Community Engagement Grants: Assessing the Impact of University Funding and Engagements

Monica Leisey, Valerie Holton, and Timothy L. Davey


While university-community partnerships have become a common practice for many universities, little empirical evidence is available exploring the impact of such partnerships for either the community partners or the university. This project collected data from a series of university-community engagement grants funded by Virginia Commonwealth University to understand the importance and consequences of its funding for the community partners, the university, the faculty, and the community members involved with the projects. Characteristics of the funded projects contributing to positive and continued engagement were identified. Differences in outcomes as identified by the university partner and the community partners were also identified.


Partnerships with community organizations provide universities opportunities for enhanced scholarship by providing additional settings for service-learning and community-based research. Furthermore, these partnerships can lead to improved outcomes for community members through the application of research findings to targeted areas of concern. Scholars cite university support for community engagement activities as a crucial factor in the success of partnerships (Chickering, 2001; Ferman & Hill, 2004; Fisher, Fabricant, & Simmons, 2004; Gelmon, Holland, Seifer, Shinnamon, & Connors, 1998; Holland, 1997; Holland, 2000; Mulroy, 2004; Thornton & Jaeger, 2006; Ward, 1996). In their study of institutional support for service-learning, Chadwick and Pawlowski (2007) point to the issue of funding as a crucial indicator of an institution’s level of commitment. Defining funding as being either “soft” (external) or “hard” (internal), the authors argue that institutions that support community engagement mostly through internal money are more likely to institutionalize and sustain the activity (Chadwick & Pawlowski, 2007). The allocation of university funds for community engagement activities is seen as a strong indicator not only of the support for community-based teaching, learning, and scholarship, but also as a sign that engagement has a value that holds permanence and prominence within the institution’s mission.

In addition to official expressions of support for community engagement and the use of university funds to sponsor initiatives, an important element of commitment to the community is the assessment and evaluation of the impact that engagement efforts have had on the community (Holland, 2000). The impact of the projects for both the community partners and the university is important not only to warrant the continuation of the projects, but also to provide data regarding important dimensions of the university-community relationship building process.

As external funding sources move to prioritize translational research, defined by the National Institute of Health (n.d.) as university-community research that moves scientific discoveries from the bench to the bedside. Understanding how to foster and support such engagement is imperative. While the literature offers some evidence about what makes a productive university-community partnership, information regarding the impact of the financial support for the projects is sparse. Given the current U.S. economy and the declining availability of resources for university-community collaborative partnerships, this study was designed to assess the impact of engagement projects supported by Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU).

Projects Included 

VCU has incorporated working collaboratively with the surrounding metro region into its strategic plan. Included in the plan was creation of the Division of Community Engagement, establishment of a vice provost for Community Engagement, development of a university-wide Council for Community Engagement (CCE), hiring a full-time service-learning director with faculty rank, as well as creating a culture of community engagement in all university units. Financial support as an indicator of sustained commitment to community engagement has been an important dimension of the University-Community Partnership Experiment at VCU since 1998 when external funding for such projects began.

Two separate funders of university-community projects were included in this impact assessment, as both funding sources focused on the development and maintenance of community collaboration and partnership. One funder was the Institute for Women’s Health (IWH) Community-Based Participatory Research (CBPR) Seed Grant program. The other was the CCE’s Mini-Grant Program. Both programs support collaboration between the greater metro community and the university; however, the intentions of the programs are slightly different.

IWH awarded funds to investigators who had proposed CBPR projects in the area of women’s health. For example, one of the grants funded exploration of the feasibility of providing a Tai Chi class at a neighborhood community center. A second funded measuring changes in perceived risk for cancer following an educational intervention about the human papilloma virus. Inherent to the CBPR methodology is a collaborative relationship between the investigator and the community partner. IWH and CBPR seed grantees are required to demonstrate such relationships within the research proposal. Two rounds of seed grants have been funded and are included in this impact analysis. A total of 13 projects received funding through this source. While the project proposals were submitted by the primary investigator, a relationship with the community partner had to be explicitly demonstrated. In some instances the partners had worked together previously; other partnerships were in the beginning stages of their relationships. Funding decisions were made through a rigorous review panel process created to mirror extramural funding sources.

The CCE projects were designed to enhance and increase university engagement with the community and contribute to scholarship and service-learning. Grants were awarded to proposals that demonstrated interdisciplinary involvement of faculty and students, addressed community-identified needs, and demonstrated substantive collaboration with at least one community partner. For example, one of the research grants funded a project that developed an interdisciplinary mental health program to increase service capacity, improve service delivery, and reduce treatment dropout for adolescent clients at a local mental health program. Another used university students as mentors to help at-risk adolescent boys create documentary films about their community experiences. Twenty-five projects have been funded over the past three years. Decisions were made following a rigorous application and peer-review process through the community engagement grant and gifts subcommittee. This process involved members of the university and members of the public who had worked on similar projects in the past.

A final report was required identifying whether project objectives and goals were met. The report was submitted by the primary investigator, but was expected to be written by the investigative team, not just the primary investigator. Investigators for this study were interested in moving beyond knowing whether the projects were successful as measured by outputs to what impact the funding of the projects had for both the community partners and the faculty members who were awarded the funds. In essence, the investigators wanted to get to the “so what” question—why should the university continue to support such projects given the diminishing fiscal resources available. An online survey was created to capture data to help answer this question.

Method and Procedure

Using Inquisite software, two similar yet different surveys were developed for the two groups of participants: the community partners and the faculty members. The survey included questions pertaining to project outcomes, contribution to scholarship, and development of the collaborative relationships as well as those exploring the extent to which grants helped leverage other support and student involvement. Faculty members who received the grants and their contact at the community partner organization were invited to participate in the confidential survey via email. The email included the name of the project as well as information pertaining to each project’s goals and objectives and the amount awarded for the project. The recruitment email and survey were sent by an administrative assistant ensuring the survey’s confidentiality.

Descriptive statistical analyses were conducted for the quantitative data using SPSS 17.0. Qualitative data were thematically analyzed by two of the investigators, comparing identified themes and negotiating differences of interpretation. Qualitative themes are provided with supporting data to demonstrate the investigators’ understanding of the categories.


Participants included 21 faculty members and 16 community partners; 16 of the participants had been funded by the CCE grants and 5 of the participants had been funded by the IWH grants. Community partners included 8 nonprofit organizations, 5 area schools, and 3 local government agencies. Faculty participants included 5 members from the College of Arts and Humanities, 2 each from the schools of Education and Medicine, and 1 each from 7 other schools or departments. Participant responses were grouped according to their role: community partner participant or faculty member participant.

As these projects were intended to be collaborative, both groups were asked about their perception of the faculty members’ role. Perceptions of the role of the faculty member in the projects were very similar. Community partners reported that the majority of faculty members related to the project as a partner (71.4%), not as a leader. Faculty also reported that they perceived their role primarily as partner (78.9%). It is interesting to note that 81.3% of the community partners had collaborated with a VCU faculty member before collaborating on this university grant-funded project.

Student participants were also queried. They were asked about the number of students involved and whether or not there were opportunities to use their participation in the project for future scholarship. Community partners reported that for most of the projects (60%) there were between 1 and 10 students involved; however, there were also projects that included between 10 and 30 students (20%). Data disclosed that several students were involved in small research efforts, and that at least one student used the project for additional research beyond the scope of the funded project. Two other students participated as part of their internship experience, linking their course work with hands-on experience.

Faculty participants reported similar student engagement. At the time of the impact analysis, 14 students were working with faculty on presentations and 5 on publications resulting from the project. The survey showed that several students went on to graduate school based on their experiences, using the data for doctoral dissertations; one had used the experience as entry into the professional world, giving credit to the project for his ability to obtain and succeed in his position.

Project Outcomes. Interestingly, there were differences between the participant groups on whether the projects were able to meet stated project outcomes. Community partners asserted that in 86.7% of the projects, all or most of the outcomes had been met. Faculty partners reported that 75% of the projects met all or most of the stated outcomes. Reasons for meeting the project outcomes were quite similar; however, it was interesting to note the differences shared.

Data from community partners identified two themes regarding the ability to meet project objectives: relationship with faculty and organizational commitment, with the latter seeming to be the most salient factor. Reasons provided by the community partners included “outstanding collaboration, cooperation, and partnership between all of the involved entities, and excellent, effective, and efficient collaborative partnership between our organization, university staff, and students.”

Commitment was also important on the part of the organization. As one community partner stated: “Commitment from the organization to utilize information generated from the project” was an important aspect of being able to meet the project’s stated goals. Community partners were also able to identify time as one of the most important issues with respect to meeting the stated objective, for example, one partner said:

We began the summer classes very quickly after being notified of the grant award, so we struggled to launch our program initially. However, we are now moving closer to having enough participants; and the project has not yet been completed and has not yet had a chance to reach all of its goals. The goals will take at least a few years to be reached completely. However, the project is well on its way.

Faculty reported two main reasons for having reached the stated objectives: partner relationships and additional resources. Partner relationships included such statements as: “Wonderful support from community partner.” “Key players were committed to the project and there was ample support.” “Community partners were flexible and supportive.”

Resources noted were: “Additional grants that I wrote have been funded and have helped to provide resources.” “Additional teacher training workshops.” “Training curriculum was developed successfully.” Faculty partners also identified the same reasons—partner relationships and resources—for not being able to meet stated objectives.

Issues with partner relationships that did not help meet goals included: “Difficulty with two faculty members’ participation in a timely manner.” “Still in progress, community partner and IRB delays.” Resources were also identified as a reason for not meeting stated goals: “Our community partner experienced the loss of a major contract.” Reasons for not meeting the stated goals also included statements that may have hinged on partner relationships, including “Several partners abandoned the project.” “[The project was] overly ambitious.” “Data collection was difficult because of trust issues within the community, translation issues, recruitment of adequate number of participants into focus groups, and lack of resources for student support.”

While not an explicit project outcome, the application process for both funding sources had indicated that scholarly outputs were an expectation of the projects funded. Faculty members reported that 10 of the projects resulted in one publication or conference presentation, seven of the projects resulted in two publications or conference presentations, and two of the projects resulted in multiple publications/conference presentations.

Unexpected Project Outcomes. Community partners and faculty partners also identified outcomes that went beyond the stated goals/objectives for the funded projects. Community partners asserted that the projects were instrumental in their having a better process of providing services. These comments included: “We have improved the management of our donated medication stock.” “Both students and faculty prefer the online method to site-based older model.” “Better understanding and perception of mental health issues studied.”

Faculty partners asserted that all participants in the funded project benefited in ways that were not expected. From the faculty member’s perspective, students, regardless of whether they were in high school or college, benefited. Examples of the added value included: “High school students are being offered provosts’ scholarships and opportunities to participate in Honors College programming as freshmen.” “Graduate students report greater comfort in practicum and internship experiences.” “Increased numbers of graduate students request clinical placements.” Similar benefits were identified for VCU as follows: “[VCU] developed an elective.” “[VCU provided] further funding for a resident to expand model.” “Significant clinical effects that were not expected [knowledge building].”

The unexpected benefits identified by the faculty partners for the community partners included increased ability to provide services as noted by the community partner responses: “Expansion of the model to other free clinics,” and “Project has a potential benefit in recertifying providers in a more convenient and cost effective manner.” But the faculty members also identified additional unexpected positive outcomes for the community partners that included: “Project included in grant application.” “Participants all felt their lives were changed as a result of participating.”

Possible Future Collaboration. All survey participants were asked about their interest in collaborating on another university-community partnership. All the community partners reported that they would be open to collaborating with VCU faculty in the future. Reasons provided depended on the positive experience with the faculty partner: “This has been a very positive partnership.” “I have personally enjoyed my association with the instructor, consultant and the students.” With the added resources that VCU was able to bring to the project, “[the university] has been able to provide knowledge and expertise, as well as resources to the project.” “Faculty and students commit time, funding, mentoring, [and] training support that is invaluable to all area students and particularly those from underserved communities.”

Interestingly, the vast majority of faculty members also reported being willing to collaborate again (89.5%), with only approximately 10% not sure or unwilling to collaborate with community partners in the future. Reasons provided for continued interest in collaboration included: “They were enthusiastic, and contributed much to the project.” “Great partner, strong staff, resource shares—willing to develop and implement innovative models, collaborative clinicians.” “It was a very good working relationship.” “They have been very supportive and open to my work.” Only one negative comment was provided by faculty members to support their unwillingness to again collaborate with the community partners: “Complete lack of response to calls and emails, and apparent racism.” While this comment was not explained, it seems clear that this is an example of a lack of relationship between the community partner and the faculty member.

Impact. While important, meeting the stated goals/objectives for the funded projects was understood by the investigators as an insufficient measure of the actual impact of the funding provided. Additional qualitative questions were asked of the participants in an attempt to understand the impact of the projects for VCU and the greater Richmond community.

When asked about the impact of the project, both community partners and faculty partners identified added value for the students. Students were understood to have experienced benefits beyond the funded projects by both faculty partners and community partners. Community partners shared that: “Students who participated in the project will be better prepared to contribute professionally.” “[The project] provided several students real life experiences.” “[The project] provided an opportunity for the students to understand the caregiver’s role, the responsibilities, the frustrations and the rewards.” “[The students experienced] positive and emotionally supportive learning environment.” Faculty members reported: “[Students achieved an] enhanced understanding of an underserved community and population within minutes of campus.” “[The project] provided publication opportunities for graduate students.” “Raised interest for graduate students to pursue and apply for seed grants.” “Increased training opportunities for [VCU] graduate students.”

The greater Metro community also experienced benefits not explicit within the funded projects. Community partners identified additional community resources, as an important dimension of the project’s impact. They stated that: “Community was provided enhanced care and more patient appointments.” “At-risk African-American males found their voice and a vision for their future.” “[The project] helped the community understand the value of a resource in their midst.” One community partner shared that: “The community, especially the students, now has a huge buy-in to seeing the resource developed in a responsible manner—promoting conservation while allowing others to enjoy the opportunity to explore nature,” an important yet unmeasured impact of this particular project. Faculty partner perspectives of the impact on the greater community included statements such as: “Area teachers were exposed to concepts, ideas, and curriculum ideas that they could take with them.” “A citizen’s grassroots group has come back to life and shows good support for the program.” “Improved quality of mental health care for families in Richmond.” Additionally, one faculty member commented that: “Underrepresented students from Richmond had the chance to experience VCU.”

Less explicit benefits for the greater Metro region were also noted by both faculty partners and community partners. These were mostly in the area of data collection in order for the region to be better understood, for example: “Project provides useful local data in order to understand Latino community needs.” “Data will hopefully provide a better understanding of the factors studied.” Additionally, the opportunity to build a relationship with VCU was also an added benefit noted by both a community partner and a faculty partner.

The community partner organizations and the university also experienced added benefits. According to community partners, the VCU experience enhanced their scholarship and their connection with the community, will “provide valuable research for the school” [and] “additional field sites for university staff.” An important benefit noted by one community partner was that the project: “Brought together experts from a number of different disciplines and one of the lasting effects will be the continued team approach to research.” Faculty partners identified university benefits in terms of VCU’s ability to achieve its mission: “The project built stronger relationships among the departments.” “[VCU’s] mission of community engagement has been highlighted.” Community partner benefits were perceived in similar fashion: as an increased ability to provide services…“build a health careers pipeline,” “resource sharing,” and “providing innovative models of care in the underserved.”


Increasingly universities are recognizing that engagement with their local communities for either collaborative projects or for research are positive additions to a university’s mission. With the advent of the community engagement classification through the Carnegie Foundation, more universities are searching for collaborative opportunities with their local communities. This impact analysis demonstrates that the benefits of such projects are widespread and valuable. The community partner and the faculty partner experience explicit and implicit benefits. There are corresponding benefits for the community partner agency, the university, and especially for any student lucky enough to be involved in the project.

Collaboration between community partners and universities can be a difficult process as there are often differences in professional expectations. As reported by Bruning, McGrew, and Cooper (2006), relationships between universities and their local communities have a history of being difficult. As universities have begun reaching beyond their walls for research sites and internship opportunities, they struggle with recognizing the needs and priorities of the community (Shannon & Wang, 2010). It is essential to explore the impact of such projects in order to demonstrate the “so what” dimension of the work being done. The outputs from each of these studies are important for the individual projects, but they may not be enough to demonstrate the actual impact of supporting university-community collaboration. Assessing the impact of VCU’s projects is a beginning look at why such projects are important.


It is important to note that this project is limited, as all surveys are. Because respondents were not randomly selected, it is possible that community partner participants were only those who were pleased with their collaborative experiences; all community partner participants said that they were very pleased with relationships with the university. It is also possible that the community partners were not comfortable disclosing negative information for fear that their answers would be linked to their name or organization, even though the recruitment email promised confidentiality. Additionally, all the community partners stated that they had worked with the university on projects prior to the funded grant project. This may also indicate that only community partners with positive track records collaborated on the funded projects. As is the case with all open-ended survey questions, some of the data provided did not respond to the questions asked. This could be an indication that there were important questions not asked of the participants, or that the questions were not worded well. One last limitation is that some of the projects had been finished for over two years, possibly shifting how the participants remembered the projects.


The movement toward research methodologies that enhance the ability to facilitate community change, such as community-based participatory research, is still relatively new for many universities. The impact of university-community partnerships must incorporate an evaluative process to understand the outcomes of projects for both partners and the differences that partnerships and projects make. This project provides insights into the ways that outcomes and differences are understood by each partner. It also raises important questions about the relative importance of the outcomes of the project, when compared to the impact of the relationship between the university and community partner.


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About the Authors

Monica Leisey is an assistant professor in the School of Social Work at Salem State University, Salem, MA. Valerie Holton is a field instructor in the School of Social Work at VCU. Tim Davey is an associate dean for community engagement and director of field instruction and associate professor in the School of Social Work at VCU.

Set Charge about Change: The Effects of a Long-Term Youth Civic Engagement Program

Robbin Smith


In an effort to create an enhanced sense of civic engagement within the U.S. population, a variety of initiatives have been launched recently. Predominantly, these efforts have focused on young adults in high school and college. Although some programs have targeted younger age groups as well, they are typically short in duration. This case study focuses on a small group of elementary school students who participated in a long-term youth engagement program. The participants’ civic knowledge, civic skills, and civic efficacy were measured at regular intervals throughout the 17 months of the program. The findings suggest that, at the end of the project, all of the participants demonstrated increased civic knowledge and skills, and an enhanced sense of civic efficacy. An analysis of what happened during the project and the lessons that may be applicable to those who undertake civic engagement projects with younger children is also offered.


For some time now, academics, politicians, and the public have expressed a renewed interest in civic engagement. Thomas Erhlich (2000), in his call to revitalize higher education and democratic institutions, defined civic engagement as “working to make a difference in the civic life of our communities and developing the combination of knowledge, skills, values, and motivation to make that difference. It means promoting the quality of life in a community, through both political and non-political processes” (Preface, vi).

Literature Review 

Many cite the work of Robert Putnam (2000) as the impetus for a larger national discussion on civic engagement. In his seminal book, Bowling Alone, he suggested that Americans suffered from a civic malaise that was particularly acute among the young. Putnam concluded that, “social capital has eroded steadily and sometimes dramatically over the past two generations” (p. 287). His conclusions were particularly problematic because not only did they suggest there had been a marked decline in collective action, but they also implied that the very notion of an engaged citizenry, capable of participating effectively and exercising its rights and responsibilities, had been diminished, thereby jeopardizing the health of democratic institutions. Putnam’s work became a clarion call for all who had expressed concern about related declines in such disparate areas as voter turnout, trust in government and elected officials, and civic attachment.

While many researchers focused on the adult population, some scholars sought to determine if the lack of community involvement in the general population was the result of a decline in youth civic education and civic engagement, and, if so, how to reverse that trend. Several subsequent studies found that U.S. students exhibited the same lack of engagement that Putnam had decried. For example, the collaborative Carnegie Foundation and CIRCLE Report on the Status of Civic Education and Citizenship (2003) found that “young Americans are not prepared to participate fully in our democracy now and when they become adults” (p. 8). The serious implications of the Carnegie-CIRCLE study were highlighted by the results of the subsequent 2006 National Assessment of Educational Progress study that demonstrated that in the 4th, 8th, and 12th grades, only a fraction of U.S. students scored at the proficient level in civics (NCES)1.

Some of the solutions proposed and pursued to address the decline in youth engagement took the form of governmental action. When state legislators became concerned about the lack of civic knowledge in public schools, numerous states enacted measures emphasizing the importance of civic education. These measures ranged from symbolic gestures (e.g., legislative resolutions), to professional development opportunities (such as funding for teachers in the area of civics), to financing formal studies on how to increase youth civic engagement.

Other scholars, however, sought to show that the situation was more complex and yet less dire than that posited by Putnam. For example, Marcello and Kirby (2008) examined trends in voter turnout and concluded that the outcome was not as dismal for youth engagement as Putnam had purported. Their conclusions were supported further by subsequent research on youth voter registration and voter turn out trends (Marcello, Lopez, Kennedy, & Bar, 2008). Zukin, Keeter, Andolina, Jenkins, and Delli Carpini (2006) also challenged Putnam’s findings and argued that the youth of the U.S. demonstrated greater levels of involvement in charitable activities and higher levels of volunteering than older Americans. In addition, Torney-Purta, Lehmann, Oswald, and Schulz (2001) surveyed 90,000 students across several domains including democracy and citizenship, national identity, and social cohesion and diversity on behalf of the International Association for the Evaluation of Educational Achievement. Torney-Purta et al. (2001) found that most of the students had a basic understanding of democratic values and processes. Moreover, a majority of the respondents recognized that electoral participation was an important facet of citizenship. All of these researchers concluded that there was renewed hope for youth civic engagement. Even Putnam (2005) acknowledged this renewed optimism indicating that much of the recent research was “a most welcome harbinger perhaps of a new-found respect for the values of public service” that might lead to “regenerating social capital” (p. 8).

Unfortunately, much of this research typically defined youth engagement as something that was only relevant to those 14 years of age and older. In fact, Marcello and Kirby (2008), Zukin et al., (2006), and Torney-Puerta et al. (2001) all surveyed students 15 years or older. And yet, many scholars who study youth civic engagement acknowledge that it is critically important to introduce engagement opportunities as early as possible and to develop activities that are long-term in nature. Levine and Higgins-D’Alessandro (2010) argued that, “by developing young people’s skills of social analysis and deliberation, we help to promote democratic decision-making and thereby optimize society’s support for capabilities” (p. 124). Berti (2005), for example, found that between the ages of 10 and 11, children build “a fairly standard conception of political parties, as connected to elections, in conflict with each other, aimed at producing leaders and having to do with government” (p. 82)2. Regardless of children’s capacity to learn civic concepts, the Carnegie-CIRCLE report noted that “[b]etween 1988 and 1998, the proportion of fourth-graders who reported taking social studies daily fell from 49 percent to 39 percent, a steep decline that reflects a general trend away from civics and social studies in elementary grades” (Civic Mission of Schools [CMS], 2003, p. 15).

Just as civic education has declined, so too have the opportunities to develop civic skills through youth engagement. For example, a study conducted by the Corporation for National and Community Service (CNCS, 2006) found that only 38% of U.S. youth 12–18 years old report that they have engaged in school based service and most of this participation occurs during high school, as “[h]igh school students are 37% more likely than middle school students to participate in school-based service” (p. 7). Moreover, of the middle school students surveyed, only 7% indicated that they had engaged in a school-based service project while enrolled in elementary school. While such findings certainly are cause for concern, there are a few programs in existence today that provide an opportunity to introduce civic engagement concepts to younger age cohorts and to examine the impact of those programs in terms of: 1) the children’s civic knowledge including their views of citizenship; 2) their development of concomitant civic skills; and 3) the cultivation of a civic disposition that inclines them to act as engaged citizens (i.e. civic efficacy). Youth in Action is one such program. Public Achievement (PA), which is the focus of this paper, is another. Before presenting the case study findings of PA’s effect in these three areas, however, it is important to clearly delineate how the terms “civic knowledge”, “civic skills”, and “civic efficacy” are conceptualized.

Civic Knowledge

The CMS formed, as an outgrowth of the 2003 Carnegie-CIRCLE report, was one of the first organizations to formally conceptualize “civic knowledge”. To them, this consisted of an understanding and awareness of: important historical events; issues and actors; the structures and process of government and the legal system; the role of social movements; and the relevant social and political networks for change ( This conceptualization echoed that of several previous researchers. For example, Jennings and Niemi (1974, 1981) argued that political knowledge encompassed an understanding of political structures and major political actors (including international political leaders), the party system, major historical events, and significant public policy issues. Similarly, Galston (2001) claimed that civic knowledge was limited to a familiarity with “political institutions and processes, leaders and parties, and public policies” (p. 221). In a slightly different vein, Torney-Purta et al. (2001) contended that civic knowledge included an understanding of democracy, governmental and economic processes, institutions, and values, as well as the social participation values of one’s nation and the socio-economic stratification and opportunity structures for selected groups in society.

As conceptualized in this paper, civic knowledge consists of: 1) an understanding of governmental structures, actors and processes; 2) a comprehension of governmental outputs in the form of policies; 3) knowledge of non-governmental forces such as the media, interest groups, and social movements; and 4) familiarity with the prominent social networks within a given community setting.

Civic Skills

While civic knowledge has a degree of certainty in its conceptualization, civic skills, unfortunately, do not. Often when academics discuss civic skills, they refer to those skills necessary to be effective citizens. In other words, they delimit and define civic skills as those skills necessary for effective political participation. At times, effective political participation is further reduced to simply electoral participation. In short, under these definitions, civic skills are merely those skills necessary to vote, and being a “good citizen” is one who actually votes. However, the concepts of civic skills and citizenship are much broader than that and widely debated. Dalton (2008) confronted this dilemma in The Good Citizen. He distinguished between two forms of citizenship: duty-based citizenship and engaged citizenship. Duty-based citizenship included the traditional forms of political participation such as voting, paying taxes, and obeying the law. He noted that, “these norms reflect the formal obligations, responsibilities, and rights of citizenship.” Engaged citizenship, on the other hand, related to one’s concern for others and the community and having the capacity to “understand the opinion of others” and “a moral or empathetic element of citizenship” (p. 28). Dalton found that members of the 1980s generation and Generation X were more likely to demonstrate engaged citizenship than duty-based citizenship that was more commonly found in the pre-World War II and Baby Boom generations. Thus, the younger age groups displayed a greater “concern for social rights and the protection of the disadvantaged” (p. 91). Dalton concluded that, “these orientations should promote tolerance” ( p. 226).

Likewise, Loeb (2010) advocated for a form of citizenship promoted by William Deikman in which individuals have a “receptive consciousness” that “helps us view ourselves as part of a larger life process” and “lets us reach out to our fellow human beings” (p. 236). Likewise, Jennings and Niemi (1974) found that good citizens (as conceptualized by their respondents) were those who were tolerant of others, got along with other people, were considerate, and were willing to be active in their communities. Thus, while the definitions of citizenship vary, (e.g. the engaged citizenship of Dalton or the informed citizenship of Galston) at their root, they share a common concern with tolerance and respect for the views of others.

Respect for divergent views is a particularly important civic skill emphasized in youth engagement programs. In fact, the Carnegie-CIRCLE (2003) report concluded that one of the goals of civic education in all schools was to develop “competent and responsible citizens” who are “concerned for the rights and welfare of others, are socially responsible, [and] willing to listen to alternative perspectives” (p. 10). In short, active listening and a respect for diverse approaches are both key components in citizenship and, thus, important civic skills in youth engagement programs. Moreover, according to CMS, youth engagement programs should develop two strands of civic skills: 1) intellectual civic skills, such as critical thinking, active listening and “understanding, interpreting and critiquing …different points of view” (Civic Competencies, para 2); and 2) participatory civic skills such as effective communication, building consensus, community mapping, and organizing groups. Finally, quality civic education programs will teach tolerance and respect as well as a “rejection of violence”, a “desire for community involvement”, and “personal efficacy”(Civic Competencies, para 3). Thus, civic skills relevant to youths extend beyond traditional political participation and include the ability to empathize, respect diverse opinions, and communicate effectively. The concept of the “good citizen”, then, is one rooted in civic knowledge, civic skills and civic efficacy. Efficacy, however, also has a wide variety of conceptualizations and definitions, to which we now focus our attention.

Civic Efficacy

Albert Bandura (1977) argued that efficacy, specifically self-efficacy, was “a belief in one’s personal capabilities” (p. 4). Maddux and Gosselin (2003) added that “self-efficacy beliefs are not concerned with perceptions of skills and abilities divorced from situations; they are concerned, instead, with what people believe they can do with their skills and abilities under certain conditions” (p. 219). CMS (2005) reiterated this belief by indicating that the goal of civic education should be to educate democratic citizens who “are informed and thoughtful about public and community issues, reflecting a grasp and appreciation of history and the fundamental processes of American democracy” and who have a developed sense of “personal efficacy” (Criteria for Success, para. 1). Additionally, according to Kahne and Westheimer (2006), “a sense of efficacy is a key building block for civic commitment.” They contend that, “many educators believe that if we shore up young people’s sense of efficacy (their confidence that they can make a difference), then their levels of civic and political engagement will rise” (p. 289).

Maddux (2005) further differentiated between self and collective efficacy. Collective efficacy is the “group’s shared belief in its conjoint capabilities to organize and execute the courses of action required to produce given levels of attainments” (p. 284). Of course, collective efficacy is related to self-efficacy. In fact, they are “mutually supportive” (Beaumont, 2010, p. 526). Individuals with high self-efficacy are more likely to demonstrate high collective efficacy and vice versa. Moreover, the skills and knowledge that contribute to a sense of self-efficacy for the individual are identical to those that create collective efficacy among groups. But while Maddux and Gosselin (2003) focused on self- and collective efficacy, Kahne and Westheimer (2006) and Torney-Purta et al. (2001) found distinguishing between internal and external efficacy to be more important in the political realm. .

The sense of political efficacy is usually defined as the attitude that citizens can make a difference in government decisions. It is often thought of as having two parts. External efficacy is the belief that government officials are responsive to citizen input, while internal efficacy is the belief that the individual can mobilize personal resources to be effective (p. 130).

Kahne and Westheimer argued that students in civic education programs may learn that there is a great difference between internal and external efficacy. Students who participate in a program in which they gain internal efficacy may find governmental institutions or actors unwilling to negotiate over certain public issues. In that case, the students do not gain any external efficacy and may lose internal efficacy as a result. Thus, for the authors, any youth program that focuses on “educating citizens for a democratic society” must encourage students to “gain a sense that they can make a difference and also identify, analyze, and challenge social and institutional practices as they work to create a more just society” (p. 295). According to Torney-Purta et al. (2001), although political scientists have long expressed interest in efficacy as an important concept relevant to adult political behavior, “[t]he community and the school are among the settings in which such efficacy can be experienced, especially by young people” (p. 130). Thus, the evidence indicates that the creation and fostering of civic knowledge, civic skills, and civic efficacy is vital in youth engagement programs. But how are the conceptions best introduced and developed in young children? This is a question that researchers have increasingly begun to address. An example of one such program that may offer insights into the development of youth civic knowledge, civic skills, and civic efficacy is Public Achievement.

Public Achievement

Public Achievement (PA) is one example of a youth civic education and engagement program with the expressed goal of developing the participants’ civic knowledge, civic skills, and civic efficacy. PA is a youth engagement model begun at the Center for Democracy and Citizenship at the University of Minnesota’s Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs. In the prototypical PA program, college students take a semester-long course on civic education, engagement, and developing the efficacy of young children. The following semester, the college students are assigned to work with groups of children in an elementary or middle school. The children, with the assistance of their college “coach”, select a project that must be public in nature. Often these projects focus on some local concern or issue. For example, recent groups in the U.S. have focused on teen violence, the establishment of recycling programs in schools, or the improvement of the quality and nutritional value of school lunches. Whatever the topic or concern, the college students act merely as facilitators while the younger students develop their projects and see them through to fruition (Hildreth, 2000; Boyte & Farr, 1997).

The elementary and secondary students, as part of PA, gain civic knowledge about local governmental structures, the role of relevant public actors, and the history of related events while learning about civic and political concepts such as community, citizenship, democracy, and power. They also learn and must master a variety of civic skills, such as team building, negotiating, planning, interviewing, and public speaking. See Figure 1 for an overview of the PA model.

The overall objective is for the students to acquire a greater interest in their own civic life and an ability to participate in the public debates within their own communities. The other goal of PA is to develop a civic disposition in the students such that they develop an appreciation for different views and perspectives and a sense of individual and collective efficacy. In other words, the PA program strives to provide the participants with the knowledge and skills to involve themselves in public work and the willingness to continue that engagement long after the program has ended.

The format of PA has proven to be successful and has been replicated in a variety of communities throughout the US and overseas (e.g., Georgia State College and University, Colorado College, and Northern Arizona University while internationally, programs have occurred in Israel, Northern Ireland, Poland, and Turkey).

While many researchers and advocates have promoted a variety of approaches for cultivating youth civic engagement in high schools and middle schools, very few initiatives have been attempted at the elementary school level. PA is one of the few that has. In the remainder of this paper, the results of a case study of a 17-month long PA initiative are presented, and a discussion of the extent to which the PA program augmented the civic knowledge, civic skills, and civic efficacy of the participants will be reviewed.

Methodology and Results

In January of 2009, the author began working with a group of fourth grade girls on a modified Public Achievement project that culminated in June of 2010.3 The overall objective of the project was to encourage these students to view themselves as engaged citizens. The young students committed to meeting and working together every week on a project of interest to them. Prior to the inception of the program, they completed surveys on their civic knowledge, civic skills, and their own sense of civic efficacy. They repeated these surveys at the end of each phase of the project. Additonally, the young women were interviewed throughout the 17-month project about their experiences.

In the inaugural meeting, they identified a variety of potential public issues that they wished to address. Their initial topics included a review of the public library’s video selections for young girls, the installation of a map of the U.S. on the school blacktop, and a conservation project. After much discussion and debate, they decided that of primary importance to them was the use of school fields during recess. Years before, the fields had been widely available to all elementary students. However, in recent years, access to the fields had been limited solely to 5th graders and only on an intermittent basis. Thus, the majority of the school children were left with the unappealing option of playing on a playground largely designed for younger children (i.e. kindergarten–second grade) or hanging out on the blacktop area congregating aimlessly. In both locations, no running was allowed due to risk of injury.4 Adjacent to the playground, but down a short hill, was a large school field that remained off limits to children of all ages. Thus, the young women in the PA program sought to develop a solution to a problem that they had identified as being important to them: access to a recreational space.5

The program progressed over three phases that corresponded to the three semesters that the group worked together. Initially, the students demonstrated almost no grasp of civic concepts and ideas. They had significant difficulty differentiating the public from the private domain. For example, at the first meeting, the students suggested a variety of possible public projects including working for a church or changing the businesses in a local shopping plaza. Moreover, they had almost no comprehension of political actors or the governance structure not only within their own community, but even their own school. While the children could identify the school principal and the curriculum specialist who served as a de facto vice principal, they had no knowledge of their respective roles within the school. Nor did they understand who had jurisdiction over the use of fields at recess (e.g. one thought it was the town, another the principal, a third thought it was the teachers, and the remaining participants claimed not to know at all).

Additionally, they did not express confidence in selected civic skills. None of the group believed that they worked “very well” with children their own age. One of the participants noted that she had said she worked “somewhat well” with children her age because “we argue a lot.” Another participant said she did not like to work with other children her own age because she “liked to work by [her-]self.” Thus, the children demonstrated little civic knowledge and limited civic skills. Not surprisingly, they claimed to have no civic efficacy as well. All of the girls indicated that they believed that they had no opportunity in their own community to express their views even if they wanted to do so. In fact, the children indicated that they did not believe that there was much that they could do to change their lack of access to the school fields. Therefore, their initial evaluation of their own efficacy reflected both a lack of internal and exernal efficacy. Not only did they not believe that they could make a difference, they also did not believe that anyone (be it institutions or actors) would be responsive to them. In the first phase of the project, the girls frequently noted that no one ever listened to them so there was no point in speaking up. They were, after all, “just kids.”

In Phase One, which lasted seven months, the children selected their project after much group discussion and deliberation. They then researched the benefits of aerobic versus anaerobic exercise. They collected data on the usage of school fields throughout the community by interviewing their peers at other schools. Also, they learned how to identify those with authority over the fields, evaluate competing demands within the community, map out likely community supporters, and develop interview questions for the variety of interested actors that they identified as relevant to the field issue. They also conducted their first interviews. They periodically reported on the progress of their work over their school’s public announcement system using documents they drafted. Finally, they presented their project and ongoing work to a group of university faculty and to the national director of PA at a meeting held on the university campus to discuss university-community partnerships.

In short, they gained some civic knowledge and civic skills. For example, they learned about the city system of regulating the fields (in both the parks and on school grounds) and they discovered that while the town was responsible for the upkeep of the fields and their usage after school hours, during school hours, the school administrators maintained authority over the fields and controlled access to them. Thus, they understood the relationship between the public works department, the recreation department, and the school administration. They also recognized that in order to achieve their goal, they would have to work through the school administrative network. (See Table 1 for an overview of the knowledge, skills and efficacy demonstrated by the students). Additionally, they had acquired certain civic skills. In this period, they learned to identify a public problem, express their opinions in a constructive manner, actively listen to their peers, plan and conduct their own meetings, and effectively interview adult community members. In fact, at the end of Phase One, one participant said that interviewing was her favorite task. Another student noted that while she still disliked working in groups, she liked PA because PA “works on your teamwork.” The students also learned about certain civic concepts, including public and private work, citizenship, democracy, community and power in this phase.

For all that they gained in civic skills and civic knowledge, however, there was little change in their own sense of self-efficacy. Although they were developing civic dispositions that contributed to a heightened sense of internal efficacy, they still had no confidence that the interested institutions would be responsive to them. For example, they appreciated working in a group and developed a sense of belonging to that group because their peers understood them and they thought they could “work together easier.” The participants noted that they had the ability to “participate in community things.” One young woman even claimed that, “young children can take power and set charge about change.” However, although they were developing an appreciation for each other and their group and a concomitant sense of internal efficacy, they still did not indicate that they had acquired any external efficacy. In fact, 3 out of the 5 children still indicated that they had no ability to affect change in the community because they were “only children.” The one participant who had claimed she could “take power”, in the same survey, wrote that she did not believe she could have a voice in her community because “I am a child.” Another participant said no one would listen to her because she was a child but she would be able to tell her parents her views and they might be able to make a difference. Her views were echoed by another participant who felt that “kids can make a difference” but only by communicating to adults “what I like/dislike.”

During Phase Two of the project, the students undertook the following tasks: they conferred with a professor of physical education; conducted interviews with selected school officials; engaged in a content analysis of those initial school interviews; gathered all of the findings from their readings and their interviews and summarized then for public presentation; and developed two comprehensive surveys (i.e. one for the students, and the other for the teachers and staff). Moreover, they learned about the history of field usage at the school through interviews with older community members. The students discovered that the current limitations on field usage were a relatively recent phenomenon; that, at one point, the fields had been open to all grades. They also advanced their own civic knowledge when they learned about the school administrative structure. They discovered that the curriculum specialist was actually in charge of teacher and staff assignments during recess, not the principal. In addition, they ascertained that there were state regulations in regards to recess staffing ratios and teacher and staff contract restrictions on imposing additional recess duties on school personnel. Collecting this information extended their civic knowledge as they began to explore the agencies and organizations that played a role in field maintenance, use, and scheduling. After interviewing the school physical education instructors and learning about their need for field space for certain curricular units, they also began to realize the important role that negotiation and compromise would play in order for them to be successful. And, finally, they further examined the concept of democracy and democratic decision-making as part of their group efforts and during the distribution of tasks as they progressed over the course of the semester. In short, they enhanced their civic knowledge of democracy, the school structure, and the relationship between school policies and state law while also garnering new civic skills such as interviewing, active listening, composing survey questionnaires for differing populations, and compiling several sources of data. They also acquired a variety of important group skills, including engaging those with different perspectives, planning and running meetings, and identifying and addressing future challenges.

Finally, in Phase Two, the students began to demonstrate increased levels of efficacy. That the students indicated they had an increased sense of efficacy in this phase is perhaps not surprising given that Hess and Torney (1967) found that “children’s sense of efficacy increases with age” and that “the sharpest increase occurred between grades four and five” (p. 68), which corresponds to the end of Phase One and beginning of Phase Two for these young women. After scheduling meetings with teachers and school administrators early in the 5th grade school year, for example, the girls commented how they would never have done that before. Four out of five of the participants indicated that they felt more comfortable approaching adult authorities to discuss school issues as a result of their participation in PA. They also began to identify themselves as “good citizens” based on their involvement at school. In fact, four of the five girls ran for the student council executive board that year and three of the four were elected.6 While two of the girls were still uncertain if they could “contribute to solving problems in their community”, the other three expressed agreement with the statement. Moreover, 3 of the 5 young women strongly agreed that “it is important to be involved in one’s community” while the remaining two said that they agreed.

In the third and final phase of the project, they debated and distributed a series of tasks designed to achieve their ultimate goal. Teams of two girls each, working in rotation, contacted every classroom teacher in grades 2-5 to arrange a time to survey those students on the use of the fields. They then surveyed every second, third, fourth, and fifth grade classroom in their elementary school using the questionnaire they had designed in Phase Two. They collected and tabulated the results from 223 students and discovered that the elementary school students overwhelmingly favored access to the fields and supported opening the fields five days a week. Additionally, they arranged and conducted individual interviews and surveys with every teacher, administrator, and staff member responsible for recess staffing. A few of those respondents raised concerns about gender exclusion (e.g., the boys might exclude the girls from the more physical games that would take place if the fields were available, whereas on the playground, there was greater gender parity). Many respondents expressed concerns about the developmental differences that would be very apparent if two grades had recess and access to the fields at over-lapping times and they preferred distinct play areas on the field for the different age groups in order to allow for differentiated play spaces. Almost all of the teachers and staff indicated that they did not believe that they had the right to grant students access to the fields. Some thought there was a preexisting rule that forbade the use of the fields during recess, while others did not believe that such a policy existed, but they also did not believe that they had the power to approve such access. Ironically, many of those interviewed noted that while they believed that the students should have access to the fields, they had no ability to change the present situation; in other words, the adults lacked a sense of efficacy.

During the interview process, the teachers and staff informed the students about the school’s emergency response teams (ERTs), the district guidelines in regards to such teams, their roles in the event of a recess emergency, and their potential impact on field accessibility.7 They examined all of the data that they had collected, wrote a report, and presented their findings to the Student Government Association and to the school curriculum specialist. Thus, the girls gained additional civic knowledge in the third phase of the project. The participants increased their knowledge about the division of functions within the school setting and the teachers’ diverse views on appropriate forms of child play.

Moreover, they garnered additional civic skills. The young women gained numerous communication skills, including negotiation and mediation. They negotiated a resolution to the lack of access to field usage that included balancing the overwhelming desires of the students for field access with the state requirements in regards to staffing and the needs of the physical education department. They also learned that there is a crucial difference between agreement and implementation. The Connecticut State Association of Health, Physical Education, Recreation and Dance awarded them a citation for their leadership and their efforts to improve health and fitness in their community. However, when the citation was given, the new staffing schedule for the recess use of the fields existed but was not yet adhered to by the school faculty. Further conversations with the teachers and staff revealed that the necessary communication between the school administrators and the faculty and staff was lacking. The five girls took it upon themselves to breach the communication divide and to resolve this final issue. In other words, they also learned about bureaucracies, organizational inertia, and mediation while mastering patience and persistence. The fields opened for recess use in early June of 2010, approximately 17 months after the project first began.

In this final phase, the young women also demonstrated the highest levels of confidence and efficacy, both internal and external. At the inception of the project, the 5 participants said that they liked to work in groups only “somewhat well” with one young woman still noting that, “I like to work by myself.” By the end of the project, 4 of the 5 participants had changed their responses to “very well” with one child commenting that, “Working in groups is fun and helps our social skills.” One of the participants noted how her views about group work had changed; “I like it better. It is easier.” Likewise, in the beginning of the project, the girls were reticent about working with adults. None of them felt comfortable approaching any of the school administrators, some of the staff and, in one young woman’s case, some of the teachers. At the end of the project, 4 out of 5 girls felt more comfortable talking to adults within the school setting, and 3 out of 5 thought it was easier to approach school administrators. They also displayed much higher levels of confidence. Their heightened confidence translated to a higher level of efficacy. As one participant stated, “People appreciate kids and their power more,” while another student claimed that her group made it possible for kids to “achieve something they want to in public.” A third participant said she liked PA because it “is a group where we can improve the community.” In short, the young women developed both internal and external efficacy.


Over a 17-month period, these young women gained civic knowledge, garnered additional civic skills, and recognized and appreciated their own sense of civic efficacy. The results of this case study reinforce the arguments of Flanagan and Faison (2001) who contended that students who participate in long-term civic engagement programs are more likely to demonstrate increased civic knowledge, civic skills and civic efficacy than their peers. In fact, the results from the case study of these young women highlight the two main and interrelated benefits of many youth civic engagement programs: 1) such programs operate to increase children’s civic knowledge, certain civic skills and civic efficacy; and 2) such programs are good for the long-term health of a democracy.

Increasing the civic knowledge of youths at all age levels throughout the U.S. has become a significant goal of educators, policy practitioners, and politicians. For example, the National Education Association (2011) mission states that the goal of public education in the U.S. is to provide “individuals with the skills to be involved, informed, and engaged in our representative democracy” (para. 7). Likewise, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, in a 2011 speech, noted that, “a foundation in civics is not a luxury but a necessity.” Moreover, he said that, “Students today absolutely need a sense of citizenship, an understanding of their history and government, and a commitment to democratic values…. Civics cannot be pushed to the sidelines in schools” (para. 5). The PA program, in this case study, provided the young women with an opportunity to gain knowledge about their school and the larger community and to do so in a democratic, engaged manner. Finally, Representative Gwen Moore (D-WI) introduced legislation in March of 2011 to honor the memory of Christina-Taylor Green, the young girl killed at a “Congress on the Corner” meeting in January of 2011 in Arizona. While such resolutions are normally little more than political posturing, the resolution does acknowledge “the importance of returning the teaching of civic education and civil discourse to schools, especially for students in grades 6 through 12” and calls for “the Secretary of Education to direct schools receiving federal funding to include instruction in civic education and civil discourse.”8 Moreover, the resolution “encourages schools and teachers to conduct educational programming on the importance and methods of civic education and civil discourse” (House Resolution 181). The methods of a “civil discourse” are found in PA as judged by the tolerance the young women developed for divergent views. Roholt, Hildreth, and Baizerman (2007) also found that PA is a “living citizenship” program in which the participants “learned what it meant to be a member, to do democratic civic practice, to be democratic citizen, and how to do and be this democratic citizens in everyday life” (p. 103).

