part of its curriculum.
Grant-funded service learning and mentoring
Halper and English instructor Scott Sandler are expanding the service learning program utilizing Title V grant funding, thanks to the efforts of Dr. Kathleen Rose, Gavilan's new president. New engagement tiers are being implemented for student and faculty involvement. Over the years, service learning projects have supported the efforts of more than 70 community agencies.
Questioning equity across full time and part time status led to Halper's leadership with Gavilan College Faculty Association (GCFA), the union negotiating contractual arrangements between instructors and the administration. She was instrumental in securing union membership and representation for part time faculty, served as GCFA president 2011-2013 and initiated new faculty positions overseeing student learning outcomes, professional development and mentoring.
"My first year of teaching was challenging, even though the journalism faculty I was coming in to replace was always available," Halper reflected. Currently she oversees the mentoring program, with a goal to set up the mentoring process to do things differently, try new styles of engagement to attract people who want to teach at Gavilan.
By turns youthful storyteller, enterprising collaborator and avid writer, Halper once groused to a friend, "It's so hard to publish fiction." Met with the response, "Why don't you turn it into a play?" she gravitated toward playwriting, describing the collaborative nature of theatre as nourishing. Her work, described by critics as quirky, humorous, sophisticated and compelling, has been produced in the greater San Francisco Bay Area. As she continues teaching students, mentoring new faculty and engaging communities, no doubt they, too, will inform her themes.