Additionally, a 2006 evaluation of 556 student participants in PA programs in 2005 and 2006 found that “elementary school students who had sustained participation in PA were more likely than their peers to acquire civic skills and to believe that young people can make a difference in the world. Surveys given before and after program participation showed that sustained involvement in PA was associated with strong increases on measures of civic dispositions, civic skills, and civic engagement outcomes” (RMC, 2006, p. 1). Roholt et al. (2007) note that youth engagement programs, including PA, provide students the opportunity to engage in meaningful experiential education. For the students “[l]earning was not for learning’s sake but was necessary to do the public work, their work as citizen” and they “experienced being and doing citizen” (p. 98). These findings also correlate with McIntosh and Youniss’ (2010) argument that “acquisition of skills and attitudes that constitute the elements of citizenship occurs in the doing within a political context” (italics added, p. 23).

Finally, youth engagement programs develop the efficacy of the participants. As Kahne and Westheimer (2006) learned, sometimes these programs develop only the internal efficacy of the group, but sometimes they operate to develop both the internal and external efficacy of the participants. In this case study, the PA participants demonstrated both increased internal and external efficacy. As one student participant said, “I like Public Achievement because I get to help make a difference and have fun with friends while doing it.” Roholt et al. (2007) agree that the students’ claims of wanting to make a difference are an important one:

Wanting to make a positive difference must become mastering the ways of thinking, doing, and being basic to socio-political activism in school, group, and community. …When civic training is done well, as it often is in PA, and the young people believe they are learning real and useful stuff, they are more likely to become really involved, thus concretizing their typically more vague interests and goals, resulting in deeper commitment to the issue and to being and doing citizen (p. 134).

The idea that youth engagement programs might produce a deeper commitment to the community is an important benefit of such programs as well.

More importantly, and in addition to increasing children’s civic knowledge, civic skills, and civic efficacy, youth engagement programs, particularly those that allow the students to work in groups and increase the participants’ sense of efficacy, may be particularly important for future political participation, attachment, and engagement, and thus, the long-term health of a democracy. Greenstein (1974) suggested that early political learning operated to “maintain, perhaps even reinforce” (p. 83) adult political behavior. Verba, Schlozman, and Brady (1995) also found that adults who were active in civic and political affairs in their communities had been active in extracurricular activities at school and in other community and youth groups. Moreover, Flanagan and Faison (2001) explained that:

It is likely that by being a member of a group and helping to define and work toward common goals, one gets a sense of what it means to work for the common good….One identifies with the group, cares about the other group members, and wants to help accomplish the goals of the group. This group identification is an essential part of political development because political goals are rarely accomplished by individuals (p. 519).

Thus, youth engagement activities may play a crucial role in civic and political involvement in adulthood. Pasek, Feldman, Romer, and Jamieson (2008) examined this very phenomenon and found that, indeed, youth engagement programs begun in an urban high school environment did fundamentally alter the participants’ subsequent political participation two years later. Their research showed that “program exposure was consistently related to long-term increases in internal efficacy, political attentiveness, and knowledge of candidate positions” (p. 33).9 Likewise, Hess and Torney (1967) argued that, “[t]here is a great deal of evidence for the existence of continuity between childhood experience and attitudes and adult attitudes and action” (p. 7).

The long-term importance of youth civic engagement programs for a democracy should not be understated. Nor should the effect of the youth engagement program in this case study. As one young woman noted on her last survey, PA was “a group where kids can achieve something they want to in public.” They also want to continue and add to their civic engagement experiences. The PA participants who completed their project in June of 2010 still periodically ask to undertake another. Although the group has scattered to different middle schools, they approach the author with ideas and pleas for a new PA program on a consistent basis. Whether the participants in the program will demonstrate increased involvement in adulthood remains to be seen. Clearly, one year from the end of their project, they still want to be involved and believe that they can make a difference.


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About the Author

Robbin Smith, is an assistant professor in the Department of Political Science at Central Connecticut State University.

Fostering a Listening Community Through Testimony: Learning with Orphans of the Genocide in Rwanda

Alexandre Dauge-Roth

As a teacher of French and Francophone studies, I am eager to provide meaningful contexts of conversation in which students can improve their linguistic proficiency and develop their cultural literacy through immersion experiences. However, what shapes a meaningful context of dialogue? Is an academically generated conversation equally meaningful for students and community partners? These questions led me to reevaluate the relationship between my students, myself, and potential Francophone interlocutors in designing a course on the representations of the genocide against the Tutsis in Rwanda. Fundamentally, one essential question arose: What are the informative, but more importantly, potentially transformative place, voice, and role I am willing to give to members of a specific community as we study their history? In short, there was a need to reflect on what it means pedagogically to implement a polyvocal and decentered mode of teaching and how it would impact methods of evaluation. By opening up an unprecedented space of dialogue, would students challenge the borders of academia and reflect upon our civic role within the testimonial encounter and the acquisition of knowledge?

As Kalí Tal (1996) asserts in Worlds of Hurt:

Bearing witness is an aggressive act. It is born out of a refusal to bow to outside pressure to revise or to repress experience, a decision to embrace conflict rather than conformity, to endure a lifetime of anger and pain rather than to submit to the seductive pull of revision and repression. …If survivors retain control over the interpretation of their trauma, they can sometimes force a shift in the social and political structure. If the dominant culture manages to appropriate the trauma and can codify it in its own terms, the status quo will remain unchanged (p. 7).

To understand testimony in this light forces any academic community to grasp what role it plays in the reproduction of the political and cultural status quo when confronted with the needs, views, and challenges of minorities, foreigners, and survivors of traumatic experiences. Fostering social spaces of testimonial encounter potentially leading to the contestation of the status quo and the cultural erasure of subaltern voices [those outside the power structure] constitutes another way to envision civic engagement for any community—be it an academic community or not.1 This article examines the academic status of survivors’ voices and the social responsiveness to others’ histories of pain demanded by these encounters through two courses taught in French focusing on the representations of the genocide against the Tutsis in Rwanda. Both courses explored the possibilities of civic engagement through a pedagogy where testimony is envisioned as a transformative space of encounter and survivors have a say in defining the parameters of the partnership.

Identifying Community Partners

In the first course taught on campus in 2007, entitled Documenting the Genocide against the Tutsis in Rwanda, students had the opportunity to engage in a semester long correspondence with Tutsi survivors while studying documentaries, films, fiction, and testimonies bearing witness to this genocide. The second course, Learning with Orphans of the Genocide in Rwanda, combined, during an intensive short-term in May 2009, on-campus preparation and off-campus study. After a week devoted to learning the history of the genocide, theoretical approaches to testimony, documentary making, and oral history methodology, students spent three weeks in Rwanda. They worked in partnership with survivors orphaned by the genocide in 1994 who have lived since 2001 within the residential community of the association Tubeho—which means in Kinyarwanda “Let’s live.”2 The hope was to create and define, with our community partner, a space of encounter that would allow survivors to bear witness on their own terms and challenge us, their interlocutors, to explore what it means to be a listening community and what forms of responsiveness we ought to forge as heirs of the histories of pain being passed on to us. As Stevan Weine (2006) underlines in his analysis of witnessing to trauma generated by political violence:

Through testimony, survivors and receivers engage with some of the most critical political, existential, and moral questions that a society can ask concerning identity, otherness, existence, values, and enemies. …These questions are at the core of how society and its people redefine themselves and the codes by which they live (p. 135).

It is in this light that we, the listeners, had to fully evaluate the transformative implications of learning with when listening was everything but a neutral practice aimed at acquiring knowledge. Here, we had to address how this knowledge required us to reevaluate the relationship between our will to know and civic demands.

Challenges of Learning With

How can we not only learn from testimonies written by survivors of traumatic events but, more fundamentally, learn with survivors of traumatic experiences? This became a recurrent question throughout these courses. First, to shift from the assumption that we learn from survivors requires us to explore civic engagement as a venue for generating new forms of academic hospitality and redefining what it implies for a community to listen to trauma. For such a social dialogue to occur, it is, then, imperative to question the authority learning communities give to survivors’ voices. Furthermore, it is crucial to acknowledge that learning with survivors who bear witness to experiences with which one cannot identify represents a demanding and potentially alienating endeavor. Thus, fostering the possibility of learning with requires a willingness to be interrupted, an openness to seeing our social imagery challenged, and a readiness to finding ourselves estranged within our own community. While learning from tends to maintain survivors at a reassuring distance, learning with supposes that survivors have not only a voice capable of attesting to a past, but also a say within the present of their interlocutors. The need to grant survivors agency and a transformative power of interruption within their interlocutors’ community is a crucial premise for envisioning listening as a form of community engagement. In our testimonial encounter with survivors, refusing to disconnect the disturbing pain to which they bear witness from the present demands they pass on to us defines then both an ethic of listening and the promise of a shared space where heterogeneous views seek to coexist with their differences.

For an academic community, learning with presupposes a pedagogical shift in how we consider the acquisition of knowledge, as it requires a willingness to be interrupted by survivors’ lives, a readiness to be transformed by their demands and an openness to find ourselves estranged while still at home. Ultimately, learning with forces us to rethink the relationship between our will to know and our sense of belonging and hospitality. As Wendy Hui Kyong Chun (2002) highlights in her attempt to define “a politic of listening,” our first duty as interlocutors “is to feel the victim’s victories, defeats, and silences, know them from within, while at the same time acknowledging that one is not the victim, so that the victim can testify, so that the truth can be reached together. In this model, distance must be maintained between listener and speaker” (p. 162). Thus, to learn with survivors of traumatic violence is to negotiate the possibility of a common project without negating the uniqueness of each other’s trajectories. To become a listening community by learning with survivors therefore constitutes a departure from a socially neutral position of learning that requires us to move beyond pity and compassion in order to face a series of thought-provoking demands. Here the learning community who asks the questions and listens is asked, in return, to respond not only to but also for those who find the means to testify.

In “The Responsibility of Responsiveness: Criticism in an Age of Witness,” Ross Chambers (1996) affirms that the emergence of testimony as a prevalent genre within the literature of the twentieth century invites us to rethink what it means to read testimonies since “the writing of witness has not completed its task unless it finds a readership” and “it is necessary also for the tale itself to survive if the survival of the individual witnessing subject is not to prove futile” (p. 11). As a literary critic, he reflects upon the ability of commentary to generate pertinent forms of responsiveness to histories of pain aware that it “is always and inevitably inadequately responsive, because it is subject to all the effects of deferral” (p. 24). Therefore he comes to “recommend not responsiveness as such—an impossible ideal—but reading that is anxious about the quality of its responsiveness to the extent that it is conscious that reading participates in a history of pain and has a responsibility of witness” (p. 24). Reading and listening to survivors’ testimonies should no longer be envisioned as a neutral practice disengaged from any social implications. Pertinent forms of responsiveness presuppose then that listeners see themselves as indirect witnesses whose responsibility is to develop a critical self-awareness regarding their own inadequacy as they respond to survivors’ stories. As such, learning with survivors constitutes an ethical gesture that aims to inspire, within our respective communities, forms of responsiveness where their histories of pain and ours reciprocally shape each other’s. Once a community recognizes that survivors’ histories and its own have been interwoven by the testimonial encounter, new pedagogical and civic challenges arise. How differently do survivors and their interlocutors perceive the process of learning with? How does the gap between our will to know and survivors’ will to testify impact on the possibility of belonging to a same community? What pedagogical and civic shifts are needed to ensure that those who bear witness to the violence they have suffered do not see themselves silenced once our will to know or duty to remember has been fulfilled? Aware that listening to testimonies of traumatic violence is an unpleasant and disturbing responsibility, how transformative can or should the emergence of such a space of encounter through witnessing be? Within academia, how is it possible to reconcile the transient nature of any pedagogical relationship and the long lasting demands of surviving trauma? Finally, what interruptions must occur within the listening community for the testimonial encounter to remain, in spite of it all, a mutually empowering experience synonymous with shared agency and a sense of belonging that does not silence the disruptive power of survivors’ demands for social recognition, justice, financial compensation, and opportunities to rebuild themselves?

Initial Approach to the Testimonial Encounter

These issues related to social responsiveness to others’ histories of pain were pivotal to two courses I designed at Bates College within the French and Francophone Studies curriculum. Both courses offered multiple opportunities for direct exchange between Rwandan students who survived the genocide in 1994 and U.S. students. As a former Belgian colony after World War I, Rwanda promoted French as the major foreign language in schools until 2009, when English was declared the foreign language of upper education. This cultural and linguistic legacy explains, in part, the attempt to create a space of encounter between American students learning French and young Tutsi survivors who found the resilience to pursue their education. In these courses, like never before, the students’ mastery of French and Francophone history was a key premise to establishing dialogue. Obviously, the fact that survivors must speak in French—for them a foreign language—about their traumatic experience is not without incidence on what can be expressed and might lead to potential misunderstandings, not to mention feelings of alienation. While it is important to keep these risks in mind, they are not exclusive to the use of a foreign language since they also exist between Rwandans for other reasons such as self-censorship, shame, social status, power relationships, and cultural codes, not to mention suspicion about their interlocutors’ motivations in regard to their actions during the genocide. At the same time, having to translate a traumatic experience into a foreign language has proven to be, at least for some survivors, a beneficial constraint as it imposes a certain distance that allows them to bear witness without it being a retraumatizing experience. As we can foresee, the required linguistic proficiency in French did by no means guarantee our mutual ability to establish a transformative dialogue and, for us, to become a listening community. We had to grapple with many other cultural, ideological, and psychological assumptions throughout both courses in order to foster a shared and mutually empowering space. Before describing in more detail how these courses were conceived around the transformative experience of testimony to foster civic skills such as critical thinking, social listening, collective action, civic judgment, imagination, and creativity, to name a few (Battistoni, 2002), it is important to expose some additional dynamics at play when learning with survivors.

What forms of hospitality are required from us, as a learning community, as we are interrupted and estranged by the testimonial encounter and seek to learn with survivors? First, envisioning testimony as a mutual space of encounter requires us to think about how and why survivors bear witness as well as to reflect on how and why we listen to others’ pain. According to Shoshana Felman’s (1992) analysis of the testimonies of Holocaust survivors in Claude Lanzmann’s film “Shoah,” to bear witness constitutes a gesture that not only refers to a unique position, but also to a performance of positioning through which the witness reasserts the presence of his or her difference without having to negate the pain that is at the core of his or her sense of self:

What does testimony mean, if it is not simply (as we commonly perceive it) the observing, the recording, the remembering of an event, but an utterly unique and irreplaceable topographical position with respect to an occurrence? What does testimony mean, if it is this uniqueness of the performance of a story constituted by the fact that, like the oath, it cannot be carried out by anybody else (p. 206)?

To be aware of this performative dimension through which survivors reaffirm the uniqueness of their position is to realize that the value of the testimonial encounter does not solely reside in an exchange of knowledge fulfilling academic criteria. What does it mean, then, to become knowledgeable of our interlocutors’ stories since we cannot identify with their suffering? Second, what kind of civic engagement and academic responsiveness are we, as a listening community, trying to nurture when survivors’ past sufferings and current challenges become part of our respective communities through testimony? As we try to answer these questions, we must keep in mind that one of the major dilemmas for an academic community in learning with resides in the institutional time frame in which the testimonial encounter occurs. For survivors, the pain to which they bear witness does not cease when they stop speaking, while, for students and the instructor, there is always the option of putting the demands generated by this shared suffering on hold, not to mention of turning the page and going on at the end of the semester—uninterrupted—with the other solicitations of our lives. We, therefore, need to acknowledge that for survivors, the testimonial encounter represents more the beginning or continuation of a process aiming toward the recognition of their trauma and the daily negotiation of its present challenges rather than the fulfillment of a duty to remember, an academic performance, or a therapeutic exercise. Paradoxically, it is this very discrepancy that opens up the possibility of civic engagement since it forces both communities to negotiate what can be shared through the testimonial encounter within the present, to define how learning with ought to be a mutually empowering experience, and to evaluate the civic demands that passing on and receiving disturbing knowledge generate. Encouraged by the testimonial process to reexamine the social implications of becoming knowledgeable with those we cannot identify, academic communities must explore their role as cultural vectors through which related communities can redefine their sense of hospitality and their responsiveness to others’ pain. Ultimately, what is at stake in this testimonial encounter is the willingness of a learning community not so much to speak for but to be interrupted by voices and expectations other than its own and, in turn, to work to become a source of interruption, generating new dialogues within the broader communities that surround it.

Listening as Civic Engagement

Understanding testimony as a space of social encounter constitutes a crucial shift as it affirms that survivors’ views cannot be reduced to judicial proofs, historical footnotes, or academic subjects. As Jacques Derrida (2000) has underlined, the “essence of testimony cannot necessarily be reduced to narration, that is, to descriptive, informative relations, to knowledge or to narrative; it is first a present act” (p. 38). Testimony thus dramatically engages the present that survivors and their interlocutors share and mutually shape in the light of a defining past. As members of a learning community and as American citizens,3 students and I had to define our role within the historical awareness Tutsi survivors sought to provoke as they agreed to bear witness. In our desire to be civically engaged, it was also imperative for our community to take into account that, for survivors, testifying does not automatically put their suffering at a more tolerable distance, nor does it necessarily amount to a personal resolution. As Chambers (2004) suggests in Untimely Interventions, survivors, rather then “having survived a trauma,” are “still surviving experiences that were already themselves an experience of being, somehow, still alive although already dead.” What is here at stake is the social acknowledgment of an aftermath defined as a state of “out-of-jointness” (p. 43). Paradoxically, it is by bearing witness to this state of “out-of-jointness” while testifying about a traumatic past, that survivors call for and open a space of encounter. To become civically aware about survivors’ present “out-of-jointness,” forces us to define the civic role we ought to play as we give a say to survivors within our present. The hope here is that this form of hospitality, where the “other” has agency, might contribute to alleviating somewhat the feeling of being estranged and the pain it generates.

As an academic community, we clearly cannot change the traumatic past whose history of violence is passed on to us but, as we become heirs to this history, we have the opportunity to become engaged listeners and to develop a responsibility of responsiveness in many other ways. We can respond to the social desire to be heard, use our symbolic capital to increase the social visibility of the histories of pain that are passed on to us, generate within our communities conversations on what it means to acknowledge that the history of our community and the witnesses’ histories are intertwined, act upon the state of “out-of-jointness” in which many trauma survivors live, or engage in reflecting on how such awareness impacts our conception of hospitality. Learning with survivors of traumatic violence demands that we put into question the social values and imagery that contribute to survivors’ “out-of-jointness”—an exclusion that we tend, willingly or not, to reinforce if left unexamined. As Richard Battistoni (2006) suggests in his essay on civic engagement, an “added benefit to defining civic knowledge in this broad manner is that students and community members become co-creators of knowledge, rather than simply relying on ‘expert’ texts or professors” (p. 16). To become an engaged community by aiming to be co-creators of knowledge through the testimonial encounter demands that we identify and promote a sense of citizenship within academia capable of fostering mutually transformative dynamics that might enable both survivors and their interlocutors to have not only a voice but a renewed sense of agency and belonging.

In our attempt to evaluate the socio-historical forms this co-creation could take and how our anxious responsiveness could be implemented, we need to remain aware of the privilege that defines our academic position in regard to the trajectory and place from which survivors speak. In her first testimony about the genocide against the Tutsis in Rwanda, Esther Mujawayo (2004) emphasizes the painful censorship that the listening community can generate—despite its proclaimed will to know—if it disregards the gap that defines the survivor’s position of enunciation:

As the survivor of the genocide, you don’t have the luxury of putting the horror aside: you are in it, in it. Meanwhile the other, the one who listens, he just receives the horror through words and he, he has the luxury, or the choice to be outside it, to declare that he is unable to bear this and say: “Here stops the horror.” Myself, I do not have this choice not to bear it because I had to bear it and still have to bear it (pp. 20-21, my translation).

For us, to whom histories of pain are passed on, the option always remains to turn the page, while those who are surviving a trauma that is never over do not have this luxury. One of our first duties as a listening community is then to nurture a civic willingness to be interrupted and to refrain from interrupting those who bear witness when their words and demands no longer allow us to go on as usual. A second challenge is that we cannot speak for the survivors. We need to give them a say in the social recognition of their past trauma and in determining what paths are pertinent to respond to its aftermath. At stake once again is the resonance and agency we are willing to give to these haunting voices that question our conception of hospitality by passing on to us transformative demands in order to meet their needs. As survivors respond to our will to know, they ask in return that we translate into concrete actions our aspiration to be a responsive community where different trajectories can coexist and nurture each other to alleviate the suffering generated by a traumatic past. If demands such as justice, material compensation, and trauma counseling clearly exceed the resources of most academic communities, other demands, such as being heard, recognized, and valued as a human being without having to negate the trauma of one’s past, can and must be met. The genocide in Rwanda not only killed one million people between April and July 1994, but also killed within many survivors the belief in belonging to a community and the ability to project themselves into the future.

Equally important for a learning community that wants to become co-creators of knowledge and civically responsive is the valorization and development within academia of a “civic knowledge,” as defined by Battistoni (2006):

…[W]e have learned from students engaged in community-based experiences that civic knowledge…comes from multiple sources, including community members. It involves a deeper knowledge of issues, or what some might call the root causes of public problems, and an understanding of how different community stakeholders perceive the issues. An understanding of “place” and the community history that provides a context for service and public problem solving—including learning about how individuals and community groups have effected change in their communities—is another key element of civic knowledge (p. 16).

Learning with survivors of traumatic events might then be described as a crucial venue for exploring our role as agents of democracy, as this venue not only exposes students and faculty to radically different views, but also demands that we identify with our interlocutors the social transformations needed within our community so that heterogeneous trajectories, perceptions, and needs might nurture each other.

Developing Self-Critical Awareness

In both courses, the analysis of the competing cultural representations of the genocide against the Tutsis allowed students to develop a self-critical awareness regarding their understanding of political violence in Africa. Many came to realize how much their perception was shaped by stereotypes inherited from the colonial gaze and defined by the priorities that govern Western media’s production. Furthermore, by focusing on the various mediations through which filmmakers, authors, and survivors confer a visibility and intelligibility to the factors that led to the genocide in Rwanda, this comparative approach forced students to be actively engaged in the production of meaning. In the absence of a single master narrative capable of asserting the ultimate truth of this genocide, students had to analyze the choices, silences, rationality, and materiality of their sources according to criteria such as context of production and reception, socio-historical positionality, cultural bias and rationale, targeted audience, genre, use of legitimate speakers, rhetorical appropriation of archives, and willingness to give survivors a say or to subject them to a voice-of-God. Through this analysis of the formal and contextual constraints defining what is archived—and thus declared knowledgeable and worthy of memory—students critically evaluated the discrepancies between various mediations focusing on the ideological roots of the genocide. They positioned themselves among the competing narratives identifying which historical causes favored its genesis and implementation, and, equally important, weighed in the (im)pertinence of the political responses to the genocide’s aftermath within Rwanda and by the international community.

The civic intent of focusing on the issue of representation was to think critically about the social discourses and political (in)actions through which the imaginary construction of an “other” within a society is achieved. This awareness regarding the roots of genocide and the role identity politics play in the “othering” of certain members of a society gave students the means to reevaluate their own responsibility when facing discriminatory discourses that cast some as strangers or outlaws within their own community. Furthermore, as students discovered through their dialog with Rwandans, for survivors, the feeling of living in a stage of “out-of-jointness” is not foreign to their social construction as “others” and the feeling of being illegitimate that existed prior to the genocide. All our Rwandan interlocutors grew up facing violent discourses that equated them to historical invaders or cockroaches who needed to be exterminated. This realization placed students before a new imperative, namely to acknowledge that no mediation—or study—of a past genocide can be neutral since each actualizes how respective communities respond to the genocide’s aftermath and the demands for justice of those who have suffered traumatic violence. While crucial, this analytical work on the genocide’s competing mediations only constituted the first stage in developing an ethic of responsiveness and the possibility of civic engagement. Indeed, by learning only from rather then with and within the shared present instituted by the testimonial encounter, students and myself could still, very easily, see ourselves as observers and citizens whose histories and communities remained immune to the histories of pain that we had the luxury of studying at a safe distance.

From Academic Reluctance to Responsive Partnership

What then does it entail and require to listen to a survivor of genocide? To what extent can we as listeners be implicated in and through the act of listening to survivors? As Susan Sontag (2003) has shown in Regarding the Pain of Others, it is insufficient to document the horror humans can inflict on other humans if one does not address the ethical demands of remembering, the implications that remembrance of the past generates for our present actions, and their intent:

To designate a hell is not, of course, to tell us anything about how to extract people from that hell, how to moderate hell’s flame. Still, it seems a good in itself to acknowledge, to have enlarged, one’s sense of how much suffering caused by human wickedness there is in the world we share with others. …Let the atrocious images haunt us. Even if they are only tokens, and cannot possibly encompass most of the reality to which they refer, they still perform a vital function. The images say: This is what human beings are capable of doing—may volunteer to do, enthusiastically, self-righteously. Don’t forget.

This is not quite the same as asking people to remember a particularly monstrous bout of evil (“Never forget”). Perhaps too much value is assigned to memory, not enough to thinking. Remembering is an ethical act, has ethical value in and on itself (pp. 114-15).

In order to challenge this academic reluctance to link the acquisition of knowledge through remembering with forms of civic engagement, during a research trip in Rwanda I built a network of young Tutsi survivors who were fluent in French and, for the majority, studying in Rwandan universities. In locating potential correspondents, the fact that both groups could engage with someone close to their age and relate to each other through popular culture and academic lifestyle was important. My students were between 18 and 22 years old, while our Rwandan partners were between 18 and 30. Meanwhile, everyone remained aware that they needed to engage with someone whose experience would always remain somehow foreign to their own. In Documenting the Genocide against the Tutsis in Rwanda, each American student was paired with a survivor who was willing to testify. The intent was to give students and myself the opportunity to explore through a confidential and semester-long correspondence how the traumatic events whose mediations we were studying had been lived, what scars they had left, how they had impacted survivors’ lives and views, and what kind of challenges they were still generating. Thanks to weekly emails, students and survivors got to know each other’s stories, valorized each other’s opinions, and progressively nurtured a relationship of trust and mutual appreciation.

In Learning with Orphans of the Genocide in Rwanda, following the introductory week on campus, American students and I traveled to Rwanda and spent three weeks with survivors who had become orphans in 1994 and were now living in reconstituted families within the association Tubeho. Here again, each American student was paired with one Tutsi survivor fluent in French who was willing to share his or her personal journey in a private setting. During the two first weeks of our stay, we went to our Rwandan interlocutors’ universities, we visited various memorials with them, explored different regions of Rwanda together, met with members of other survivors’ associations, non-governmental organizations, and Rwandans involved in the reconciliation process. These numerous meetings and discussions exposed American and Rwandan students to contrasting views about the causes of the genocide and the responses to its aftermath. This shared framework of inquiry fostered not only a sense of complicity, but also helped everyone involved in this oral history project to realize that no one possesses the ultimate truth about the genocide. Everyone had to take a position regarding sensitive issues such as identity politics in post-genocide Rwanda, the implementation of justice, the role of the international community, the duty to remember, the challenges of rebuilding one’s life, and the role each of us could play in this process. These two weeks allowed us to build a relationship of trust and to acknowledge that learning about the genocide requires a dialogic process that allows a diversity of views and trajectories to coexist while we individually and collectively forge our responses to the legacy of pain left by this traumatic past. These conversations also made us realize that though we were talking about the same events, the impact of this same past within the present was not only radically different between us and survivors, but also wildly heterogeneous among survivors. This awareness forced us to refrain from generalizations and to keep in mind the plurality of responses to the genocide’s aftermath. Furthermore, this experience constantly reminded us of the difficulty of making a difference on a broad scale and encouraged us to value more modest and personalized venues and outcomes.

Indirect Witnessing and Co-ownership

The civic knowledge or competence that my students and I acquired through the testimonial encounter with survivors did not only concern the past and present of our interlocutors, but also equally important, our own history and present responsiveness to others’ pain. Testimony as a social encounter engages a process that forces the listening community to become more than a witness to the testifying individuals’ experiences. It forces that community to become a witness to its own anxious ability to listen and to respond to the challenging and often disruptive experiences passed on to its members. As Felman and Laub (1992) have shown, engaging oneself in the practice of soliciting testimony calls ultimately for a practice of indirect witnessing and co-ownership:

By extension, the listener to trauma comes to be a participant and co-owner of the traumatic event: through his very listening, he comes to partially experience trauma in himself. …While overlapping, to a degree, with the experience of the victim, he nonetheless does not become the victim—he preserves his own separate place, position and perspective. …The listener, therefore, has to be at the same time a witness to the trauma witness and a witness to himself (pp. 57–58).

To become civically engaged presupposes then for an academic community to develop within the testimonial encounter a kind of teaching that allows students to become aware of the inadequacy of their responsiveness toward local and foreign communities and to encourage forms of agency in association with those who remain too often culturally voiceless. Civic engagement resides, therefore, in a willingness to acknowledge that we, as an academic community, must identify what transformative dialogues need to be implemented both at a local and global level to become engaged listeners and what crucial role we ought to play in the social recognition and circulation of the histories of pain that community partners share through testimonies and oral history projects.

To address the challenges of co-witnessing and being co-creators of knowledge, in both courses students carried out a collective final project in which survivors had a say. In each case, after having gathered survivors’ stories in French, students had to define how to publicly translate and document the histories of their interlocutors in order to relay their voices within our academic community and beyond. In Documenting the Genocide against the Tutsis in Rwanda, students created a polyvocal recitative performance based on the correspondence they had maintained throughout the semester with survivors. This campus-wide event, entitled “Voices from Rwanda,” forced students to apply to their own project the critical awareness they developed during the semester about the rhetorical and ethical choices behind any mediation of the genocide. Now it was their turn to define how to document the histories of pain that had been passed on to them in order to confer to these stories an unprecedented resonance within our academic community. To provide some context to this recitative act of indirect witnessing, students created a series of informative posters about Rwanda’s history and culture that the public could read before the performance. After having selected excerpts from survivors’ testimonies, students organized them around a series of themes, with the opening section corresponding to the beginning of the genocide: “April 6, 1994,” “My Family,” “Before the Genocide,” “Try To Imagine,” “The Importance of Testifying,” “Try To Imagine… Today,” “Living Together,” and “Our Words.”

The Rwandan survivors read the draft and amended its content according to their sense of appropriateness and how they desired to be perceived. This co-editing process offered them the ability to voice their history on their own terms, share the challenges they still face today, and articulate their aspirations with more accuracy. The setting for the performance was the following: Students relaying the words of their Rwandan interlocutors were dressed in black and surrounded the public from behind. Except for two light sources, the room of 80 seats was dark to minimize visual distraction and help the public focus on survivors’ words. On a screen, the portrait and the first name of the Rwandan survivor from whom the public was hearing a testimony was projected.4 In the last section of the performance entitled “Our Words,” students shared their views about the transformative potentiality of learning with survivors:

In learning about the different ways to document the Rwandan genocide, I have discovered the difference between pity and compassion. Feeling pity can be a detrimental approach whereas compassion provokes one to create social change. Having a link with a real person in Rwanda who went through this experience was what truly cemented this mind-set for me. (Katie)

My correspondent was Jean-Jacques. When he said “because you have become my friend, I want to tell you my story,” it was as though I was directly affected. Someone that I cared about came face to face with hatred and suffered immense losses. He is suffering even now, trying to deal with the return of those who killed his friends and family. He is struggling against hate, while immersed in sorrow. I feel now that I carry a bit of this weight on my shoulders. Carrying this bit of weight is my gift to my friend. (Kate)

By sharing their mutual views and divergent expectations, American students and their Rwandan interlocutors learned from each other about the relational dynamic of remembrance, belonging, and identity. By negotiating together their differences, they were able to craft a mediation of the genocide that did not exist prior to the course and, furthermore, to generate a dialogue about this traumatic past whose aftermath was now inscribed in each other’s history and community—though in very different ways. The fact that both students and their interlocutors were given a say and an agency within the testimonial encounter, allowed everyone to use their critical awareness about testimony and the representation of pain to negotiate various forms of responsiveness according to their respective situation within the testimonial encounter. As Battistoni (2006) highlights:

Research and practice in service-learning has established the importance of giving students a voice…in the resulting discussions/reflections that accompany the community-based experience. But we are also finding that student voice means enabling students to be involved in public problem solving connected to the issues that they determine to be important (p. 23).

Ultimately, by exploring the mediations of the genocide against the Tutsis, students had to question the responsiveness of various communities—including their own—to others’ histories of pain through the relationship they sought to establish with the voices of this traumatic past, while remaining aware that they will never fully meet the demands passed on to them by survivors.

Oral History as a Space of Hospitality and Advocacy

In Learning with Orphans of the Genocide in Rwanda, the final project offered Tubeho’s members the opportunity to record their testimony on video for themselves, if they wished to do so, without their having to choose beforehand the future use of these archives. After having shared their lives for two weeks, discovering numerous regions of Rwanda, experiencing side-by-side the challenge of visiting memorials, and exchanging many views with guest speakers and among ourselves, we wanted to open for our Rwandan interlocutors the opportunity to bear witness to their past experience as well as their present views and aspirations. No one was forced to speak about the past if they wished to focus solely on the present. Furthermore, before testifying, each survivor told his or her American interlocutor the topics and periods he or she didn’t want to address. In the end, half of the members of Tubeho who were part of the project expressed the desire to testify before the camera. These six interviews lasted between 45 minutes and 2 hours—a seventh was begun but the survivor found herself overwhelmed and was not able to complete her testimony. Once everyone who wanted to be interviewed had a chance to do so, survivors asked us to create unedited DVD copies for their personal use and to select excerpts from the six testimonies in order to produce a series of short subtitled testimonies for their association’s future website. They wished to use this opportunity to voice their challenges and gain more social visibility in Rwanda as they planned to seek funding for creating collective projects for Tubeho’s orphans.

Naasson Munyandamutsa (2004), a leading psychiatrist who works with survivors in Rwanda, describes as follows the demanding hospitality we tried to offer through our oral history project:

Building peace with survivors of extreme violence, and therefore with the world, requires the determination to help them reinstitute their love for themselves, rebuild their trust in themselves, and by doing so, recuperate their self-esteem for those who have lost it—this is the supreme objective for those who have not yet been wounded (p. 166, my translation).

For those who have been spared, like my students and me, this objective can only be embraced by departing from the common perception of who we are as we agree to address the estrangement provoked by the testimonial encounter with a reality traumatic and alienating to most. This shift within the practice of listening is precisely what calls for a renewed conception of hospitality that can no longer rely on a principle of identification and transparency, since the interruption of oneself becomes the new paradigm allowing new forms of responsiveness within the testimonial encounter.

Responsiveness and Assessment

Often mutually transformative, the semester-long correspondence, as well as the three weeks spent with Tubeho’s members in Rwanda, forced each person to explore unprecedented modes of learning since here our interlocutors not only had a voice but also a say regarding the responsiveness we were individually and collectively negotiating as community partners. It was precisely this attempt to define pertinent personal and collective responses to a traumatic past while remaining aware of our differences within the testimonial encounter that allowed a form of civic engagement. In both courses, students were asked to write a final essay reflecting on their own experience of becoming a learning community and assessing to what extent they were able to respond personally and collectively to the implications of having been given the opportunity to learn with survivors and become heirs to these histories of pain. The students considered how they had to reposition themselves once they acknowledged that even though the violence of these traumatic histories would always remain foreign to them, the survivors’ ongoing challenges had become an integral part of their own personal histories. While some economical, political, and judicial demands clearly exceeded the capacities of the listening community we sought to be, other demands—such as the desire to be acknowledged as a human being, the possibility of bearing witness, and, more concretely, the opportunity to rebuild oneself through education—were within our reach. Upon our return to the United States, students created an association on campus to increase awareness about Rwanda’s post-genocide challenges and committed to raise funds to offer one scholarship annually to a member of Tubeho who took part in the course.5 In both courses, facing the demands that had been passed on to our respective communities through the testimonial encounter was then—and still remains—the major challenge to which we exposed ourselves because our responsiveness will always, to some degree, remain inadequate. While the correspondence with survivors forbids us from envisioning the study of the 1994 genocide in Rwanda as a distant and abstract event, the oral history project forced us to face the lasting consequences of genocidal violence and the active role we ought to play as a learning community. If we agree that testimony is first the performative reiteration of one’s presence, then we can make it explicit for students that testimony is not so much about a past that is incomprehensible to them, but rather about the various positions and values that citizens claim within the present through the act of bearing witness or by listening to those who aspire to do so. It is at this juncture that testimony, envisioned as a space of encounter, can pedagogically and civically offer a chance to overcome our reluctance to envisioning these histories of pain as part of our respective communities. Thus, creating a testimonial relationship with survivors of traumatic violence represents one possible avenue for bridging the gap between communities who have radically different histories and priorities, as long as each community develops new forms of responsiveness to the demands generated by interweaving their histories. Engaged in the testimonial encounter, we—as an academic community working to become a listening community—had to define our civic responsibilities, knowing that our country bears some responsibility for the events that made this genocide possible. Furthermore, we had to envision the histories of pain that were conveyed to us as part of a common history whose consequences need to be shared within the present space opened by the testimonial encounter. Through our dialogue with survivors and the testimonies collected, students came to realize—at least this is my civic hope—that the pain suffered by others is not a past event, but represents for its survivors an ongoing process of negotiation in which we, the listening community, must determine our role. Since the signification of the violence of genocide and its traumatic effects has no epilogue for survivors, we must reflect on how our community can recognize this ongoing struggle and define which paths of action are pertinent within our respective communities.

Suddenly positioned by the testimonial encounter as heirs to a traumatic experience no longer culturally disconnected from our own, we found ourselves challenged in our belief that we should never have inherited this experience of genocide because it was supposed to be and remain a foreign reality. Listening to testimonies witnessing the genocide against the Tutsis questions then both our willingness to confront disconcerting human behaviors and our sense of cultural hospitality, when hospitality is understood as interrupting oneself. The encounter with the disturbing experience of genocide can thus provoke in us one of two responses. It may, on the one hand, impose on us a duty to rethink how we position ourselves within the present and among the living in relationship to this painful past in order to recognize both its long-lasting aftermath and its present demands. Or, on the other hand, this encounter may affirm us in our unquestioned belief that our order of things is immune to the possibility of genocide and, consequently, that survivors’ testimonies are “too much”—a position that does not preclude feelings like pity or call for a duty to remember. The first response represents a venue for civic engagement as survivors and their interlocutors engage in a mutually transformative dialogue, while the second symptomizes a social and cultural monologue where survivors’ voices are cast as interferences with respect to an exclusive social order that defines what is culturally audible and legitimate.


Battistoni, R. (2006). Civic engagement: A broad perspective. In Kecskes, K. (Ed.), Engaging departments: Moving faculty culture from private to public, individual to collective focus for the common good (pp. 11–26). Bolton, MA: Anker.

Battistoni, R. (2002). Civic engagement across the curriculum: A resource book for service-learning faculty in all disciplines. Providence, RI: Campus Compact.

Chambers, R. (2004). Untimely interventions: AIDS writing, testimonial, and the rhetoric of haunting. Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press.

Chambers, R. (1996). The responsibility of responsiveness: Criticism in an age of witness. Paroles Gelées: UCLA French Studies, 14(2), 9–27.

Chun, W.H.K. (2002). Unbearable witness: Toward a politics of listening. In N. K. Miller and J. Tougaw (Eds.), Extremities, trauma testimony, and community (pp. 143–165). Urbana: University of Illinois Press.

Derrida, J. (2000). Demeure: Fiction and testimony. Stanford: Stanford UP.

Felman, S., & Laub, D. (1992). Testimony: Crises of witnessing in literature, psychoanalysis, and history. New York and London: Routledge.

Mujawayo, E., & Belhaddad, S. (2004). SurVivantes: Rwanda, dix ans après le génocide. Paris: Editions de l’Aube.

Munyandamutsa, N. (2004). Blessure invisible, une expérience déroutante. Humanitaire 10, 160–167.

Sontag, S. (2003). Regarding the pain of others. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux Inc.

Tal, K. (1996). Worlds of hurt: Reading the literature of trauma. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Weine, S. (2006). Testimony after catastrophe: Narrating the traumas of political violence. Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press.


I would like to thank those who welcomed my students and their Rwandan friends from Tubeho: Faustin Murangwa Bismark, Carine Gakuba, Issa Higiro, Chantal Kabasinga, Ildephonse Kahigira, Martin Muhoza, Rose Mukankomeje, Gaspard Mukwiye, Naasson Munyandamutsa, Thomas Munyaneza, Julienne Murorunkwere, Ernest Mutwarasimbo, Gasana Ndoba, Antoine Rutayisere, Didier Giscard Sagashya, Théodore Simburudali, Assumpta Umurungi, and Freddy Umutanguha; also the members of the Imbuto Foundation, the survivors who guided us through the memorials of Gisozi, Nyamata, Ntarama, Murambi, Nyange, and Bisesero. Thanks also to Berthe Kayitesi, survivor and author who assisted me throughout this oral history project, and to my colleagues David Scobey and Jill Reich for their commitment to community engagement within academia.

About the Author

Alexandre Dauge-Roth is an associate professor of French and Francophone Studies at Bates College. Dauge-Roth is the author of Writing and Filming the Genocide of the Tutsis in Rwanda: Dismembering and Remembering Traumatic History. Lanham, MC: Lexington Books, 2010, on which he drew for this article.


Should the Higher Education Community Help Sustain Democracy?

Scott J. Peters, Theodore R. Alter, and Neil Schwartzbach, Democracy and Higher Education: Traditions and Stories of Civic Engagement. Michigan State University Press: East Lansing, 2010, 396 pages. ISBN: 978-0-87013-976-5

Reviewed by Margaret A. Purcell

Practicing public purpose is done in a variety of ways, with a multitude of publics, and with the aim of impacting communities. Ever present in this text are the underlying assumptions that: Members of higher education communities can and should impact their worlds; neither theory nor practice are best served by operating in isolation of one another; democracy will never flourish in a world where the educated function without exposure to the checks and balances of daily life. Personal interviews with engagement scholars and practitioners allow the authors to illustrate the vast opportunities for building community and enhancing theory through engagement.

The authors cite the conclusions of President Truman’s 1948 Commission on Higher Education as the foundation for their arguments that academic theory building and education must go outside the hallways, laboratories, and classrooms of our colleges and universities in order to sustain a functioning democratic society. The often clinically untainted experience of teaching and learning must occur in concert with the struggles, joys, and mundane realities that constitute living. The student, the teacher, and the community interacting together with the community are able to explore and assist with civic life. The authors underscore their assertions by highlighting the work of faculty and staff at Cornell University.

The authors follow a trend in the community engagement literature that posits a high value for outreach and outreach scholarship. Cunningham and McKinney (2010) argued that deliberative democracy, applied learning, and community engagement can result in: 1) increased participation of communities in faculty research; 2) the willful participation of faculty in community outreach; and 3) greater student understanding of practice. By combining learning, service, and research, a synchronous system of theory, practice, and partnership emerges. This requires us to veer away from what Rice (1996) called the “assumptive world of the academic professional” which requires adherence to specifically defined standards of rigor, dissemination, and peer review (O’Meara, 2008). Through the profiles in the Peters, Alter, and Schwartzbach text, we are witness to a vivid picture of the struggles that practitioners face as their attempt to work sometimes within and sometimes beyond the existing rigid structure of higher education. Perhaps more importantly, it gives witness to the powerful impact that can be made when the rigid structure is allowed to become malleable. In such instances the skills and interests of university personnel and students intertwine with the needs and resources of the community in dynamic and mutually beneficial ways.

Other literature indicates that citizenship education (broadly defined) is also impactful to the communities in which such targeted education occurs. The viability of public civic education is seen as a value to the greater society beyond the world of higher education. According to the Citizenship Foundation (2012) citizenship education is successful when it teaches participants to be:

• Aware of their rights and responsibilities as citizens

• Informed about the social and political world

• Concerned about the welfare of others

• Articulate in their opinions and arguments

• Capable of having an influence on the world

• Active in their communities

• Responsible in how they act as citizens.

O’Meara (2008) argued that community dependent faculty must be able to engage community partners and secure their trust in order to be effective. She stressed that faculty should have the ability to: discover and learn, think critically, consider and appreciate various values; recognize diverse perspectives; reflect upon experience and theory; share outcomes and paradigms with lay and academic audiences; and integrate scholarly perspectives with real world practice. All of these tenets are seen in the profiles of this text.

The people profiled are real—and sometimes raw—examples of how the hiring, firing, and reward systems in higher education espouse ambiguous messages about how to excel. There are expressions of the reality of the tenuous nature of the work as when senior extension associate Tom Maloney must wait to see if he will have his appointment renewed and when associate professor John Sipple worries that his work will not be valued by his academic peers on his promotion and tenure committee. Those profiled state that they struggled with the fluxing valuation given over time to service, then education, then research—as if they were discrete units without shared function or purpose. There is an acknowledgement that the reliance on external funding sources can lead to breaks in service and difficulty in planning for future work. Will grant funding continue? Will the university continue the staff line? Will research topics and teaching loads be viewed as acceptable? Are service and outreach valued within higher education?

Then there are questions of accepted pedagogy. Is service-learning teaching? Does it have measurable and significant impacts on student learning? Existing literature posits rich and lifelong affects of service-learning. According to King and Baxter-Magolda (1996) self-authorship and personal authority are essential to learning in the higher education setting. Self and other knowledge must be understood by learners, and the service-learning format requires that a student understand both. This outcome is highly desirable, according to the Association of American Colleges (1991), which insists that institutions must help students understand that the world is highly complex and that understanding is based upon interpretation of available information. The experience is potent for the student because it changes the student’s relation to the academic power structure (Butin, 2005). The student becomes an actor upon and within the realm of knowledge instead of a recipient of existing knowledge, according to Butin.

These outcomes are reinforced by profiled subjects. In the text, associate professor Paula Horrigan clearly articulates her passion for student engagement when she shares that “I’m interested in fostering … democratic practices and engagement, and co-learning” (p. 121). Students are key components of a communal process. “You put them in a situation where revelation comes to them because of experience, not because you tell them,” she says (p. 121). She notes that the experience in such a learning setting prepares students for future work in communities.

Learning can also be empowering as indicated by profile subject and associate professor Frank Rossi. He says that he intends to instill the instinct to question in the professionals with whom he works. He provides the latest information on horticulture chemicals to the community, but he wants them to ask how their use will impact their real world settings and their work. He works hard to link his state of the art research as a scientist to real world problems, and he strives to make his presentations understandable and useful in the community at large. He is a powerful facilitator of knowledge because he conveys information and encourages recipients to question then use what is learned within their setting.

This text is an excellent jumping off point for honest and open conversations about the role of higher education in our communities and civic life. What is our purpose and how should we function to reach our goals? This highly accessible text with modern day profiles in courage is a good place to begin to explore how we should value theory building, community education, community partnerships, and learning. As institutions and the people who embody them, are we passive conveyers of thought or nimble, responsive, active, vital members of democratic and engaged communities of lifelong learners?


Association of American Colleges. The challenge of connecting learning. Washington, DC: Association of American Colleges: 1991.

Butin, D.W. (2005) Identity (re)construction and student resistance. In D.W. Butin (Ed), Teaching social foundations of education: Contexts, theories, and issues. Manwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Cunningham, K., & McKinney, H. (2010). Towards the recognition and integration of action research and deliberative democracy. Journal of Public Deliberation, 6(1), 1 – 11.

King, P.M., & Baxter-Magolda, M.B. (1996). A developmental perspective on learning. Journal of College Student Development, 37, 163–173)

O’Meara, K. (2008). Graduate education and community engagement. In C.L. Colbeck, K. O’Meara, and A. Austin (Eds), Educating integrated professionals: Theory and practice on preparation for the professorate. New directions for teaching and learning, Volume 113. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Peters, Scott J., Alter, Theodore R., & Schwartzbach, Neil, (2010). Democracy and higher education: Traditions and stories of civic engagement. Michigan State University Press, East Lansing.

The Citizenship Foundation, (2012). What is citizenship education? Retrieved on March 20, 2012 from:

About the Reviewer 

Margaret A. Purcell is a faculty member in New College and the New College LifeTrack programs at The University of Alabama.


Defining Community-Based Research

Kerry Strand, Sam Marullo, Nick Cutforth, Randy Stoecker, and Patrick Donohue, Community-Based Research and Higher Education: Principles and Practices. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2003, 304 pages. ISBN: 978-0-7879-6205-0

Reviewed by Glenn A. Bowen

 Community engagement wears many faces. In higher education, its familiar faces include service learning, public service, advocacy and civic activism, social entrepreneurship, and engaged scholarship. Community engagement, or civic engagement, has now emerged in the guise of community-based research (CBR).

Although CBR has long been employed in addressing social challenges (Beckman, Penney, & Cockburn, 2011), it has only recently taken its place among pedagogical and scholarly approaches to civic engagement. Indeed, CBR is viewed as an extension or enhancement of service learning (DeBlasis, 2006; Kowalewski, 2004) – the pedagogy that integrates relevant community service into the curriculum – and as scholarly work by faculty (Wade & Demb, 2009).

On the face of it, CBR is simply research based in a community. Accordingly, many researchers may claim that they have been doing CBR for years. However, there is more to CBR than meets the eye. That much is clear from even a cursory glance at Community-Based Research and Higher Education: Principles and Practices.

Coauthors Kerry Strand, Sam Marullo, Nick Cutforth, Randy Stoecker, and Patrick Donahue elucidate the concept of community-based research, touch on its theoretical underpinnings, provide several examples of the methodology in practice, and document its benefits. They present CBR as research with and for (not on and not merely in) the community. Furthermore, they champion CBR not only as a research methodology but also as a teaching technique and an institutional strategy for social justice.

In the foreword, Richard Couto points to an important challenge that the book offers – a challenge for faculty “to blend … disciplinary training with interdisciplinary inquiry that is both rigorous and relevant” (p. xvi). Readers may connect his name to participatory action research (e.g., Couto, 2000), which is one of several terms used to describe the kind of research promoted in this book. The focus on faculty as the primary audience for this book speaks volumes about how far CBR has come. Traditional academic research is, by and large, an individual enterprise that concentrates on the science of discovery – that is, investigation in search of new knowledge. In contrast, CBR is a collaborative enterprise in which research questions emerge from the needs of communities and in which faculty and students along with community members become engaged in a research process that seeks to create social change.

Community-Based Research and Higher Education is divided into 10 chapters, beginning with the origins and principles of CBR and ending with a look to the future. In Chapter 1, Strand and her colleagues attribute CBR’s emergence as a response largely to widespread criticism that higher education was insufficiently responsive to the needs of communities. CBR, they suggest, is also a response to the growing realization that higher education had failed to prepare students for lives of civic engagement and social responsibility. The authors define CBR as “a partnership of students, faculty, and community members who collaboratively engage in research with the purpose of solving a pressing community problem or effecting social change” (p. 3). They outline three major principles of CBR: campus–community collaboration; validation of multiple sources of knowledge, discovery, and dissemination; and social action/social change to achieve social justice. The social justice goal makes CBR distinctive. No wonder that, in defining community, the authors emphasize that it consists of people who are oppressed, powerless, economically deprived, and disenfranchised. CBR, as the authors suggest, provides an avenue to the empowerment of underserved communities and marginalized people.

Chapters 2 and 3 draw attention to campus–community partnerships as the foundation for the collaboration that sets CBR apart from traditional research. In describing the benefits derived by the community, Chapter 2 focuses on how CBR collaboration can help community-based organizations achieve their social change objectives. This chapter also delineates 10 principles of successful community–campus partnerships. In this regard, it offers nothing new, except perhaps the emphasis on shared power as the basis for good research to achieve social justice outcomes. Suggesting how to turn those principles into effective practice, Chapter 3 offers the nuts and bolts of CBR partnerships in terms of finding or starting a partnership, facilitating the collaborative process, and achieving long-term goals.

Chapter 4 examines the ways in which the principles of CBR shape the design and conduct of this kind of research. The authors discuss (a) collaboration, including barriers to collaboration; (b) creation and dissemination of knowledge, including the recognition and validation of sources of knowledge that are often not legitimized by conventional research approaches; and (c) contributions to social change. To their credit, Strand et al. present CBR not as a remedy for social ills but rather as a dynamic research approach with a social change emphasis that “is a particularly difficult transition for academic researchers to make” (p. 83). As the authors assert, academics interested in CBR must adopt a new paradigm of research that considers the value and relevance, and not only the validity, of the research findings.

Chapter 5 covers strategies for addressing challenges that may arise at each stage of the research process. Familiar research methods may need to be modified and new methods employed. In the process of conducting the research, both campus and community partners stand to benefit from the transformative effects of unanticipated learning.

The next two chapters are devoted to CBR in relation to teaching. The authors – faculty members from sociology, political science, and education – provide a sound rationale for viewing CBR as a teaching strategy. However, service-learning practitioners may take issue with the authors’ veiled criticism of their work as charity-oriented. After all, service learning does have social change goals and, properly pursued, is not any less rigorous or less relevant than CBR.

In Chapter 8, “Organizing for Community-Based Research,” campus-based administrative structures and management issues are explored. The authors recommend that CBR be assigned to an entity within an academic unit. As a follow-up in Chapter 9, they offer practical suggestions regarding the operation of a CBR center. In addition, they address the question of sustainability of CBR work and indicate the importance of rewarding faculty who embrace this kind of research.

The 304-page book closes with an invitation for readers to share the authors’ vision of higher education based on research-oriented campus-community partnerships. Such partnerships are seen as sustained, reciprocal, and transformative as institutions support communities in realizing a more just society.

Community-Based Research and Higher Education makes a major contribution to the community engagement literature. It makes clear the epistemological advantages of CBR and shows how research can respond to community needs as much as it can satisfy researchers’ interests. Readers will appreciate the many examples of CBR projects drawn from diverse institutional and social settings. Readers would appreciate even more something that is missing – a complete CBR case study, detailing such elements as identification of the research question; the specific roles of the research partners, including students and community members; the problems faced and overcome as part of the research process; and the dissemination and use of the research results. Nevertheless, this is a very valuable book, replete with insights and guidelines for CBR practice in higher education. It is recommended reading for faculty and civic engagement administrators and an excellent resource for preparing students for active, engaged citizenship.


Beckman, M., Penney, N., & Cockburn, B. (2011). Maximizing the impact of community-based research. Journal of Higher Education Outreach and Engagement, 15(2), 83–103.

Couto, R. A. (2000). Participatory action in research: Making research central. Journal of Public Service & Outreach, 5(2), 9–16.

DeBlasis, A. L. (2006). From revolution to evolution: Making the transition from community service learning to community based research. International Journal of Teaching and Learning in Higher Education, 18(1), 36–42.

Kowalewski, B. M. (2004). Service-learning taken to a new level through community-based research: A win-win for campus and community. In M. Welch & S. H. Billig (Eds.), New perspectives in service-learning: Research to advance the field (pp. 127–147). Greenwich, CT: Information Age Publishing.

Wade, A., & Demb, A (2009). A conceptual model to explore faculty community engagement. Michigan Journal of Community Service Learning, 15(2), 5–16.

About the Reviewer

Glenn A. Bowen is the director of the Center for Community Service Initiatives at Barry University in Miami Shores, Florida.


Community Practice Textbook Is Oriented Toward Graduate Study

Dorothy N. Gamble and Marie Weil, Community Practice Skills: Local to Global Perspectives, New York: Columbia University Press, 2010. 482 pages. ISBN 978-0-231-11002-0

Reviewed by David J. Edelman

Community Practice Skills: Local to Global Perspectives is a textbook aimed primarily at graduate students in community practice social work. Consequently, it is not for a general readership but provides a basis to community practice. It is also not the kind of book one reads through quickly, but rather a scholarly work with the roots of community practice and the historical development of its ideas presented in detail. It is not a handbook of actions to be taken by social workers. Although it has many positive qualities as a text, its thoroughness, for example, the format does not promote active engagement. A less dense presentation with more graphics and photographs would be very helpful

The book is divided into 2 parts. Part I: Community Practice: Purpose and Knowledge Base, provides the basis for the analysis presented in the second part. This includes chapters discussing the meaning of community, processes associated with community practice, and social justice and human rights; presenting the eight models of community practice; discussing guiding values and the evolution of the purposes and approaches to community practice, and providing an overview of the concepts, theories, knowledge, and perspectives that guide community practice. Part II: Eight Models of Community Practice for the Twenty-First Century, centers on the scope of concern, basic processes, conceptual understanding and roles and skills important for practice in each model (p. xvi).

The focus of the book, then, is a framework of eight models of community practice placed within a local to global context, recognizing that globalization affects the way community practice social workers will practice in the future. Promoting social justice is a major theme throughout the book. Thus, understanding the framework and context are essential for students. The eight models: neighborhood and community organizing; organizational functional communities; social, economic and sustainable development; inclusive program development; social planning; coalitions; political and social action, and movements for progressive change are discussed in detail in separate chapters. Table 2.1: Eight Models of Community Practice with Twenty-first Century Contexts (pp. 26, 27), nicely summarizes the models, covering desired outcome, systems targeted for change, primary constituency, scope of concern and social work/community practice roles. A student would be thankful for this as keeping all the characteristics of each model in mind without this summary would be a daunting task.

Consequently, as a text, it would be useful to have bullets of five or six main ideas listed at the start of each chapter with the main ideas presented clearly and graphically once again at the end of each chapter. A book such as this has tremendous value as a handy reference for students and practitioners, and making the main points accessible some time after reading the book would make it more useful.

Graphics such as Table 2.2: Primary and Related Roles for Social Workers/ Community Practice Workers in the Eight Models (pp. 40–44), Table 4.1: Reed’s Illustrative Types of Explanatory Theories about Society and Social Change (pp. 88 and 89), and Table 4.2: Theoretical Framework for Community Practice—Macro to Micro Scale (p. 94) are very instructive and useful for students and practitioners alike and make the book more meaningful for those interested in community engagement who are not social workers.

An excellent aspect of the book is the use of case studies to illustrate most of the eight models. These are very informative and are where the global context really comes to the forefront. They also provide the most interesting reading of the volume. Case studies are taken from Eastern Cape Province, South Africa; Santa Fe, New Mexico; an unspecified sub-Sahara African country; Robeson County, North Carolina; and Durham, North Carolina. There are also frequent references to other examples in the main body of the text.

Community Practice Skills: Local to Global Perspectives is of interest to a sizable segment of JCES readers. While it is aimed at community practice social workers, there is much that is useful for others involved in community engagement as it “…presents a comprehensive guide to skills for community engagement with a knowledge base drawn from the values, purposes, and theories that form the foundation for work with communities” (p. xv). While reading it thoroughly may take some time, it deserves a place on the reference shelf of any person seriously involved in community engagement.

About the Reviewer

David J. Edelman is a professor of planning in the School of Planning at the University of Cincinnati Professor Edelman is a member of the JCES editorial board.


Publisher Samory T. Pruitt, Vice President for Community Affairs, The University of Alabama
Editor Cassandra E. Simon, The University of Alabama
Production Editor Edward Mullins, The University of Alabama
Book Review Editor Dr. Heather Pleasants, The University of Alabama
Assistant to the Editor Vicky Carter, The University of Alabama
Copy Editors, Designers, Web Producers Christi Cowan and Eric Wang, The University of Alabama

The Journal of Community Engagement and Scholarship is published at The University of Alabama by the Office of Community Affairs for the advancement of engagement scholarship worldwide. To reach the editor e-mail or call 205-348- 7392. The NASA infrared image on the cover is of Hurricane Katrina as it approached the Gulf Coast in 2005.

Marsha H. Adams, The University of Alabama Jay Lamar, Auburn University
Andrea Adolph, Kent State University Stark Campus James Leeper, The University of Alabama
Katrice A. Albert, Louisiana State University Robert C. Liebman, Portland State University
Theodore R. Alter, Penn State University Marybeth Lima, Louisiana State University
Robert E. Bardon, North Carolina State University Robert L. Miller, Jr., The University at Albany, State University of New York
Anna Sims Bartel, Bates College Mary Ann Murphy, Pace University dt ogilvie, Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey
Delicia Carey, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Jacob Oludoye Oluwoye, Alabama A&M University
 J. Robert Krueger, Worcester Polytechnic Institute Michael E. Orok, Alabama A&M University
Jeremy Cohen, Penn State University Ruth Paris, Boston University
 Richard L. Conville, The University of Southern Mississippi Clement Alesander Price, Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey
Susan Curtis, Purdue University Josephine Pryce, The University of Alabama
Mary Elizabeth Curtner-Smith, The University of Alabama A. Scott Reed, Oregon State University
David J. Edelman, University of Cincinnati Michael J. Rich, Emory University
Barbara Ferman, Temple University Howard B. Rosing, DePaul University
Hiram E. Fitzgerald, Michigan State University Sunil Saigal, New Jersey Institute of Technology
Philip A. Greasley, University of Kentucky Nick Sanyal, University of Idaho
Susan Scheriffius Jakes, North Carolina State University Amilcar Shabazz, University of Massachusetts
Phillip W. Johnson, The University of Alabama L. Steven Smutko, North Carolina State University
Diane F. Witmer, California State University Lee H. Staples, Boston University
Mary Jolley, Community Development, Tuscaloosa, Ala. John J. Stretch, Saint Louis University
Kimberly L. King-Jupiter, Lewis University Kim L. Wilson, Purdue University
William S. Kisaalita, University of Georgia John R. Wheat, The University of Alabama

From the Editor: JCES Keeps its Commitment to Accessibility, in Hard Copy and Now Online

Cassandra E. Simon, Ph.D.

As JCES begins its fifth year of publication, it seems appropriate to be somewhat reflective. We are steadily moving forward in having JCES meet our goal of being a premiere engagement scholarship journal, guided by our own brand of “authentic community engagement.” By this, we mean a journal that recognizes the centrality and importance of all persons involved in finding solutions to the problems addressed by engagement scholarship work. Beginning with the first issue, we committed to creating a “new kind of journal” – one responsive to the needs of communities and community partners and university constituent groups (i.e., faculty, staff, and students). JCES not only provides a venue for a variety of scholarly works from diverse perspectives, but is also structured around a work ethic directed toward diligently making sure the journal is accessible to all. This idea of accessibility has resulted in JCES being made available electronically. To access the electronic version of the journal, including all back issues, please go to www. Despite the financial costs and the numerous online journals that have come about in recent years, there is still something to be said for the value of hard copy journals. This recognition, along with your ongoing support of JCES, has resulted in University of Alabama administrators, especially Vice President for Community Affairs, Samory Pruitt, making possible our ability to continue to make JCES available in hard copy. In addition to accessibility in the literal sense, JCES also gives a great deal of attention to literacy accessibility, ensuring that a wide range of individuals can read and most importantly, understand what is written. Before the release of its inaugural issue, this focus on literacy balance and the efforts made to embrace “authentic community engagement” led to some initial criticisms and concerns regarding the scholarly value of JCES. After all, how could a top peer reviewed research journal be written to and for the academic and other university personnel, community, and students, while maintaining rigor and quality? Understanding that we are all students, educators, researchers, and community in the varied contexts of our lives made that part easy for us.

It has taken a great deal of work from a dedicated group of individuals, but the feedback from those of you in the community engagement and scholarship field indicate that we have been successful in having JCES be a new and different kind of research journal, while maintaining scholarly rigor. We appreciate your support and are committed to retaining the high standards you have come to expect from JCES. As we work to strengthen community partner and student participation in the journal, we look to you all to encourage your community partners and students to submit a piece for review and possible publication in an upcoming issue of JCES. We make every effort to include a least one community partner and one student piece in each issue. These manuscripts need to be reflective essays or critiques on some aspect of community engagement and scholarship or their experiences with community engagement work. These pieces are 500–1000 word essays provided to give voice to these populations who are still too often spoken for as if they had no voice of their own, even in the engagement scholarship field, where they are typically given more voice than in traditional research. We know that you are as anxious as are we to hear more from our students and community partners and we look forward to hearing from many of them with whom you work.

As with each issue of JCES, we hope you find the included manuscripts informative, engaging, and relevant to your work in engagement scholarship. The articles in this volume are as varied as are the disciplines to which engagement scholarship applies. From addressing how to best improve health outcomes for the Latino population in a rural Southeastern community to understanding the application of critical race feminism as a framework for engagement scholarship, this issue provides stimulating and pointed suggestions for improving the communities in which we live. JCES continues to identify ways in which to highlight the role of engagement scholarship in the academic environment as seen with one manuscript that addresses how to develop more effective and sustainable relationships between communities and universities. Other manuscripts address topics that include ways to improve the society in which we live, whether through college instruction of a policy course or revitalization of a community post-disaster. As we prepare the next edition of JCES, which will be published shortly prior to our hosting of the National Outreach and Scholarship Conference, September 30–October 3, 2012, we are excited about the opportunity to showcase JCES and all else The University of Alabama has to offer. We invite you to attend the conference and learn even more about how to integrate the conference theme—Partner. Inspire. Change.—into your engagement scholarship work.

Using Service-Learning to Teach a Social Work Policy Course

Tarin Mink and Sarah Twill


Preparing students to be passionate about and engage in policy work can be a challenge for social work educators. Previous research supports that service-learning can increase positive attitudes and participation in macro practice. This manuscript presents a policy course that was taught using service-learning projects. Feedback from students was collected during the course and 15 months after its conclusion. Feedback from students suggested that students increased their confidence and competencies as policy practitioners and that the service-learning projects were influential in that change. After the course, students were engaging in policy activities such as calling, emailing, or writing an elected official, working on a specific policy change effort, participating as a member of a coalition working on a political issue of change, and voting. Lessons learned from this service-learning project are applicable to allied disciplines; implications for wider curriculum adoption and future research are discussed.


It can be challenging for social work educators to communicate the importance of social welfare policy course objectives and themes to students. The usefulness of a macro skill set may not be appreciated by many undergraduate students until beginning a professional social work career. Dooley, Sellers, and Gordon-Hempe (2009) postulated that this attitude may stem from “a lack of knowledge regarding what macro practice involves and how it is implemented, rather than from a dislike of this area of practice” (p. 435). However, previous research supports that service-learning can increase positive attitudes and participation in policy practice (Anderson, 2006; Anderson & Harris, 2005; Droppa, 2007; Rocha, 2000). This manuscript explores a policy course that utilized a service-learning project. Fifteen months following the course, the attitudes and behaviors about policy practice were explored.

Literature Review 

Jane Addams and Ellen Starr understood that a presence within the community would lead to a change in social welfare issues and create a commitment to community outreach (Kenny & Gallagher, 2002). The early values and philosophies of the Hull House are present in the practice today. Norris and Schwartz (2009) explain that the blending of “experiential learning, civic responsibility, and evidenced-based practice is the very foundation of social work practice and education” (p. 376). Given the mission of social work to participate in societal change, social work educators should be concerned about preparing future practitioners to be civically engaged members of the profession and society.

King (2003) reviewed social work’s history with service-learning and the positive benefits it offers to students, educators, and the communities served. He reported that the majority of literature in social work about the teachnique has focused on micro courses and skills. Social work students possess more negative attitudes toward macro courses than toward micro topics (Dooley, Sellers, & Gordon- Hempe, 2009; Hymans, 2000), and alumni report being insufficiently prepared for policy practice (Anderson & Harris, 2005). Researchers found that using service-learning in policy courses created valuable learning experiences and more positive attitudes toward policy (Anderson, 2006; Anderson & Harris, 2005; Droppa, 2007; Rocha, 2000).

Service-learning can benefit the education of students in several ways. Values such as diversity, self-determination, accountability, and collaboration can be taught using service-learning methods, which further students’ learning and social work knowledge (King, 2003; Williams & Reeves, 2004). Service-learning also promotes professional development. For example, Williams, King, and Kobb (2002) established that participation in the practice increased students’ ratings of their professional self-efficacy. Kropf and Tracey (2002) found that service-learning provided both pre-field preparation for MSW students and allowed social work educators an additional way to monitor professional readiness.

Anderson (2006) used a community-based research project in her policy course to increase interest in macro practice. Students worked with a health clinic that served undocumented Latinas who experienced domestic violence. Using the Violence Against Women Act, students conducted research and made policy and procedure recommendations to the agency. Anderson argued that traditional macro courses taught policy from the positivist paradigm, thus distancing students from the social welfare policies studied. Using service-learning allowed her to teach from a postmodern perspective. Students “mucked through the swamp” by working with a local agency to assess how legislation impacted clientele. Anderson found this approach to analyzing policy decreased students’ anxieties and increased their enthusiasm for policy work.

Droppa (2007) used a service-learning project in his policy courses for BSW students. Students reported that being involved in the community helped them understand the policy issues discussed in class. He found that BSW students who participated in the service-learning projects reported a desire to be involved in policy practice and felt the projects better prepared them for graduate school or employment.

Finally, Rocha (2000) conducted a study with MSW students who had taken a policy course as part of their graduate program. Half of the participants took a policy course that had a service-learning component, while the other half of the participants were taught using traditional methods. Rocha found that participants who had the service-learning component rated their competency as policy practitioners higher than those who did not have the experiential component. Also, the students who had taken the service-learning course reported engaging in more policy activities (e.g., communicating with elected officials, participating in community meetings on public policy issues, voting, or joining a citizen action group) following graduation.

Engagement in the community, including political work and advocacy, is not unique to social work, but is situated in the larger civic engagement literature. Boyte (2004) in his book Everyday Politics: Reconnecting Citizens and Public Life called for institutions of higher education to help students move from the micro work of solving individual problems to the mezzo and macro work of partnering with communities for change. This view is not unlike the work of Courtney and Specht (1994) who proposed that social workers had abandoned their social change agenda for practice with individuals. Boyte (2004) further argued that individuals have become consumers of government rather than co-creators of democracy. In order to remedy this, individuals must redefine how they participate in their communities by taking a more active role in politics and civic life.

This project presents a BSW social work policy course that attempted to move students into their roles as public citizens. Service-learning projects were designed to help students develop the professional skills needed to engage in mezzo and macro level change. In addition to learning the academic content, it was hoped that students would change their attitudes and behaviors about macro practice. Journal responses at the end of the course focus group, and a follow-up interview with students 15 months after the course concluded, helped to answer the following questions: After completing the service-learning policy course, do the students report more positive regard for their roles as macro practitioners? Do they engage in policy behaviors such as communicating with elected officials, participating in community meetings on public policy issues, voting, or joining a citizen action group?

Characteristics of the Course

Description of the Course

The course was a senior level policy course required for graduation at Wright State University in Dayton, Ohio. The course was designed to meet the Council on Social Work Education’s (CSWE) curriculum related to social welfare policy and services. The course took place in a five-week summer quarter. Sixteen students enrolled in the course. Class was scheduled for two 210-minute sessions per week. Content was presented to students in a traditional academic manner (e.g., lecture, discussion, in class activities) during one class session per week. For the second day of class each week, students were required to spend a minimum of 210 minutes engaged in service-learning work related to a policy project designed by the instructor and the community partner to reinforce the concepts of the course.

Course Projects and Assignments

In order to apply the concepts from the course, students selected from one of four service-learning projects. The projects were prearranged by the instructor and coordinated through the University’s Office of Service Learning. Attention was given to selecting projects that aligned with social work values and dealt with issues that impacted different populations. On the first day of the course, students had an opportunity to select the project for which they wished to work. Students negotiated with each other and with the instructor to reach consensus about group assignments. This allowed students to select a project in which they were interested, aligned with their personal and professional values, and fit their schedules. A minimum of three students were needed for each project and no more than five students could work on a project. Additionally, final projects or deliverables were negotiated between the instructor and the community partner. Because this course took place in a five-week summer term, there was less opportunity for students to be involved in the preplanning of the projects. Students did negotiate some content of the final project with the partner and instructor. In a traditional academic term, students could be given more responsibility of identifying partners and projects.

The first group worked with a state representative and his staff on a bill regarding prisoner re-entry programs. The representative wanted the students involved to interview social workers who were employed in the field of criminal justice about their attitudes toward the bill and prepare an executive summary. This group took the project a step further by sending a letter in support of the bill to the office of the state National Association of Social Workers in Raleigh, N.C. The group negotiated with the instructor that this additional task be part of their final project. The second project involved working with a state senator on a bill proposing a cap on textbook prices. Students were asked to interview key informants, specifically faculty members who had written a textbook, librarians, and bookstores, about their attitudes regarding the bill. The senator needed an executive summary of the findings and this was the final project for the group.

The third project was helping a national advocacy organization contact community members about the 2007 farm bill, specifically issues related to food stamps. The organization wanted students to contact member groups to discuss the merits of the bill and to encourage them to become politically active. Unlike the other projects in which the community partner requested a final report from the students, this organization did not need a report. As a result, students spent all of their service-learning hours advocating for the passage of the farm bill with the agency’s constituents.

The fourth project involved working with a local agency who served senior adults. The agency wanted to promote a bill that would streamline service for seniors. The final project for the group was creating a letter of support from the agency to all members of the state House and Senate requesting support of the bill. As the project progressed, the students identified that advocacy materials that could be used with clients were needed. The students worked with the community partner to design advocacy materials for the agency to use with clients and their families. They negotiated the addition of this task as part of their final project and grade.

In order to help students reflect on their experiences, the students were required to complete log assignments. Students completed three logs over the course of the term that integrated their work with the community partner and the course content. The log assignment required students to respond to three or four questions about their policy knowledge. Details about the log questions are presented in the methods section under student reflections.

In the final week, students completed a final project, and turned in a paper detailing their reflection of the experiences. Finally, all four groups participated in a reception and presented their findings to the class and the community partners.


Data Collection

This study employed a mixed method design. Data from two time periods were collected and analyzed. At the end of the term (time period one), data were collected from students using the following methods: reflection journals that were part of the course assignments and an end of the course focus group. In order to protect participants, the protocol of the study was approved by the authors’ university IRB. Sixteen students participated in the research; a full description of the participant demographics can be found in the results section.

Data Analysis

Qualitative data were collected from multiple sources (interviews, student reflection logs, and focus group notes) in time period one and two. In order to best understand the qualitative data, the first author transcribed her notes from the interviews. The second author transcribed notes from the focus group. The student reflection logs were already typed; the second author compiled responses to the questions. All qualitative data were reviewed and independently open coded by both authors (Lincoln & Guba, 1985). The purpose of the open coding was to discover how the students described their experiences and to look for meaning in the data. In the first round of analysis, photocopies of the transcripts were cut into relevant strips of data and sorted into constructs. Next, similar constructs were grouped and labeled as concepts. Data and key student quotes were placed on notecards and then sorted to identify developing similarities. From this process, themes emerged. Following the independent open coding, the authors compared their findings and worked to agree on the qualitative themes. The authors typically agreed on the sorting of key data and quotes into categories; however, much of the discussion was centered on titling the themes. This process provided interrater reliability of concepts and themes.

Time Period One

Students’ Reflections.

Included as part of their weekly logs, students recorded their reactions to their experiences. The reflection questions were assigned by the instructor for the purpose of assessing the students’ learning and to promote the critical assessment of their professional development. The questions required students to draw from their readings, the NASW Code of Ethics, lecture, and lessons learned from the projects. In addition to material focused on the academic content of the course, over the course of the term students responded to reflection prompts such as “Describe your past political engagement. What excites you and scares you about the service-learning project?” and “Select one topic discussed in class/presented in the reading. Summarize your understanding of the topic. How does the concept apply to your work on the service-learning project?” The written responses were collected and coded by themes.

Focus Group.

On the last day of class, students were asked by the instructor to respond in writing to open-ended questions and to discuss their responses with the class. This was not graded and students were told the purpose was to reflect on learning and for the instructor to improve the course for future students. The written responses were collected and coded by themes.

Time Period Two

Fifteen months following the completion of the course, qualitative and quantitative data were collected from the student participants. The students were contacted via email to request their voluntary participation in the follow-up project. Nine students replied to this request. Students participated in a 45-minute qualitative interview with the first author who was not involved with the course, but was completing data collection for her MSW thesis. Students were compensated with $15 for their time and travel expenses. The interview consisted of 14 open-ended questions related to the students’ experiences in the policy course. The questions were designed to assess the students’ experiences in the course and how the learning may (or may not have) been influenced by the service-learning. Examples of questions were, “Did the service-learning experience help you develop as a micro (also mezzo and macro) level social worker? If so, how and did the service-learning experience change your attitude about policy? If so, how/why?”

In addition, based on the work of Rocha (2000), participants were given a list of policy activities (e.g., communicating with elected officials, participating in community meetings on public policy issues, voting, or joining a citizen action group) and asked to indicate which, if any, behaviors they had engaged in since the course ended. Given the small sample size, the responses were tabulated for each question and reported; only the mean, standard deviation, and range was reported for overall participation in policy activities.


Description of Students

Sixteen students were enrolled in the course. Of the 16, 14 were Caucasian women; one was an African American woman; and one was an African- American male. The median age was 31.60 (range 20–58, SD = 12.92). All of the students started their senior practicum within two quarters of completing the policy course.

Nine students who participated in the policy course volunteered to participate in the follow-up interviews 15 months after the course ended. Of the nine students, seven were Caucasian females, one was an African-American male, and one student was an African-American female. The median age of the participants was 36 (range 22–59, SD = 14.7).

Time Period One

Student Reflection Logs

Included as part of their weekly logs, students recorded their reactions to their experiences. Reflection questions were assigned by the instructor for the purpose of assessing the students’ learning and to promote the critical assessment of their professional development. The most common theme related to students’ successfully using a skill. Examples of skills identified were talking to people in power about an issue (most common), report writing, and improving needs assessment. Examples of quotes that illustrate success in using a skill follow:

Before this project, I would hold back some questions I may want to ask. But now I have learned to ask things like “Can I have a copy of your budget?” or “Why are your prices so high?” (skill identified: talking to people in power)

I have found a new ability to call up complete strangers and speak with them about a political policy. I have found myself becoming more comfortable in talking with people about their opinions regarding this bill and setting up interviews. I have not always had confidence in myself and this project has been pushing me outside of my comfort zone. (skill identified: talking to people in power)

I worried about our group’s writing. … I thought, “Oh my god, we were giving the report to [an elected official]” and I wanted it to be good. We edited a lot. It wasn’t like a regular paper that we were turning in [to the professor]. (skill identified: writing skills)

The limitations that students recognized were more difficult to classify. The limitations were more closely tied with the nature and tasks associated with the project rather than based on a social work skill. Limitations included not having enough time to work on the project, key informants refusing to return phone calls, lack of local interest in the bill, and frustration with group members. These challenges may have interfered with their skill development.

Focus Group Responses

In written format and through a class discussion, students were asked to respond to four questions posed during the last class. The first question was, “Before this course, what were your attitudes about being involved in the political process?” Nine responses were classified as “related to fear.” Examples of the fear students expressed are exemplified by the following quotations:

I wanted nothing to do with politics. I thought I wouldn’t understand politics and I felt disconnected from my legislators.

I was scared. I never have been involved with politics and I was intimidated and did not think I would do well.

Similarly, three students admitted that they were uninterested in being involved with politics or macro practice. Comments went beyond fear and included statements like “I hate the thought of policy” and “My opinion does not matter so why bother.” In contrast, three students expressed positive regard about the opportunity to engage in policy work.

The second question was, “What is your attitude about being involved in the political process today?” The participants’ responses were classified into two themes: Confidence expressed because new skills and knowledge were acquired and desire to be involved in future advocacy and policy work. Twelve responses were classified as new skills and knowledge. Student sentiment was expressed in the following quotations:

I am very excited to say I have been a part of a bill. Helping it move forward has made me extremely proud. Advocating by doing something is what I have learned.

I have a voice and I know how to use it to better our society and for my future clients.

Three students expressed that their experiences lead them to embrace their own advocacy responsibilities. One student wrote: “My attitude has changed. I plan to become more involved in the political process. At one time in my life, politics meant only civil rights. Now politics includes social justice for everyone.”

The final question was, “Is there anything related to social work that you are more likely to do today than you were before the course started?” Eleven student responses were categorized as being more involved in policy work. Of those 11, 4 had specific plans of action, while 6 were less specific about how to be involved. Student responses included:

I will write to my representative because I truly know it is my social work duty.

Become politically active and speak up! Even if I don’t get my representative to do what I want, I still have the POWER and the RIGHT and the DUTY to do something about policies that hurt others.

Three students talked about being more aware of policies. One student wrote “I feel like I pay more attention to the news so that I have an understanding of what is happening in the world.” One student’s behaviors were not going to be changed following the course. She stated: “Although I learned a lot about policy, I still don’t want to have anything to do with it.”

Fifteen Month Follow-up 

A concern of the instructor of the course was that students were excited about policy and macro work because of their intense emersion in the topic and that the excitement and application of policy skills would not persist over time. Fifteen months following the completion of the course, qualitative and quantitative data were collected from nine students.

Three major themes emerged during the participants’ interviews and demonstrated the connectedness between the students’ experience with policy and the project. The themes were “engaging in the service-learning experience helped students learn about policy”; “engaging in the service-learning experience gave students confidence about policy skills”; and “engaging in the service-learning experience influenced policy behaviors.”

Theme 1—Engaging in the Service-Learning Experience Helped Students Learn about Policy. 

Students discussed how their learning experiences were enhanced by the project because it allowed for hands-on learning. The students reported how the projects provided a platform to apply what they had talked about in class or read to a real-world problem. Examples of statements that illustrated students’ positive regard for the service-learning project follow:

I think I would have been bored out of my mind [in a traditional course], because policy—I mean honestly I dreaded it–because it’s policy and it’s scary. With service-learning I got so comfortable with policy. I understood the material taught in class because I could apply it to what I was doing right then.”

It would have been hard for me to learn and stay focused [in a traditional course] because I find sometimes policy…it’s easier to see it than to just read about it. You know I can memorize what it takes to become a bill but to actually get out there and experience what it takes to get a motion moved, to see what public officials do…you actually get hands-on with it and it is so much better to learn by seeing it, experiencing it… hearing the words out of the senators’ mouths was much more powerful than reading it from a textbook or writing a paper about it.

Service-learning made me more excited about policy. You know, “I can help change this.”

Theme 2—Engaging in the Service-Learning Experience Gave Students Confidence about Policy Skills. 

During the qualitative interviews, students were asked to talk about their experiences with policy. Participants discussed how the service-learning projects increased their personal and professional confidence. Students felt as though the projects inspired them to know that their voices were being heard. Examples:

Confidence was one of the things that I think that I took the most away from it [the course]. It was feeling that as a social work student, you have much more say about things than what you ever would have thought. I definitely did not know we have as much power or as much of a voice as we do.

I love service-learning… it gives people the confidence. It gives students the confidence because we got to read about it and then I got to see it. Without the service-learning project, there would have been no way that I would have been able to testify in front of the Senate. I wouldn’t have had half of the educational experiences I’ve had over the past year without that class.

Theme 3—Engaging in the Service-Learning Influenced Policy Behaviors. 

A third theme that emerged was the concept of the service-learning projects creating lasting behavioral changes for students. Following the course, the students were able to participate in a variety of experiences including testifying before the State Senate, presenting their policy project at a professional conference, interviewing senators, and talking with social work professionals and citizens in the community about their thoughts regarding policy issues. Through these activities, students were able to participate in the political process and begin to develop a macro skill set. One student discussed her views on political behaviors. She explained:

They [elected officials] don’t know anything that is going on if the public doesn’t write letters or let them know what is going on. I’m a big advocate now for writing letters to my representative. That is what has changed after the class, because now I realize the importance of it. I thought they probably get thousands of letters, but they really don’t. It is a big thing in order to produce change in laws for our clients.

Based on the political engagement of the students and their positive regard toward policy, it is important to recognize the level of commitment demonstrated by the students after the conclusion of the course. Students may have engaged in political behaviors because of the awareness and civic duty instilled in them during the service-learning project. Students’ comments about their involvement in political activities are expressed in the following statements:

I sent a letter and I gave out envelopes to others. I do a 12-step program and I do a support group and 13 of the participants sent letters about this bill. Some of them also made phone calls. I would never have done that before this class.

The four of us that were working on the bill wondered what was happening with the bill so we called up to Senator X’s office just to see. He keeps telling us that we are his contacts when he reinvents the bill. He is going reintroduce it and change it a little bit based on we learned and what we educated him about the bill. He has taken the changes to heart what we found. We are still keeping in contact.

Participation in Policy Behaviors

Based on the policy skills outlined by Rocha (2000), students were asked about their engagement with policy actions following the policy course. During the interviews, students were asked about their involvement in nine political activities since the conclusion of the policy course.

On average, students had participated in four policy tasks (x = 4.4, standard deviation = 2.4, range = 2–8) since the course ended. Policy behaviors included using the internet to find information about controversial issues related to social welfare policy (n = 8); voting (n = 7); calling, emailing, or writing an elected official (n = 7); working on a specific policy change effort (n = 6); meeting with a public official (n = 4); participating as a member of a coalition or a committee working on a political issue of change (n = 3); being active in a political coalition (n = 2); being instrumental in organizing a political activity (n = 2); and sending a letter to the editor or having written an opinion/editorial piece (n = 1).


Based on information collected from students in this course, the service-learning project helped the students develop policy skills (e.g., talking to people in power about an issue, report writing, assessing needs) and professional confidence. Three themes were determined to have impact on the students’ experiences. The themes were: 1) The experience helped students learn about policy; 2) it gave students confidence about policy skills; and 3) it influenced policy behaviors.

The majority of the students reported that through hands-on learning and reality-based experiences, they were empowered to participate in the macro process. These students also asserted that the project enabled them to gain a better understanding of policy. Eight of the nine students who participated in the 15-month follow-up interviews reported that the project changed their attitude about social welfare policy and enhanced their overall learning experience.

The finding of increased competency was also important, as students may be more likely to participate in macro practice as direct service providers because they feel they have the skills necessary to engage in a task. Students reported increased engagement in policy activities following the conclusion of the policy course. With new confidence and new macro skills developed, students were able to continue their involvement with their own projects and participate in new macro opportunities. Because of the participants’ feelings of positive regard for the service-learning projects and the course, the students may be more likely to participate in political activities as they advance in their careers.

Limitations of the Study

There were several limitations to this study. One limitation was the small sample size. Sixteen students participated in the first data collection, while nine students participated in the follow-up. Also, data were not collected from the students prior to the start of the policy class that may have influenced the findings. However, the qualitative data indicated that students retrospectively reflected that they were fearful and reported disliking policy prior to the class.

Additionally, there were multiple factors, both personal and related to the class structure, which may have attributed to the students’ evaluations of the service-learning experiences and their experiences with social work policy. For example, some students were able to work on their first choice project, while others were not. The personalities and characteristics of the instructor and the community partners may have influenced students’ enthusiasm toward policy practice and the assessment of their skills.

Issues related to maturation may have also impacted the participants’ behaviors or attitudes at the 15-month follow-up. Participants had participated in a 425-hour senior practicum experience and may have taken their first professional job by the time the follow-up interview occurred. It is impossible to determine if the service-learning experience was fully responsible for the participants’ positive regard toward policy or behavioral changes as there was no comparison group. However, the work by Rocha (2000), which had a comparison group that did not participate in a service-learning component, suggests that service-learning experiences can account for some increase in policy behaviors.

Implications for Social Work Education, Practice, and Research

This service-learning experience supports previous research which indicates the effectiveness of using service-learning in a policy course. Droppa (2007) and Rocha (2000) found that students had increased competency and engagement in policy practice following service-learning projects. Rocha (2000) also described that students believed policy activities were important to social work practice. Students reported that this was influenced by the service-learning component of the course.

The major implication for social work practice is that service-learning is an approach that has the potential to generate student interest in macro practice. This pedagogy may advance social work values such as social justice, service, and obligations of practitioners to be macro change agents, values which have shown to be less understood by BSW students (Majewski, 2007). Service-learning allows students to become actively involved in the real world application of values and become proponents of social change. The feedback from students involved with this project suggests that service-learning helps social work students renegotiate their personal and professional identities to include being a macro practitioner. Further, it suggests that this confidence may propel students to engage in policy behaviors.

Social work educators and researchers should continue to evaluate if service-learning increases students’ learning and promotes professionalism in the field. Future researchers should consider employing a comparison group and a larger sample to determine if service-learning is responsible for behavioral and attitudinal changes about policy practice.

While this project focused on social work curriculum and students, the lessons learned about engagement are applicable to related majors such as sociology, criminal justice, teacher education, nursing, and other disciplines which have a policy course in the curriculum. If students feel disenfranchised from the political process or do not make the link between their direct practice as police officers, teacher, or nurses, they may be less inclined to use their professional knowledge to shape public policy in their fields. As such, preparing students to participate in the current political climate should be of concern to all disciplines.


Social work students enter a complex and changing practice arena. Students need to have critical thinking, practice skills, and theoretical understanding to participate in solving social problems. Service-learning pedagogy may be a vehicle in which to expose students to society’s needs and potential solutions. In 1994, Courtney and Specht described how social workers had become “unfaithful angels” to the profession’s mission of social change. If BSW students increase their political skill competencies and feel empowered to make macro level changes through service-learning experiences, they may help reshape the future of the profession and return us to a time when community organizing, activism, and social justice were the hallmark of the profession. Service-learning, specifically in the macro and policy classes, may help create a new generation of social work practitioners who have a career centered on social change. Ultimately, this changes the lives of clients through the creation of more socially just policies that promote a better, more equitable society.


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About the Authors

Tarin Mink is a mental health therapist at Samaritan Behavioral Health, Inc., in Dayton, Ohio. Sarah Twill is an associate professor of social work at Wright State University in Dayton, Ohio.

Building Capacity to Improve Latino Health in Rural North Carolina: A Case Study in Community-University Engagement

Kim Larson and Chris McQuiston


In North Carolina, health disparities for the emergent Latino population are well documented. Between 2005 and 2009, a community-university engagement model with Latino leaders and university faculty and students in rural eastern North Carolina worked to address solutions to health disparities among Latinos. Based on principles of community-based participatory research, this model focused on partnership formation and capacity building. Community partners acquired leadership and research skills. University partners gained a local understanding of Latino health through collaborative community and systems-level initiatives. Mutual benefits were achieved in partnerships established, resources leveraged, and community members reached. These strategies can be replicated in other communities that have an immigrant Latino population, community-oriented, bilingual health professionals, and a university committed to engagement.


Counties in eastern North Carolina can be characterized by their rural nature, agricultural economy and emerging Latino population. Wayne County, where this project was conducted, has a per capita income of $31,000; nearly 14% of the population lives in poverty, compared to statewide figures of $35,000 and 12.3%. (North Carolina State Center for Health Statistics 2010). The southern part of Wayne County is noted for its sandy soils, good for growing cucumbers, cantaloupe, watermelon, and other truck crops. Annual migration into this region by Latino farm workers is estimated at more than 10,000. In addition to farm work, Latino workers are employed at numerous poultry and pickle processing factories in the area. Trailer parks, placed strategically for these workers, dot the landscape. The county sewage treatment facility and county landfill are both situated in this part of the county. The local health department and department of social services are 20 miles away in the county seat. There has never been regular public transportation to and from the southern part of the county, making access to these services difficult. The school-age population is 50% Latino in the public school district serving this area (A. Pridgen, personal communication, April 18, 2011).

Latino immigrants not only live in this disadvantaged environment, but low public sentiment of Latinos has also resulted in their discrimination by and alienation from mainstream society. Community-university engagement is one approach to working with communities that face social, structural, and environmental inequities (Wallerstein & Minkler, 2008). This approach can also address ethical and social justice issues particularly salient to the conditions facing Latino immigrants (Baumann, Domenech Rodriguez, & Parra-Cardona, 2011).

Community Partner

As a result of growth of the Latino population in Wayne County, Willie Cartagena, a resident, founded the Hispanic Community Development Center [the Center] in 2002 to provide advocacy in the form of translation/interpretation services and employment assistance to the emerging Latino community. He renovated a former gas station in the southern part of the county with funds from local industries that employ Latinos. In 2005, he became the executive director and established the Center as a non-profit organization with a board of directors and bylaws. The mission of the Center expanded to include community development and resource acquisition, in addition to advocacy.

University Partner

At this same time, I (Kim Larson) was also a resident of Wayne County teaching at East Carolina University (ECU). For over 30 years, I had worked with Latino families, first in Honduras, as a Peace Corps nurse, and later in eastern North Carolina in a rural migrant health clinic. I had just completed my dissertation on sexual risk behaviors among Latino adolescents, which used ethnographic methods of participant-observation, in-depth interviews, and relevant documents to generate data. I read the local newspaper, The News-Argus, everyday for community events involving the Latino population and kept field notes of the events I attended. On February 28, 2005, the News-Argreported on the formation of the Wayne County Coalition on Latino Child Health through a Community Access to Child Health grant funded by the American Academy of Pediatrics. The announcement invited community members interested in being a part of the coalition to “step forward and agree to participate…” (Moore, 2005, p. 7A).

Natural Partnership 

Mr. Cartagena and I were among 30 stakeholders who attended the initial coalition meeting. The coalition met monthly for one year and identified three priority health disparities among Latino children and adolescents: poor oral health, excessive accidents and injuries, and adverse sexual health outcomes. As a result of the joint work on the coalition and a mutual interest in improving the health of the Latino community, Mr. Cartagena and I formed a natural partnership that was enhanced by my fluency in Spanish, familiarity with the Latino culture, and health-related experience. The purpose of this paper is to describe partnership formation and capacity building in a community-university engagement model with Latino leaders and university faculty and students in Wayne County, North Carolina.

Partnership Formation (2005-2006) 

At the invitation of Mr. Cartagena, I began attending the monthly Saturday morning board meetings of the Center beginning in 2005. At the time, there were 10 board members, men and women from Cuba, Mexico, Panama, Peru, Puerto Rico, and the United States. Since some board members preferred to use English and others preferred Spanish, all board meetings were conducted in both languages. Mr. Cartagena explained my role as a member of the ECU nursing faculty and community member interested in the health of the Latino community. Some board members appreciated my participation and others were skeptical, admitting a belief that the university has been indifferent to the needs of rural communities. ECU’s mission statement contains a pledge to “serve as a national model for public service and regional transformation” (East Carolina University, 2009), but some residents question that pledge. Shelton (2008) describes how establishing trust sets the foundation for a successful partnership. I knew that building trust would take years of continual involvement and prepared for a long-term commitment.

Initial board meetings were consumed with planning cultural events and community service projects. The Center sponsors two annual cultural events for the community, the Tres Reyes Magos Festival in January and the Cinco de Mayo Festival in May. During these events, I worked with board members on such activities as serving food, managing the health fair, and hanging piñatas. The Center also conducts two annual service projects, Book-bags for Elementary School Outreach and Thanksgiving baskets for families in need. Board members and I collected donations from businesses and/or purchased school supplies and food items to complete these projects. I knew that building trust was of paramount importance, and so I kept my promises, participated extensively, and practiced openness with board members.

Drawing from principles of community-based participatory research (CBPR), I approached our work using a collaborative, equitable process where all partners identified mutual benefits (Israel, Schulz, Parker, Becker, Allen, & Guzman, 2003). Board members had recently collected community needs assessment data and requested assistance with the analysis, interpretation, and dissemination of the data. As nursing faculty, I was able to match nursing students in a service learning course with Center board members on projects such as the community needs assessment. Simultaneously, nursing students who had completed a study abroad program in Guatemala and had acquired Spanish language skills collaborated with board members to conduct a health fair. I also facilitated the project of a graduate student in the Nursing Leadership concentration who worked for one year with the board members on creating a bilingual community resource directory. Board members translated and edited the directory while the graduate student compiled the information and called each agency for a description of services and contact information. These projects would not have been accomplished without this community-university partnership in place.

The early stage of partnership formation allowed community-university partners to discuss issues of importance to the community. Discussion centered around proposed interventions and grant-funding that might address health concerns in the Latino community. In 2005, the Center had an annual budget that was less than $10,000 and operated solely on donations from local industries and occasional fund-raising projects. There were no paid staff and volunteer board members were only available in the evening and weekends. Community members requesting translator/interpreter services or job assistance contacted members by telephone. As a result, board members knew they were not responsive to many of the community needs and had a long-term goal of a paid staff member at the Center five days a week.

State of Latino Health

During partnership formation I was asked to take an advisory role to share with board members the current health research on Latino populations and to assist with grant-writing. Using North Carolina State Center for Health Statistics data (2006; 2010), we began discussions about the health disparities within the Hispanic/Latino population. Considering the priority health needs identified by the County Coalition for Latino Child Health, board members were concerned about adverse sexual health outcomes. Data gathering and interpretation was an ongoing activity that occurred throughout this partnership as new information became available. The following data served as the foundation for the grant proposals developed by this partnership.

North Carolina has the third highest birth rate for Latinas ages 15-19 in the nation (Kost, Henshaw, & Carlin, 2010). According to the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services (2010), the 2004–2008 pregnancy rate for NC Latinas ages 15-19 was 173.2/1000, nearly three times higher than the overall teen pregnancy rate of 64.5/1000; for the past 14 years, the teen pregnancy rates in Wayne County have been higher than the state rate; and the 2004–2008 HIV case rate for NC Latinos was 33.6/100,000, higher than the overall population case rate of 24.3/100,000.

Eastern North Carolina has some of the highest HIV infection rates in the nation (McCoy, 2009). Moreover, Wayne County had a syphilis rate four times the state average (North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services, 2008). Finally, a larger percent of NC Latinos than whites and African Americans were uninsured, could not see a physician due to cost, and had no personal physician (North Carolina State Center for Health Statistics, 2010).

Cultural attitudes and beliefs toward sexual health, lack of bilingual health care personnel, traditional health practices, and lack of access to health care resources may hinder usual public health prevention approaches for reducing the risk of sexually transmitted infections among the Latino population. In two local studies, issues surrounding migration were pertinent to addressing sexual risk behaviors (Larson, 2009; Larson & McQuiston, 2008). Further, the school environment offered numerous opportunities for facilitating sexual risk behaviors among Latino youth (Larson, Sandelowski, & McQuiston, 2011). Traditional public health research strategies, such as health education campaigns, are often poorly suited to address the complexities of health and social problems of Latino families (Minkler & Wallerstein, 2008).

Although partnerships between Latino communities and universities have been successful in HIV prevention in some parts of the country (Baldwin, Johnson, & Benally, 2009; Kim, Flaskerud, Koniak-Griffin, & Dixon, 2005; Rhodes et al., 2006), no studies could be found that addressed sexually transmitted disease prevention using a community-university engagement model with Latino leaders in rural eastern North Carolina. As a result, board members and I decided to focus the community-university engagement model on prevention of these infections in the Latino population.

Capacity Building (2007-2009)

Using another CBPR principle, capacity building, the aim was to ensure the reciprocal transfer of knowledge, skills, and capacity among all partners (Israel et al., 2003). Toward the end of 2006, Mr. Cartagena received a request for a proposal from Hispanics in Philanthropy, Inc., (HIP) an international collaborative that provides planning and implementation grants to Latino-led non-profit organizations. Board members and I decided to submit a proposal that would target leadership development. At the same time, the local health department offered a grant opportunity to non-profit organizations to reduce adverse sexual health outcomes among minority populations. I met with a small group of Center board members (4 of the 10) weekly to draft grant proposals for both initiatives. The draft proposals were approved by the entire board at a regular board meeting. A budget for the HIV/AIDS prevention grant of $2,200 went entirely to the Center for operating expenses such as rent, telephone, utilities, and training supplies for one year. A budget for the HIP leadership grant was proposed and responsibilities designated allocating half of the $20,600 grant to the Center and half to the university. The Center received operating expenses and the university received expenses to purchase training materials and supplies. Still, it is important to note that during the partnership formation stage there was no funding for any activities. This is a key CBPR principle, where partnership commitment must continue even if funding is not yet available (Israel et al., 2003).

HIV/AIDS Prevention Grant 

In 2007, a five-week HIV/AIDS prevention training program was implemented with board members using an HIV/AIDS training manual designed for Latino immigrants in North Carolina (McQuiston, Parrado, Martinez, & Uribe, 2005). I facilitated a series of five interactive workshops with board members to provide the skills to become HIV/AIDS community trainers and to share prevention strategies with individuals and groups in homes, churches, and workplaces. Six board members completed the five-week (10 hours) training program. Both the female and male board members convened groups of community members informally in a variety of locations to share HIV/AIDS prevention information over the course of a year.

Hispanics in Philanthropy (HIP), Inc. Grant 

The decision to target leadership development came because of limited Latino representation on official county boards or civic organizations. Board members believed that the Center could benefit from this type of training. The HIP grant had three aims: to build an active and responsive board of directors; establish an on-site computer resource center; and strengthen partnerships between the Center and mainstream community organizations. A series of leadership development workshops were designed during joint meetings between board members and nursing faculty at the East Carolina Center for Nursing Leadership (ECCNL). Training sessions followed the regular monthly board meetings at the Center and took place between October 2007 and June 2008. The leadership training was designed to help board members develop and apply leadership skills. Nine nursing faculty and graduate students from the ECCNL facilitated the 11-session training program. Faculty and student time involved in the leadership training was provided in-kind, reinforcing the university’s commitment to community engagement. Key concepts of applied research were included in the leadership training sessions, such as human participant protection education and data collection strategies. Leadership topics and skills applied are described in Table 1.

When the Center received a donation of 12 refurbished computers from the local Air Force base a computer resource center was established. The HIP grant allowed the Center to be equipped with Internet and DSL access. This enabled the Center to offer adult English as a Second Language classes through the local community college and provide basic computer literacy training for community members. This was facilitated by a board member with a degree in computer information technology. Community members used the Internet for searches on health and employment, to complete homework assignments, and to obtain international news. Internet access expanded board members’ ability to communicate with the broader community through the development of a website ( and a quarterly electronic newsletter. At this time, a primary industry donor provided for a full-time staff member to keep the Center open five days a week.

The HIP grant also provided support to strengthen relationships between the Center and mainstream organizations. Joint projects between the local health department and the Center included the Get Real, Get Tested (Hazte la Prueba) campaign (a door-to-door initiative in high-risk neighborhoods that offered free HIV and syphilis testing), influenza vaccine clinics, and a dental screening and referral clinic. The clinics were held at the Center and board members and university partners worked cooperatively to market and carry out these community outreach initiatives.

HIV Non-traditional Test Sites 

In 2009, the state Department of Health and Human Services encouraged community-based non-profit organizations to establish non-traditional test sites to address the growing HIV/ AIDS epidemic among minority populations. Bowles et al. (2008) found that rapid HIV testing in outreach and community settings was an effective approach for reaching members of minority groups and people at high risk for HIV infection. Board members and nursing faculty developed a non-traditional test site application that highlighted board member capacity building in the areas of HIV/AIDS prevention training and leadership development. This capacity building work positioned the Center to become the first Latino-led HIV site for the OraQuick ADVANCE® Rapid HIV-1/2 antibody test (OraSure Technologies, Bethlehem, PA) in the state. The establishment of the site is a unique initiative between the state Department of Health and Human Services the local health department, the ECU College of Nursing, and the Center. It was the only Latino-led HIV-nontraditional test site at the time in the state with board members involved in writing the utilization and quality assurance plan and completing applications for certified HIV testing and Clinical Laboratory Improvement Amendments waiver. Two board members and I attended an 8-hour training in the OraQuick screening procedure and completed a two-day state-certified course in HIV testing, counseling, and referral. Following state guidelines, board members and I conducted monthly outreach screening clinics at the local community soup kitchen and a popular Latino market.


Throughout every stage of this community-university engagement model, Center board members and university nursing faculty collaborated on need identification, program design, and implementation of grant initiatives. Enhanced community capacity has been demonstrated through increased leadership and collaboration on long-range health initiatives and through the institutionalization of a community-based HIV prevention program. During its first year, 2009-2010, the HIV-NTS outreach initiative provided HIV/AIDS education to more than 500 community members and tested 113 men and women at various community locations (see Table 2.). In addition, board members were instrumental in placing free condom dispensers at the Center and at a night club serving a large Latino population.

Perhaps one of the greatest achievements was that through the use of CBPR principles of collaboration and equity, an authentic partnership was established between Latino leaders and university faculty. Through leadership training, Center board members increased their competence with research skills in data collection and human participant protection education, and community development skills in grant-writing and program planning. University faculty strengthened the mission of the university through community engagement with a community partner. Nursing faculty acquired knowledge about the financial struggles of a small community-based non-profit organization advocating for the Latino community and the dynamic nature of board membership. Although the health of the Latino population was important to board members, holding cultural events symbolizing a proud Latino heritage to the mainstream community was equally important.

The Center’s viability was strengthened by securing funding for operating expenses and by developing a community-based intervention (i.e. HIV-nontraditional test site outreach) to address health disparities in the Latino community. Capacity building further provided skills in opening dialogue between Latino men and women on taboo topics of sexual risk behaviors and HIV/ AIDS. Board members benefited from establishing linkages with university-related resources, the ECCNL, and the local Area Health Education Center. Two board members completed a certification course through the Health Education Center in medical Spanish interpreter training. Using decision-making and priority-setting skills, the Center board members developed the first strategic plan (see Figure 1.). With Internet access, the Center expanded communication to the larger community through an electronic newsletter and a website with links to community-designed information.

Latino representation on official boards and civic groups has grown dramatically. Decisions made using the strategic plan were a regular part of each board meeting. For example, in 2009, the decision to join the local Chamber of Commerce came about after board members discussed the benefits of becoming equal players with other mainstream organizations. With a very small budget, the membership fee for the Chamber of Commerce was a concern. Board members and university partners contributed $10-$20 each to pay the $200 membership fee. A ribbon-cutting ceremony followed, which was attended by the mayor, county commissioners, The News-Argus, and dozens of residents. Many of these community members were unaware of the Center before this event. This led board members to work with the Downtown Development Corporation on a new multicultural venue “VIVA Goldsboro!” Center board members applied for and received a grant award from the Wayne County Arts Council for this event. One board member returned to school for a nursing degree. She conveyed how the partnership influenced her decision in this remark, “It was the HIV training that motivated me to go to nursing school.” At a regional health conference, this board member gave her first formal presentation on her perspective of the community-university partnership (Larson & De La Torre Fletcher, 2009). The most recent leadership opportunity came when the at-large position on the Wayne County Board of Health became available. I encouraged a Latina woman active in the Latino community to apply for the position. In February 2010, she became the first Latina member appointed to this board.


Outcomes such as these strengthen a marginalized immigrant community and transform it into part of the larger community. Capacity building shifted the power differential for these Latino leaders, giving them an equal voice and recognizing their contribution to community health.


Internal and external challenges were encountered in partnership formation and capacity building. Internal challenges were related to fluctuation in board membership. Some new board members were learning about the organization at the same time they were learning leadership skills. In addition, one board member was philosophically opposed to receiving grant monies because of the belief that funding agencies were demanding and authoritative. The board members in support of grant-funding to expand programs and services could not convince this member of the benefits and this member chose to leave the organization. According to Mr. Cartagena, board member attrition was quite high due to relocation of work, international travel, childcare and other household responsibilities, especially for the women on the board.

This was the first time board members had been responsible for financial management and accountability to funding agencies. This responsibility required a considerable amount of work for volunteer board members, most of whom had full-time employment. To alleviate some of this burden, I wrote the monthly updates and progress reports to these agencies and received approval from board members. I was also asked by board members to keep industry donors apprised of the Center’s accomplishments. These progress letters to industry donors provided evidence of the benefit of a full-time staff person at the Center.

External challenges were related to a lack of awareness of Center programs and activities by both the broader Latino community and the mainstream community. Although Spanish/ English posters and brochures were placed in strategic locations, low literacy in the adult immigrant Latino population limited awareness and thus participation. The Hispanic Community Development Center-university partnership has begun designing social marketing strategies, such as photovoice and sociodramas (Conner et al., 2005; Olshefsky, Zive, Scolari, & Zuniga, 2007; Rhodes & Hergenrather, 2007) to reach Latinos with low health literacy. These strategies are critical for reaching Latinos that are cautious about seeking assistance even from Latino advocacy groups (Ovaska, 2008; Rhodes et al., 2006).

Recognizing these challenges and believing in the adage that there is “strength in numbers,” ECU established the Nuevo South Action Research Collaborative involving university researchers from anthropology, health education, nursing, and social work to continue CBPR efforts with multiple Latino-led advocacy groups, including the Center. (Contreras, 2010).


Health inequities plague our most vulnerable populations, particularly those with language differences, limited access to care, and low health literacy. North Carolina has one of the fastest growing Latino populations in the nation (Kochar, Suro, & Tafoya, 2005), and public health professionals are acutely aware of the disproportionate incidence and prevalence of teen pregnancy and sexually transmitted disease in this population. Between 2005 and 2009 this community-university engagement model built mutual trust and shared expertise with the aim of reducing the incidence of sexually transmitted infections in the Latino population. Using CBPR principles, the Center-university partnership expanded capacity to address the needs of the broader Latino community through the development and establishment of community partnerships. Leadership opportunities have allowed greater visibility of the contributions to the community by the Latino leaders. The local perspective is essential to CBPR efforts and at this juncture board members have increased capacity in the research process (Cochran et al., 2008; May et al., 2003). Board members now believe in their role to curb the rise of HIV in the immigrant Latino community, and take pride in establishing the first Latino-led HIV-nontraditional test site in the state. Providing HIV information and services in places like the Latino market and community soup kitchen reached women and men who would otherwise not have sought services. Moreover, when services are delivered by bilingual, compassionate, well-trained community members working in concert with public health providers, fear is lessened and access to care is opened for the most vulnerable.

This case study featured a community-university engagement model that demonstrated mutual benefits through partnership formation and capacity building. The health and social needs of the immigrant Latino community are now more apparent to mainstream community leaders in a position to mobilize greater resources to address the marginalization, poverty, stigma, and suffering experienced in rural eastern North Carolina. Like other researchers (Kim et al., 2005; McQuiston et al., 2005; Rhodes et al., 2006), we recommend widespread application of CBPR principles when working with newly arrived immigrants with assets that are often unrecognized and where organizational power could easily dominate the immigrants without understanding their culture, needs, or the stressful migration and settling in process. The CBPR principle that should receive more emphasis is the idea of building on the strengths, resources, and relationships that exist within communities of identity (Israel et al., 2003). Churches might be allies in eliminating health disparities, yet board members thought church leaders were reluctant to participate in collective engagement activities. Still, many CBPR principles were employed in this project, such as community-university co-learning, partnership development and maintenance, and a long-term commitment.

We believe these strategies could be replicated in other communities that have a growing immigrant Latino population, community-oriented, bilingual health professionals, and a university committed to community engagement.

About the Authors 

Kim Larson is an associate professor of nursing at East Carolina University. Chris McQuiston is a retired associate professor of nursing from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.


The authors wish to recognize the leadership contribution of two key board members of the Hispanic Community Development Center, Willie Cartagena and Tammy Cartagena. They were instrumental in conceptualizing, planning, and implementing each component of the community engagement research model. The authors also wish to thank the funding agencies for this project: the North Carolina Division of Health and Human Services; Hispanics in Philanthropy, Inc., and the Engagement Outreach Scholarship Academy. We appreciate the commitment of the community and academic partners who participated in this project.


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Canton Connections: A University-Community Partnership for Post-Disaster Revitalization

Glenn A. Bowen, William B. Richmond, Frank S. Lockwood, and Glenda G. Hensley


Back-to-back hurricanes prompted the creation of a partnership between Western Carolina University and an affected community in western North Carolina. The partnership was designed to promote the economic, social, and cultural revitalization of the community while creating opportunities for civic engagement and enriched student learning. The principal stakeholders in the partnership were the university and the municipal government, representing the community at large. The partners undertook several projects over a three-year period as part of a comprehensive, multifaceted initiative. In this article, the authors discuss the benefits and impact of the projects on participants and the community. They also share the insights gained and lessons learned from the initiative and comment briefly on factors inherent in effective university-community partnerships.


Natural disasters provide a special opportunity for university students to assist affected communities. Moreover, when such disasters occur, university faculty and community partners are often expected to generate knowledge from these occurrences through research (Richardson, Plummer, Barthelemy, & Cain, 2009). For the “engaged campus” (or “engaged institution”), responsiveness to the attendant needs and concerns comes naturally, reflecting a commitment to sharing institutional resources and expertise with the greater community (Edgerton, 1994; Kellogg Commission on the Future of the State and Land- Grant Universities, 1999).

In many cases, civic engagement projects are developed by individual faculty members and negotiated directly with particular community agencies. This decentralized approach is very flexible and matches the distributed decision-making rights maintained in higher education. However, because it tends to be ad hoc, such an approach often leaves gaps in the service and capacity-building support that higher education institutions could provide to their surrounding communities. The emphasis on institution-wide engagement efforts addresses that shortcoming. Furthermore, current engagement efforts demonstrate a renewed commitment to the civic responsibilities of higher education (Sandmann, Jaeger, & Thornton, 2009; Schneider, 2000).

University-community partnerships are usually based on “transactional” or “transformational” relationships (Clayton, Bringle, Senor, Huq, & Morrison, 2010, p. 6; Enos & Morton, 2003, p. 24). A transactional relationship operates within existing structures, where entities collaborate because each has something that the other perceives as useful. It is a short-term, project-based relationship with limited commitments. In contrast, a transformational relationship involves long-term, sustainable commitments that set the stage for growth and change among the parties concerned. As Clayton and her colleagues note, a university-community relationship could also be “exploitative” (i.e., so unilateral that, intentionally or unintentionally, it takes advantage of, or even harms, the parties involved).

Transactional and transformational partnerships provide a fulcrum for civic engagement projects that can be mutually beneficial. Civic engagement projects can enrich the curriculum; create new, potentially fruitful interdisciplinary linkages; and energize faculty work by raising new questions and topics for teaching and research while enhancing community capacity to address issues and solve problems that arise (American Association of State Colleges and Universities, 2002). Civic engagement gives substance to the rhetoric of partnership and positions the institution as a contributing member of the community. Further, civic engagement supports the development of “community capacity,” defined as the combined influence of a community’s commitment, resources, and skills that can be deployed to build on community strengths and address community problems (Mayer, 1995).

Building community capacity is rife with challenges. For example, cultural differences in the way a higher education institution and a community agency generate knowledge and solve problems constitute a significant challenge for effective communication and coordinated action with regard to mutual goals and shared vision (Bringle & Hatcher, 2002). Academicians view knowledge as residing in specialized experts, many of whom are geographically dispersed; community residents view knowledge as pluralistic and well distributed among their neighbors. Faculty are stereotyped as being isolated, contemplative, theoretical, and overly cautious; community leaders are action-oriented, focused on results, expansive in looking for local resources, and responsible for making day-to-day decisions about their communities (Bringle & Hatcher, 2002).

In this article, we present a case study describing a partnership between one institution and one community in the aftermath of a natural disaster. We outline the context for the initiative and the conceptual framework for our study; discuss the approaches to establishing the partnership, along with pertinent issues; and highlight several projects that were implemented. Finally, we share insights gained and lessons learned about effective university-community partnerships.

Background and Context 

In the fall of 2004, the western mountains of North Carolina bore the brunt of the remnants of two hurricanes—Frances and Ivan. Canton, the second largest town in Haywood County, was especially hard hit as the paths of the hurricanes marked an “X” over the town center. Frances and Ivan visited the area only 10 days apart, prompting the authorities to declare two states of emergency. Twenty-eight inches of rain fell into the county’s watersheds. Stream gauges placed in the Pigeon River, used to measure the great floods of 1916 and 1940, indicated record-high water levels after Frances let loose her wrath across the county, only to reveal even higher levels caused by Ivan. The “500-Year Storm” left downtown Canton under as much as 12 feet of water, destroying many businesses and closing the paper mill, thus dealing the community a stunning economic blow.

The paper mill laid off most of its 1,500 employees for more than six months. The loss of the plant’s payroll adversely affected many businesses that depended on it as their source of revenue. The mill underwent a $330 million restoration and upgrade, and after two years was back in operation. In the meantime, the General Assembly of North Carolina established the Hurricane Recovery Act of 2005. Under this legislation, the state funded a business recovery assistance program and offered low-cost loans to businesses affected by the hurricanes. The University of North Carolina’s Small Business and Technology Development Center (SBTDC) at Western Carolina University (WCU) would function as a regional business recovery assistance center. (WCU is a constituent institution of the University of North Carolina.) The SBTDC would conduct interviews with more than 60 businesses and monitor those subsequently receiving loans, mainly to replace fixtures and inventory.

By that time, although the water had receded from Canton’s physical infrastructure, it had not fully subsided from the community’s psyche. Indeed, the floods continued to have a profound impact on the economic, social, and cultural systems of the community and on the personal lives of its citizens. After nearly two years, a substantial part of the downtown area had not rebounded. Many stores remained closed and boarded up; unemployment increased and property values decreased; and the out-migration of teachers, entrepreneurs, and citizens, which started in the immediate aftermath of the hurricanes, continued at an alarming rate. By 2008, Canton’s population, which previously stood at nearly 10,000, declined to 3,900.

A WCU entrepreneurship professor (the third author) researching the impact of the hurricanes became aware of the devastation experienced in Canton and saw an opportunity for his students to enrich their education through engagement in the community’s recovery efforts. At the same time, the Community-Based Learning Initiative (CBLI) at Princeton University announced the availability of funds from a grant awarded by the Learn and Serve America program of the Corporation for National and Community Service. Community-based learning aims to enrich coursework by encouraging students to apply the knowledge and analytical skills gained in the classroom to the pressing issues faced by local communities. In response to the CBLI announcement, three members of the university’s College of Business faculty (including the second and third authors) devised a plan to develop a partnership with the Canton community, located about 35 miles from the campus. The Princeton-based program provided a small sub-grant to support the three-year (2007–2009) initiative that would eventually be called Canton Connections.

Research Method and Framework 

In our research, we used the case study method. A case study is an empirical investigation of a contemporary phenomenon within its real-life context, following systematic procedures and drawing on multiple sources of evidence (Stake, 1995; Yin, 2009). Data sources for this study were students’ reflection papers and journals, informal interviews with community members, faculty feedback, and our field notes.

A sensemaking perspective (Weick, 1995) combined with the concept of situated learning (Anderson, Reder, & Simon, 1996) provided the theoretical underpinning for our study. A sensemaking perspective focuses on how people construct meaning; it also illustrates how theories contribute to understanding community as an arena shaped by human interaction (Domahidy, 2003; Weick, 1995). Further, as Domahidy explains, sensemaking is social (engaging multiple actors in sharing their understanding of what takes place) and retrospective; and it focuses on extracted cues (i.e., elements most salient to the actors). In situated learning, learning results from a social process intricately tied to the interactions of social actors, settings, events, and processes (Anderson, Reder, & Simon, 1996). According to Domahidy, sensemaking and situated learning raise questions about forms of association and patterns of social interaction, which may be considered within a rich context of university-community partnership.

Initial Approach to the Partnership 

The Learn and Serve sub-grant proposal included an outline of a preliminary revitalization plan for the Canton community and a list of prospective collaborators. The WCU professors had selected the Canton town government as their primary external partner. Together they identified other entities to be brought into the partnership. At an early partnership meeting in the municipal government’s boardroom, the mayor presented a list of 10 action items that the town council considered important. The restoration of business operations was high on the list. During a series of follow-up meetings, the collaborators formulated their Initial Plan. At that time, the principal players in the partnership were municipal leaders (i.e., mayor, aldermen, and town manager); SBTDC; Haywood Community College; Haywood County Economic Development Center; Blue Ridge Paper; and WCU.

A number of proposed projects with a corresponding timeline were included in the plan. One of the larger projects was a museum dedicated to the paper industry, which would be a tourist attraction for the community. A vacant building that needed rehabilitation was available for this purpose. Apart from featuring a history of the paper industry, the Museum of the Art and Science of Papermaking would also house the community college’s papermaking program and provide a creative outlet for hobbyists. University and community college faculty members saw disciplinary overlaps, leveraging their students’ knowledge and skills in public history, construction management, interior design, and marketing for the benefit of the community. Another large project proposed for Canton involved helping small businesses develop recovery plans. Teams of university students taking an entrepreneurship consulting course were to assist 12 SBTDC clients who had received loans under the Hurricane Recovery Act of 2005 by developing plans that would market each business and bring back its customers.

Initial Results 

A WCU student team gathered information from towns that had experienced similar disasters and had implemented recovery plans. One such town was Franklin, Virginia, which experienced severe flooding from Hurricane Floyd in 1999. The WCU-Canton partners used information and best practices from Franklin and other towns to create a revitalization plan. In the meantime, another WCU student team worked with Haywood Community College students and faculty to develop preliminary plans for the museum. At the same time, a WCU faculty member made arrangements with the SBTDC for students to assist the unit’s clients. The students would serve as consultants, assisting business owners with identifying new target markets and preparing an advertising strategy.

An informal assessment of the initiative, conducted at the end of the first semester (spring 2007), revealed mixed results. The research done by university students yielded valuable information that could be used for planning a countywide post-disaster revitalization program. In addition, two university faculty members administering the Learn and Serve sub-grant made strong connections with the municipal administration, and the SBTDC was poised to assist with the recovery of small businesses. However, plans to establish the museum were hampered by the unsuitability of the available building and issues related to the building permit. Meanwhile, elected officials (aldermen) who had been deeply involved in the partnership failed in their reelection bid. Consequently, various community partners disagreed about how to move the project forward. Also, while the SBTDC developed productive projects with its clients, most of the clients immersed themselves in working to rescue their own businesses without the assistance of student groups. To make matters worse, Blue Ridge Paper, a major partner in the revitalization endeavor, was sold to a New Zealand company with no ties to westerm North Carolina. Whereas the former management of the paper mill had been cordial and supportive, the new managers were unresponsive to requests for meetings and discussions.

The assessment identified the lack of measures of success as a major shortcoming of the initial approach to the partnership. The assessment also revealed that communication between the Canton-based stakeholders and the university partners was hampered by conflicting schedules. Additionally, competing priorities had diverted the attention of some faculty members from the initiative to which they had made a commitment. To make matters worse, project organizers encountered resistance from some students, who were unenthusiastic about driving to Canton when there were opportunities for service-learning projects much closer to the campus.

Revised Approach 

Although the project organizers did not clearly define what success would look like, it was clear that the initial approach did not achieve the desired results. Therefore, they decided to restructure the partnership with new players from both the community and the university. The partnership would include not only elected or appointed officials but also leaders of community-based organizations as well as ordinary citizens of the community. The university representatives would include not only College of Business faculty but also faculty from other academic programs as well as the university’s service-learning administrator.

What follows is a description of the main elements of the partnership. We go on to summarize significant projects and outcomes and then to share lessons learned from the partnership experience.

Elements of the Partnership 

The revised approach to the partnership included seven elements: (1) New and renewed connections; (2) specific stakeholder roles; (3) campus-wide coordination; (4) manageable projects; (5) community-engaged pedagogy; (6) explicit learning outcomes; and (7) a capacity-building focus. We describe these elements below.

New and Renewed Connections. The faculty leaders, with support from the Canton town manager and the service-learning administrator, organized the Canton Connections Faire in fall 2007 to bring together interested campus and community members. By then, there was renewed faculty interest in the initiative. The event fostered community involvement in the development of the partnership agenda based on a shared vision of what could be achieved. University and community participants made new connections and renewed old ones.

Held in Canton’s historic Colonial Theatre, the fair featured a showcase of university programs and resources. Twenty-five members of the Canton community attended, as did a 15-member group of faculty, administrators, and students from the university. It was a veritable marketplace of ideas (Menard, 2010), as business owners, mill workers, municipal employees, elected leaders, and ordinary citizens discussed project possibilities with university representatives. Together, they identified more than 40 potential projects. The event got a good press, and the prospects were exciting. Canton representatives remarked that the university was “truly a partner” with the community, rather than the perceived ivory tower. The university sponsored a follow-up fair at the same venue near the end of the academic year (in April 2008). Project leaders highlighted the collaborative efforts and tangible results of the partnership. The event served to build understanding and a positive relationship between the university and the community.

Specific Stakeholder Roles. The principal stakeholders in the partnership were the university and the municipal government. Other stakeholders were identified and roles were specified. Municipal leaders would provide information on local economic and social issues or needs; SBTDC, supported by the Haywood County Economic Development Center, would counsel small businesses and coordinate business development projects in partnership with the U.S. Small Business Administration and the state university system; and WCU would coordinate the partnership and engage students, supported by faculty, in community-based projects. The university also would take the lead in ensuring regular communication among the collaborators.

Campus-wide Coordination. After the faculty leaders from the College of Business assessed early results of the initiative, they decided to transfer administration of the Learn and Serve sub-grant and coordination of the fledgling partnership to the Center for Service Learning. An academic support unit, the center promotes course-based community service and functions as the campus clearinghouse for engagement opportunities in the wider community. The center was better suited to building the necessary relationships across campus and with the Canton community to advance the revitalization plan. Moreover, the center would be able to monitor ongoing projects, track the outcomes of the grant-funded work, and submit regular reports to the funding agency.

Manageable Projects. The collaborators agreed to maintain Canton Connections as a comprehensive, multifaceted initiative that would support post-disaster revitalization of the community. Shortly after the first Canton Connections Faire (in spring 2008), the collaborators started eight projects. Four were dropped mainly because the project scope was too large to fit the semester’s schedule. In addition, the 45-minute drive between the university campus and the mill town proved problematic in relation to the class schedule. The university and community collaborators decided to concentrate on short-term, manageable projects with an eye to long-term projects as circumstances changed.

Community-Engaged Pedagogy. Faculty members teaching a variety of courses were offered opportunities to employ community-engaged pedagogical strategies focused on collaboration with Canton. Community-based learning could take the form of service-learning, undergraduate/community-based research, practicum, or senior capstone.

The strategy most widely embraced was service learning, which connects community and curriculum by integrating relevant service into courses of study (Bowen, 2008; Bringle & Hatcher, 2002). With its experiential and reflection components, service learning facilitates opportunities for applied learning beyond what is possible in traditional college classes. University students and faculty have been known for their service-learning projects in post-hurricane situations (Richardson et al., 2009; Steiner & Sands, 2000). For example, after Hurricane Floyd caused devastating losses in eastern North Carolina (in fall 1999), a medical school modified its curriculum to allow students to aid flood-affected communities while fulfilling learning objectives (Steiner & Sands, 2000).

Explicit Learning Outcomes. In the curriculum framework for the partnership initiative, the participating course instructors specified learning outcomes that reflected both disciplinary and liberal-learning perspectives. Liberal-learning outcomes include intellectual and practical skills (e.g., inquiry and analysis, critical and creative thinking, effective written and oral communication, teamwork, and problem solving); personal and social responsibility (including civic knowledge and engagement); and integrative learning (demonstrated through the application of knowledge, skills, and responsibilities to new settings and complex problems). The Association of American Colleges and Universities (2007) lists these outcomes as essential for university students. Theatre students, for example, would hone their performance techniques while developing critical- and creative-thinking skills.

Capacity-Building Support. Capacity building brings social actors together to identify and address complex community issues. It involves developing, utilizing, and retaining knowledge, skills, and abilities; setting goals and planning strategies; and identifying constraints. The WCU-Canton initiative supported efforts to build community capacity for social, cultural, and economic revitalization. In support of civic engagement goals, the partnership organizers emphasized the need to enhance community capacity to address issues and solve problems that would inevitably arise (American Association of State Colleges and Universities, 2002), beyond the life of the existing partnership.

Significant Projects and Outcomes

Several significant projects were implemented as part of the revitalization efforts in Canton. Faculty and students from the College of Fine and Performing Arts and the Kimmel School of Construction Management and Technology joined College of Business students as participants in service-learning projects in the hurricane-affected community. One notable project brought life back to the town’s theatre; another addressed a need identified by the local credit union; and a third supported the improvement of the local government’s building permit process. Three small businesses benefited from engineering and technology projects.

Participating students were required to summarize, analyze, and synthesize their experiences vis-à-vis learning objectives. Some students used wiki technology to create interlinked web pages that allowed them to reflect on the lessons learned from their community-based projects. Others documented their experiences and responses in journals or reflection papers.

Theatre Productions. Canton officials and WCU representatives discussed the need to bring patrons back to the Colonial Theatre, which was a vital part of the community’s cultural life. The municipality acquired the 347-seat facility in 1998. The theatre first opened in 1932 and was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 2000. Before the floods, the municipality spent $1.2 million to renovate the building and its fixtures. After the floods, it spent an additional $2 million to restore the facility.

The university’s Theatre in Education (TIE) program came into the picture. At WCU, TIE was a liberal studies course designed with a sharp focus on service and engaged learning. The TIE company consisted of students from theatre, art, music, and education, who took responsibility for all aspects of a production. TIE faculty served as mentors, encouraging the students to make all creative decisions and to reflect critically on their decisions.

The TIE company collaborated directly with partners in Canton to resolve a number of technical issues as they promoted and prepared for the first of two productions. Before too long, it became clear that cultivating the partnership was a worthy priority for the TIE company as it would contribute considerably to the participants’ theatre production know-how. The company staged “Dogwood’s Search” (in summer 2008) and “Tales of Trickery” (in spring 2009) in the Colonial Theatre. Nine students contributed approximately 90 hours of their time to the first production; 20 students (mainly upper-level performance majors) were involved in the second, logging nearly 200 hours. For “Tales of Trickery,” the students were enrolled in a three-hour course (taught in the fall) followed by a two-hour practicum (in the spring), highlighted by the “tour” in the Canton community. They staged the latter production with support from the university’s Gamelan Orchestra and attracted dozens of area middle-school students. The TIE company played to full houses and provided curricular support material to teachers in attendance.

In their reflection papers, participating students reported that they gained significant appreciation for the Canton community, its citizens, and its revitalization goals. Follow-up discussions showed that the students “get it,” according to one of their professors. Evaluators observed that the first production, in particular, empowered students’ sense of advocacy as emerging artists and educators and prepared them for post-performance discussions at a conference of the American Alliance for Theatre and Education in ways superior to class discussions. The students developed critical-thinking skills and creative abilities while honing their production and performance techniques.

Credit Union Project. The local credit union wanted to introduce a new financial product to benefit community youth. A professor of finance restructured his course to incorporate the proposed project because he thought it would help his students develop appropriate skills for working with a client and understanding a community’s financial needs.

Sixteen students took on the challenge of researching, analyzing, and defining an appropriate product for the credit union. After completing about 60 hours of work, they presented a report in which they recommended a special credit card offering for young people. The credit union accepted and implemented the recommendation as part of its operating strategy. As a result, membership in the credit union increased. The students gained real-world experience on a project typically handled by experienced consultants. As reported by their course instructor, “the students projected [a sense of] empowerment, and all were successful in the spring job market.”

Building Permits. Canton’s chief building inspector requested that an information system be developed to enable his office to manage the building permit process more efficiently. The manual process being used was time-consuming; assembling the reports required by the county was onerous. Computer information systems (CIS) faculty embraced the opportunity to incorporate a relevant project in three classes over two semesters. In the first semester, a team of students taking both a systems analysis and design course and a database management course analyzed the business processes and defined the system requirements. They also designed the system and database for the building inspector’s office. In the following semester, as part of a CIS capstone, the same student team developed the system that they had designed with faculty supervision.

The students made presentations to the staff in the building inspector’s office. After a few changes were made to what they proposed, the new system was pressed into service. The students had spent about 340 hours on this relatively large project, which provided them with experience in the full software development lifecycle. They had learned to work as a team on a real project for a real client and to be responsive to the client’s requirements. Moreover, as the project assessment revealed, the students developed project management skills. In the end, they also better understood the role of information systems in delivering governmental services efficiently and effectively. The course instructors concluded that multi-semester, multi-course projects were feasible, offering advantages in terms of a systematic process of project identification, development, and completion.

Engineering and Technology Projects. As a complement to their regular coursework, engineering and technology students, based in the Kimmel School, completed three projects to support businesses in the community. Learning outcomes from these projects included the ability to analyze and summarize research findings and make effective presentations. One group of students assisted the Canton facility of a company that manufactures lightweight aluminum components for the heavy-duty transportation industry. That group conducted a study of a component inventory and organization for warehousing and manufacturing, and made applicable recommendations. Another group of students completed a warehouse overstock analysis for the local operations of a fiber-based packaging solutions company. The students submitted reports that included a cost analysis and suggestions for handling warehouse overstock. The third project entailed a space utilization study to determine the feasibility for expansion of a small machining company.

In their reflections, students noted that they “made connections between learning, experiences, and skills” and “learned to transform knowledge into actions to benefit the greater community.” The “opportunity to engage in collaboration and problem solving” was also meaningful to students.

Other Projects. Students as well as faculty were involved in the implementation of other projects. A small student team volunteered to help in creating a hiking trail for the Canton community. Reflecting on that project, one student said she “felt it was [her] civic duty” to lend a helping hand while another mentioned his “small contribution to help improve [residents’] health and well-being.” Art students visited the community and proposed the creation of murals, which they would design as part of a service-learning project. At the same time, faculty offered their expertise as consultants to community-based organizations, and small-business program administrators assisted merchants in developing business recovery plans.

As the initiative drew to a close, community members expressed appreciation for the support received at a time when they needed it most, and municipal leaders regarded the partnership as “fruitful.” According to the town manager, Canton benefited from “public exposure” and received a “feather in our cap.” The community had gained access to the knowledge and resources of the university through collaboration with faculty, administrators, and students.

Insights Gained and Lessons Learned 

We evaluated the overall partnership experience by means of informal interviews, observations, and a review of relevant documents, such as students’ reflection papers and journals. Guided by our experience as practitioners and scholars, we constructed meaning from the qualitative data analyzed and then elicited feedback from partnership collaborators.

From a sensemaking perspective (Weick, 1995), we have come to understand and appreciate that process should sometimes be valued as much as, if not more than, outcomes. In retrospect, while many of the original goals of the Canton initiative were not accomplished, engaging meaningfully in the social process of collaboration was itself an accomplishment. Collaboration was based on a common agenda, purposeful activities, regular communication, an incremental approach, and collective responsibility.

Project-related activities encouraged increased interaction among community members, facilitated student rapport with faculty, and fostered reciprocal relationships between the community and the university as a whole. The community-based projects “took us out of our comfort zone” and “made learning come alive” (students); “enhanced the learning experience” (faculty member); “connected the community with the university” (municipal leader); and “created a good picture of an engaged institution” (administrator). As researchers, we gained valuable insights into the pitfalls and promises of a university-community partnership.

The partnership that developed between WCU and Canton was based on a transactional relationship, designed to be instrumental in the completion of specific projects (Clayton, et al., 2010; Enos & Morton, 2003). This was more appropriate than the long-term, transformational relationship sometimes advocated by proponents of campus-community partnerships. Transformational relationships are clearly appropriate and desirable when all partners are seeking change and growth. In this case, the partnership was focused on the revival of the community. Consistent with previous research (Bringle & Hatcher, 2002), we found that cultural differences in the way a university and a community entity produce knowledge and solve problems posed a challenge for coordinated action toward mutual ends. In this regard, our faculty colleagues were sometimes slow to respond to requests, and some indicated that their departments did not seem to value interdisciplinary work.

In a situated learning context (Anderson, Reder, & Simon, 1996), the partnership experience generated several insights and lessons:

• Establishing and maintaining a university-community partnership is a demanding enterprise. It requires coordination by professional staff, who can serve as liaisons among various constituencies, including students, faculty, administrators, and community partners.

• Creating a social marketplace of ideas (Menard, 2010) to gather information and share ideas on proposed projects is an effective approach to university-community collaboration.

• Project planners need to be mindful of the possibility of faculty or student resistance because of time and travel constraints. It is important also to recognize the unpredictable nature of community-based work and the need to provide flexible scheduling options for faculty and students.

• Community issues often call for collaborative problem solving, drawing on the knowledge, perspectives, and skills of diverse disciplines and programs. In our view, a major community-support initiative, coordinated across disciplines and departments, has a better chance of success than projects by academics acting independently. Institutions that value engagement with their surrounding communities should recognize and reward faculty for pursuing interdisciplinary work.

• Assigning clear roles and responsibilities to stakeholders is a fundamental element of a successful partnership.

• Regular, frequent communication between university and community partners is essential to the success of a partnership.

• Community-based (civic engagement) projects allow students to apply knowledge and skills gained in the classroom to real-world issues. Projects can help to build higher-order skills such as critical thinking, analysis, and problem solving.


Canton Connections represents one university’s attempt to foster collaboration aimed at revitalizing a community affected by a natural disaster. The intention behind the partnership was to facilitate the implementation of a variety of projects that would help to breathe new life into the community while simultaneously enhancing student learning. The WCU-Canton partnership achieved some measure of success, as evidenced by the projects completed and the learning outcomes realized. Through practical approaches and instrumental action, students addressed issues that benefited the community in small, immediate ways. The extent to which the partnership was instrumental in sustaining social and economic renewal through community capacity building is yet to be determined.

For future initiatives of this kind, we recommend that measures of success be defined clearly and expectations discussed thoroughly by all concerned. It is important, from the outset, that stakeholder roles and responsibilities be clarified, community-wide support be mobilized, and participants communicate regularly with one another. It is important, too, that projects be given visibility and the accomplishments of the partnership be reported frequently on the campus and in the community. All of these factors contribute to the effectiveness of a partnership.

In the final analysis, an effective partnership is fundamentally one that is greater than the sum of its parts. It is characterized by synergy among stakeholders, who work collectively to achieve objectives to which they are all committed. In post-disaster situations, higher education institutions can make knowledge socially responsive and demonstrate good institutional citizenship by initiating partnerships that ultimately help to build community capacity and capabilities.

About the Authors 

Glenn A. Bowen was, until recently, director of the Center for Service Learning at Western Carolina University. He may be reached at William B. Richmond and Frank S. Lockwood are associate professors in the College of Business at Western Carolina University and were among co-authors of the Learn and Serve sub-grant proposal for Canton Connections. Glenda G. Hensley is director of First-Year Experiences and a co-founder/director of the Western Carolina University Theatre in Education program.


The authors acknowledge, with appreciation, their collaboration with Canton Town Manager A.B. “Al” Matthews. We also appreciate the support of university colleagues, including Dr. Robert Anderson and Dr. Austin Spencer, as well as the Office of Public Relations. We extend a special thanks to the Community-Based Learning Initiative at Princeton University for providing funds to support Canton Connections.


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Redefining the Lines of Expertise: Educational Pathways Through the Communities Together Advocacy Project

Mary D. Burbank, Rosemarie Hunter, and Leticia Alvarez Gutiérrez


The profiles of American communities are among the most dynamic in recent history. This qualitative study examines collaboration between an urban community and The University of Utah. The Communities Together Advocacy Project illustrates parents’ perspectives on the effectiveness of an advocacy training program and their subsequent leadership roles within a community. Findings speak to parent advocates as critical stakeholders in community-university partnerships.


The profiles of American communities are among the most dynamic in recent history. Nationally, nearly one-third of school-age children are cultural minorities with 16% of the teaching force from non-majority populations (Clewell & Villegas, 1998; Hodgkinson, 2002; Kane & Orsini, 2005; Su, 1997; Villegas & Lucas, 2002). Projections for the next 20 years identify dramatic changes in national demographics with 61% of population increases among Latino and Asian communities (Hodgkinson, 2002; Stanford, 1999; Villegas & Lucas, 2002).

One western U.S. community has embraced the opportunity to respond to demographic shifts in substantive ways. For Salt Lake City, demographic movements reflect an increase of 117% in its population of people of color between 1990 and 2000 (Perlich, 2002), where one in three new residents was a member of a community of color, the Latino population more than doubled, and the primary urban school district reported its non-majority student population at 53% (2010 district census data).

Improving the Pre-K–16 educational experiences in Salt Lake City has been a primary goal of The University of Utah, the Salt Lake City School District, and members of a surrounding community. In 2000, a community outreach director at the University brought together stakeholders to bridge pathways to higher education for traditionally underrepresented students. A five-year initiative identified multiple avenues for supporting success in Pre-K–16 education and, ultimately, accessing higher education.

This study examined the ways in which collaboration between an institution of higher education, an urban school district, and a local community builds upon the insights of stakeholders to improve the Pre-K–16 experiences of students and their families. In this study we attended specifically to the experiences of parent advocates as partners in building pathways to higher education. We describe a model for working with parent advocates and discuss the perspectives of project participants through a Community-Based Research partnership (CBR) (Strand, Marullo, Cutforth, Stoecker, & Donohue, 2003). Specifically, the roots of CBR are embedded within campus-community partnerships where the partnerships work collectively to meet common goals (Buys & Bursnall, 2007; Campbell, 1999; Kemmis, 1995). Within the present study, parents were given platforms for working with educational stakeholders through the Communities Together Advocacy Project (CTAP). The successes and limitations of the project are presented and our plans for future efforts discussed.

Theoretical Framework 

Comprehensive community-based family support programs in both rural and urban areas support healthy family functioning and allow for greater family participation in larger educational systems (Bellah, Madson, Sullivan, Swindler, & Tipton, 1985). Examples of family support programs are found in social, school-based, religious, and community-based programs (Bellah, et al., 1985; Dryfoos, 2002, 2003; Dryfoos & Maguire, 2002: Friedman, 2007; Kagan & Weissbourd, 1994; Kronick, 2005). Many school districts keep school buildings open for extended hours and have co-located and integrated education, health, job-training, and recreation services to recreate school settings as community centers. These opportunities expand our definitions of education and broaden opportunities for dialogue across multiple stakeholders (Ames & Farrell, 2005; Maurrassee, 2001; Schor & Gorski, 1995).

The traditional characteristics of CBR include somewhat nontraditional researchers and participants in their examinations of communities (Israel, Krieger, Vlahov, Ciske, Foley, Fortin, Guzman, Lichtenstein, McGranaghan, Palermo, & Tang, 2006). That is, CBR community stakeholders work jointly with traditional researchers to identify common issues worthy of investigation, with the goal of reaching greater social justice and institutional reform.

Our study embraces the tenets of building reciprocal relationships between researchers and community members and is focused on multiple perspectives that reflect the historical and cultural experiences of families and the “funds of knowledge” within communities (Mitchell & Bryan 2007; Rishel, 2008; Souto-Manning & Swick, 2006). The experiences and skills that families bring to communities are validated by formalizing the knowledge-sharing role of residents in their neighborhoods and schools. The community-based support of CTAP provided avenues for families to engage in ongoing resident participation, relationship building, and community-driven action.


In 2001, CTAP emerged when the University rallied its faculty to work in partnership with local schools, community agencies, and area residents to identify and illuminate pathways to higher education for traditionally underrepresented students. CTAP reflects three consecutive years of implementation where each year represents a phase in the evolution of reciprocity between a community and an institution of higher education. In its early years, CTAP brought together university faculty, representatives from community organizations, and parents through a series of workshops. These information exchanges provided platforms designed to empower parents concerning their students’ education and schooling experiences. The goal of the workshop series was one dimension of a larger CTAP specifically designed to open dialogue between families and the community. CTAP workshops provided opportunities for family stakeholders to examine the tools necessary for navigating public education, with the ultimate goal of sharing perspectives with members of their respective communities (i.e., families, local, university).

During the first year, 2005–2006, two workshop series provided 32 community members with education-related topics for parents and families delivered first in Spanish for 14 participants with a second session in English for 18. The underlying principles of CTAP during the first year was to identify structural mechanisms, including information on job opportunities, platforms for discussions, and venues for community support. These information co-ops allowed mutually beneficial information exchanges that have been maintained over time between the University and the community. That is, in addition to information shared with families on the mechanics of accessing higher education, families’ insights broadened project facilitators’ understandings of families and the knowledge they bring to education-related discussion. Family participants made known their insights, assets, and roles when navigating educational systems and accessing pathways to higher education.

During the second year, 2006–2007, workshop graduates worked within their home communities, where they shared and gathered information from their constituents through family forums. The workshops and subsequent family forum of CTAP bridged structured workshop formats to a grassroots focus on family knowledge and goal setting. For example, events included school tours where parents shared their knowledge of the school experience for their children with others. These insights were particularly useful for immigrant families who had many questions regarding the safety of U.S. schools. The formalized formats of these workshops provided opportunities for CTAP participants to be involved in what Schor and Gorski (1995) describe as shared education services and cultural experiences where community members served as ambassadors and experts within their communities.

During year 2, CTAP formalized access points to higher education in ways that extended the more typical dissemination of information on bureaucratic paper work and the necessary technicalities for completing applications and related forms. While the technical/procedural dimensions of access to higher education are critical, CTAP workshops also identified structures and institutional mechanisms that are self-sustaining. Specific outcomes included providing family partners with long-term, viable roles within school communities as advocates, liaisons, and educators.

During the third year, parents shared their insights about public education across multiple venues (e.g., community events and in their roles as school-based liaisons to other parents). They voiced their concerns about school-related issues and learned avenues for problem solving and information sharing as advocates within their family and neighborhood communities. CTAP formalized systematic linkages between higher education and public schools in addition to identifying and sharing general information on pathways to higher education for traditionally underrepresented groups. Our third year discussion provided in-depth details on the evolution from information sharing to information creation. That is, as parents became more involved as participants, they adopted roles where their insights and knowledge from years 1 and 2 influenced their views of themselves as participants in schools and education-related experiences. A discussion of focal participants and their experiences later in this paper illustrates the perspectives and roles of parent participants over time.

Year 3 reflected the process of what Brown (2007) described as a commitment to communication and respect where multiple iterations of program development and implementation are informed by the knowledge and expertise of the local setting. In keeping with the mutually reciprocal goals of CBR, CTAP progressed beyond the technical elements of project implementation (e.g., where to meet, how much food to order) to collaboration where stakeholders became active participants in project development, (e.g., meeting with other members of the community, long-term goal setting, and community guided participation). Year 3 also included information sharing platforms from which parent advocates contributed their knowledge and expertise within the wider educational community. Changes from year 3 to the present illustrates developments in the degree to which community members are owners in the process of goal setting, project execution, and project evaluation as part of the planning for next steps.

Methods and Data Analysis 

During CTAP’s first two years, data were collected from parents and workshop facilitators through surveys, meeting narratives, interviews, and a focus group. The first data set included surveys where 13 parents evaluated the quality of the workshops, provided suggestions for future sessions, and identified plans for incorporating workshop information into participants’ daily lives and communities. Additional data were gathered during year 2 through three parent interviews and a focus group with workshop facilitators.

To analyze the qualitative data, the research team examined focus group transcripts, meeting transcripts, and interviews. Independently, team members read interview transcripts, survey data, and a focus group summary. Through a process of constant comparison (Glaser & Strauss, 1967), a matrix was constructed to facilitate data analysis (Miles & Huberman, 1994). Initial categories for coding identified dominant themes using a form of triangulation (Denzin, 1989).

The stories of three parent advocates (pseudonyms) appear as short case studies (Merriam, 1998; Stake, 1994) and showcase their perceptions of CTAP. Bonita, a Mexican immigrant and mother of four, runs an in-home day care. Gloria, a Caucasian mother of four, attends an applied technology program, and Rosa, a mother of four is a Mexican immigrant without a college education but wants her children to go to college. Case study participants were selected due to their willingness to: 1) participate in CTAP workshops; 2) complete interviews; and 3) serve as family forum advocates during monthly 2006–2007 meetings where they shared their expertise with others.


Workshop formats and recruiting 

In year 1, the CTAP workshop series was designed to build community dialogue about education access where all members’ knowledge and contributions were valued. Workshops covered such topics as community schools, advocacy for children, building relationships between families and schools, accessing school services, healthy habits, and information on resources for children receiving special education services. Additional sessions were geared toward the developmental needs of children from birth through adulthood and general information on higher education. These information sharing sessions provided members of the community with workshops that highlighted parental rights within school communities and offered information to share with others—indicating a larger ripple effect.

The first workshop format included a two-day training session for Spanish speakers delivered by members of the Salt Lake City School District, the Salt Lake community, and The University of Utah. Funds through a HUD grant and a 21st Century Learning Grant provided participants with transportation to the two fall sessions, child care, meals, and stipends for participation. The spring training was specifically geared toward English speakers and included the same services.

Under the guidance of a community advocate working collaboratively with the program director, participants from the community were recruited as members of an informal extant group who met regularly to discuss issues related to education and services for families and communities. The fall 2005 training, delivered in Spanish, served 14 participants with the spring session serving 18 community members.

Participant Feedback 

During the spring 2006 workshops, 18 participants took part in two half-day workshops delivered in English. The spring workshop content mirrored the fall presentation. Participants shared extremely positive feedback including their reactions to sessions that focused on how to interact with their children, suggestions for effectively communicating with their children, and ideas on how to engage in activities other than watching television. Participants commented positively on the workshop presentations on strategies for communication with teachers and ideas on how to become more involved in their children’s schools.

Workshop presentations on strategies for self-care and self-improvement practices within their own education or career goals were also highlighted positively. Participants also cited their newfound knowledge regarding their rights as parents in U.S. schools as particularly useful. Parents cited the benefits of learning ways to communicate with their children about school, strategies for academic success, tools for communication with teachers, suggestions for greater involvement in schools, and plans for meeting long-term career goals.

Facilitators’ Perspectives 

Focus group facilitators cited the value of providing families with opportunities to share their knowledge on how to promote their children’s school success. Echoing a parent’s feedback on navigating educational systems (including college) a facilitator reported:

If families don’t know anyone who has ever been to college, then the families may need connections with those individuals who have the ability to make additional contacts. These workshops provide these levels of direct instruction and information sharing.

Facilitators suggested future workshop topics on the social, behavioral, and developmental needs of adolescents, and educational pathways within American schools.

During year 2, efforts were taken to examine the perspectives of parents who had taken part in the orientation workshops. In-depth interviews were conducted with three workshop participants by a project evaluator. Translations were provided by a CTAP project director for Spanish speaking participants. The participants were contacted initially by project director Wanda Alison, who arranged for home visits. Project evaluator Becky Barlow and community liaison Paula Walker completed home visits with Bonita, Gloria, and Rosa.

Focal Parents 

Bonita, Rosa, and Gloria were three parents who participated in the CTAP workshop series. Their stories are shared as focal participants because they help illuminate the meaning of our findings.


Bonita is in her mid-30s and is married with four children. Bonita and her family are immigrants from Mexico, and reported limitations in her English skills. Bonita runs a day-care from her home that she and her husband own. Her two oldest daughters are students at a curriculum and assessment lab in the Salt Lake City School District. Her younger daughter has been diagnosed with learning disabilities and the family sought the help of CTAP to identify the educational services necessary for her daughter. Bonita does not have a college education.

Alison and Barlow conducted the initial interview. Alison had a long-standing relationship with Bonita through related community work and brokered the interview as a conduit for Barlow and Bonita.

Bonita took a break from her in-home childcare to talk with Alison and Barlow. Barlow described Bonita’s home as a large, nicely furnished home on the west side of Salt Lake City. The visit took place in Bonita’s living room, while the kids watched television in the family room. Bonita was glad to see Alison and spoke with her at length in Spanish with questions and concerns regarding the needs of her younger daughter, who was recently diagnosed with learning disabilities. Barlow reported, “It was obvious that Bonita trusted Alison and sought her help as an advocate for her.”

The interview was conducted in Spanish. Alison translated the interview questions into Spanish, and listened to Bonita answer in Spanish. Alison then translated Bonita’s answers to Barlow, who took notes and recorded the interview.

Gloria Jones 

Gloria is a Caucasian woman in her mid-30s. She is married and has four children. She does not have a college education, but has begun attending an applied technology institute in her community as a result of information gained through CTAP workshops. Upon their arrival for the interview, Gloria and her young son greeted Barlow and Walker for the interview. Gloria’s home, described by Barlow as a small but comfortable home, was the location for the interview. Throughout the conversation Gloria was friendly and confident. Gloria’s familiarity with Walker and CTAP was obvious as the two exchanged general updates on family and community topics. The interview began quickly and Gloria provided answers that were short and concise.

Gloria expressed concerns about some issues at her children’s neighborhood elementary school and later transferred them to a charter school in a district 20 miles north of Salt Lake City. Gloria worked closely with staff to learn more about her rights as a parent and attended additional CTAP meetings to gain as much information as possible about educational options for her children. Since her first year in CTAP Gloria has secured a job in the Salt Lake School District.

Rosa Morales 

Rosa is in her mid-30s and is relatively fluent in her conversational English. She is married and has four children, ages four through seventeen. She and her family are immigrants from Mexico. Rosa is a stay-at-home mom and she and her husband own their home. Rosa does not have a college education, but spoke highly of the value of education and reported that it is very important for her children to go to college.

Upon their arrival, Rosa welcomed Walker and Barlow to her large home, complete with a trampoline in the front yard. Rosa knew Walker well and was comfortable with her presence and questions. Rosa’s 3-year-old daughter stayed close to her mom, with her older children in other parts of the house during the interview. The interview took place in the family living room, with a big-screen TV on a Spanish language station. As Barlow described the purpose of the visit and presented the consent forms and description of our project, Rosa became nervous and was hesitant about doing the interview. Barlow showed Rosa the interview questions. Rosa called her oldest son, who was 17, to translate for her. She decided she felt confident in doing the interview, which began somewhat slowly. As she began talking, Rosa became more comfortable, and talkative. The interview lasted approximately 25 minutes.

Parents’ Perspectives 

Interview data from workshop participants reflect powerfully the impact of their experiences. Bonita commented:

Before I participated in the project I dropped off the girls at the curb in the car. Now I walk the girls into the school, pick up each of them in their class, and say “Hi” to their teachers. Before, I was afraid to talk to teachers. Now I ask the teacher for a book so we can go home and read it together.

Bonita noted that during past summers she would take her girls home to visit family. She told her husband that now she wants to remain home [Salt Lake] for part of the summer to enroll the girls in activities and classes. She noted, “Now that I’m aware of this information and the opportunity, I feel compelled to do it [summer school activities] even more.”

When asked if participation in the workshop series helped parents become more involved in their child’s school as advocates, Gloria commented:

Oh, definitely; it empowered me to know that if I was not happy with something going on, there were options that I had and could make changes. I took my children out of school and put them at a different school because I knew it was something that I could do… . It opened my eyes to what was actually going on in the school, the things that I had felt were going on were not OK and that I was not crazy—that you know, this is not right but because nothing’s being done in the school—that doesn’t mean they were right.

Gloria’s comments reflect a level of validation in her knowledge about what needs to be in place for her children’s education and her role in providing those insights.

For Rosa, participation in the workshop series provided a specific, detailed focus for discussions with her son on information about attending higher education. Rosa commented when asked about whether and how the workshops impacted involvement in her children’s education:

Yeah, a lot. More communication with my kids. And they like it, and I like it. I have four children—the program teaches me more and helps me a lot. And now when they complain about school, I relate. Before they didn’t tell me stuff, now more and more I talk to them about everything, about everything. I can be open like that with my son and I like it a lot. The university program helped a lot, like I can do it too, my son, like you. It’s not that we didn’t cover things before, but now he can come and talk to me about something too. I like that better… Before I was scared talking about school and the way my son would do it or say it, and now I’m not scared about anything. I like that better. It’s great.

While Bonita reported that the workshop series did not have a direct benefit for her, the impact on her family was signficant. She reported that attendance at the workshop opened her eyes to what’s around her as a parent and her contributions to the educational process for her children. She said that she wants more information; she wants to look into information that will help her children.

As a result of her CTAP experiences she is more attentive to her children’s education now. And as a parent, she needs to educate herself and knows the power of her role in impacting her children’s education through her communication with the school. Bonita reported that her training needs to be ongoing and she is looking for more education for herself.

For Rosa, the workshops provided a vehicle for discussion about her son’s future. She noted:

I’ve always asked my kids what are they going to be doing later; they’re going to be living and working at what, working at McDonald’s? “If you want to do something good,” I said [to my son], “you better go back to school and do something that will help you, so you need to be doing something to help with your work.” And he said OK. From now on, I’m going to be talking about that a lot. I talk to him about what he needs to be thinking about…what he does and what he wants to do. I have said to him, “You need to know what you want because that is good for you.”

When asked if there were specific topics that would be helpful for families, Rosa commented:

I want my kids to go to college if they can…more [information] about how to get through high school and get into college. …A lot of Mexican families don’t know how to get that information. A lot of boys are already working…so I think it’s good to have someone from the university or something to talk about going to college—something for you, something of value, something for people to be more intelligent about school. Now I see more Mexicans…coming here and lots with teenagers. They move here because it’s [supposed] to be better, but sometimes it’s the same. … I understand a lot of people going through school and they need to see that I can do it and my family will get me the money … see people talking about going to school. Like you go to high school and you see kids talking about going to college and my family has no money, but I do it. And kids can go home and tell their families so their families know about that.

For the focal participants in this study, CTAP provided the technical pathways for experiences that opened doors to discussions in education that they had not formally considered in the past. It’s important to note the word “formal.” These parents have always valued education. They’ve always considered the importance of education and employment options for their children. The workshop and continued dialogue about education-related issues provided the how-to platforms for families and opened their eyes to issues related to American public schools in the Salt Lake City School District. The forum of the workshop legitimized the goals of parents for their children and gave a level of specificity that allowed for continued discussion with their children, other parents, and school personnel (e.g., teachers and administrators). The technical information shared in the workshops provided a springboard for more in-depth discussions on education-related issues. Bonita noted that her experiences were validated by “opening my eyes to what’s around as a parent.” She said that she wants more information. She wants to look into information that will help her children. She is more attentive to her children’s education and knows she must also “educate myself.”

In the two years following her initial work with CTAP, Bonita has been employed by The University of Utah as a CTAP parent-partnership liaison, where she spends part of her time at target schools linking parents to university-school information programs focused on navigating school systems and initial access to higher education. Recently, she played an instrumental role in connecting parents from two local high schools and a junior high, including information events held at the University where Bonita served as a family liaison connecting Spanish speaking parents as event participants.

Rosa no longer serves a role in CTAP; however, she volunteers in one of her children’s classrooms as a teacher’s aide. Her school is recognized as a CTAP site with 12 other actively engaged parents. In her role, Rosa facilitated a parent group and now leads Spanish speaking parents who connect with the wider family community through several school-based events. These parents attended university information events on access to higher education and lead the process for applying for college and financial aid within the community.

Lessons Learned 

Workshop Formats 

While data from our pilot group are promising and speak to the evolving status of collaborative efforts, initial findings are not without limitations. Parents suggested a friendlier workshop format including taking away physical barriers, such as tables, to encourage a format where participants talk about issues and needs. Parents were open and willing to learn; however, they reported facilitators need to be aware of individual differences between families based on issues such as immigration and documentation status. For the undocumented parents, discussions often related to their own status, in addition to their children’s needs. Facilitators suggested counselors or advisors who could provide more explicit information with time to discuss issues regarding the work and education needs of many immigrant families.

When asked to evaluate the utility of various workshops, a facilitator reported, “Parents loved the meeting at our middle school… . They were in awe.” Prior to the school visit, parents were intimidated by the building and were pleased to learn that the glass in the building was shatter proof. Parents of elementary students reported that the middle school tour defined next steps for their children. A discussion on the school’s middle school teaming approach gave parents a feeling of support and helped them understand campus resources and safety. A workshop facilitator referenced the significance of formalized opportunities for parents to share knowledge on educational issues as active participants from across communities.

Workshop Impact 

The impact of CTAP is critical for the larger university-community project facilitators. When Gloria was asked if her experiences would have any impact beyond her participation in the workshops, because she now works in the Salt Lake School District, she said:

I tell everybody about it… . I think it’s really good. The more people that take it [the workshop], the better our schools will be. It’s not a cultural thing, it’s not a lazy thing, it’s just a parent things. Where sometimes in the schools you’ve got to do what you can do—there’s not much more you can do beyond that. Even though you work during the day, you work during the night, there are still things you can do. Let the parents not feel guilty about being the supermom that’s in the class. I think it’s great—I think everybody should take it.

For Gloria, CTAP participation provided both information on education-related issues and served as a mechanism for communication within her community where her contributions were valued.

Next Steps 

A feature of truly collaborative efforts that link universities and communities is through partnerships that recognize the role of multiple stakeholders. CBR, through CTAP, is designed to provide mutual benefits to stakeholders, flexible collaboration, and communication that is responsive to communities (Brown, 2007).

Definitions of mutual benefit may vary and are clearly open to interpretation. It is hoped that exposure to information is adequate in providing substantive opportunities for participants in various projects. While ideally useful, exposure to information on its own may not prove significant if the information and opportunities shared do not result in sustainable and institutionalized outcomes for participants. The outcomes of the CTAP training for Bonita, Gloria, and Rosa moved beyond the valuable, though sometimes limited, exposure to information sharing. Clearly there are merits to “learning the ropes” of any organization; schools and educational institutions are no different. However, beyond sometimes narrow emphases on the how-tos of educational systems, learning about schools must also capitalize on how those systems provide, inform, and educate.

Work completed during years 1 and 2 established the groundwork for reciprocal collaboration. Specifically, as a result of the reciprocal partnership between The University of Utah and the Salt Lake School District and the community-based workshops, Gloria and Rosa are currently employed as family advocates within an elementary and middle school. In their positions, both women provide other parents with specific information about the school site and are instrumental in their efforts to link school, home, and community. In Rosa’s position with the Salt Lake School District, she conducts much of her school-family liaison work from her home, calling other parents to let them know about school community council meetings, parent-teacher conferences, and other school functions. As a result of the training, Rosa fields specific questions from community members about the purpose of school-related topics such as meetings, district policies, and procedures, defining who should attend various meetings, and identifying why it is important to be an active participant in their children’s education. Gloria’s position has similar job dimensions but she is active on-site and at a local community center, where many families participate in pre-school and after-school activities. Gloria’s employed position gives her the ability to introduce parents to a host of community resources and supports.

Clearly, the newfound roles of our focal participants reflect their varied and developing influence within their communities. Since its inception, CTAP has more closely aligned with CBR to reflect community driven action where reciprocal learning and teaching take place by and for community members.

Year 3 

Early parent involvement in the development of the CTAP workshops opened dialogue between families and the school community. Years 1 and 2 workshops provided opportunities for stakeholders to examine the tools necessary for navigating public education. Year 3, and the beginning of year 4, more closely reflect the tenets of CBR where community ownership and project direction are in place through site-based models, where stakeholders inform the direction of projects as members. CTAP’s site-based model is currently active at six schools: two elementary, two middle, and two high school locations. While each partnership site reflects the unique strengths and needs of that community, CTAP is consistently utilized as a mechanism for parent voices where their experiences influence education positively.

CTAP’s site-based models facilitate venues that bring together parents and families to engage in issues that affect youth, while simultaneously promoting a more equitable and reciprocal exchange of knowledge and information. For example, a dual immersion language project at Alan Elementary School had a long-standing history of divisions between the Latina/o and Caucasian parent communities. Since a CTAP presence was established, a new dialogue among parents emerged for all parents, with a conscious recognition of ethnicity and race. Through the CTAP forum, common goal-setting for educational access and success developed. The conversations between parents and university partners provided opportunities to discuss the process for creating a college-bound culture for children beginning in kindergarten. The parent community identified shared values and used formalized dialogues to reach across their historical divisions. Initial CTAP contacts at Alan were bridged by Rosa Morales. Currently, an additional 12 parents are involved in formal roles at the school site and through CTAP.

The Role of University Research 

The move to site-based CTAP partnerships has enriched community-generated research opportunities for University of Utah faculty. These CBR partnerships support not only parents but youth, particularly at the high school level. Specifically, expanded community involvement in CTAP was most evident at CTAP high school sites that included both youth and adults. In coordination with parents and University faculty, a youth core conducted interviews and focus groups to identify issues deemed important to young people within the school context. Project data themes reflected discrimination faced by youth at their school sites and were showcased in youth generated videos shared with CTAP stakeholders including parents, teachers, school administrators, and university partners. A formal showcase of the youth-initiated investigations allowed youth and parents to share discussions on how to address issues in their community.

A significant outcome of the family community linkages is the Partners in the Park Partnership (PIP). The PIP program began in 2003 as an opportunity to create spaces for families to gain a greater awareness and related pursuits in accessing higher education. PIP provided unique spaces where families, youth, and partners, are exposed to higher education as a viable option for the future. Funds from a community partner provided 10 CTAP parents with paid support to act as family-community liaisons at PIP events. They shared their insights on the concept of collaborative partnerships as mechanisms for making higher education a reality.

CTAP’s Future 

Each year the CTAP community grows, benefiting from the synergy of additional partners and program graduates. Four CTAP graduates are positioned in formal school-community advocate roles within the Salt Lake School District and act as community-based parent liaisons, responsible for maintaining communication networks with parents in their neighborhoods. By attending school meetings, notifying families of school events, and encouraging other parents to become involved in school activities, advocates integrated broader parent participation and diverse perspectives into the school environment.

As CTAP has grown and produced positive results as indicated through data gathered from participants and project facilitators, CTAP-affiliated activities have gained considerable interest from the local school district. That is, area principals and teachers are requesting more specialized workshops targeted to the needs of each school level and community. Similarly, parents of middle school students are requesting more specific information on issues related to adolescent development and youth culture.

The development of programs that expand into the community allow a greater number of stakeholders to come together to exchange knowledge, creating a broader scope of understanding for all partners. The expansion of CTAP also facilitates a greater number of faculty members from the University of Utah who bring research into practice in ways that assist schools and families and inform their work on community/ university partnerships.

As site-based CTAP partnerships emerge, partners reflect the specific issues and strengths of each school community and the neighborhoods where they reside. According to the January 2008 issue of the CTAP Newsletter, recent site-based models hope to bring together all stakeholders in ways that will engage the specific issues affecting their home communities.


Increasingly diverse communities that reach across traditional boundaries are on the rise in major urban communities in the United States (Kane & Orsini, 2005; Villegas & Lucas, 2002). In response, Pre-K–16 stakeholders must forge partnerships and develop programs that value and reflect these changes.

After four consecutive years of collaboration by a university, a school district, and community, CTAP has become a campus-community partnership that connects families, schools, and resources to validate family support of children’s educational success. A core group of CTAP parent advocates have accepted leadership roles where they continue to connect the needs of families in their neighborhoods to the wider educational community.

Overall, parent participants positively evaluated methods that build communication between children and teachers and strategies for self-care and parental rights. Early data indicate the ripple effect of information sharing between parents who teach workshop content with others (e.g., parents, neighbors, and family members).

CTAP was initially designed as a mechanism for sharing information on education-related issues including suggestions for navigating Pre-K–12 settings and accessing higher education. The workshop series also prepared parents to be conduits on education-related issues within their communities. In addition to general information sharing, all stakeholders learned of families’ needs with specific emphases on immigration, documentation, and venues for greater voice and community empowerment.

CTAP presents a unique opportunity for establishing reciprocal relationships between parents and others committed to equitable Pre-K-16 education. Our study identified a framework for sharing experiences across stakeholders with a critical community-driven focus for continued dialogue. In year 2 our project extended collaborative opportunities to include monthly family forums delivered by CTAP participants and a bilingual workshop series. Efforts during year 3 and the beginning of year 4 included paid opportunities for CTAP parents to share their knowledge with members of the wider educational community. Further analysis will examine the effects of these project components.

Opportunities that unite stakeholders have the potential to serve as catalysts for family-community connectedness, where the well-being of all members is enhanced (Kemmis, 1995). Projects such as CTAP expand our definitions of teachers, redefine the lines of expertise, and build educational pathways in new ways.

About the Authors 

All three authors are with The University of Utah. Mary B. Burbank is a clinical associate professor and director of the Urban Institute for Teachers Evaluation; Rosemarie Hunter is an assistant professor and special assistant to the president for Campus-Community Partnerships; and Leticia Alvarez Gutiérrez is an assistant professor in the College of Education.


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Meaningful Relationships: Cruxes of University-Community Partnerships for Sustainable and Happy Engagement

Trae Stewart and Megan Alrutz


The authors draw on organizational theory’s use of the metaphor as a way of understanding and explaining sustainable university/community-engaged partnerships. Working from the premise that transformative and reciprocal relationships prove essential to pedagogies of engagement, specifically service-learning, this essay argues that pursuing and maintaining meaningful partnerships between universities and communities or organizations in many ways parallels our efforts to sustain healthy romantic relationships. Through a description and analysis of 10 cruxes for sustaining long-term, healthy relationships, the authors offer a model for achieving intentional, ongoing, and systemic campus-community partnerships.

Metaphor as Investigatory Medium 

The use of metaphor has a rich history in organizational theory; comparing organizations to machines, organisms, the human body, a jungle, and architecture, among other things, proves commonplace (Cornelissen et al., 2005). In fact, Morgan (2006) argues, “Metaphor is central to the way we read, understand, and shape organizational life” (p. 65). Building on this assertion, it comes as no surprise that “most modern organization theorists have looked to nature to understand organizations and organizational life” (Morgan, 2006, p. 65). Organizations are complex systems, and metaphors allow us to explore organizations in creative ways (Oswick et al., 2002). Each metaphor itself is unique and reflects different worldviews of an organization. They provide insight into the epistemological and ontological foundations from which the creator is approaching the issues (Amernic et al., 2007; Oberlechner & Mayer-Schoenberger, 2002). A metaphor that is commonplace can often be easily identified with, and thus put into practice, by the members of the organization.

In this essay, we engage a primary metaphor to generate accessible and thought-provoking ways of looking at university-community partnerships. In an effort to frame the complexity and chaos that often characterizes university-community partnerships in a novel and user-friendly fashion, we offer the metaphor of personal relationships. This metaphor parallels institutions, namely colleges and universities, and organizations and communities such as schools, neighborhood non-profit centers, and businesses, to individuals seeking to build, or working to maintain, a romantic partnership. We argue that organizations and democratic communities, although composed of various individuals with diverse cultures and ideologies, are often collectively represented by a “voice of one”—one mission, one philosophy, one leader. Even as we offer this metaphor, we do not assume that deviations from this “one” do not exist. Grahn (2008) suggests that no single metaphor can capture an entity’s complete nature/ essence: “Different metaphors provide different insights in the target domain, and can constitute and capture the nature of organizational life in different ways, each generating powerful, distinctive but essentially partial kinds of insight” (p. 2-3). And, although we offer the relationship metaphor as widely applicable in its manifestation, culture and experience dictate how each of us sees and approaches relationships, and thus ultimately makes meaning from them and/or the metaphor we present. Bringle and Hatcher (2002) suggest, “there is merit in applying the analogy because […] awareness of nuances can be made more salient, and recommendations for improved campus-community partnership can be offered” (p. 504). Moreover, Bringle and Hatcher (2002) draw on Torres (2000) and Arriago (2001) to suggest that campus-community partnerships operate as a web of interpersonal relationships that offer “a framework for understanding the give and take, the ups and downs, the fits and starts in a service-learning partnership that are aspects of the growth of any relationship” (p. 513).

As Grisham (2006) maintains that organizational metaphors are culturally bound, we recognize that the following framework may not prove relevant in every context. Nevertheless, we offer our thoughts and experiences in order to catalyze a conversation around building and sustaining university-community partnerships specific to pedagogies of engagement, or models of teaching and learning that invite students to develop meaningful relationships with their community. To do so, we present a brief review of research on partnerships in community engagement, including best practices and several frameworks for community-engaged partnerships. We transition from these frameworks to propose a new, simpler framework built on the metaphor of dating and personal relationships. Through the lens of 10 cruxes, we demonstrate, metaphorically, how universities and community organizations, because their partnership is mediated through people, can be conceptualized as two individuals working to build and sustain a meaningful relationship.

Partnerships in Service-Learning and Community Engagement 

It seems reasonable that if universities want their graduates to acquire ideals and ethics associated with healthy democracies (e.g., honesty, tolerance, generosity, teamwork, consensus, social responsibility), then they must provide students with opportunities to practice and ultimately acquire those dispositions and skills. Pedagogically, this requires instructors to adjust their own professional conduct and transform curricula accordingly (Astin, 1999).

Collaboration, both within and outside of university campus boundaries, is not always common practice, however. Academics often cocoon themselves within their disciplinary texts, jargon, and methods. Historically, the ghettoization of disciplines coincided with a larger separation of the university from the communities in which they are located. Universities frequently frame their outreach into the community as providing a service or charity to those less fortunate, a sort of gift (Bringle & Hatcher, 2002; London, 2000). Similarly, community members often see their local university as distinct from the rest of the community (Jacoby, 2003). Ramaley (2000a) explains, “[O]ften partnerships are fragmented by competing interests within the community or on campus or both” (p. 3).

A common result from this mindset is that universities and communities approach their relationships with one another simply as transactions, or a series of one-way transfers of goods. Transactions, by nature, are temporary, instrumental tasks. Transactional relationships (Enos & Morton, 2003) (see Table 1) originate from an understanding that each partner has something that the other needs, and therefore each party collaborates with the other to exchange these resources within existing structures, work, and personnel. Although devoid of commitment, a successful transactional relationship will satisfy some of the needs of all parties. Within a university-community partnership, this often means that each party simply uses the other to meet an immediate need, and then breaks off the relationship when their needs are exhausted. Although short-term partnerships can address acute needs (Bringle & Hatcher 2002, p. 511), from the community’s perspective, their needs often remain.

In contrast, engaged institutions partner with communities in order to collectively meet both parties’ needs, hopes, and desires. Engaged universities embrace communities as equal partners who work with, not for, universities in a mutual exchange to discover new knowledge and promote and apply learning (Karasik, 1993). This collaborative paradigm redefines universities from curators of knowledge to dialectic partners who must reconsider how they operationalize teaching for the benefit of all (Torres, 2000)—“a successful collaborative process [that] enables a group of people and organizations to combine the complementary knowledge, skills and resources so they can accomplish more together than they can on their own” (Center for the Advancement of Collaborative Strategies and Health, 2002, p. 2).

One pedagogy of engagement that has received increased attention over the past decade is service-learning. Service-learning asks students to address a genuine community need through volunteer service that is connected explicitly to the academic curriculum of their academic course through ongoing, structured reflections designed for maximizing a deep understanding of course content, addressing genuine community needs with impact, and developing learners’ sense of civic responsibility.

To illustrate, we consider the disaster from Hurricane Katrina to the Gulf Coast of the United States in 2005. During the coinciding academic semester, a professor is teaching an environmental public policy course. She sees an opportunity for her students to provide assistance to hurricane victims while being able to contextualize how policy and decisions that they are learning about in class affect citizens directly. The class travels to New Orleans. Looking toward rebuilding and recognizing the need for community voices in decision-making, the students conduct a needs analysis by interviewing residents and elected officials of the hurricane-ravaged city about the most pressing needs after the hurricane. Based on these discussions, they identify that the debris and unsafe structures should be cleared to lessen the possibility for accidents/injuries, stop the growth of mold, and allow for rebuilding more quickly. They identify the areas most in need and hold a community meeting to explain what they intend to do and how they would like to work with residents as partners. Several dozen residents agree to work with the service-learners.

While the university students serve, they learn the human side of environmental policy, something not readily taught through course readings alone. They hear stories of how the debris they are clearing used to reside in living rooms and children’s bedrooms. They hear residents’ frustrations around the lack of protection from such devastation and the lack of government response. Through individual and group reflection activities, assignments, and course lectures/readings, the students analyze why the hurricane caused such devastation, learn about disaster preparedness, and why the potential for devastation and the response to the problem by the government were not adequately addressed. They are challenged to reflect on their activities in terms of personal development, content learning, and their sense of civic responsibility, specifically in line with how they can help address community needs through service. In seeking to address potential controllable issues that added to the devastation, the students move beyond a temporary, transactional approach to addressing the problem.

As a culminating project, students prepare a written report and presentation and share the results and suggestions with the residents and elected officials in the form of policy memos. These memos include strengthening levees, better hurricane preparedness education in schools, and better plans to react to a natural disaster, including temporary housing structures and food provisions. Student service-learners are invited to testify before the Louisiana State Legislature about their findings and recommendations, and do so alongside the community residents and partners.

As illustrated in the above example, service-learning cannot solely manifest within the restricted space of a university classroom. Moreover, this pedagogy of engagement relies explicitly on partnerships, and a series of relationships, between universities and the communities or organizations affected by, and working to address, a particular problem or issue. In service-learning, the notion of a community or an organization is understood broadly. It can refer to micro-communities present on the university campus itself, such as a student organization or club, to local neighborhoods or schools surrounding the institution, to more encompassing conceptualizations on the national or global scale, such as the Red Cross. Typically, universities locate themselves as the hub of their partnerships with community groups (Benson, Harkavy, et al., 2000; Harkavy & Romer, 1999; Pickeral, 2003). Some, however, locate K-12 schools or other community groups in the center (Abt Associates & Brandeis University, 2003; Piñeros-Shields & Bailis. 2006). The fewest number seek an egalitarian partnership structure, so that no individual organization within the partnership is marginalized or given more power. Each of these models points to a need for understanding the dynamics and function of relationships within university campus-community partnerships.

No matter which kind of community or organization participates in a service-learning model with a university, healthy relationships are built on and maintained by shared understanding and reciprocity. This implies that the university decides with, rather than dictates to, its community partners what the learning outcomes should be, what service activities would best achieve those goals, and how to address the needs of the community partner simultaneously. Mattessich and Monsey (1992) further explain the process as requiring “a mutually beneficial and well-defined relationship that includes a commitment to: a definition of mutual goals; a jointly developed structure and shared responsibility; mutual authority and accountability for success; and sharing not only responsibilities but also of the rewards” (p. 7). In other words, the paradigm of universities as saviors of resource-, competence-, and knowledge-deficient communities noticeably shifts when a commitment to reciprocity underpins the partnership.

When truly executed, reciprocal partnerships can benefit all parties. Service-learning research has found that strong university-community partnerships can 1) strengthen social capital, 2) provide a means to accomplish a task that is difficult to address alone, 3) ensure service recipients’ voice, 4) enable sharing of resources, skills, funding, and knowledge, and 5) ground higher education institutions in community realities and interests (Roehlkepartain & Bailis, 2007).

A complementary approach to the egalitarian perspective of reciprocity is one founded on social justice and the disruption of traditional power structures. Under this conceptualization, service-learning and other pedagogies of engagement redefine experiential activities in the community, moving away from notions of charity (Bringle & Hatcher, 2002). Service, after all, implies the provider has some type of power of which the recipient is deficient. In contrast to this exploitative lens, justice-based approaches to partnerships, however, envision reciprocity as “an expression of values, service to others, community development and empowerment, which determines the purpose, nature, and process of social educational exchange between learners students and the people they serve” (Stanton, 1990, p. 67).

Moving away from a foundation in transactions, partners in transformative relationships expect some kind of sustained commitment and change. One’s involvement in these relationships is predicated on a willingness to reflect on one’s own practices and approaches to issues. As the name implies, change is central to transformative relationships. However, there is no set timeline to achieve expected changes. The organic nature of transformative relationships often allows for unexpected insight, creativity, excitement, and/or transformation for all involved. Transformative partnerships ultimately have greater impacts because partners are able to combine their resources to address mutually defined problems in more dynamic and comprehensive ways. “When a collaborative process achieves a high level of synergy the partnership is able to think in new and better ways about how it can achieve its goals; carry out more comprehensive integrated intervention; and strengthen its relationship with the broader community,” according to the Center for the Advancement of Collaborative Strategies and Health (2002, p. 2).

Approximating a Model 

While the mission and/or goals of most universities include working with the local community, identifying a single model for successful and sustainable university-community partnerships is impossible. After all, every university, community, and organization is unique. Issues involving people, social policies, entrenched histories of inequalities, and funding constraints are complex and multilayered. Research suggests that there is no one-size-fits-all model (Piñeros-Shields & Bailis, 2007). Settling on a single, normative approach to creating and sustaining successful partnerships is bound to exclude some legitimate element(s). This, in turn, adds to, instead of solving, the problem.

Regardless, and specific to service-learning and other experiential education approaches, several sets of benchmarks and lessons addressing partnerships have been offered. Three of the most often cited examples are outlined in Table 2. While both unique and comparable pieces exist across these examples, each approach considers community-campus partnerships from a similar perspective—large multidimensional institutions, organizations, and communities, layered by bureaucracy and micro-cultures trying to work together. Although in reality this might be true, this perspective tends to overwhelm partnerships before the work has even begun. Concerns over probabilities, rather than an excitement over possibilities, can confound new connections.

As a result, our purpose is to provide an accessible schema on which readers and practitioners can prepare for entering partnerships. The following cruxes aim to encourage increased pre-flection and intentionality around healthy and sustainable campus-community partnerships in service-learning. In our conceptualization, the onus for building transformational partnerships between campuses and communities falls on individuals who represent larger institutions. Bringle and Hatcher (2002) remind us that self-awareness, communication, and self-disclosure become paramount for individuals when initiating and developing partnerships: “Evaluating and communicating information about the potential rewards and costs” (p. 507) before initiating the campus-community relationship supports the development of ultimately transformational partnerships and associated outcomes.

University-Community Partnerships: 10 Cruxes for Sustainable (and Happy) Engagement 

The term crux has several definitions, many of which tap into the complexity of university-community partnerships and relationships at large. Understood as both a “foundation for belief” and a “perplexing difficulty,” cruxes remind us that there are key points in any relationship/ partnership where we make choices about how we will participate and if/how we will move forward. This section outlines 10 cruxes, or pivotal points, in a relationship that ultimately present ideas, tensions, and questions worth considering in university-community partnerships, specifically within service-learning models.

Crux #1: Putting Yourself on the Market 

Personal Relationships. We all have experiences that shape how and why we move through the world and interact with others. Experience tells us that being in a “good place” as a single or unattached person, usually makes it easier to enter into a healthy relationship. Clearly understanding who we are and what we want and need before venturing into a relationship can help us avoid drama and complications down the road. Preparations may include readying ourselves emotionally, physically, financially, and spiritually for what it means to share parts of our lives with someone else. This step may include opening ourselves up to potential opportunities and challenges that scare us and/or highlight our vulnerabilities.

Implications for University-Community Partnerships. A university that finds it difficult to identify and work on its internal challenges will struggle to be a good campus partner. Similarly, a community or organization, regardless of its work, will struggle if its motives and goals for seeking a partnership remain undetermined, constantly in flux, or self-serving. To overcome these barriers, organizations, like individuals, must identify and name the support mechanisms at their disposal. Pulling from Walshok (1999), Bringle & Hatcher (2002) suggest that “campuses, as well as community agencies, must develop infrastructure (e.g., centralized office, policies, procedures, staff) with the capacity to evaluate and respond to unanticipated opportunities for forming partnerships with differing levels of formality, varying projected time frames, and multiple purposes” (p. 506). This step should simultaneously include recognizing those internal and external obstacles that may present themselves when seeking, forming, or attempting to maintain a partnership. What is scary about this new partnership? What does the organization have at stake? What does the university stand to gain? How will pursuing a partnership fit within the mission of the university and the community partner? And, for individual faculty and scholars, how will this partnership support your research and teaching agenda while simultaneously addressing a genuine need in the community?

Crux #2: Building on Existing Relationships 

Personal Relationships. Most relationships develop out of existing friendships and from personal connections. People we already know can help to broaden our social arena, introduce us to someone who shares common interests, or present opportunities to take a relationship to the next level. Certainly, shifting the nature of an existing relationship can get complicated as expectations and commitments change. A strong foundation of open communication and honesty can help manage some of the difficulties inherent in changing relationship dynamics from friendships or casual dating to something with more long-term goals and implications.

Implications for University-Community Partnerships. Building on current relationships with community organizations can provide exciting opportunities for development and sustained effectiveness. In fact, research in service-learning notes that university-community partnerships that consistently report effective outcomes grew out of existing relationships and developed into work beyond individual projects (Abt Associates & Brandeis University, 2003; Bailis, 2000; Piñeros-Shields & Bailis, 2007). Further, as an increasing number of tasks are spread across a diminishing number of colleagues, using the web of personal relationships that are available via our own or colleagues’ connections can enable opportunities for both efficiency and effectiveness. Like personal relationships, however, all parties will need to adjust if the nature of the relationship changes. Moreover, if and when a partnership develops from a colleague’s introduction, added pressures exist to make the partnership work, and the possibility for tension rises if the partnership ends. Clayton et al. (2010) confirm that service-learning and civic engagement relationships can progress or regress in quality throughout the life of a partnership.

Crux #3: Making Quality Face Time

Personal Relationships. Mixed opinions exist on the viability of long-distance and technologically supported relationships. What is usually shared by both sides of the debate is that ongoing, quality face time is necessary to maintain interest and emotional engagement in a relationship. Although texting, email, and talking on the phone serve as acceptable and often low-commitment communication efforts, relationships usually progress and deepen when live, human connections are available. Personal interactions not only allow for more intimate moments, but also for each partner to see how the other lives, and opportunities for how s/he might fit within that structure. Moreover, a willingness to be present within someone’s space/place shows that we are interested in who they are and what they care about.

Implications for University-Community Partnerships. Bringle and Hatcher (2002) offer three significant components for building meaningful relationships within campus-community partnerships: frequency of interaction, diversity of interaction, and strength of influence on the other party’s behavior, decisions, plans, and goals (p. 509). In addition, the importance of remaining present, both physically and emotionally, can contribute to developing closeness. Electronic communications can provide an expedient way to share information and set up meetings for partnering organizations and their staff. However, these methods of communication can never fully substitute for in-person interactions. Building partnerships requires that people spend time getting to know one another and each other’s organization; this kind of dialogue often happens impromptu, in between agenda items and more formally facilitated conversations. As in the professional world, there are times when academics and their community partners must make time for each other. Meeting prospective community partners on their own turf also can make for a more comfortable, open, and less formal first interaction, and allows the campus partner to gather important information about the context in which future work might take place. In addition to where one meets, it is important to also consider how often the meetings take place and the kinds of interactions you foster; quality does not trump quantity and vice versa.

Crux #4: Naming What You Need and Want

Personal Relationships. To date, no one can read minds. And while guessing games are entertaining at carnivals, individuals connected emotionally to a significant other are less entertained when such tasks present themselves in the relationship. Prioritizing time to “talk” can be difficult and anxiety-provoking in any relationship, but verbalizing what we need and naming what is at stake for us can help both partners get what they want and meet the needs of their partner at the same time. Without this vulnerability, and ability to articulate what you need to feel satisfied, connected, and/or appreciated, relationships remain on a surface level.

Implications for University-Community Partnerships. Universities, or those who represent them, have to be honest about where they are coming from, what they need, and what they can offer: “Hidden agendas and needs can sabotage progress” (Roehlkepartain & Bailis, 2007). In addition to discussing logistics and time lines, both parties need to name their bottom lines, even when it feels risky. Walshok (1999) suggests that these discussions address identity, purpose, procedures, and resources of each party. On which issues are each willing to compromise? What is non-negotiable, and what does each need help with? Take the guessing out of partnerships by making time to build trust and openly work through misunderstandings: “It is important to engage in active efforts for each partner to understand the needs, strengths, goals, limitations, expertise, and self-interests of the other partners, and then design efforts to reflect those things, including clear expectations” (Roehlkepartain & Bailis, 2007).

Crux #5: Actions Speak Louder than Words

Personal Relationships. Taking the time to build trust and talk openly is an important foundation for any relationship. However, talk only goes so far if it is not backed up by concrete actions and recognizable gestures of love, appreciation, and support. Our actions within a relationship speak volumes about our values and, more specifically, our commitment to our partners. Giving hugs, organizing the kids’ schedules, making dinner, and putting the dirty plates in the dishwasher when it is usually the other partner’s task says more about commitment to a partnership than words alone can communicate.

Implications for University-Community Partnerships. Community partnerships require an appropriate balance between building trust and taking action: “[I]t is vital to move beyond thinking and planning in order to begin taking concrete actions that demonstrate the benefits of partnership” (Bailis, 2000 as cited in Roehlkepartain & Bailis, 2007). This dance is something that partners negotiate at every stage of a project—coming to the table prepared, but also demonstrating openness to shifting a course of action and adjusting the ways that we actively participate in any given partnership. These gestures of action may be as simple as weekly phone calls, keeping an internally circulated blog specific to the partnership, asking the community partners to co-teach or be a guest speaker at the university, or introducing the possibility for partnering again the following academic term. Exchange theory reveals that maintaining relationship satisfaction is directly tied to outcomes (i.e., rewards minus cost) that exceed partners’ minimal expectations (Bringle & Hatcher, 2002; Emerson, 1976). Seeing the results of a university-community partnership, even if the evidence remains formative, contributes to the trust and deepening of the relationship for both parties.

Crux #6: Opposites Attract 

Personal Relationships. We seek partners and friends to complement us, not to mirror us. Differences offer exciting places to imagine ourselves anew; they can challenge our sense of identity, and grow our vision and potential. Even as differences in opinion and perspective become difficult or perplexing, consider how contrasting personalities and ideas can energize a relationship and contribute to exciting changes to how we see ourselves and how we engage in the world.

Implications for University-Community Partnerships. Just because the mission, activities, or values of a community partner do not fit precisely within the language of the university, or your own organization, does not mean that they won’t be an exciting partner. Rather, the partnership can focus on new goals that the parties create together and, more specifically, how each party may bring unique qualities that help achieve those goals through collaboration, cooperation, and a pooling of resources. Tavalin (2004) writes,

It’s okay that not everyone is aboard with the same dream. … It helps to be headed in the same direction, though, with overlapping and intersecting goals. Finding those meeting points is what makes for successful collaborations (p. 21).

New ideas and vectors of activity keep our jobs interesting. And, investing in an adventure with a complementary partner may open new ways of looking at old issues, which may ultimately help to solve the issue that brought you together in the first place. As Ebata (1996) noted, universities and communities each have a lot to offer one another.

Crux #7: Managing Baggage 

Personal Relationships. If you’re an adult, you have baggage. It is precisely these pieces of our life experiences that tend to color how we operate in the future. These might include a crazy family, bad credit, former partners that won’t disappear, and so on. Some of us have small, manageable pieces, while others, and with no fault ascribed, possess numerous, overflowing, and unmanageable bags. In a long-term relationship, though, our bags often become open and accessible to a large degree. Pieces tend to spill out when we least expect it and can often startle our significant other if s/he is not prepared. What is important to remember, however, is that everyone carriers baggage into the relationship, including ourselves. Knowing how to recognize and negotiate realistic expectations in our own lives and with others is an essential skill to managing baggage.

Implications for University-Community Partnerships. Like people, community organizations come to a partnership with overt and hidden baggage. The organizations with which we partner often struggle with low budgets; the staff wears multiple hats; and daily operations are bound by challenging organizational policies and/or bosses. Compassion, flexibility, and patience become paramount in making these partnerships work amidst everyday challenges. Communicating across these issues as we work to meet each other’s needs proves an important tool for faculty and students to practice and learn. Most importantly, partners in the university-community relationship must remember that perfection does not exist. And trying to hide or diminish our issues will not serve the relationship constructively in the long run. Instead, we should approach issues as they arise with maturity and honesty so that the bumps can be traversed together and with minimal damage.

Crux #8: Addressing Conflict 

Personal Relationships. Conflict of varying degrees arises in even the healthiest of relationships. Avoiding conflict only causes more problems over the long term, making it important to develop strategies to keep communication clear, open, and kind—even when things get messy. Addressing problems early on in a direct manner can help two people move through conflict in a way that deepens, rather than damages, the relationship. Constructive discussions of difference can also help avoid “kitchen sinking,” where old conflicts and wounds are transferred to current issues. This power play can erase trust and shift away from a model of reciprocity and equity, Acknowledging and owning what “pushes your buttons” ahead of time is a proactive step toward conflict management.

Implications for University-Community Partnerships. Organizations might consider talking to their university or community partners about how they want to address challenges that arise as a partnership develops. Naming worries and fears about specific conflicts (e.g., decision-making, project timelines, expectations) early in a partnership may help us to be more intentional about how we address conflicts of interest or other potential challenges:

Acknowledging that any particular campus-community partnership may have differences in relative dependency and power is important to managing and nurturing the development of healthy campus-community partnerships (Bringle & Hatcher, 2002, p. 510).

Therefore, we should engage in difficult conversations around ownership, expectations, and responsibilities before we begin a partnership and try to let our partner know if/when conflicts start to arise. Open and understanding communication can help remind partners that we are looking out not just for ourselves, but also for the good of the partnership.

Crux #9: Routine Maintenance 

Personal Relationships. Worthwhile relationships require constant care, attention, and maintenance. Prioritizing communication, time to connect (about things beyond work and household responsibilities), and special efforts to strengthen a relationship can make the difference between short and long term, as well as fulfilling and unfulfilling, relationships. Don’t wait for a holiday (or a fight!) to send flowers or make intentional efforts to reconnect with your partner. Reminding your significant other that they are special, reassessing their needs and wants, and demonstrating your appreciation, care, and commitment contributes to trust and can sustain you through challenging times.

Implications for University-Community Partnerships. We should make it a priority to connect with our community partners in ways that prove meaningful to them. Take the time to assess their needs and challenges; send notes and offer other gestures of recognition, thanks, and appreciation. This kind of attention and care to all aspects (personal and professional) of a university-community partnership proves essential to deepening engagement and growing sustainability. Partnerships require hard work, but the payoffs are substantial. Public recognition and celebration of the benefits and outcomes of the partnerships (e.g., through a press release, website feature, award, or community event) reaffirms a commitment to partners and to the value of the shared work (Keener, 1999).

Crux #10: It’s not you; it’s me. 

Personal Relationships. Unhealthy, dysfunctional relationships can also prove sustainable. However, not all relationships should transition into long-term commitments. In certain situations, goodbyes can be healthy. So know when to end it. Regardless of whether a romantic relationship ends under the best of circumstances, ramifications and challenges always exist around how to move through, and forward from, the end of the relationship. Friends and families often become intertwined. Property and pets are shared. And custody of children and other legal matters may need to be addressed. Moreover, most of us struggle with concerns over our reputation as a partner and our chances of partnering again in the future. No one wants to be seen as a heartbreaker, player, or user. Being kind, generous, and forthcoming throughout relationship transitions can help to protect you from gossip and bad will, and can support the various entwined parties that may have a vested interest in the relationship continuing.

Implications for University-Community Partnerships. Relationships that are mutually beneficial and reciprocal add to the development of both the university and the community, and help make partnerships deepen and grow. Finding a strong match for long-term partnerships requires that we work with community partners and explore the potential for helping one another reach desired goals. However, not every partner with whom we work will ultimately fit, and the partnership length is not directly correlated with relationship success or quality (Berscheid et al., 1989). In fact, ongoing partnerships can evidence chronic dependency and/or unhealthy patterns among individuals and/ or institutions engaged in a partnership (Strube, 1988).

We must learn how to initiate difficult conversations about letting go if/when a university-community partnership no longer has the potential to support and challenge each party. As in personal relationships, ending a partnership with a community organization does not transpire in a vacuum. Non-profit communities are often small, and news travels fast. Therefore, it is imperative that ending a reciprocal partnership be done sympathetically, tactfully, and with sufficient lead-time for partners dependent on service-learners’ skills to find a replacement. At the same time, universities must be intentional about how they are perceived in the community, and what messages they send by bouncing from partner to partner. Similar to individuals, gaining a reputation for a lack of follow-through or for using partners for their own purposes can harm a university’s potential for making future partners, as well as its standing in the community at large.

Preparing for the Long Haul: Intentional, Ongoing, and Systemic Partnerships 

Morgan (2006) reminds us that the “challenge is to become skilled in the art of using metaphor: to find fresh ways of seeing, understanding, and shaping the situations that we want to organize and manage” (p. 5). The metaphor of a personal, romantic relationship, illustrated through these cruxes, is but one way of looking at and reflecting on the applicability of a particular issue. This analogy provides a framework for transferring knowledge and understanding from our personal experiences into our professional spaces. While the contexts often differ, each set requires that we draw on the mechanics of interpersonal relationships. Reflecting on the above cruxes, themes emerge around the importance of clear, consistent communication; an ability and willingness to reflect on self, others, and community; an ethic of care; a multilayered perspective; and, an interest in the greater good.

As we work to pursue and maintain university-community partnerships, interpersonal relationships prove essential to community engagement efforts (Brindle & Hatcher, 2002). Paying attention to our own tendencies and inclinations within personal relationships can offer insight into our role in university-community partnerships. Considering the metaphor of a romantic partnership offers us an opportunity to reflect on the kinds of partnerships we are interested in and willing to work toward, and just how we will participate within them. These metaphorical cruxes offer personally relevant ways to consider moving away from transactional relationships and toward more transformative partnerships within university-community partnerships. After all, sustained partnerships can provide beneficial experiences for students, improved community outcomes, and rich learning opportunities (Bailis, 2000).

Thomas Guskey, a scholar in professional development and evaluation in education, suggests that effective work with partners may require a shift in educational structures and culture. He encourages movement away from traditional deficit-based models in which universities attempt to fix problems through one-off projects and activities (Guskey, 2000). Working from an assets-based model, Guskey demonstrates the benefits of programs and partnerships that are “intentional, ongoing, and systemic” (p. 16). Guskey’s framework for professional development offers a useful paradigm for achieving transformative relationships in service-learning and other university-community partnership models. Designing intentional goals and outcomes, developing ongoing activities and collaboration, and establishing systemic buy-in requires a willingness of both parties to reflect on their own relationship practices and to imagine new ways of approaching one’s work.

Within this framework, Stoecker and Tryon (2009) challenge scholars to think about whose voice gets included in, and how community members are affected by, service-learning engagement. By exploring these issues, they encourage those in higher education who facilitate community engagement projects and partnerships to think about their roles as university faculty, educators, and keepers/producers of knowledge. Although some of the suggestions and questions embedded in the relationship metaphors above may seem obvious, it is not uncommon to fall into challenging behaviors and patterns within personal, professional, and academic relationships. University-community partnerships are constantly in flux as partners work to negotiate and accommodate a host of contexts and human-factors that are often out of their control. For this reason, transformative partners must remain open to unanticipated developments, disruptions in the status quo, and emergence of new values and expectations at every stage of their partnership (Enos & Morton, 2003). Self-awareness and flexibility around our own behaviors within relationships, such as communication patterns. The ways we express our needs, desires, and appreciation, and how we respond to stress and political pressure, can go a long way in pursuing and maintaining transformative partnerships.

In his model of scholarship—discovery, integration, teaching, and application—Ernest Boyer (1990) presented a unified structure that deepens how scholars accomplish work that meets the real needs of communities. The scholarship of discovery and application do not happen independently of one another. Rather, they grow out of praxis, or the reciprocal and cyclical relationship between theory and practice. University-community partnerships offer rich ground for supporting students in an engaged praxis—in this case, the mining, building, and reflecting on places and spaces of rich possibility in their education and in their lives. In almost every aspect of our lives, we participate in relationship-building, making personal relationships an accessible and potentially illuminating metaphor for thinking about how we prepare for campus-community partnerships. These deceivingly simple cruxes may offer a platform for operationalizing a transformative partnership. As we stated at the beginning of this article, every relationship is unique and cannot be reduced to a single framework. Readers, therefore, are encouraged to draw on additional metaphors to both name and illustrate the complexities inherent in partnerships and transformative relationships specific to service-learning.

About the Authors 

Trae Stewart is an associate professor in Education and Community Leadership in the College of Education at Texas State University. Megan Alrutz is an assistant professor of Applied Theatre and Community Cultural Engagement in the Department of Theatre and Dance at The University of Texas at Austin.


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Critical Race Feminism: A Transformative Vision for Service-Learning Engagement

Begum Verjee


This article explores the development of service-learning from a critical race feminist perspective. Critical race feminism seeks to understand how society organizes itself along intersections of race, gender, class, and other forms of social hierarchies. It utilizes counter-storytelling as methodology and legitimizes the voices of women of colour in speaking about social oppression. Though counter-storytelling, women of colour students, non-academic staff, faculty, and non-university community members relayed their experiences at The University of British Columbia, Vancouver, Canada, which formed the basis for a transformative vision of service-learning engagement. This vision calls for institutional accountability, requiring a critical examination and transformation of hegemonic structures and practices from within before any genuine, respectful, and mutually beneficial relationships with communities of colour can be developed. Such partnerships would enable the university to create outstanding partnerships to address and solve local, national, and global injustices.


The purpose of this research was to explore the experiences of women of colour at The University of British Columbia (UBC), Vancouver, Canada, in a service-learning context from a critical race feminist perspective (Verjee, 2010). The author was interested in exploring the development of service-learning from this perspective based on the proposition that educational institutions, particularly higher education, remain a site of systemic injustices (Henry & Tator, 2010; James, 2010).

Bannerji (2000), hooks (2003), and Razack (1998) maintain that universities are premised on an ideology of whiteness, patriarchy, and classism as the dominant culture, which functions to colonize, marginalize, and silence racialized students, non-academic staff, and faculty. The intention behind the research was to explore the experiences of women of colour at and with UBC and, based on their experiences, to create a vision for service-learning engagement that would foster respectful and mutually beneficial partnerships with individuals and communities of colour. For the purpose of this paper, universities, the academy, and educational institutions all refer to higher education.

Service-Learning Engagement 

Most of the literature on service-learning engagement emphasizes the importance of developing collaborative partnerships with communities that create a common vision for addressing community concerns in addition to improving student learning and civic engagement (Bringle, Clayton, & Price, 2009; Holland, 2001; Marullo & Edwards, 2000). However, little attention has been paid to the role that communities play in enacting the goals of service-learning programs. In addition, only a small amount of research has explored the impact of service-learning programs on communities, and there has been a growing dissatisfaction inside and outside the service-learning movement regarding whether communities are truly being served (Stoecker & Tryon, 2009).

O’Grady (2000) and Stoecker and Tryon (2009) suggest that the key to service-learning engagement is to maintain the focus on collaboration with communities for the purposes of community development and social problem-solving through the identification of community issues, along with components such as reflective activities for students and the integration of service with curriculum. The challenge remains as how to do this when education, as a reflection of Canadian society, continues to remain a site of social inequities (Bannerji, 2000; Dei, Karumanchery, & Karumanchery-Luik, 2004; James, 2010; Monture- Angus, 2001; Razack, 1998).

There is a deep divide, a mistrust between educational institutions and locally based communities, that stems from a history of exploitation (Campus Compact, 2000). Educational institutions are also a site of struggle between dominant knowledges (e.g., the mainstream knowledge of professional scholars) and the wisdoms of “othered” world views (e.g., the lived knowledge within communities. Enos and Morton (2003) suggest that institutional partnerships with communities are also based on views that perceive communities as the domain of problems and institutions as the domain of solutions. All of these conditions exacerbate mistrust and power differentials between communities and educational institutions. In addition, the elitist, conflict-driven, and competitive cultures at colleges and universities, versus the more collaborative and less-hierarchical nature of communities, deepens the conflict even further (Jacoby, 2003; Lin, Schmidt, Tryon, & Stoecker, 2009). If service-learning is to truly involve higher education in real-world problem-solving, then communities must be a central and active partner in leading these efforts.

Langseth (2000) suggests that when educational institutions embark on service-learning engagement, their lack of attention to power differentials and to institutionalized Eurocentric values often causes harm. Jones (2003) adds that if such power relationships are not acknowledged and remedied, service-learning partnerships will likely create even more social inequities. Critical race theory offers a useful lens in understanding how social oppression operates; yet this form of inquiry remains on the margins of the community engagement literature. For example, few studies explore critical race theory in health that examine the need for transforming social institutions because of the social, political, and economic struggles faced by people of colour, or the mental health issues resulting from racial stratification (Brown, 2003; Graham, Brown-Jeffy, Aronson, & Stephens, 2011). Surprisingly, there is limited application of critical race theory in education and what it offers to an understanding of race and racism, or, more importantly, in an understanding of the arrangement of power relationships in service-learning engagement.

For these reasons, critical race feminist theory was utilized as epistemology and methodology in exploring the development of service-learning at UBC.

Research Methodology

Narratives by dominant groups, such as white, male, and the elite are generally legitimized in the academy and society (Delgado & Stefancic, 2000). Such narratives provide these individuals with a shared sense of identity within society and its institutions. These identities and life experiences are also reflected by dominant discourses and practices, and are viewed as mainstream, natural, and widely accepted as the “truth.” Such reflections of “truth” can determine and limit who gets to speak, heard, and valued (Henry & Tator, 2010; James, 2010). Counter-stories are, therefore, narratives of marginalized persons who speak of social injustice. Such stories are often not legitimized in society and speak against accepted truth. Critical race theory is such a methodology, and utilizes counter-storytelling, which looks at transforming the relationship between race, racism, and power (Delgado & Stefancic, 2000).

Critical race feminist theory, as a category of critical race theory, puts power relations at the centre of the discourse on gender, race, class, and all forms of social oppression. Anti-essentialist in nature, it involves the examination of the intersections of social oppression and how their combinations play out in various settings (Delgado & Stefancic, 2000). Utilizing critical race feminist theory, we interviewed 14 women (students, non-academic staff, faculty, and non-university community members) for part of this research study. Representative of a diverse range of educational faculties and university departments at UBC, they also included women in non-university community settings who had been involved with UBC in some partnership capacity.

The participants were recruited from posters, electronic postings, and by snow-ball sampling [also known as word-of-mouth or “chain referral” sampling] and ranged in age from 25 to 59. They identified as women of colour and spoke of their identies as being fluid and multiple, Canadian, non-white, non-Aboriginal, immigrant settlers on First Nations land, straight, queer, and lesbian. They described their cultural backgrounds as Chinese, Philippine, Korean, Caribbean, Haitian, Jamaican, Jamaican-Costa Rican, Black, African, Kenyan, South Asian, Indo-Canadian, Indo-Ugandan-Canadian, East-Indian, and mixed race (part European ancestry).

Of the 14 women interviewed, six were UBC students; four were undergraduate students and two graduate. Three of the women interviewed were non-academic staff and two were part-time faculty members. Two of the 14 were non-university community members. One was a part-time faculty member at another institution of higher education in Vancouver who had been a graduate student at UBC.

Two hour-and-a-half, face-to-face individual interviews were conducted with each woman at a time and confidential location convenient to them. Each interview was transcribed and a second interview set-up to review themes and transcripts from the first interview. A semi-structured interview technique was utilized with standard questions and the use of an interview protocol around their UBC perceptions and experiences and their visions of service-learning engagement that would enhance partnerships between individuals and communities of colour.

Experiences of Women of Colour at and with UBC

James (2010) states that the impact of racism, and the values, attitudes, and ideas they express, is not merely a product of encounters with other individuals, but are structured by the ideologies, ethics, and practices of institutions and society. These very real instances of discrimination are experienced as trauma on one’s physical and mental health. Delgado (2000) suggests that race-based stigmatization is “one of the more fruitful causes of human misery” (p. 131).

Racialized students, non-academic staff, and faculty have acknowledged that institutions of higher education are toxic and hostile (Henry & Tator, 2010). The day-to-day reality for women of colour in the academy involves overcoming hurdles, constantly having to negotiate the institutional landscape, mediating confrontations, and fighting to survive a relentless onslaught of racialized micro-aggressions (Bannerji, 2000; hooks, 2003; Razack, 1998). The women in this study spoke of daily micro-aggressions and trauma of being unseen, unheard, devalued, silenced, de-legitimized, disempowered, scrutinized, disciplined, and perceived as inferior. Following are some of the themes that emerged from their interviews:

• Racialization as “other”

• Lack of commitment to curriculum and pedagogical transformation

• Low representation of racialized faculty

• Low representation of racialized non-academic staff in management and senior management

• Lack of commitment to institutionalizinging diversity in the academy

Racialization as “Other”

According to James (2010), colonialism operates in society today as part of an ideology of social differentiation sustained by political, economic. and social domination of one racial group by another. From this point of view, education is seen as a political and educational site where power relations and social inequality are reproduced (Wagner, 2008). Such sites operate in ways that usually negate the experiences of racialized peoples, and in doing so reinscribe them as “outsiders,” thereby making it difficult to establish themselves as legitimate, equal, and contributing participants within these institutions (James, 2010; Razack, 1998). Racialization is part of this process of domination and subordination through the categorization of physical appearance, in particular skin colour, whereby the racialized are constructed as “other.” Stamped with a badge of inferiority, the racialized are denied opportunities and equal treatment and excluded from participation in any meaningful way (Delgado, 2000; Henry & Tator, 2010). A graduate student shared her experience of racialization, of feeling invisible and insignificant. She explained that she often experienced lack of voice at the institution because of her skin colour:

Being a woman of colour is certainly evident. It’s not like I can pretend I’m not. I’ve said before, it’s not like that I can come home or go out and take off my skin and blend in… . I definitely feel that I’m marginalized. I feel that I’m not present, [that] what I have to say is not valid… .

A non-university community member shared her experience of racialization, of being present but invisible in white dominated spaces in both educational institutions and community organizations. She spoke of how insignificant she felt in not being seen or acknowledged:

When I’ve worked within institutions or organizations which have been predominantly white, I’ve encountered situations where I haven’t been acknowledged…i.e. no eye contact, no greeting. At these times I’ve felt excluded and invisible.

Such experiences of a “chilly” climate is common on university campuses where women of colour experience invisibility and lack of voice as they encounter sexism, racism, and classism (Mayuzumi & Shahjahan, 2008).

Lack of Commitment to Curriculum and 

Pedagogical Transformation

Dei, Karumanchery, and Karumanchery-Luik (2004) and Calliste (2000) conclude that universities, being state sanctioned and funded, support and reproduce inequities. The ideology of the white settler nation-state is reflected and supported by the academy, where classrooms and interactions mirror the everyday world (Bannerji, 2000; Razack 1998). Many instructors of colour teaching in the academy have argued that neither their presence nor their histories are recognized in the academy (Henry & Tator, 2010).

In this research, UBC was viewed as an institution that supports nation-building though emphasis on Eurocentric and male-dominated knowledges. Though the women interviewed agreed that there are programs and courses that provide alternate spaces and critical studies, in general education was seen as reinforcing the status quo. A faculty member had this to say:

I don’t think our education, as it stands, really does very good justice to non-white groups in this university. I think we really get a very Europeanized history of the world… . That’s not to say we don’t have courses or programs that relate to other cultures and histories, but in terms of what we really celebrate and what is really promoted, I think it is European.

Campbell (2003) suggests that most institutions of higher education in Canada lack a concrete commitment to diversity and inclusion. Diversity is usually responded to by teaching a bit of this and a bit of that as add-on approaches, but there is little rigorous reorganization of the curriculum. Most of the curriculum is still grounded within a dominant framework that disappears or erases “othered” world-views. For many racialized students, universities continue to be a place of disconnection (hooks, 2003), a sense that something is missing and being reminded that they are “outsiders.” An undergraduate student spoke of the disconnect she experienced between what was being taught at the academy and her lived experience:

In fact, I was noticing that I was doing poorly as I started to realize that it [education] wasn’t working…there was a disconnect between who I am and what [UBC] was teaching.

Mirza (2006) suggests that racialized students are more likely to leave their university before completing their programs because of unmet expectations about higher education. There was a sense from the students interviewed that there were higher attrition rates for students of colour than their white counterparts.

Low Representation of Racialized Faculty

Dei et. al (2004) state that instructors in post-secondary institutions remain primarily white, and that racialized faculty sometimes makes up less than 5% of educators. On the other hand, racialized students often comprise 50% or more of the student population in many post-secondary institutions, and there is generally a lack of commitment to hiring faculty of colour at these institutions (Campbell, 2003). In addition, women make up almost 60% of undergraduate students, 45% as PhD students, but only 18.8% as full professors (Ollivier, Robbins, Beauregard, Brayton, & Sauve, 2006). However, women of colour represent only 3.4% of full-time and 10.3% of all faculty positions in Canadian universities (Canadian Federation for the Humanities and Social Sciences, 2006). Their numbers are significantly lower than their male counterparts (Henry & Tator, 2010).

Students interviewed expressed a desire for an increase in racialized faculty representation for mentoring, support and guidance. Luther, Whitmore, and Moreau (2001) state that racialized students are drawn to similar faculty members as role models, as experts in mutual areas of interest, as personal advisors, and research supervisors. Students desire to be understood without the need to explain what they are experiencing in the academy. They want to feel comfortable in exploring critical questions in a supportive environment that does not threaten them but stimulates them intellectually and affirms who they were.

Increasing the numbers of racialized faculty would, in fact, advance the standards of education by providing richer and broader learning experiences for all students. Excellence in teaching is not only about competence; it is also about representation (Henry & Tator, 2010). According to Luther, Whitmore, and Moreau (2001), having a critical mass of racialized faculty is a means to equity. An undergraduate student remembered the first time she met a racialized faculty member, and what a surprise this was to her, but also how inspiring this was. She found herself engaged for the first time in her academic program:

And you know, I was stunned. And I double-checked that she has a “doctor” beside her name… . [During the course] I found myself asking questions. I found myself engaged, and I found myself really interested… . I would never do that before. You know, no way!

However, demands by colleagues, through requests to be guest speakers to different classes, usually on topics of race, ethnicity, or cultural issues, further exacerbate an already heavy workload for racialized faculty. This additional work leaves little time for activities supporting tenure and promotion, and further marginalizes them. In addition, Kerl and Moore (2001) state that there are huge costs associated with marginalization for faculty of colour, costs that range from having one’s research and teaching located on the margins, to being punished for speaking out about inequities. The faculty interviewed suggested that heavy workloads, research on the margins, and demands from students put them at a higher risk of burnout than their white counterparts.

Low Representation of Racialized Non-Academic Staff in Management and Senior Management

It is well documented that the majority of non-academic support staff and service workers in the academy are non-white (hooks, 2003). Many universities have conducted employee workforce audits, and these indicate a significant level of under-representation of women of colour in management and senior-level non-academic administrtive positions (Henry & Tator, 2010). A graduate student spoke of her perceptions:

I think the institution needs to have much more representation of people of colour in positions of power because we certainly have lots of people of colour in the institution, but they’re not in positions where they’re influencing students. They’re actually men and women who are bowing down to students, who are picking up students’ garbage.

The women of colour in non-academic administrative positions suggested that there are some very real discriminatory practices in place that prevent people of colour from being hired and promoted into leadership positions, and that employment equity policies have mainly benefited white women. They spoke of UBC’s lack of commitment to hiring, retaining, and promoting non-academic staff of colour into management and senior levels of management within the academy.

Many of the women spoke of “gatekeeping” practices within UBC that prevent racialized non-academic staff from being promoted. When job vacancies come up, departments are known to hire personnel that they know, people who are viewed as a “fit.” Calliste (2000) states that gaining employment and promotion through the ranks to non-academic positions is often not based on merit. She suggests that one must be a member of a privileged group, to be suitable and supportive of the status quo. In addition, hiring or interviewing committees are also often homogeneous and white in make-up. White people are therefore more likely to be hired and promoted into leadership positions. A non-academic staff member gave an example of this:

…management hire people that they know versus posting positions for short-term positions, one year maternity leaves, etc., with the rationale that it’s easier than posting a position, [i.e.] advertising to the broader community for appropriate candidates. The result is that those individuals who are already known get more opportunities than the unknown. White candidates get hired for short contracts, gain valuable on-site job experience and “fit,” and then get hired when the permanent positions come up. This is a typical UBC hiring practice and is discriminatory.

As Razack (2002) reminds us the more prestigious and higher paying jobs in post-secondary institutions remain white, whereas the lower levels remain racialized. Economic discrimination occurs through discriminatory practices that limit access and employment of racialized people into desirable positions, including positions of leadership. Because of these discriminatory practices, racialized candidates who are eminently qualified lose employment opportunities and advances in employment (hooks, 2003). Such people, even with educational qualifications who should be positioned within the “meritocratic” circuit and gain returns from their education, experience disadvantages and discrimination. Another non-academic staff member, even though very well qualified, experienced barriers to being placed in a leadership position because her white colleagues claimed that she made them feel uncomfortable:

In the workplace, I’m not seen to “fit in.” My presence seems to cause discomfort and mistrust. People have said, “She makes me feel uncomfortable.” I’m not perceived to be suitable for leadership positions where I would be giving orders, or [where] I would have authority over a white person. This is all part of the underground discourse, which translates itself into actuality. You get mysteriously passed over for leadership positions in favour of a white person who is less qualified and less competent. The galling thing is that you are expected to train and prop that person up.

Lack of Commitment to Institutionalizing Diversity

Many of the faculty and non-academic staff interviewed in this study facilitate diversity and social justice training across the campus, including activities that involve internationalizing the campus. They stated that there is much resistance to social justice training and education by senior management at UBC. A non-academic staff member shared an experience regarding a conversation she had with her director in the development of a diversity workshop for students. Her director wanted to focus the content of the workshop on understanding cultural differences and celebrating diversity, and not on social justice. She relayed:

I was told that this approach [social justice] was a dangerous approach, and that I better be careful, that it was “immoral.” Which horrified me! I was shocked.

Such attitudes from people with power, in shaming marginalized individuals, contribute to continued experiences of oppression. Shaming perpetuates dominant values and morals in the workplace and sends messages of how work should be carried out. hooks (2003) states that systematic shaming colonizes the mind and the imaginations of racialized peoples. Those who shame crush the spirit of people who strive for social change; they practice a form of emotional violence. Such management practices are hurtful, devaluing, and degrading and maintain the subordination of “others.”

Often programs and events that are life-sustaining to marginalized people, such as Black History month, the International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, Women’s History month, Pride Week, etc., are tokenized as one-off [one-time] events, and therefore not institutionalized. These “othered” histories and knowledges are not integrated into the everyday teaching and learning environment. Yet, these very spaces were viewed as life-affirming to students, non-academic administrative staff, and faculty at UBC, many of whom help coordinate these events on a voluntary basis.

Unfortunately, many of these events take on a multicultural or celebratory approach to promoting diversity. These short, intermittent events are seen as stop-gap measures in education, and such programs do little to challenge systemic inequities. An undergraduate student talked of how degrading and disrespectful “diversity as celebration” was to her:

Let’s enjoy each other’s food, and lets go to the Chinese New Year Festival and then to the Caribbean Festival in July and then go to the Powell Street Festival for Japanese culture and things like that where it’s surface, very tokenizing and quite frankly, belittling. I’m more than that. I’m more than my food and great costumes and dances.

Ahmed and Swan (2006) suggest that in showcasing diversity and holding celebratory events accompanied by happy colourful faces, systemic inequities faced by people of colour remain hidden. In addition, by being the caretakers of diversity, people of colour are repositioned as “outsiders within” as institutions are discharged from doing this work. James (2010) suggests that diversity represents nothing more than a public relations enterprise that yields support and financial benefits for publicly funded institutions to justify their continued claim to government funding and in raising tuition fees, particularly for international students. Mirza (2006) adds that an “inclusion” framework is also a desirable feature in higher education as “good for business.” She argues that diversity statements act as a mechanism for reproducing institutional hegemony and operate in ways that keep the project of diversity stuck and unfinished, as if “saying is doing,” (p. 104). Diversity and social justice mission statements and policies in higher education have little to do with transforming the academy and have fundamentally failed to change the culture of whiteness within academia (Henry & Tator, 2010).

The counter-stories that the women shared regarding their UBC experiences painted a picture of a political, economic, cultural, and educational context which operated in ways that usually negated, minimized, or denied their daily experiences. Such experiences made it difficult for them to establish themselves as legitimate, visible, equal, valued, and contributing participants of the institution. The women interviewed worried about the development of university-community partnerships for service-learning engagement with all marginalized communities, but in particular with communities of colour. They suggested that such partnerships must be developed from a community development approach, where those most impacted by marginalization and oppression are centrally involved in partnership development. In addition, they suggested that the academy engage in a re-visioning process requiring the transformation of hegemonic structures and practices. Otherwise, they stated, service-learning engagement would likely perpetuate social inequities and injustices.

Institutional Transformation

From a critical race feminist perspective, the following key elements for institutional transformation were recommended for UBC from the women interviewed for this study. Such transformation would support and enhance service-learning engagement with communities of colour. These key elements included leadership in establishing the vision and mission; ensuring faculty representation and employment equity for non-academic staff; curriculum and pedagogical transformation; access and equity for racialized students; anti-oppression education and training; and aligning systems and practices for authentic inclusion.


Leadership was viewed as essential in establishing the vision, direction, and goals for institutional transformation to address and remedy systemic inequities. The women interviewed suggested that even though commitment from the top was necessary, it was not the only condition for institutional change. Change, they felt, required the participation of many leaders throughout the institution who “walk the talk,” and who understood that such transformation required long-term commitment. In addition, the women suggested that an advisory committee be established at the presidential level to help guide the project for transformation. They suggested that this advisory committee be representative of the communities the institution partners with. This would then serve to guide service-learning engagement that advances community development goals.

Some of the literature suggests that university-community partnerships should establish advisory boards for service-learning programming. These advisory groups should be comprised of students, non-academic staff, faculty and non-university community members for the purpose of monitoring partnerships and guarding against inappropriate dependency, power differences in decision-making, and exploitation (Bringle et. al., 2009; Marullo & Edwards, 2000). In addition, Lin et al. (2009) suggest that leadership must ensure that their infrastructure meets the needs of all students, non-academic staff and faculty in devoting resources to addressing issues of diversity, ensuring that the necessary resources are made available for systemic change. A non-academic staff member suggested that direction from leadership would pave the way forward at UBC. She stated:

…that message should come from the top down. The president of our institution should say that it’s [institutional transformation] important, and that it’s mandatory, and that it’s to be done, because it’s only when the message comes [from] top-down that it gets heard and respected, and everybody comes on board.

Ensuring Faculty Representation and 

Employment Equity for Non-Academic Staff

All the women interviewed spoke about the few numbers of racialized faculty employed at UBC and the poor retention and lack of promotion of racialized non-academic staff into management and senior management positions. According to James (2010), the homogeneity of faculty members, and the lack of rights and entitlement to equitable treatment and equality of opportunities for racialized non-academic staff are of great concern in many institutions of higher education in Canada. The denial of access to privileges and opportunities otherwise available to white people is characteristic of racial discrimination.

Some of the women reiterated that there was no method at UBC for tracking the hiring and retention of racialized non-academic staff. The lack of records on where racialized people are employed within the institution conceals their economic marginalization and supports the denial of economic injustices. The women interviewed stated that such findings must be reported annually and an action plan implemented to remedy this.

Ensuring faculty representation and employment equity for racialized non-academic staff was seen as a means to equity, and a much needed measure for creating credible partnerships with marginalized communities. In addition, having such representation as part of service-learning engagement and programming might provide valuable learning “insider” perspectives on the histories and lived experiences of these communities (Sleeter, 2000). It is suggested that these perspectives assist in developing capacity for engaging in meaningful collaborations with communities (Ogden, 2001). A non-university community member spoke about the importance of community representation on the ranks of faculty and management at UBC. She said:

I think if you want to operate in a manner that is going to engage the community at some level, you need to be reflecting the community within the structure and community at the university.

The women interviewed noted that faculty and non-academic staff involved in service-learning development at UBC were primarily white. They spoke of the importance of diverse representation, students, non-academic staff and faculty in developing service-learning partnerships with marginalized communities. More importantly, they suggested that people involved with the development of service-learning have a critical understanding of the histories of social oppression, and how these inform the reality of unequal social relations. This would only take place once the institution committed to a vision for transformation; otherwise service-learning partnerships would likely replicate social inequities.

Curriculum and Pedagogical Transformation

All the women interviewed stated that curriculum across the academy required de-colonization, by which they meant integrating alternate and ‘othered’ perspectives into the curricula. Not engaging in curriculum transformation, and maintaining Eurocentric worldviews, amounts to intellectual racism (Bannerji, 2000).

The students also spoke of the need for instructor training on dealing with conflicting worldviews in the classroom, yet such training at universities is not mandatory, and faculty who desire such training do so for their own professional development. They suggested that faculty teaching service-learning courses should be required to take some form of anti-oppression training to provide them with the skills to develop inclusive classroom strategies utilizing different sites of knowledge that draw all students, including students of colour, into conversations. Some service-learning literature does speak to the need for curriculum to be structured around critiquing the structures of oppression and engaging in educational strategies for social transformation (O’Grady, 2000), but little is said about faculty education and training.

A faculty member spoke to these issues:

I’m afraid that even after thirty years of discussions on multiculturalism, we still find many courses where the syllabus is as if these discussions had never really taken place. Where there are no inter-textural conversations or whatever, so that we still read the one Euro-text. In my way of thinking at this point, we should be reading many texts simultaneously so that we get a healthy talk and response, or writing and response….

A non-university community member stated that she often encountered UBC students with little or no understanding of the history of colonialism or social oppression in Canadian society. For example, some students she encountered had never heard of the residential school system, others wondered whether sexism or racism still existed, and some did not know what heterosexism meant. She spoke of the enormous responsibility placed on the shoulders of non-university community members to decolonize the minds of students sent to them through university-community placements. Another non-university community member spoke of a need to broaden the curriculum by integrating alternate worldviews that speak back and challenge dominant ideologies of Eurocentrism. She suggested that in preparing for service-learning engagement, curriculum must address political, economic and social injustices:

In preparation to partner with communities of colour, the academic environment should provide a forum that would enable faculty and students to examine, analyze, and address their own issues around oppression. The curriculum content would be diverse enough to include non-Eurocentric, feminist, and anti-oppression pedagogy and analyses.

Access and Equity for Racialized Students

All the women felt that the university had a role in promoting access and equity for all students desiring a higher education. They were concerned, however, about escalating tuition costs and the high level of student indebtedness. Many of the women interviewed felt that these posed a huge deterrent for many students, mostly for those from poor socio-economic backgrounds, primarily gendered and racialized.

The women worried about which students would be afforded an education and which would be left out. They pointed out that, once in the system, racialized students also tended to have more difficulty than white students in securing scholarships, and even graduate assistantships. They felt that lack of institutional support in terms of the provision and allocation of specific scholarships and graduate assistantships put students of colour at a further disadvantage.

According to the students, racialized students often find themselves working at multiple jobs, usually in low paying positions, in order to financially support their education and every-day living. These multiple jobs are necessitated because of economic inequities, which, in turn, negatively impact their academic performance. The students interviewed stated that many instructors are inflexible with assignment extensions related to economic difficulties, thereby forcing them to withdraw from courses and putting their academic programs in jeopardy. An undergraduate student shared just this experience:

[Professors] not understanding that as a woman of colour, there are pressures that I have. Like whether that’s economic – women of colour aren’t always in the best economic positions. So for me that meant that I was on student loans, that I had to work 30 hours a week [during] my first 2 years at UBC, while being a full time student….

Having to work multiple jobs, racialized students are sometimes unable to take advantage of career development opportunities, such as presenting at conferences or attending career fairs. It has been well documented that without institutional support, students of colour face a constant struggle for survival (Thomas-Long, 2003). Lin et al. (2009) and Stoecker and Tryon (2009) also point out that in Canada it is primarily white students who are involved in service-learning placements. Could it be that students of colour are otherwise preoccupied with everyday social, political, and economic realities that leave them little or no opportunity to get involved?

Again, women interviewed for this study raised questions and concerns around the lack of demographic information about the student population at UBC, particularly the racial demographics of students. These key questions were posed: Who are the students at UBC? What are their needs with regards to education and services? Why are so few students of colour involved in service-learning programming? Participants also noted that there was no data regarding the retention or attrition of students. There was, simultaneously, a high level of suspicion that the acquisition of these demographics would reveal higher rates of attrition for racialized students. The need for this demographical information was seen as important in determining where the institution might be failing these students. As a non-academic staff member suggested:

First, the institution would have to know who their students are. Exactly what their needs are, where they’re coming from, and I don’t think we’re there yet. My understanding is the university doesn’t even track equity groups, the visible minority groups.

Anti-Oppression Education and Training

The language of diversity is prominent in universities like UBC, both in administrative and pedagogical spheres (Henry & Tator, 2010). This discourse on diversity claims neutrality and a level playing field. Bannerji (2000) suggests that diversity sensitization or training has displaced equity-related programs that specifically address sexist, classist, and racist social power relations. The women interviewed expressed concern about the status quo, and suggested that education and training needed to be founded on anti-oppression principles in addressing the social organization of unequal power relations. Cultural diversity training does occur, but takes the “cultural differences” approach, where difference is thought to reside in the individual rather than the system. This does little in promoting systemic change as it does not examine how the treatment of subordinate group members are socially organized to sustain existing power relations (Razack, 1998), suggesting that racism and oppression are a result of attitude, behaviour and individual ignorance.

The women stated that there was no question that changes in employment composition were important steps to institutional transformation. However, hiring individuals from marginalized groups, they felt, could not occur in a vacuum. They suggested that hiring, retention, and promotion of people of colour in the academy had to be supported by anti-oppression education in order to foster inclusive working, living, and learning environments.

In addition, the women also suggested that UBC must become knowledgeable about the communities it wished to partner with, particularly the histories of those communities. Maurrasse (2001) suggests that students, non-academic staff, and faculty are not automatically knowledgeable or skilled in the dynamics of community engagement. Education and training are also necessary for university members to become familiar with their community partners and ethical practices around community development. Without these knowledges, the institution would be unlikely to develop meaningful relationships. A community-member shared her view:

I think the institution would need, whether they were students or they were the instructors themselves or administrators, they would need a lot of learning. There’s a lot of stuff that they don’t know about communities, communities in general and then about particular communities, communities of colour.

Aligning Systems and Practices for 

Authentic Inclusion

In order for UBC to create a welcoming and inclusive working, living, and learning environment, the women in this study suggested that the institution needed to ensure inclusion in all its diversity efforts. They argued that this would involve the alignment of all institutional systems, and ongoing assessment and evaluation of these systems, to create authentic inclusion.

It was repeatedly noted in the stories that were told by the women interviewed that systemic discrimination, in particular racism, is often viewed as the exception and not the rule at UBC. Razack (2002) states that viewing racism as the exception is a rejection and denial of these everyday encounters and practices. Under these conditions, power and unequal relationships continue to be perpetuated, particularly in spaces created to promote diversity and “inclusion” where people of colour are invited to participate, but tokenized in not being heard, valued, or respected. Authentic inclusion values “othered” voices and engages their perspectives into decision making.

According to the women interviewed, aligning systems and practices for authentic inclusion would require an integrated systems approach, along with an ongoing process for assessment and evaluation: How well are we doing? What needs to change in order to improve? How do we continue evolving? Assessment and evaluation would require the experiences of those marginalized to inform the evolving transformative process. From this, dominant ideologies, ethics, and practices would start to shift. Such a transformative endeavour requires organizations to become learning organizations which constantly evaluates and adjusts operations in line with goals and changing contexts. Institutional transformation, as systems shift, must occur all the way to the core of institutional culture (Kofman & Senge, 1995). Again, the women interviewed spoke about the necessity of having leadership establish policy and practices regarding institutional transformation for inclusion and educational transformation.

A Critical Race Feminist Vision for Service-Learning Engagement

From a critical race feminist perspective, the project of service-learning engagement must be led by communities affected by systemic marginalization in their desire for societal transformation. It is imperative, therefore, that educational institutions recognize the ideologies and practices of domination that structure how we relate to one another daily in maintaining subordination of others, and commit to institutional transformation. Institutions, therefore, need to invest in understanding the histories, social relations, and conditions that structure groups unequally, as much of the work that underpins service-learning engagement involves remedying and alleviating multiple sites of oppression.

A non-academic staff member suggested that service-learning engagement with communities of colour would likely be unsuccessful if the institution neglects to recognize and remedy the many forms of social injustices embedded within its structures. She commented:

Looking at oneself and seeing marginalization within academia, right? I mean, how can it understand outside, when you know, there’s no movement at all for racialized people within academia.

A non-university community member added to this in suggesting that successful collaborations with any marginalized community must involve institutional accountability through transformation from within:

An institutional environment that would make education accessible to all, including marginalized groups; model and promote race, class, and gender equity; encourage and sustain diversity; create and sustain political, social, and cultural awareness and sensitivity; maintain the right of freedom of association, speech, and expression; and provide a safe, comfortable, and respectful learning space.

Razack (1998) suggests that in order for any sort of trust to be established between educational institutions and marginalized communities, institutions would be required to be accountable, “a process that begins with recognition that we are each implicated in systems of oppression that profoundly structure our understanding of one another. That is, we come to know and perform ourselves in ways that reproduce social hierarchies” (p. 10). Once we are able to recognize this, we can become accountable to communities we desire engagement with. Maurrasse (2001) adds, if social responsibility to communities is not seen as essential, communities will remain marginalized and will likely not embrace such engagement.

Mohanty (1997) suggests, therefore, that any collaboration across social hierarchies must involve a critique of hegemony. The long-term preparedness of higher education to develop lasting service-learning partnerships with marginalized communities is dependent upon its ability to change internally (Maurrasse, 2001). Monture-Angus (2001) and Nelson and Prilleltensky (2010) suggest that structural and systemic change is the only way in which meaningful and substantive long-term change can be secured in any type of community development engagement. Critical race theory offers an emancipatory pedagogy in understanding the lived experiences of people of colour with oppression and systemic exclusion. With such an understanding begins the work of re-organizing institutions for service-learning engagement that would enable colleges and universities to create outstanding partnerships to address and solve local, national, and global injustices.

Practices and policies of oppression, discrimination, and disregard continue to plague institutions of higher education in Canada (James, 2010; Henry & Tator, 2010). This research utilizing critical race feminism was an attempt to address systemic inequities experienced by women of colour in and with the academy, and in doing so adds to the gap in the discourse on university-community partnerships for service-learning engagement. Educational institutions must recognize the reality of systemic injustices and oppression in society, and within education itself. Doing so would necessitate transformative systems change in order to support service-learning engagement in redressing societal injustices.

A critical race theory approach studies the voices and experiences of people of colour in understanding how structures, laws, policies, and practices discriminate and are set up to exclude. This study utilizing critical race feminism interviewed 14 women of colour and their counter-stories explored their experiences with regard to multiples forms of social oppression at and with UBC. Given the limited sample size, this study was exploratory in nature; however, the counter-stories of the women of colour interviewed relay a political, social, and economic affiliation with the stories of racialized students, non-academic staff, and faculty in the academy as outlined in the supporting literature. There is limited application of critical race theory and what it may offer in understanding race, racism, and the arrangement of power relationships in education and service-learning engagement. Other studies utilizing this approach may add further depth and breadth to this body of knowledge.


This article has illuminated the ways in which the political, social, and economic contexts of The University of British Columbia operates in ways that usually result in negative experiences for women of colour. Through a critical race feminist methodology and analysis, this study has put forward transformative solutions to racial, sexual, and class subordination, which, if left unaddressed, could result in the development of harmful service-learning partnerships and engagement with communities of colour. A transformative vision for service-learning engagement from a critical race feminist perspective was developed from this research, calling for institutional accountability and transformation of hegemonic structures and practices from within before any genuine, respectful, and authentic relationships with communities of colour can be developed. Such endeavours would only serve to support and grow service-learning engagement in redressing systemic injustices that plague our communities and nation.

About the Author

Begum Verjee is the program director of and a core faculty member in the M.A. in community psychology program at the Adler School of Professional Psychology, Vancouver Campus.


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Civic Engagement and People with Disabilities: The Role of Advocacy and Technology

Sarah Parker Harris, Randall Owen, and Cindy De Ruiter


Disability legislation acknowledges the right of people with disabilities to participate in political and public life on an equal basis with others, but there continue to be significant barriers in accessing all aspects of the policymaking process. Advocacy and technology are two core strategies used by the disability community to advance the rights of people with disabilities. Further understanding of how these strategies and tools empower people with disabilities to connect with government is needed. This research seeks to develop and enhance civic knowledge and practices of people with disabilities by conducting civic engagement training and evaluation and examining the role of four disability advocacy organizations. Using qualitative and quantitative data, the research explores the inclusion and participation of people with disabilities in civic society, with a focus on advocacy and technology.


In the United States in the 1970s the civil rights model began to influence disability policy discourse and practices, which shifted from a charity approach to one that embodies human rights, self-determination, and empowerment. During this time there was a great deal of support for ending discrimination against people with disabilities (Scotch, 2001). However, unlike other civil rights movements, the disability rights movement was relatively invisible, which meant that political, social, and legal structures created to advance rights either were not applied or were applied with less rigor in the case of people with disabilities (Mezey, 2005; Stavis, 2005; Switzer, 2003). Despite strong disability legislation intended to increase the social and political participation of people with disabilities, there continues to be significant barriers in accessing all aspects of the policymaking process. The Americans with Disabilities Act and other legislation has not solved these problems for many of the 50 million people with disabilities in the United States (Blanck et al., 2004). Using empirical qualitative and quantitative data obtained through training, evaluation, and focus groups with people with disabilities and interviews with disability advocacy staff, the research examines how advocacy and technology can facilitate empowerment of people with disabilities to express and communicate their views and needs regarding disability policy.

People with Disabilities in Civic Society 

Historically, people with disabilities have been isolated both from general society and from each other, which has restricted opportunities to participate in public domains or to politically organize (Donoghue, 2003). Disability policies have typically been developed for people with disabilities, rather than with their direct participation (Braddock & Parish, 2001; Garcia- Iriarte et al., 2008). Furthermore, people with disabilities continue to be marginalized in all aspects of the policymaking process, including lobbying efforts, voting, and serving as elected representatives (Barnartt et al., 2001). Inequalities still exist in basic areas such as public accessibility and transportation, which prevents people with disabilities from full civic and social participation. Moreover, people with disabilities may have lower self-efficacy than others, and even when accounting for differences in employment and education, people with disabilities do not believe that they can impact the political system (Schur, Shields, & Schriner, 2003). Elected officials rarely solicit the input of people with disabilities, so it is important that people with disabilities are able to engage in public policy debate (Silverstein, 2010).

Research acknowledges the importance of direct involvement of people with disabilities in all aspects of policy debates, and civic engagement is one means in which to create or influence change. For people with disabilities, civic engagement can help to create self-efficacy, promote social integration, and develop personal interests (Barnartt et al., 2001; Hahn, 1985; Zola, 2005). Like other citizens, people with disabilities want an equal voice in democratic debates and the opportunity to advocate for change (Barnartt et al., 2001). Such participation and involvement in public policy efforts can have an emancipatory effect, as marginalized groups are able to feel they are part of something, and in turn become more aware of their civic rights and responsibilities (Lewis, 2010). Disability advocate and scholar Jim Charlton cites civic engagement as a vital strategy for people with disabilities to develop a raised consciousness as they engage in grassroots advocacy for change in local communities. The title of his book, Nothing About Us Without Us, is a mantra frequently heard in disability rights movements and calls for people with disabilities to be involved in decisions made about them (Charlton, 2000) Increasing the engagement of people with disabilities will ensure that new policies do not continue the cycles of political marginalization historically experienced by this population.

Disability Advocacy 

The use of advocacy by people with disabilities has been successful in changing policies and programs, most of which are associated with protests organized by the disability rights movement. A historical analysis of the number of protests by disability organizations between 1972 and 1999 shows growth in political activism over the years (Barnartt & Scotch, 2001). For instance, the group Disabled in Action developed strategies to block traffic to secure accessible public transportation in New York in 1977. That same year several groups of people with disabilities led sit-ins in 10 federal government offices until the government issued regulations for Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act, and in 1988 deaf students at Gallaudet University protested until a deaf president was hired to lead them (Barnartt et al., 2001; Fleischer & Zames, 2001; Shapiro, 1994). In 2003 representatives from a group known as Mad Pride in California received national attention for a hunger strike organized to bring attention to the rights of people with mental health issues (Lewis, 2010). In Chicago, there is a strong history of grassroots disability advocacy being used to elicit change and connect citizens with government. Disability organizations, including Access Living and the Progress Center for Independent Living, have played a significant role in disability policy debates across Illinois. This included efforts toward deinstitutionalization, transportation accessibility, and securing access to sign language interpreters. In addition, the Mayor’s Office for People with Disabilities in Chicago has been active in ensuring access around public sidewalks, voting, and schools.

Non-profit organizations face legal restrictions on the amount of lobbying they can engage in, but they still manage to make a significant impact in policymaking (Vaughan & Arsneault, 2008). In order to create widespread change, forming relationships between people with disabilities and state representatives is critical because it helps citizens gain power in the policy arena. However, people with disabilities face various barriers to full involvement. Most barriers fall into one of three categories: intrapersonal (skills and competence); interpersonal (team dynamics); or organizational (resources, decision-making processes) (Foster-Fishman, Jimenez, Valenti, & Kelly, 2007). One of the most common barriers is a lack of resources or funds to either purchase assistive devices or make trips to visit official, so having a voice in policy decisions can be challenging. Other barriers that hinder the development of advocacy skills in individuals with disabilities include inaccessible buildings, a lack of training experiences, negative attitudes, and few opportunities to practice learned skills. Increasing safe environments, supporting advocacy trainings, and forming mentor relationships can help facilitate the development of self-advocacy skills for people with disabilities.

Technology for People with Disabilities 

While advocacy has been an essential strategy for promoting the rights and participation of people with disabilities, further efforts are needed to encourage and facilitate people with disabilities in public policy domains. The use of adaptive technology is another vital strategy that empowers people with disabilities to connect with government, as it facilitates communication and allows for full expression in policy debates; and are, at times, the only means by which they can access public debate. Furthermore, people with disabilities often use technology to relate to the real world. This is especially true for people who use augmentative and alternative communication devices as people with severe communication impairments face significant additional barriers in participation, attaining self-determination, and realizing a high quality of life (Light et al., 2007). Research has demonstrated that such technology, when people are appropriately trained to use it, can help people with disabilities overcome barriers to full and equal participation, and develop socio-relational and problem-solving skills (Light et al., 2007; McCarthy et al., 2007). It is imperative that people with disabilities have opportunities for continued training and support in using technology, because increased participation implies a greater range of communication environments (McNaughton & Bryen, 2007).

Adaptive technology is vital in allowing people with disabilities full participation in policy debates and the ability to become involved in the decision-making processes about policies that affect how they live in society. Aside from facilitating communication, technology can also be used as an organizational tool, it can help spark discussions about policy, and it can permit people with disabilities to find up-to-date information on government regulations and laws. Though seemingly all positive, some aspects of new technologies create additional barriers for people with disabilities who want to fully engage in civic society. There is a digital divide in society due to the fact that some individuals have access to internet and advanced technology and some do not (Rubaii-Barrett & Wise, 2008). Cost, availability, accessibility features, and lack of knowledge in effective usage are all barriers to people with disabilities taking full advantage of different forms of technology. There are regulations in place that address the issue of inaccessible technology, but states are either unable or unwilling to carry out federal mandates. Instead of focusing on increased spending, lobbying for greater enforcement of existing state and federal policies can be effective in bringing about positive changes in technology for those with disabilities (Rubaii-Barrett & Wise, 2008). Creating equal access to advanced technology for all people will help weaken the digital divide and increase opportunities for individuals with disabilities to become involved in policymaking processes.

Disability Rights 

It is important to include people with disabilities in the decision-making process, particularly when those decisions affect them, so that people with disabilities are subjects of the political process rather than objects of policy decisions (Quinn and Degener, 2002). People with disabilities currently do not have an equal voice in the political process. For instance, voter turnout for the 2008 elections shows a gap of 7% between people with and without disabilities (57.3% and 64.5%) (American Association of People with Disabilities, 2010). Although this represents substantial improvement from 2000 and 1998 (gaps of 20 and 12 percentage points, respectively) (Schur, Kruse, Schriner, & Shields, 2000), additional strategies are needed to increase participation of the disability community in the democratic process.

The need to increase political engagement of people with disabilities is reflected internationally in the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD). People with disabilities played an active role in the development of the CRPD, which was unusual for a United Nations convention, which are typically negotiated solely by representatives from member states (Lang, 2009). The convention ensures that people with disabilities and disability organizations have a permanent voice pertaining to the convention to provide specialized expertise on disability issues and contribute to meaningful solutions (Melish & Perlin, 2007). The convention promotes the social model of disability and aims to remove barriers to the participation of people with disabilities and promote their inclusion in society.

Specifically related to civic engagement, Article 29 of the convention, “Participation in Political and Public Life,” acknowledges the right of people with disabilities to participate in political and public life on an equal basis with others. This involves ensuring that voting procedures, facilities and materials are appropriate, accessible, and easy to understand; protecting the right to perform all public functions at all levels of government, including facilitating the use of assistive and new technologies where appropriate; and promoting an environment in which people with disabilities can effectively and fully participate in the conduct of public affairs (United Nations, 2006). The research draws on Article 29 to further understanding of the facilitators and barriers to civic engagement of people with disabilities and disabilities stakeholders. Advancing understanding of effective tools and strategies to increase involvement of people with disabilities in public life is necessary to ensure the rights of all citizens.


Our aim is to examine how advocacy and technology can facilitate empowerment of people with disabilities to express and communicate their views and needs regarding disability policy and to do this in ways that influence the responsiveness of government. The research explores the following specific research questions:

1. How do people with disabilities engage with government, and what are the roles of policy knowledge, technology, and advocacy strategies in this engagement process?

2. What are the motivations of people with disabilities to engage in policy debate, and what are the perceived barriers and facilitators to increasing civic participation?

3. What is the role of technology in enabling and increasing access to government for people with disabilities?

4. How do disability organizations build advocacy knowledge, enhance civic awareness and responsibility, and increase development of technology skills to enable people with disabilities to participate in policy debates?

Research Design

This pilot study was conducted in Chicago from January to June 2011. The researchers worked in conjunction with the Assistive Technology Unit (ATU) and the Great Lakes Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) Center—two disability organizations at the University of Illinois at Chicago that focus on engagement with and providing services to the community, as well as two disability community organizations, the Progress Center for Independent Living (PCIL) and Access Living (AL). In order to address the research questions, the project engaged with people with disabilities and these organizations in a participatory process to collect empirical data through community resource assessments, training sessions and evaluations, and focus groups/interviews with people with disabilities and/or disability stakeholders, as outlined below.

Community Resource Assessment

A community resource assessment was performed for each of the research project partners (ATU, ADA, PCIL, AL). This was a comprehensive appraisal and analysis of the advocacy and technology strategies that these organizations engaged in, which entailed a systematic critical review of secondary data, supplemented with interviews with key staff from each organization. Data for this part of the research included organizational material focused on public meetings and advisory boards; training and education programs; textual and promotional materials; teleconferences, webinars, and websites; and social networking and listservs. In additions informal interviews were conducted with a key staff member from each of the organizations to supplement the written materials. The goal of this stage of the research was to gain a better understanding of the organization and how they facilitate inclusion of people with disabilities, especially related to the fourth research question: How do disability organizations build advocacy knowledge, enhance civic awareness and responsibility, and increase development of technology skills to enable people with disabilities to participate in policy debates?

Training and Evaluation 

Three civic engagement trainings were conducted for groups of people with disabilities associated with the partner organizations. Each session was for people with disabilities of working age (18–64) who live in the Chicago area and are interested in becoming more involved in civic engagement activities. Each training session was unique, based on the organization it was conducted with, although each contained elements of five broad themes: general civic engagement, building policy knowledge, using advocacy, using technology, and becoming more involved with government. The five themes were used to structure each of the trainings similarly so that they are comparable on a broad level. Table 1 outlines each training session format.

Each participant was asked to complete an evaluation form prior to and 6–8 weeks after each training. Depending on availability and accessibility requirements, participants completed the evaluations in person, by email, or phone. The evaluations consisted of approximately 10 close-ended questions designed to measure policy knowledge and levels of engagement, and six open-ended questions designed to better understand the civic engagement of each individual. The qualitative data obtained from these questions are used alongside the data obtained from focus groups and interviews. The other results of these evaluations are used as a pre- and post-test analysis. [Note: because of time constraints and the poor completion rate of the pre-evaluation for the participants using alternative communication devices, people in the PCIL/ATU training were not asked to complete a post-evaluation]. The result of the training and evaluations provide insight into the following research questions: How do people with disabilities engage with government and what are the roles of policy knowledge, technology, and advocacy strategies in this engagement process? What is the role of technology in enabling and increasing access to government for people with disabilities?

Focus Groups and Interviews 

Six weeks following the trainings, follow-up focus groups and individual interviews were conducted with the training participants. Focus groups allow for a deep, rich understanding of how advocacy and technology can facilitate empowerment of people with disabilities in civic engagement. It provided a forum for hearing directly from people with disabilities on their perceptions and experiences in accessing government; increasing civic awareness and responsibility; the role of advocacy, the use of technology, and alternative communication devices in civic participation; strategies to increase responsiveness of government; and other general issues related to participation in policy debate. Participants in the AL training completed a focus group in person. The ADA training participants completed the focus group questions individually by participating in a short telephone interview because of difficulty completing the focus group remotely. Participants in the PCIL/ATU training also completed the focus group directly with one of the researchers on an individual basis.

Qualitative data was also obtained from key stakeholders in each disability organization (N = 8). These open-ended in-depth interviews allowed stakeholders to add to existing secondary materials (i.e. the Community Resource Assessment); share perceptions and experiences of strategies used to increase participation of people with disabilities in policy debates; and provide important insight into key structural and process barriers and facilitators to promoting civic engagement. Thus, these interviews triangulate data on the civic engagement of people with disabilities. The qualitative data in this part of the research are useful for addressing all of the research questions, but they especially relate to the following research questions: Why do people with disabilities engage in policy debate, and what are the perceived barriers and facilitators to increasing civic participation? How do disability organizations build advocacy knowledge, enhance civic awareness and responsibility, and increase development of technology skills to enable people with disabilities to participate in policy debates?

Table 2 summarizes the number of participants in the various parts of this project.

Research Limitations 

This project had three limitations: participant recruitment, technical difficulties, and participant response/dropout. Each of these are discussed below.

The majority of the participants in this research were identified by staff at the partner organizations. Although the project was advertised on listservs and distributed to people with disabilities, there was a very limited response. All of the participants were known to, or worked for, one of the partner organizations, suggesting they were already engaged with the disability community and actively seeking additional knowledge. Furthermore, one of the survey questions asked whether someone had voted in the last election, and 16/20 (80%) reported that they had. As reported earlier, only 57.3 per cent of people with disabilities voted in the 2008 elections (American Association of People with Disabilities, 2010). These results suggest that the participants are not representative of people with disabilities as a whole, because they are already highly engaged. Therefore, it is unclear the extent to which the participants are representative of people with disabilities in general.

Technical difficulties limited many aspects of data collection and attendance at the trainings. This was especially an issue for the ADA webinar. On the morning of the training, only one participant was able to log into both the webinar and audio, despite detailed instructions provided by email and phone. The training session was rescheduled and the researchers worked one-on-one with each participant to ensure that they knew how to view the webinar on the re-scheduled date. While each participant was able to access the training on the second day, it is ironic that individual training on using technology was necessary for a civic engagement training that emphasized how technology can facilitate inclusion of people with disabilities in policymaking. Technical difficulty was also an issue for the PCIL/ATU training participants. All of these individuals used alternative communication devices, and it was cumbersome and tiring (e.g. one of them uses a foot pedal to compose communication) for them to communicate and participate in the training. Communication difficulties are evident in the limited responses people in this training session gave to the pre-evaluation questions. In order to accommodate the extra time needed for response, the researchers organized an email listserv as a method to conduct the follow-up focus group so responses did not have to be immediate. However, this approach did not get any responses from the participants, due to restricted access to a computer and internet with accessible software. This limitation is a key finding because it highlights the difficulty that people who use alternative communication devices have communicating, which is likely to be exacerbated because policymakers rarely have much time to spend with a given individual or group.

Although there were only three dropouts from the trainings through the focus groups (one for the ADA Center and two for AL), missing out on their perspectives and not having a reason for their dropout raises questions. A better understanding of why they dropped out would contribute a lot of valuable information to the research. Prior to the training two additional people with disabilities indicated that they wanted to participate, but stopped responding to the researchers. They did consent to the research, meaning that there were 24 total original participants, and only 19 (79.2%) completed the research. For a short-term pilot study, the number of dropouts warrants additional consideration. For the people with disabilities that did not drop out, the researchers had to maintain constant contact and frequent reminders, in order to secure their participation. A number of participants indicated that email was their preferred method of communication, but they seldom checked or responded to it. If not for the vigilance and flexibility of the research team, that dropout rate would have been much higher.


Stage 1: Community Resource Assessment 

This section contains brief organizational descriptions and summaries of how each community disability organization engage in advocacy and technology.

Great Lakes ADA Center

The Great Lakes American with Disabilities Act (ADA) Center is a program of the Department of Disability and Human Development at the University of Illinois at Chicago. The center prides itself on providing information, materials, technological assistance, and training on the ADA to Region 5, which covers Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Minnesota, Ohio, and Wisconsin. It offers a variety of training services in the form of audio conferences, online courses, podcasts, and webinars designed to build and enhance knowledge and facilitate discussion on the ADA. Through the Great Lakes Accessible Information Technology Initiative, the center is able to provide individuals and organizations with resources on information technology and its usage. They offer technical assistance, education, training, referrals, and materials via phone or online to those seeking information on technology accessibility. The Great Lakes ADA Center uses a range of media to share information, including through The Great Lakes Chronicle, employment legal briefs, the ADA document portal, an architectural compilation series, social networking sites, and smart phone applications.

Access Living

Access Living is a Center for Independent Living governed and staffed primarily by people with disabilities. It offers peer-oriented services, public education, awareness and development, teaching of advocacy skills, and the enforcement of civil rights on behalf of people with disabilities. Their mission is to “empower people with disabilities so they can lead dignified, independent lives and to foster an inclusive society for all people, with and without disabilities.” Advocacy is a major area for Access Living and they specialize in community development and organization, policy analysis, and civil rights. Access Living supports six grassroots groups that fight for social change in a specific area of interest. Through the Arts and Culture Project, AL helps to raise awareness and visibility of disability culture. As part of their policy work, Access Living staff network and build relationships with legislators to rally for policy change and creation. Access Living employs attorneys to provide legal counseling on civil rights issues such as education, housing, and discrimination concerns and to help educate consumers on their rights and how the legal system operates. Throughout its work, Access Living uses a peer-based philosophy to empower people with disabilities.

Progress Center for Independent Living Summary

The Progress Center for Independent Living (PCIL) is another community-based, non-profit Center for Independent Living focused on disability advocacy and is run by and for people with disabilities. The Progress Center believes that “independence is the ability to control one’s own life by making responsible choices from acceptable options.” PCIL provides four core services: information and referral on disability related topics; advocacy and direct support for disability rights; independent living skills training including budgeting, travel, personal assistant management, and job seeking to help people successfully live on their own in the community; and peer counseling and problem solving for people with disabilities. PCIL also holds training sessions for people with disabilities and conducts community education presentations on disability issues and policy. Through social media, e-mail, pamphlets, and a weekly radio show, PCIL is able to reach a wide range of consumers to educate individuals about independent living.

Assistive Technology Unit 

The Assistive Technology Unit (ATU) is an interdisciplinary clinic of the Department of Disability and Human Development at the University of Illinois of Chicago. As a community-based service delivery program, it serves more than 90 per cent of its clients in their own home, school, work, or recreational environment. ATU staffs occupational therapists, physical therapists, rehabilitation engineers, and speech-language pathologists who specialize in assistive technology. The ATU defines assistive technology as “the use of commercially available, modified, and custom devices used by individuals with disabilities to maximize independence” and it offers this service in eight areas: adaptive equipment (custom-designed), augmentative communication, computer access, environmental control, home modification, mobility, seating, and worksite modification. The ATU offers educational workshops and graduate-level courses and a certificate program for professionals to enhance their knowledge of assistive technology. The ATU spreads information about their services through word of mouth, newsletters, digital pamphlets, academic publications, and conferences.

Each of these organizations build advocacy knowledge, enhance civic awareness and responsibility, and increase development of technology skills to increase participation of people with disabilities in policy debates. Furthermore, the organizations meet the goals of Article 29 of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. Table 3 summarizes the community resource assessment in relation to the goals of this research.

Stage 2: Training Evaluations 

A major component of this pilot project was to conduct civic engagement trainings in partnership with the disability organizations described above. In order to assess the impact of the trainings, each participant was asked to complete an evaluation before and six to eight weeks after the training. Each evaluation was unique to the organization that conducted the training, although six questions were consistent across the groups. Table 4 contains the responses to each of these questions (as noted before, the PCIL/ATU group did not complete a post-evaluation).

Although the participants may have been more engaged than people with disabilities in general, the training still showed an impact. Agreement with each of the questions indicates greater levels of civic engagement or understanding of the policy process. The cumulative responses (referred to the shaded cells in Table 4) indicate that the trainings were positive and achieved their goals. A chi-square test of significance (χ2=9.4, df=4, p-value=0.0517) shows that the results for each evaluation is independent of the other. These results are statistically significant at the 90 per cent confidence level, and very close to significant at the 95 per cent (which would be significant with a higher count). We can be confident that there is a different distribution of answers in the pre-and post-evaluations. More specifically, in the post-evaluation, participants were more likely to agree with the statements or agree more strongly.

The evaluations followed the same trend general when broken down into individual training sessions. However, given the small number of participants per training, statistics have less significance. Results from each question for each group show that participants were more likely to agree or agree more strongly with the various questions relating to their civic engagement and policy knowledge following the trainings.

Although this trend was consistent, questions about the validity of the responses are interesting. The results suggest the possibility of acquiescence, which refers to the tendency of survey and questionnaire respondents to answer “yes” or agree with items on a survey instrument during research (Finlay & Lyons, 2002). On the pre-evaluation, 79.8 percent of their responses were either agree or strongly agree, and that number was 94.2 percent on the post-evaluation. This research does not have a way to wholly validate those responses and determine whether or not people with disabilities can back up what they said. However, one of the questions does offer some insight. People with disabilities were asked if they understood what civic engagement is, and in the pre-evaluations 16 out of 20 (80%) agreed or strongly disagreed. In the post-evaluation, 14 of 15 (93.3%) answered this way. One of the short answer questions asked people to define civic engagement. The responses for this question, especially during the pre-evaluation do not show much clarity on understanding civic engagement. The group from PCIL illustrates this point. Although three people either agreed or strongly agreed with the statement, during the qualitative portion three people acknowledged that they did not know, and the only one that provided a substantial answer talked only about voting. This does not mean that every participant was confused, or acquiesced to the question as it was asked, but future research needs to follow-up this pilot study with more robust ways of measuring the knowledge that people obtained from these trainings, and how they put it into practice.

Stage 3: Focus Groups and Interviews 

The qualitative data help to triangulate the survey responses. The answers to the open-ended questions are more interesting and provide valuable depth and insight into the impact of civic engagement trainings and local disability organizations. This section presents results from the focus groups with people with disabilities and interviews with disability stakeholders in the four organizations (see Appendix A for more detailed context of the participants such as pseudonyms, organization, and role). Two main themes emerged from the qualitative data: advocacy and action and technology and these are discussed below.

Advocacy and Action 

Advocacy takes many forms in the disability community, ranging from awareness raising and education to direct action. Participants described advocacy in terms of “knowing your rights and how to fight for them” (Kristen), and “having a voice” (Christina) and “do[ing] something for themselves” (Trevor). One staff member described advocacy as seeking to understand and alter both the root of oppression and its effects on the disability community (Allen). Because advocacy can take different forms depending on both the advocates and the audience, staff make it a priority to test and develop effective strategies for change. One staff member explained that his organization trains on a variety of strategies but “[w]hat doesn’t change is how advocates are going to organize and educate the consumers to take charge of their own lives (Brendan).

Advocacy via education was perhaps the most mentioned tool for empowering people with disabilities to participate in civic society. Advocacy staff believed that information translation was a key strategy for helping consumers understand advocacy strategies, as well as their rights and responsibilities. One participant described the importance of “educating [consumers] about an issue and letting them decide for themselves what stand they want to take, and pointing them in the direction to allow them to advocate for what they believe in” (Catie). Other staff members stressed the importance of enabling consumers to explore their own interests and values. Participants shared the effects of the awareness raising activities conducted though this project, saying “Now when I hear the news and hear them talk about budget cuts, my radar goes up when before I didn’t really care or know how it would affect me” (Christina). Another spoke of how the trainings prompted him to take direct action: “As a direct result of the training…I made a phone call to a politician. I called the governor’s office and said no budget cuts… I’m 51 and it was the first time in my life” (Evan).

Consumer education through advocacy training enables people with disabilities to have a stronger presence and a louder voice when interacting with the government. Staff described how the “contact of people in government with the people the programs are actually supposed to serve is a powerful thing” (Tim). Both advocacy staff and participants gave specific advice on the strategies they have found to be most useful and effective. Staff and participants generally prefer to advocate face to face with legislators and policymakers, coupled with awareness-raising activities such as street action (e.g. protests). Other effective strategies, especially when transportation is a barrier to physical access, include aggressive letter-writing or emailing campaigns, and phone calls. Education efforts spread beyond the disability community, however. An Access Living staff member said that a key factor in the larger disability advocacy effort is “educating the public to convey the message that disability issues are social issues” (Evan). Disability organizations are striving to educate their communities, disabled and non-disabled, about the issues they face. Peer support is seen as a key facilitator to successful advocacy action, and advocates take action to educate potential allies. Participants and staff serve on advisory boards and committees to partner with the larger community in creating an accessible environment. In addition, staff saw disability organizations as having a major role in making their community more visible, placing people with disabilities “into the public eye and into the minds of decision-makers” (Allen). Advocates also pursued “getting local media involved on covering issues” so that their views are included in coverage (Jeremiah).

As with any grassroots effort, there is “power in numbers” (Lenny). Participants strongly urged one another to be bold self advocates. During a focus group, one participant encouraged the others, “you have to show your face. We are disabled and proud and here to stay. To maintain power, we need to exercise the power that we have” (Elizabeth). Another person, when discussing developing effective strategies, advised the group to practice, try different advocacy methods, and work with others in the disability community (Catie). However, even the most powerful voice is rendered null if policymakers are not willing to hear it. Participants and staff shared that the greatest barrier faced by advocates is a lack of understanding or a willingness to understand disability issues. In general, staff and participants viewed the government as largely unreceptive to their message, echoing one another in saying that the government makes virtually no effort to reach out to people with disabilities. They suggested that the government needs to take action not only to meet the requirements of disability laws, but also to match the spirit of these laws and let the disability community know they are being considered.

Government bodies need to provide not only physical, but also programmatic access to people with disabilities to enable all to participate. This was largely seen as lacking, however. One participant shared that “it’s an issue of even if they are willing to listen to us…do they have other priorities?” (Dana). Often, disability community members felt powerless in government situations. Participants and staff felt disempowered because they felt the government only wants you to vote and are generally not receptive to receiving input on issues. Brendan shared:

Government and politicians don’t see our community as a threat. They don’t see us as a threat or an economic resource to help them. So we continue being left behind, unfortunately. We are breaking barriers though. It’s going to take a while before government puts us on their agenda. It takes great effort to be at the table, and not on the menu.

Technology and Civic Engagement

Although technology cannot put the concerns of people with disabilities on the political agenda, it is an integral factor for engaging with civic society. Many people with disabilities are largely unable to afford the technologies necessary for participation. Third party payers will typically fund basic communication devices and software, but participants stated that this was rarely adequate to meet their communication needs. Additionally, third party payers will not allow for these devices to be used as a computer with internet capabilities, so any potential for long-distance communication is eliminated. In the cases that people with disabilities are able to afford their own computers, they may not have regular access to the internet. According to a staff member: “The fact that so few of our consumers have regular access to the internet is a problem and we still rely so much on U.S. mail and on phone calls to reach a lot of our consumers. The technologies are not always readily available” (Tim).

People with disabilities also expressed their frustrations related to constantly changing technologies. One person complained that as technology advances, “older versions don’t work anymore and it becomes difficult or impossible to access [technology]. Staying up to date is expensive and a lot of people with disabilities are unemployed” (Paul). While some people saw constantly changing technology as a barrier, others viewed it as a future opportunity. Cassandra, of the Great Lakes ADA Center, noted that “we’ll be looking at more mobile technology…We’re stuck right now because it’s a time of change, but our options are multiplying” (Cassandra).

While technology was often seen as a facilitator for engagement, many people with disabilities do not possess the necessary skills to effectively use it. People with disabilities expressed that more funding is needed for “speech-related services of course to help with communication and environmental controls” (Lenny). A major technological barrier to civic engagement was learning how to use the computer; staff remarked that getting everyone trained to be at the same skill level is a challenge. Staff saw their organizations as having a major role in helping people learn how to use technology and making people aware of the options available to them. Practical knowledge about technology can also be a gateway to a sense of belonging in the community. Learning about technology “helps people get in touch with interests they forgot they had, or discover new things out there that they didn’t know about. It makes a huge difference in a person’s perception of where they fit in the world” (Jeremiah).

Technology was found to play a gateway role in allowing people with disabilities to interact with the government and advocate for change. Though some argued that “nothing takes the place of old fashioned, one-on-one organizing” (Brendan), others strongly preferred online-only advocacy. The Internet enables a person to connect directly with legislators without having to face obstacles such as transportation and communication difficulties. Some participants commented that they prefer online interaction because “with a computer nobody knows [you have a disability] because you can type it, they can read it, and that barrier actually goes away” (Catie). Participants stressed that, ideally, an e-mail or phone call should receive the same attention as a face-to-face interaction. Technology facilitates independence and gives people a voice. It allows advocates to reach more people in less time and provide them with more information over time. Participants and staff agreed that technology is essential to allowing people with disabilities and policymakers to have a conversation on efforts for social change.

Having access to the Internet and other technology is of little use if the information available online is inaccessible. Staff remarked that “the amount of information accessible on the internet has exploded but when it’s not accessible, it doesn’t help. Ensuring that websites are designed and created accessibly and new technologies being accessible is key” (Paul). They urged that accessibility needs to be at the forefront of design, rather than being an afterthought. According to participants, the government should have a responsibility to lead the way in accessible online information. One participant provided a suggestion to help create a more accessible online environment: “They [the government] could call and see how we use our computers, then we might give them some ideas about how they could make computers for people with disabilities, make telephones for disabled people” (Trevor). Participants and staff generally felt that the government’s technology is outdated and that they need to take steps to gain awareness of new technologies.


The research provides important policy, advocacy and technology insights into the civic engagement experiences of people with disabilities and disability advocacy organizations. The research draws on Article 29 of the CRPD to further our understanding of the effective tools and strategies so that people with disabilities can increase their involvement in public life.

People with disabilities require a range of informal and formal supports to engage in civic society, including: peer mentoring with experienced disability advocates (i.e. to address feelings of powerlessness, isolation, learn strategies); increasing opportunities for knowledge building through training/education (i.e. to help understand policy processes, how to engage with politicians); and better access to practical information (i.e. to learn about voting rights, how to register to vote) and accessible technology (i.e. to assist with communication, group empowerment). Increasing the political engagement of people with disabilities will ensure that new policies do not continue the cycles of oppression and marginalization historically experienced by this population.

Immediate solutions could involve developing ongoing training programs in conjunction with disability advocacy organizations, as well as setting up peer mentoring groups so that experienced disability advocates can share their strategies with other people with disabilities. Such programs can be modeled on the small scale trainings discussed in this research. A longer term challenge is addressing broader structural barriers facing people with disabilities, such as environmental barriers (i.e. inaccessible buildings, transportation and technologies), and attitudinal barriers (i.e., perceptions that people with disabilities are not valuable constituency groups). Training and peer-mentoring would also be a first step in addressing these more complex barriers. Additional strategies could involve increasing the visibility of people with disabilities on advisory boards and in other public positions, and awareness raising through email/letter writing campaigns, face-to-face meetings, and phone calls with legislators.

Parity of participation in civic engagement enables marginalized groups to be agents of social change. Through a community resource assessment, civic engagement trainings and empirical data gathered through pre-post evaluations, interviews and focus groups, this project identified key facilitators and barriers to developing and enhancing civic knowledge and practices of people with disabilities. However, further research efforts on a larger scale are still needed. The collaboration between individuals, disability advocates, researchers, scholars and service providers both with and without disabilities enabled an important participatory approach to research; thereby offering a unique and diverse perspective on an important public policy issue. Involving a range of stakeholders is an essential component of any future efforts to better support civic participation. It is through advancing our understanding of the effective tools and strategies to increase involvement of people with disabilities, including adults who use augmentative and alternative communication devices, that we can ensure the rights of all citizens.

About the Authors 

All three authors are with the University of Illinois at Chicago. Sarah Parker Harris is an assistant professor and Randall Owen is a postdoctoral research associate, both in the department of disability and human development. Cindy De Ruiter is a doctoral candidate in the department of occupational therapy.


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Making the Past Come Alive: Public Archaeology at Fort St. Joseph

Steve Kettner, DVD producer, lead videographer and editor, Media Production IT, Western Michigan University

Reviewed by Dean L. Anderson

People are fascinated with archaeology. But for many, reading about it or looking at exhibits in museums is as close as they can get to it. Some people even express the opinion that archaeologists are not very forthcoming about their work, and they only share their discoveries in stuffy journal articles read by other archaeologists.

Fortunately, this situation is changing. There is a growing effort in the field to bring archaeology to the public. The Fort St. Joseph Archaeological Project at Western Michigan University is a striking example of this trend, and the DVD entitled Making the Past Come Alive shows us why.

Along with archaeological investigation and research, the goals of the Fort St. Joseph Archaeological Project since its inception more than 10 years ago have included public outreach and education. This DVD illustrates the various venues through which the project brings archaeology and history to the public. Importantly, this story is told by students, teachers, dignitaries, re-enactors, and members of the visiting public as they each speak about their own experience with the project, having had the opportunity to engage in archaeology firsthand. This is a definite strength of the DVD. The viewer is treated to a university administrator extolling the accomplishments of the project, a teacher explaining how archaeology can be used to teach geometry, and a very poised middle school student commenting on the excitement of archaeological discovery.

The Fort St. Joseph project’s dedication to outreach is conspicuous in its effort to create opportunities for different constituencies to participate in archaeology. One of the core functions of the project is to offer a class in archaeological field methods taught through Western Michigan University. But what sets the project apart is the variety of camps offered that provide access to archaeology for the interested public beyond the traditional university student clientele. There is a week-long program for teachers through which they can earn graduate credits or continuing education units toward re-certification of their teaching licenses. The program for teachers helps bring archaeology into classrooms, and generates innovative ideas for using archaeology to teach subjects like math, history, science, and language. In addition, the project offers a camp for high school students and adults, and another separate camp for middle school students.

Each year, the project holds a weekend open house and welcomes the public to the site. Visitors get to see excavation in progress and talk to students and professors about what they are finding and how it contributes to our understanding of life on the Michigan frontier in the eighteenth century. Temporary outdoor exhibits are set up with information panels about the fort site and displays of artifacts recovered. In a grassy field adjacent to the site, a host of re-enactors add a touch of living history to the event, demonstrating period clothing, implements, weapons, and food. Attendance at the annual open house is testimony to public interest in archaeology: the number of visitors often exceeds 1,500 people and includes travelers from out-of-state.

The DVD runs 25 minutes in length, which makes it amenable for use in a classroom setting. It would be a useful tool to illustrate outreach and education in a college-level public archaeology class. At the same time, the video would have been strengthened by a brief discussion of the history of Fort St. Joseph. As the DVD begins, the narrator states that “Hidden beneath layers of soil and tree roots for more than two centuries laid the remains of an important 18th century mission, garrison, and trading post—Fort St. Joseph.” Unfortunately, that sentence is the only information provided to the viewer about the history of the site. A brief historical overview of the site, and a map depicting its location, would have given viewers more context and put them on firmer footing for understanding the ensuing discussion of the project.

The commitment the Fort St. Joseph project has made to public participation and public education is impressive, and sets a high standard worthy of attention in the field of archaeology. Through the obvious enthusiasm and investment conveyed by those who have had a part in the Fort St. Joseph project, Making the Past Come Alive does a commendable job of showing how such a project entices, educates, and excites the public.

About the Reviewer 

Dean L. Anderson is the state archaeologist, Michigan State Historic Preservation Office, Lansing, Michigan.


Publisher Samory T. Pruitt, Vice President for Community Affairs, The University of Alabama
Editor Cassandra E. Simon, The University of Alabama
Production Editor Edward Mullins, The University of Alabama
Book Review Editor Dr. Heather Pleasants, The University of Alabama
Assistant to the Editor Vicky Carter, The University of Alabama
Copy Editors, Designers, Web Producers John Miller, Christi Cowan, and Eric Wang, The University of Alabama

The Journal of Community Engagement and Scholarship is published at The University of Alabama by the Office of Community Affairs for the advancement of engagement scholarship worldwide. To reach the editor e-mail or call 205-348- 7392. The NASA infrared image on the cover is of Hurricane Katrina as it approached the Gulf Coast in 2005.

Marsha H. Adams, The University of Alabama Jay Lamar, Auburn University
Andrea Adolph, Kent State University Stark Campus James Leeper, The University of Alabama
Katrice A. Albert, Louisiana State University Robert C. Liebman, Portland State University
Theodore R. Alter, Penn State University Marybeth Lima, Louisiana State University
Robert E. Bardon, North Carolina State University Robert L. Miller, Jr., The University at Albany, State University of New York
Anna Sims Bartel, Bates College Mary Ann Murphy, Pace University dt ogilvie, Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey
Delicia Carey, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Jacob Oludoye Oluwoye, Alabama A&M University
 J. Robert Krueger, Worcester Polytechnic Institute Michael E. Orok, Alabama A&M University
Jeremy Cohen, Penn State University Ruth Paris, Boston University
 Richard L. Conville, The University of Southern Mississippi Clement Alesander Price, Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey
Susan Curtis, Purdue University Josephine Pryce, The University of Alabama
Mary Elizabeth Curtner-Smith, The University of Alabama A. Scott Reed, Oregon State University
David J. Edelman, University of Cincinnati Michael J. Rich, Emory University
Barbara Ferman, Temple University Howard B. Rosing, DePaul University
Hiram E. Fitzgerald, Michigan State University Sunil Saigal, New Jersey Institute of Technology
Philip A. Greasley, University of Kentucky Nick Sanyal, University of Idaho
Susan Scheriffius Jakes, North Carolina State University Amilcar Shabazz, University of Massachusetts
Phillip W. Johnson, The University of Alabama L. Steven Smutko, North Carolina State University
Lisa M. Hooper, The University of Alabama Lee H. Staples, Boston University
Mary Jolley, Community Development, Tuscaloosa, Ala. John J. Stretch, Saint Louis University
Kimberly L. King-Jupiter, Lewis University Kim L. Wilson, Purdue University
Diane F. Witmer, California State University
William S. Kisaalita, University of Georgia John R. Wheat, The University of Alabama



From the Editor: These Are Exciting Times as JCES Keeps Pace With Rapid Changes


Cassandra E. Simon, Ph.D.

With each issue of the Journal of Community Engagement and Scholarship (JCES), it seems there is something new and exciting to share. The current issue is no different. Yet this time the excitement comes not directly from JCES but from the advancements in the field of engaged scholarship since the inception of JCES. As editor of the journal, I have been fortunate enough to see the wide range of scholarly works done in the name of engaged scholarship. And although these manuscripts reflect work conducted in an array of disciplines, using a variety of approaches, they represent an exciting movement in the field of engaged scholarship and, consequently, JCES. The field is moving forward, and therefore so is its state of knowledge and the quality of associated works. Combined with its ongoing commitment to contributing to the common good, engaged scholarship is well poised to make significant contributions to how we teach, learn, live, and serve.

Quality research is always at a premium, and I am pleased to say that not only do I see an improvement in the overall quality of the manuscripts we are receiving, but I also see improved quality in the methodology associated with them. Although differences in how rigor is defined may fluctuate based on discipline, what is evident is that engaged scholarship is gaining prominence across and within disciplines throughout the academy. As such, there is also a depth in the type of knowledge building taking place, even when compared to three short years ago. For an area to grow and develop knowledge, it must test the known and the unknown, the abstract and the concrete, and the theoretical and practical. Engaged scholarship continues to demonstrate its ability to build its own knowledge base, and we at JCES are proud of our continued role in helping that base develop. At the risk of letting my personal bias show, I am especially excited about a stronger emphasis on the social justice, action-oriented aspect of engaged scholarship. Words like action, partnership, mutual benefit, justice, and service remain prominently connected to the purpose, interpretation, and application of community-engaged research. More so, the importance of the “meaning of the research” is increasingly seen as a critical and necessary consideration in assessing the value of this research. Contemporary engaged scholarship extends beyond the traditional “So what?” to “Who does this help?” and “How does this help?”

This issue of JCES is reflective of so much of what is going on in engaged scholarship that is exciting. It is filled with examples of innovative, forward-thinking approaches to addressing complex issues through connecting communities, students, and faculty. The action orientation roots of engaged scholarship are reflected in many of the manuscripts in this issue. Addressing issues like the health risks posed by STDs and AIDS in the college community and the implementation of a wellness policy for a rural public school system demonstrates a social justice aspect of this scholarship. Another manuscript is a reminder of the struggle within the academy regarding the role of engaged scholarship in the retention, promotion, and tenure of faculty, encouraging that a stand be taken—and not only that, pointing the way to how it can be done. Yet another demonstrates effective use of community-based participatory research, representing the action orientation of community engagement work.

Additional manuscripts address the influence of service-learning on career choice and how engaged scholarship has built on strengths of the Hispanic/Latino culture to raise ACT scores and helped to develop a mutually beneficial, culturally sensitive language instruction program, along with a mentoring and tutoring program. Commentaries by both a student and community partner remind us of the relevance of this work in the lives of everyone around us. So, I invite you to read this issue of JCES and provide us your feedback at As always, an extraordinary thank you to the JCES editorial board and staff whose hard work makes each issue of JCES a reality.

Reaching for a Radical Community-Based Research Model

Barri Tinkler

“Two community-based research experiences lead to a conceptual model that puts control in the hands of the community.”


This qualitative study contrasts two community-based research (CBR) projects. While the first project fell short of CBR goals, it influenced how the author carried out the second project, which did meet those goals. The two experiences enabled the author to create a conceptual model that can be used to structure and evaluate CBR projects for those who aspire to a more radical form of community-based research.


Across the country, institutions of higher education are becoming more involved with their communities (Checkoway, 2001; Maurrasse, 2001; Strand, Marullo, Cutforth, Stoecker, & Donohue, 2003; Ward, 2003). This movement is reflected in an increase of community service (Farrell, 2006), service-learning programs (Stanton, Giles, & Cruz, 1999), and other programs that link the expertise of the university with community organizations (Boyte, 2004; Harkavy, 2005; Peterson, 2009). Another important component of this movement is community-based research in which students and professors work closely with community partners to conduct research that addresses a community-identified need (Chopyak & Levesque, 2002). CBR is a form of service-learning (Strand, 2000) that draws upon principles of action research and participatory research (Fals-Borda, 2001; Greenwood & Levin, 1998; Stringer, 1999; Whyte, 1991) and utilizes the theory of change that drives the social justice service-learning movement (Marullo & Edwards, 2000; Mitchell, 2008). Social justice service-learning is linked closely to the popular education model of Freire (1970), and the goal is to use education as resistance against power structures that maintain domination by the elite. Academics in health fields utilize community-based participatory research to improve community health and knowledge through collaborative research processes that empower community members to take control of health issues (Israel, Eng, Schulz, & Parker, 2005; Minkler & Wallerstein, 2003).

In this article, two contrasting case studies describe the process of conducting community-based research. One case study explicates my partnership with a non-profit organization I have titled the Coalition for Schools (Participants in both projects signed a consent form that promised anonymity. Therefore, I have not named the communities in which the research took place or used the real names of the participants and the organizations with which they were affiliated). The Coalition is an organization focused on improving academic achievement in an urban school district in a western city. The Coalition concentrates on a feeder pattern of schools in a quadrant of the city with a high percentage of English language learners. This feeder pattern includes five elementary schools, two middle schools, and three small high schools.

The Coalition is an alliance of non-profit organizations, foundations, parent organizations, universities, and the local school district working together to support achievement in these low performing schools. I worked with the coalition for a period of nine months as a data collection specialist.

The other case study describes my work as a volunteer research assistant with two non-profit organizations that provide services to the expanding immigrant population in a western mountain town. I have titled this case Communities in Transition. The town is a small rural community with a rapidly growing immigrant population from Mexico, about half of whom are indigenous peoples from a remote area of the country. I collaborated with two members of the community who work closely with the immigrant population providing English as a Second Language (ESL) courses and immigrant services. Working closely with my community partners for a ten-month period, we collected and analyzed data to improve the services offered through their programs.

While there is considerable CBR activity being undertaken at a number of institutions of higher education (Benson, Harkavy, & Puckett, 1996; Reardon, 1995), there is a paucity of research describing the process of collaborating with community partners on community-based research projects (Wallerstein, 1999). In addition, there are very few studies that depict the challenges of using participatory research methods during the dissertation process (Kneifel, 2000; Maguire, 1993). Numerous issues arise that can facilitate or hinder the collaborative process, and case studies of actual CBR projects have the potential to provide rich lessons of value to both neophyte and experienced community-based researchers alike. Thus, I offer comparisons between two CBR projects, one that met CBR goals and one that did not. The knowledge gained through the first project allowed me to strategically engage my partners in the second project. I then evaluated each of these experiences using an analytic framework constructed from the goals of CBR. Through the application of this analytic framework, I developed a conceptual model that can be used to evaluate CBR projects for those who seek to pursue a more radical model of CBR, a model that advocates social change. The analytic framework is described in greater detail in the following section, and the CBR model is introduced at the end of the article.

Defining Community-Based Research

“Community-based research is research that is conducted by, with, or for communities” (Sclove et al., 1998, p. ii). It is a collaborative form of inquiry in which academic institutions and community members seek to offset the prevalence of traditional academic research by acknowledging the expertise of community members (Hills & Mullett, 2000). Community members help determine the direction of the research, providing community knowledge and participating in the research process with the intent to solve problems and create change that leads to social justice by “empowering and helping to build capacity among community members” (Strand et al., 2003, p. 14). Community-based research is “a partnership of students, faculty, and community members who collaboratively engage in research with the purpose of solving a pressing community problem or effecting social change” (Strand et al., 2003, p. 3). Strand et al. (2003) outlined three guiding principles: 1) collaboration, 2) validation of the knowledge of community members and the multiple ways of collecting and distributing information, and 3) “social action and social change for the purpose of achieving social justice” (p. 8).

The third principle “has its roots in Freire’s popular education model, where the process of coming together to educate, learn, and talk about social change serves as a means of consciousness raising and organization among community members, who are then empowered to work for change themselves” (Strand et al., 2003, p. 14). Through this liberatory process community members themselves become agents of change and social justice by “challenging existing social relations and structures of privilege” (Strand et al., 2003, p. 132). The principles of CBR align with many of the principles of social justice education articulated by Bigelow, Christensen, Karp, Miner, & Peterson (Rethinking Schools, 1994) in that CBR is based on using a critical lens and promoting a perspective that is anti-racist, pro-justice, visionary, and activist oriented.

After conducting the two CBR projects described in this study, I evaluated each project utilizing an analytic framework. This framework is derived from the principles of community-based research introduced by Strand et al. (2003) and is also strongly influenced by the work of Stoecker (2003), who has delineated two strands of community-based research, radical CBR and mainstream CBR. Mainstream CBR combines the philosophy of Dewey, the traditional charity service-learning approach, traditional (versus emancipatory) action research methodology, and functionalist sociological theory. Stoecker (2003) states:

[Mainstream CBR] sees reform as a gradual, peaceful, linear process…[and] attempts to mediate divisions across social structural boundaries, implicitly reflecting that common interests between the rich and the poor, for example, are more powerful than their differences. All follow an expert model, either through choosing agencies rather than grassroots groups as partners, or through professional control over both the research and teaching processes (p. 39).

Alternately, radical CBR combines the popular education model of Freire (1970) and the social justice service-learning model, participatory research methodology, and conflict sociological theory (Stoecker, 2002a, 2003).

According to Stoecker (2002a), “popular education and participatory research, because of their mutual emphasis on structural change, collective action, and a conflict worldview, are beginning to form a radical version of CBR” (p. 9). Within this radical model of CBR, research partnerships develop with grassroots organizations rather than social service agencies. Stoecker (2002a) expresses the concern that it is more likely that proponents of CBR will adopt the mainstream approach versus the radical approach. If so, “The question arises whether our distaste for conflict situations and conflict groups and our gravitation toward safe ‘middle’ service organizations may be making it difficult to achieve the third principle of CBR, which is social change for social justice” (p. 9).

In my analytic framework, (Figure 1) I position radical CBR at one end of the continuum and the traditional expert research model at the other. In the middle is mainstream CBR. Each of these forms of research is defined by its position in relation to the four goals of CBR: community, collaboration, knowledge creation, and change. Each of the four goals also has its own continuum, which aligns with the three categories of research on the CBR continuum (see Figure 1). The closer on the continuum the researcher moves toward radical CBR, the greater the potential for change that is specific to the collaborating community.

Since the ultimate goal of CBR is “social change for social justice” (Stoecker, 2002a, p. 9), the more closely the researcher works with members of the community who are dealing with the problem (Stoecker, 2003), the greater the potential to empower. The community continuum includes grassroots organizations on one end and organizations that do not represent the community or use practices that “disempower the community” (Strand et al., 2003, p. 73) on the other (see Figure 1). In between are “midlevel organizations” (Strand et al., 2003, p. 74) that are a level removed from grassroots organizations but still seek to represent the community democratically. Conducting CBR projects with midlevel organizations is what Strand et al. (2003) label “doing CBR in the middle” (p. 73).

The meaning of collaboration undergirding this framework is shared decision making. The community should have equal power with the researcher and decision making should be a shared process throughout (Sclove et al., 1998). On the collaboration continuum, decision making as a shared process is at one end of the continuum and at the other end decisions are made primarily by the researcher (see Figure 1). A companion to collaboration is the goal of participation in knowledge creation. Community involvement in the creation of knowledge leads to community empowerment. The fundamental assumption of this framework is that the knowledge of community members is valid (Stoecker, 2003) and integral to creating strong results. At the positive end of the continuum, the community is involved in all aspects of knowledge creation; at the other, the researcher controls the creation of knowledge (see Figure 1).

The determining factor of the analytic framework is change (see Figure 1). If one considers CBR within the radical framework described by Stoecker (2003), the goal for change is “massive structural changes in the distribution of power and resources through far-reaching changes in governmental policy, economic practices, or cultural norms” (p. 36). This goal, however, can be difficult to achieve because community-based research tends toward programmatic changes within an organization or other more limited change. Needless to say, community-based research that does not involve the community in close collaboration and knowledge creation is less likely to create change that will benefit that community.


In order to examine each CBR experience in an in-depth and holistic way, I utilized a qualitative case study approach. Data collection for case studies usually focuses on three sources of data: observations, interviews, and documents (Merriam, 1998); I collected all three types for each case. Since I was observing myself as I collaborated with my community partner, all of the observations that I conducted were participant observations (Creswell, 2002). I also collected both formal and informal interview data (Patton, 1990). Informal interview questions were woven into meetings that I had with my community partners in relation to the ongoing CBR projects (Merriam, 1998), and I conducted formal interviews with my community partners in both case studies. Finally, I collected or created a variety of documents including: email communications, a reflective journal, a phone call log, and other items that were provided by my community partners, such as newsletters and meeting minutes.

Though I came into contact with a variety of people in each case study, my primary research collaborators were the main participants of my study. In the first case study, my collaboration with the Coalition for Schools, there were two primary collaborators, “Marge Bowline”, a co-chair of the Coalition, and “Lisa Brown,” the director of the Coalition. (Reminder: all names and affiliations have been changed in keeping with the consent agreement signed by the participants.) After completing my work with the Coalition, I questioned whether the experience was truly community-based research. I felt I needed an additional experience to solidify my ideas about how to assess and evaluate CBR projects. Instead of focusing on one experience, I decided to pursue another research option, Communities in Transition, in order to have another experience with which I could make comparisons.

In the second case study, Communities in Transition, I worked with the director of the literacy program, “John Brewer,” and an immigrant from South America, “Maria Swenson,” who works with a local agency that provides services to the immigrant population. The second CBR project was closer to the goals of mainstream CBR as described in my analytic framework. The two case studies allow me to present contrasting cases that delineate factors that can impede researchers and community members from reaching the goals of radical CBR.


In order to lend credibility to the findings of my study, I incorporated a variety of validity procedures. The first validity procedure I employed was prolonged engagement in the field (Creswell & Miller, 2000). I worked with the Coalition for nine months and with Communities in Transition for ten months. During each of these collaborations, I had consistent contact with my community partners. Collaborating with my community partners for this length of time allowed me to develop tentative findings and then follow up on these preliminary findings through observations and interviews (Creswell & Miller, 2000).

I also employed triangulation as another important validity procedure (Creswell, 1998; Stake, 2000). Merriam (1998) defines triangulation as “using multiple investigators, multiple sources of data, or multiple methods to confirm the emerging findings” (p. 204). I utilized methodological triangulation (Creswell & Miller, 2000) since I collected three forms of data: observations, interviews, and documents. I also used multiple sources of data since interviews were conducted with several participants (Creswell & Miller, 2000). Through triangulation, I was able to identify points of convergence in the data and to confirm or disconfirm emerging categories and themes (Creswell & Miller, 2000).

Since this case study focused on a study of process, my perceptions were an integral component of the research. However, since I did write interpretations of what I considered to be the perceptions of others, I used member checking to ensure accuracy (Creswell & Miller, 2000). I conducted member checking toward the end of each study so that it would not potentially disrupt the collaborative process. I shared an outline of findings with Lisa Brown with the Coalition and with John Brewer and Maria Swenson with Communities in Transition and allowed them the opportunity to provide feedback. Lisa Brown responded to the findings through email and said, “Thanks for sharing [these findings]. I feel it is accurate, and that it was a learning experience for all of us.” Maria Swenson also responded to the findings that I shared. She said, “I looked at [the findings] and it sounds good. I agree with all said.” John also said that he thought that the findings “looked good.”


Researcher reflexivity provided another method of creditability, which I used continuously throughout the research process (Creswell & Miller, 2000). I incorporated researcher reflexivity by constantly questioning my assumptions about what I thought was happening. I sought to maintain a heightened sense of awareness of the biases that I brought to the study and maintained this awareness when adding contextual data to field notes, observations transcriptions, and interview transcriptions and when writing journal entries.

Since my perceptions of the research process played a major part in the findings of the study, I carefully attended to the idea of subjectivity. Peshkin (1988) defines subjectivity as “the quality of the investigator that affects the results of observational investigation” (p. 17). Peshkin (1988) points out that an individual’s subjectivity is not something that can be removed, and it is therefore something researchers need to be aware of throughout the research process. Though Peshkin does not view subjectivity as necessarily negative, he does feel it is something that researchers need to realize and acknowledge. It was important to examine my own subjectivities throughout the research process so that I was aware of how these subjectivities could influence my interpretations and portrayal of events. As Strand (2000) points out, “The researcher’s values, experiences, and personal points of view are as much a part of the research process as those of the people studied, and they should be discussed and acknowledged” (p. 91).

Case Descriptions

The following case descriptions provide an overview of each CBR experience and, more specifically, elucidate the collaborative process. Following this, I compare the two cases to provide a context for the evaluative model that emerged from the application of the analytic framework introduced in Figure 1.

Coalition for Schools

The library at East Middle School became crowded as more and more parents packed into the room. There must have been at least 70 to 90 parents, most of them Latino and some African-American. There was palpable energy and excitement as the meeting began. At the front of the room was a table with people who worked in various social service and governmental agencies in the city, including the principal of East Middle School, the city council woman for the district, a representative from the police department, and the director of security for the school district. A parent came up to the microphone and began speaking in Spanish; a translator interpreted her comments. The parent stated that the parents of East students were concerned about safety at the school. She asked, “When can we receive a copy of the safety plan for East?” The principal responded that the school had created a discipline committee to address staff and student expectations and school rules, and they would work to develop a plan. Another parent, an African-American woman, came to the microphone. She stated that parents would like to have a monthly incident report that measures school safety and that parents would like to meet with the principal each month to discuss safety and discipline. The principal agreed. Another Spanish speaking parent then came forward and addressed various people at the table. Each person was asked what he or she would do to help the situation. When the head of security for the school district responded that he would try to have more security coverage at East in the mornings and in the afternoon, the woman responded, “Is that a yes or no to our question?” As each member at the table agreed to various support endeavors, the parent at the microphone replied, “We will hold you accountable for your promises.”

At the time I attended this meeting, I had been working with the Coalition for two weeks, and the organization that set up this meeting at East, Parents Supporting Education (PSE), was one of the member organizations of the Coalition. These member organizations included non-profits, foundations, parent groups, and the schools themselves working to improve academic achievement in the northeast quadrant of the city. I was energized about working with an organization that had grassroots connections like PSE. This was the beginning of a collaboration that I hoped would provide meaningful change for the community.

The collaboration with Coalition was initiated through one of my professors who conducts community-based research. We met with Marge and Lisa to discuss the principles of CBR. They were open to collaborating with me in conducting community-based research; however, they wanted to pay me for my work feeling they would get better quality work if I were paid. Marge said, “We need data on what is happening in the schools in [this part of the city] to provide a current picture so that we know what is getting better and what is not.” She also discussed the idea of what she called community indicators. She wanted to select a group of school related indicators and provide regular reports to the community so the community would begin to push for change. During a subsequent meeting with Lisa, she asked me, “Will it be possible to measure the impact the [Coalition] is having?” realizing that the work of member organizations may not be attributable to the work of the Coalition. She steered me toward several products as examples of what they were hoping I could help them to accomplish. These included reports produced by organizations such as the Rand Corporation and the Education Trust.

In the initial stages of CBR work, the researcher works closely with the community partner to determine the research questions and goals. In my previous experience conducting CBR through a graduate course, these initial questions and goals had already been developed by the professor and community partners. As I began my work with the Coalition, I did not collaborate with Marge and Lisa to clearly delineate research questions and goals. The only direction for my work was provided by the statement made by Marge in our first meeting. Instead of pushing for discourse around the data, I began collecting data that I felt would provide a picture of what was happening in Coalition schools. For example, I began collecting and organizing data on test scores, graduation rates, and teacher qualifications, along with other statistical data.

During these early stages of my work with the Coalition, I attended a multitude of meetings, including meetings with a steering committee of representatives from of all the member organizations of the Coalition. In one of the initial steering committee meetings I attended, Lisa shared some of the statistical data I had collected. I attempted to gain input from the steering committee as to what they hoped to gain from this research that would further the work of the organization. Lisa quickly shut down the conversation and turned the meeting in another direction. I later received a similar response when I tried to engage Lisa and Marge in a dialogue about the data. I shared a list of possible data that we might collect in addition to the data I had already collected. My intent was to find out what they hoped to achieve with the data and then select specific data points that would best achieve these goals. My attempt was again disregarded, and the end result was that they added additional items to the list and directed me to collect all of them without regard to delineated goals. I tried belatedly to establish the goals of CBR, but I had no power in the relationship. My status as a graduate student and as an employee limited my ability to push for dialogue.

My supervising professors felt that I should continue my work with the Coalition even though the research fell short of the goals of CBR. They suggested I try to reposition my role.

My professors expressed to Marge and Lisa that they felt that the work I was doing was not utilizing my research skills; instead, they recommended that I develop a research proposal and work with the Coalition on a project basis toward specific goals. We wrote up a research proposal, which the Coalition accepted. The proposal included several components: a commitment to continue working on two projects I had already begun, a literature review of best practices in urban schools and the statistical data on each school, an evaluation of what was currently happening with the Coalition based on interviews with various stakeholders, and an evaluation plan to measure the work of the Coalition in the long term. Marge’s response was that this sounded like “a gift versus an imposition” though Lisa was mostly silent during the meeting.

One of the intents behind the research proposal was to move my research closer to the member organizations that make up the Coalition. Through having access to parents, teachers, and students who were directly impacted by what was happening in the schools, I hoped to gain insight into what research would benefit the community. In particular, I was interested in working more closely with the grassroots parent organization that represented the predominantly Latino and African-American parents in this region of the city. When interacting with Marge and Lisa, I received mixed messages about whose input they most valued in the Coalition. For example, when we received input from parents and teachers about which data they would like the Coalition to pursue for the monthly indicators, it conflicted with the input we received from the various non-profit organizations that belong to the Coalition. Marge and Lisa made the decision that we would pursue the data that the non-profits were interested in pursuing.

My goal was to try to provide the community greater voice in the work of the Coalition. I interviewed parents, teachers, principals, and various leaders of the member organizations. What I found in my interviews with parents and teachers was that they were not aware of the work of the Coalition, and that they wanted to have greater involvement in the work of the Coalition. One high school teacher said, “I certainly know the [Coalition for Schools] exists and I have never been real clear on what all the relationships are.” Principals, in particular, expressed concerns about the monthly indicators the Coalition planned to collect and how these data would be used. One principal stated:

I have a huge problem with [the community indicators] and I’m going to tell you why. First of all, the [Coalition] is not doing anything that directly impacts that information. They’re not doing anything that impacts our discipline, they’re not doing anything that impacts our attendance right now, or our achievement.… So when I saw the mockup…all I saw was another way to hammer our schools…I just thought, why do we need again to highlight the things that we’re working so hard to improve? And all you would do when you looked at that data would either pit school against school or, ‘Well, you see we told you these schools were bad schools.’ And honestly, we’re killing ourselves to do all the things we need to do.

It was a consistent comment from principals that they did not want these data used to point out the shortcomings of the schools.

The interviews I conducted for the evaluation report included interviews with Marge and Lisa. These interviews provided insight into how Marge and Lisa’s views differed on the use of data. In my interview with Marge, for instance, I found that she viewed data as primarily a means to provoke people out of complacency, versus a means to inform the work of the Coalition. When I asked her about the role of data in the work of the Coalition, she said, “I think there’s nothing as provocative or engaging as having a really good data set presented in a way that tells the kind of story that encourages people to action.” When I interviewed Lisa, she expressed concern that data could be “dangerous” and potentially alienating. This statement stemmed from the fact that the Coalition had decided not to pursue the monthly indicators after protests from school administrators. After completing the interviews, I wrote an up an extensive evaluation report.

Though the goal of the research proposal was to try to position my research closer to the community, it had the effect of moving my research even farther away from the goals of CBR. I gained more power in making decisions about data, but the Coalition did not collaborate in this process. In the end, I became more of a traditional consultant who collected data for evaluation purposes without any meaningful collaboration with the organization with which I was working.

When I contacted Lisa for a follow-up interview a year later, she said, “[you] did a fine job for us. We have a very broad project and [you] could have delved into any one of a multitude of statistical arenas regarding high needs, urban, minority, etc. Instead, [you] stuck with the ‘Bigger Picture’ and brought us some reliable information about all of our subject areas.” However, Lisa did not provide any feedback on the last two pieces of work that I did for the Coalition, the evaluation and the evaluation plan, though I specifically asked about these two reports in the follow-up interview.

Communities in Transition

The hot afternoon sun slanted in through the window of the coffee shop causing “Manuel Alvarez” to sweat. “You have to learn to plug yourself into the social system,” Manuel said as he wiped the perspiration off his upper lip with a handkerchief. Manuel was providing ideas as to how to begin the process of organizing the immigrant population in this small, rural, western mountain town. He was describing the networks that exist in any immigrant population. “You have to identify the gatekeepers and informal leaders who control access to the network.”

Maria asked, “What if the leaders are not good people?” I perked up. “In the [Indian population from Mexico] the leaders are witches,” Maria shared confidentially.

“Leonora Garcia,” a native of Mexico who serves on the ESL advisory board, glanced across to me and we both smiled in surprise. “Ah, they are brujas [witches],” Manuel exclaimed. “Yes,” Maria said, “The people are afraid of them, and they have all the power in the community because they cast spells.” Smiling, Maria added, “But they are my friends, so I am safe.” “Are they good or bad?” Leonora asked. “I don’t know, but I don’t want them to be the leaders,” Maria said. Manuel interrupted, “It’s not up to you. If they are the leaders, you have to go through them.”

I was starting to realize that I should begin to expect surprises in my work with John Brewer, who was also at the table, and Maria Swenson. Though I had done research with immigrant populations before, this population is unique in that it includes an indigenous population from a remote area of Mexico of which I know very little about. Manuel, a community organizer who is himself an immigrant from El Salvador, came to meet with the community members with whom I was collaborating to give us some ideas about how to begin the process of organizing the immigrant community. The meeting was an important step in my collaboration with John and Maria.

After completing my work with the Coalition of Schools, I was very aware of the challenges that can impact the collaborative process. I brought this knowledge to the Communities in Transition project and used this knowledge to create a successful collaboration. When I first started working with John, we had an extensive discussion about what we hoped to accomplish with our collaboration. I wrote a memorandum of understanding that detailed the principles of community-based research and our decision to pursue a research agenda that would benefit the community’s immigrant population. We decided helping them learn English through the ESL program would come first, and we also began to explore ideas for ways in which they could have greater voice in city affairs. During one of our initial meetings, John said, “I want to have this group become less invisible and recognize they can have a voice and need to have a voice.”

As we continued our collaboration, more often our conversations included Maria. Through our discussions about the research, I came to understand John and Maria’s views about research, and we found that we had very similar ideas about what kinds of data we might collect and how we could use these data.

In order to determine how the ESL program could improve services to the community, we decided to develop two questionnaires. One of the questionnaires was administered to the clients that utilize Maria’s office; this questionnaire sought information on the factors that limit participation in the ESL program. The second questionnaire was designed to gauge whether the students currently attending ESL courses were getting what they needed from these courses. We developed these questionnaires through a collaborative process with input from John, Maria, a focus group of ESL students, and two community members who utilize the services of the Maria’s office. These two community members also helped to administer the questionnaire to Maria’s clients.

This collaborative process continued through data collection, data analysis, and even in writing the final report presented to the ESL program’s advisory board. Through the questionnaire, we found that there were several factors that limited participation in the ESL courses, including limited access to transportation and concerns that the beginner level ESL course was too difficult. We also found that the issues limiting participation were intensified for the indigenous population from Mexico. These data were used by the ESL program in several ways. First, the advisory board used the information in program planning. One board member stated during the meeting, “This will be very helpful in program planning.” The board began to consider how to reallocate funding to support the creation of a very basic introductory course for the indigenous population. John also used these data as a basis for requesting additional contributions and donations from other community organizations in order to offer transportation services. Finally, these data were used in a grant proposal that was written by the health department to acquire a substantial grant for immigrant integration.

In seeking to provide the immigrant population with greater voice in the community, we began to explore the process of community organizing. Since community organizing is a long-term process, during the ten months of our collaboration I focused on helping John and Maria obtain information about how to begin the process. This included meeting with Manuel, who offered to continue working with John and Maria as they pursued a dialogue with community members. Manuel suggested that we start with one-on-one conversations with individuals to figure out the networks of communication and that through our conversations with people we pay attention to the primary issues with which they are concerned. He said, “Look for themes that emerge and that are actionable. If you change something that is an issue for them, then they will be interested…. It becomes a victory that everybody talks about and it starts the momentum…. It may not be your interest, but it is theirs.” My collaboration with John and Maria ended with the knowledge that they planned to initiate these conversations and to continue to create opportunities to promote greater equity in the community.

Comparison Between Cases

The analytic framework in Figure 1 delineates the differences between these two CBR experiences. The collaboration with the Coalition for Schools did not meet the goals of CBR. As Maguire (1993) would describe it, it was an attempt at community-based research. Based on the four goals of CBR included in Figure 1, my work with the Coalition could be characterized initially as mainstream CBR, but when my role was repositioned to allow me to have greater input in decisions about data, the process moved toward traditional research. On the other hand, the collaboration with Communities in Transition was a successful collaborative process, and I believe this process did meet the goals of CBR. My work with Communities in Transition would be characterized as mainstream CBR; however, we moved slightly toward radical CBR through initiating the community organizing process.

In comparing and contrasting these two cases, I return to the four goals of the analytic framework: community, collaboration, knowledge creation, and change. Considering these four goals based on the continuums presented in Figure 1, one can compare the facets of these two case studies. Table 1 provides this comparison (see Table 1).




Stoecker (2002a) defines community as the people who are dealing directly with the issue. Based on this definition, I did not work directly with the community during either CBR project. However, the two cases present differences in how closely my collaborators worked with the community and how committed they were to seeking community input. My work with the Coalition for Schools was what Strand, et al. (2003) would describe as “doing CBR in the middle” (p. 73). The Coalition was a midlevel organization that did have some community grounding, but the organization presented conflicting messages about how much it sought and valued community input.


In working with Communities in Transition, I felt a direct connection to the immigrant community. Both John and Maria work closely with the community, and they are intimately aware of the issues challenging the immigrant population. John and Maria are what Stoecker (2002a) describes as bridge people in that they provide a link between the immigrant population and the broader community. Since I was not working directly with the community when I was collaborating with John and Maria, I did make an effort to bring the community into the research process as often as possible.


The issue of proximity to the community is something that comes up consistently in CBR work. Given that the goal of CBR is social change that leads to social justice, it is imperative to work as closely with the community as possible. This can be difficult to achieve at times since it may be challenging to find a grassroots organization with which to partner. Not to mention that midlevel organizations are often better equipped to partner with university researchers (Strand et al., 2003).




Collaboration is quite simply shared decision making. Collaboration relies on developing relationships, and relationships can be impacted by communication and issues of power. In my work with the Coalition, our initial relationship did encompass some shared decision making. However, this initial collaboration did not last. My collaboration with John and Maria was successful because decision making was shared throughout our work together. There were no detrimental power dynamics because we agreed to work together based on a shared understanding of the research we would pursue as explained in the memorandum of understanding.


Regardless of whether the researcher partners with a midlevel organization or with a grassroots organization, in every CBR process the researcher needs to be cognizant of the issue of power. In my work with the Coalition, my lack of power interfered with my ability to develop a collaborative relationship. When working with John and Maria, as is typically the case with community-based research, I had to be more aware of the power I held as a researcher, and I made sure that our work together was based on shared decision making. Communication can be significant in ensuring that all participants in the CBR process are being heard. During both CBR projects, communication was the primary issue in determining whether I was able to develop a successful relationship.

Knowledge Creation

One of the goals of community-based research is that the community should participate in all stages of the research process. There is a reciprocal process of knowledge sharing between the researcher and the community. In my work with the Coalition, the creation of knowledge was not a shared process and the community never realized a substantive increase in knowledge. With Communities in Transition, the community did participate in knowledge creation. Determining the goals of the research at the beginning of the collaboration is one important factor that facilitates this process of knowledge creation. If the researcher and the community are not able to come to a consensus, they will not be able to move into the beginning stages of the research process. This factor was a significant hindrance in my work with the Coalition. A memorandum of understanding that defines these goals can be useful. This type of document requires that the participants put their shared goals in writing. Using this type of document in my work with John and Maria helped create a successful collaboration.

Through the process of developing a memorandum of understanding, it becomes obvious how all of the participants view the use of data. Views about the uses of data can be a significant factor that can either facilitate or hinder collaboration. The researcher and community partner need to have extensive dialogue as they clarify goals in order to make sure that there is agreement about the purposes for which the data are being collected. The community partner’s previous experiences with research can, of course, influence how she views the use of data. Though data can be used for many purposes, all parties need to agree on how data will be used in a given project.


Social change that leads to social justice is the ultimate goal of community-based research (Marullo & Edwards, 2000). At this point it is difficult to know whether either CBR project will lead to change. While both projects have the potential for change, it seems likely that my work with the Coalition will lead to only minor programmatic change. However, my work with Communities in Transition was much more successful and has the potential to create greater change. With Communities in Transition, programmatic change will potentially make the English program more accessible for all immigrants as well as prompt revisions to classes so that the classes better meet the needs of the students currently attending the program. In addition to programmatic change, the groundwork we laid in initiating the process of community organizing has the potential to even lead to structural change, which could allow the immigrant population to have more power in the community.

When working toward change within a CBR project, the researcher can control only certain aspects of the context that may limit or support change, particularly when power structures within the community desire to maintain the status quo. Even if power structures allow for change, communities dealing with complex and unwieldy issues may confront limits put in place by government bureaucracy and competing communities. The researcher cannot control these contextual factors. However, the researcher can focus on empowering community participants through the research process by encouraging community members to become co-participants in the research process. An individual project may not lead to structural change, but the research process may change the life of an individual co-participant. Individuals who are empowered will be more likely to push against existing power structures.

A Radical Model of CBR

After completing these two CBR projects, I had a stronger understanding of what I sought to achieve with my CBR work, and I began to conceptualize a structure to aid my thinking. The conceptual model of CBR that I designed (Figure 2) is based on the analytic framework that I used to assess each case, and it incorporates the continuums included in Figure 1.

As one moves out toward the positive on each point of the continuum, the work has greater value. Value is defined as the potential to empower community members who are participating in the research process as well as the potential to bring about beneficial change for the community. I position Stoecker’s (2003) construct of radical CBR as the form of CBR that has the most value in that it has the greatest potential to empower community members and the greatest potential to create substantial change. Mainstream CBR does have value but it has less potential for significant change. As one moves toward the center of the model, the value of the work decreases.

Though Stoecker (2003) points out that the underlying theoretical foundations of mainstream CBR and radical CBR are in some ways contradictory, in my conceptual model, mainstream CBR is embedded within radical CBR. I see CBR as a continuum of practices with radical CBR as the goal. This model provides a way to conceptualize the elements that need to be in place to support greater value in CBR work. For each continuum within the model, the researcher must make a decision about how to create the most value for the work being conducted. In order to understand the model more fully, it is important to consider the four continuums incorporated in the model.

In relation to community, the goal is to work with those who are marginalized or disenfranchised. This typically means collaborating with a grassroots organization. If the researcher is unable to locate a grassroots organization, the options are to assist in the process of creating a grassroots organization or to partner with a midlevel organization. Working with a midlevel organization means that one moves inward on the continuum toward mainstream CBR, and the work has less value; however, this can be counteracted somewhat by using the midlevel organization as a means to facilitate community involvement in decision making during the research process (Strand et al., 2003).

Shared decision making throughout the CBR process which leads to the development of lasting and positive relationships between university partners and the community is the primary goal of effective collaboration. These relationships are developed through communication and can be hindered by issues around power and trust. However, one of the most challenging goals to achieve in pursuing the radical model of CBR relates to the creation of knowledge. The goal is full participation of the community in all aspects of knowledge creation. As Stoecker (2002a) points out, “The highest form of participatory research is seen as research completely controlled and conducted by the community” (p. 9). This can lead to empowerment for the community through the democratization of knowledge. However, full participation can be difficult to achieve, particularly if community members do not have the time to participate in all aspects of the research. The greater the participation of the community in creating knowledge, the greater the potential for empowerment. Therefore, the researcher is obligated “to do whatever is possible to enhance participation” (Greenwood, Whyte, & Harkavy, 1993, Our View section, para. 8).

The further the researcher moves toward the positive on the continuums of community, collaboration, and knowledge creation, the greater potential for change that “transforms the structure of power relations so that those without power gain power” (Stoecker, 2002b, p. 232). If the researcher is partnering with a midlevel organization, the research will likely lead to programmatic change rather than broader social change. Though any change is important in that small changes can lead to greater overall change, limited programmatic change has less value within an individual CBR project.


Reaching for a radical model of CBR may not be as compatible with higher education norms as is the mainstream model of CBR (Stoecker, 2003), but if the goal of CBR is social action and social change that lead to social justice, then it is imperative that we pursue the radical model. As Freire (1970) states:

“The radical committed to human liberation does not become the prisoner of a ‘circle of certainty’ within which reality is also imprisoned. On the contrary, the more radical the person is, the more fully he or she enters into reality so that, knowing it better, he or she can better transform it” (p. 21).

Existing realities point to the need for significant changes in our society. As Stoecker (2003) argues, the gap between the wealthy and the poor is continuing to widen, and economic and political decisions are being made primarily by the wealthy. “The only way for the poor to gain a seat at the table, then, is for them to counter the power of money with the power of numbers” (Stoecker, 2003, p. 43).

If we want to expand democratic participation to include those individuals who have been excluded because of lack of economic and social capital, we need to push for radical changes. These kinds of radical change call for a radical model of research.

If we push for a radical model of CBR, some faculty and students who are interested in pursuing CBR projects may feel that it is impossible to achieve this goal and thus decide not to pursue community-based research at all. As Strand et al. (2003) point out, “We caution the current or would-be practitioner against becoming paralyzed by imperfections from these ideal principles, acknowledging that no CBR practice is perfect in its design and execution and that at some level, we need to do the best we can under our current circumstances” (p. 74).

I agree with this statement, and I feel that conducting mainstream CBR is better than not pursuing CBR at all. However, I do think that those who carry out community-based research should consistently seek to reach for a more radical form of CBR that has greater potential to impact the conditions of the people for whom the work is targeted.


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I wish to thank Alan Tinkler and Nick Cutforth for sound advice regarding earlier versions of this manuscript.

About the Author

Barri Tinkler is an assistant professor in the College of Education and Social Services at the University of Vermont.

From the Editor

Cassandra E. SimonCassandra E. Simon

JCES presents its first issue of 2010 with a certain confidence, secure in the conviction that the journal provides a quality outlet for some of the best “scholarship of engagement” (Boyer, 1996). The advancement of JCES toward its goal of becoming the premier academic journal in community engagement scholarship is reflected in this issue. It is reflected in the quality of the articles presented on the following pages. It is reflected in the depth and diversity of the manuscripts and author specialties. It is reflected in our continuous commitment to incorporating principles of authentic community engagement in every aspect of the journal.

In this regard, we are especially proud of the new opportunities JCES is providing students through its graduate student editorial board and student editorial liaison positions. From its inception, JCES committed space in each issue for at least one student-authored manuscript. Please see the call for student manuscripts on page 67. The current student piece, written by Dominique Derbigny, a graduate student at the University of Maryland at Baltimore, chronicles her community engagement experience as an undergraduate student at Elon University in Elon, N.C. Elon is a private liberal arts university repeatedly ranked at the top for engaged learning. The student piece demonstrates the relevance of engaged learning in helping students define career choice, research interests, and community citizenry.

It is important that students have a regular scholarly venue to express their thoughts, opinions, and reflections regarding community engagement—to have their voices heard. The student section of JCES, Student Voices, provides one such venue and will be handled almost entirely by students. This board will be primarily responsible for solicitation and review of student-submitted manuscripts for the section and for making recommendations to the editor for publication. Students in the liaison positions will assist the editorial assistant in day to day operation of the journal, with a focus on the Student Voices section.

The current issue of JCES contains articles that address some of the major challenges and issues facing engagement scholarship. Among them are cross-cultural education, citizen science, holistic learning, and intra-campus community engagement. The significance of engaged scholarship and its ability to promote the common good in society is seen in the cover article, “The Engaged Humanities: Principles and Practices for Public Scholarship and Teaching,” by Gregory Jay. Richard L. Conville and Ann M. Kinnell’s article, “Relational Dimensions of Service-Learning,” advances true collaboration between the primary constituent groups of service-learning (i.e., instructors, community partners, and students) by providing a common language for discussion of their inter-relationships. Combined, these two manuscripts speak to the practicality of engagement scholarship and the need to bring engagement scholarship to even higher levels conceptually and theoretically. JCES continues to grow and attract widespread interest and support across a broad spectrum. As we continue on our journey, we look to you, our readership and contributors to share your thoughts, ideas and needs with us. As editor, I appreciate the support we have received and welcome your feedback.

Taking a Stand: Community-Engaged Scholarship on the Tenure Track

Kevin Michael Foster

“Despite obstacles, author sees ways and offers guidelines for community-engaged scholars to negotiate the tenure track.”


This article assesses the journey to tenure among higher education faculty whose scholarship focuses on community engagement. It provides examples for two categories of action—contextual interventions and structural interventions—that agents of the university enact in order to create space for their approach to scholarship. It also describes structural transformation, which is the product of strategically conceived and deployed structural interventions that fundamentally alter university reward structures and culture so as to promote and support community-engaged scholarship. Finally, this piece describes a contextual intervention by the author that has allowed him to work within local communities while meeting standards of research and teaching that move him toward tenure.


In this article I consider structural interventions to support the journey to tenure among faculty whose scholarship fundamentally includes ongoing community engagement. Such engagement is designed–often with community members–to research, analyze, and address challenges faced within communities and to subsequently have a direct, positive impact upon the quality of life in the areas addressed. I refer to the faculty work considered here as action-oriented and yet emphasize the research-based approaches to developing projects, analyses, and interventions that lead to the attainment of specific mutually identified outcomes. Such outcomes could include better circumstances for students in schools (Mehan, 2007), addressing health-care issues among the homeless (Power et al., 1999; Hwang, 2001), documenting community histories (Guajardo & Guajardo, 2004; Guajardo, Perez, Davila, Ozuna, Saenz, & Casaperalta, 2006), strengthening local non-profit organizations (Cairns, Harris, & Young, 2005), or policy reforms to address various unmet societal needs. The primary audience for this article are those involved in promotion and tenure of university faculty. An additional audience includes those outside the university structure who work with faculty on community-based projects.

My purposes are three-fold. First, I want to stake a claim for the importance and viability of an engaged, impact-oriented approach to community and scholarship now–before tenure–as a means to preserve dignity and integrity amidst a process that threatens to strip tenure-track faculty of both, and as a means to encourage like-minded faculty to stand for their freedom to pursue an intellectual agenda that centrally includes community engagement. Second, and by way of theoretical contribution, I want to provide a typology to

help scholars further consider and conceptualize the range of action-oriented responses among faculty operating in a context that does not fully support or value community-engaged scholarship. In doing this, I will discuss several terms: contextual interventions, structural interventions, and structural transformation. Third, I want to introduce the concept of intersectional scholarship as an approach to academic life defined by the seamless integration of teaching, research, and service.

As an additional introductory note, and though not the focus of this manuscript, it is important to mention that just as community-engaged scholarship is challenged and contested from within the academy, it also faces important community-based challenges. Challenges may include building trust, discerning and working with community-based epistemologies, and navigating non-university social and bureaucratic networks. Challenges will be ongoing and take different shapes in different times and places. Among those who have begun to address the external issues are Minkler (2005), who considered challenges of community-based participatory action research to address urban health problems, and Cheney (2008), who considered the ethics of engaged scholarship. The challenges to community engagement that are addressed in this article are those associated with the university structure and that help shape the cultural norms, values, and practices of faculty and administrators. The perspective is that of a tenure-track faculty member whose work consistently includes participatory action in community settings beyond the walls of his home university.

From Community Service to 

Community-Engaged Scholarship

Generally, higher learning institutions have been conceived to serve society, but this has meant different things in different eras. Plato’s Academy “trained individuals for public service by analyzing the outstanding issues of the day” (Neal, Smith, & McCormick, 2008, p. 93). In the United States, the Morrill Act of 1862 provided the framework and perennial support for the land-grant universities that would conduct regionally significant research and play an important role in the nation’s economic security and development. Land-grant universities, which today operate in all 50 states, “put things scientific at the center, around which an unusually strong research orientation has developed, with an emphasis on application and problem solving” (Johnson, 1981, p. 333). In World War II, the federal government turned to the nation’s universities to provide a research base for the war effort (Nelson & Romer, 1996). The role of universities in providing research for national defense and security was solidified and strengthened following the Soviet Union’s launch of Sputnik in 1957 and the onset of the Cold War (Neal, Smith, & McCormick, 2008).

Along with efforts to serve society in partnership with the federal government, colleges and universities have also provided a range of specialized services to local communities. Among the examples are colleges of architecture partnering with local governments on municipal planning, law schools maintaining legal clinics for the poor, colleges of education providing teacher professional development, and dental schools offering continuing education for dental professionals and dental services for qualifying community members. Such works, however, are often defined as service or deployed as service-learning (thus fulfilling the university teaching mission in an especially effective way), as opposed to systematically conceived in terms of scholarly projects that will generate knowledge (see Yoder, 2006, for an example). Questions remain as to the connections between faculty work in community and faculty scholarship (Calleson, Jordan, & Seifer, 2005).

Among the examples of community-engaged work, it is possible to center such efforts within the academy by thinking of them in terms of how they can influence knowledge. For example, instead of simply offering professional development for teachers, it is possible for higher education faculty to work collaboratively with teachers to explore and develop increasingly effective professional development practices and to support teachers as active learners and researchers (Hamos et al., 2009; Karp, Sevian, Decker, Zahapoulos, Chen, & Eisenkraft, 2008). In such cases, what would otherwise simply be seen as service can be constructed such that it is grounded in pressing research questions, methodologies are developed and applied, and findings are written up and disseminated to impact theory and practice in relevant fields.

The field of anthropology, and in particular applied anthropology, is perhaps the academic discipline in which community-engaged scholarship has the strongest, and yet still incomplete, foothold. In the journal Practicing Anthropology, applied anthropologist Mark Schuller noted that:

It’s a matter of professional pride that anthropologists use our professional skills in the service of a here-and-now issue, group, [or] movement, or to solve a particular social problem. I am certainly proud of our heritage in real world issues. From Boas and Mead there is an unbroken legacy of social change agents in anthropology (2010, p. 43).

Yet later in the same article he also noted:

When I was asked to research and write a paper about Haiti’s food crisis that finally got world attention in April, 2008 because of riots, I had 36 hours to write a publishable account from scratch. This piece and others like it are more significant public anthropology than articles that I have spent literally years writing, editing, submitting, re-editing, and re-submitting, that “count” toward my tenure case (2010, p. 47).

The historic work of many scholars shows that there have long been at least some opportunities for action-oriented work. This can be seen in the work of anthropologists like Boas and Mead, sociologists like Du Bois, agriculture scientists like George Washington Carver, and of countless academicians who have worked for the federal government. At the same time, the conceptualization and framing of engaged work has shifted over time, and there has not been a consistently positive relationship between serving and engaging communities on the one hand, and tenure and status within the university on the other.

Disincentives for Community-Engaged 


Despite longstanding connections between university and community, contemporary academic life threatens to undermine faculty members’ penchant for service, even where that service is part of a research agenda (Shapiro, Frank, May, & Suskind, 2009). In some cases, those who would be interested in a vibrant service dimension to their scholarly profile are discouraged from being thusly engaged, especially when prospects for tenure are raised as an item for primary consideration. Even in colleges and universities where tenure policies have been reformed to reflect the value of community-engaged scholarship, tenure track faculty may find that many senior colleagues nonetheless encourage a more conservative path to tenure (O’Meara, 2002). Such a path would have faculty focus on those aspects of the tenure dossier likely to carry the most weight in the review process. In the contemporary academic climate, tenure-focused alignment of work would likely include producing a book published by an academic press or a number of peer-reviewed articles per year, receiving teaching evaluations above a minimal threshold, and engaging a minimal amount of service that provides evidence of broader university or community engagement by the faculty member. Finally, tenure track faculty may be discouraged from community engagement through department or university reward structures that base annual merit pay raises solely on publications and teaching (Kutal, Rich, Hessinger, & Miller, 2009). In some cases, service may not appear in the merit scoring rubric at all, thus rendering service an unrewarded hobby that would take time away from tangibly awarded activities.

Contextual Interventions, Structural 

Interventions, and Structural Transformation

Within this picture, there are at least two possible approaches for those interested in community-engaged scholarship. The first has to do with prospects for reforming or transforming our expectations of faculty and corresponding reward structures; the second has to do with the intellectual capacity of engaged scholars to theorize, document, assess, and publish in ways that their intellectual work can be clearly described in terms of prevailing expectations and reward structures (Calleson, Jordan, & Seifer, 2005). In short, one approach is to reform the structure, while the other approach is to conceptualize the work to fit within the structure. The strategies are not mutually exclusive. Rather, they fit within the framework of contextual versus transformational action as initially conceived by black studies scholar and anthropologist Ted Gordon, and further developed by Kraehe, Blakes, and Foster (2010).

Even at universities that include academic leaders who call for community-engaged scholarship, there may be a persistent reality that the calls to such scholarship and service contradict the basic realities of the university review and reward structure. Fortunately, there is a growing acknowledgment and critique of this reality (Ellison & Eatman, 2008; Shapiro, Frank, May, & Susskind, 2009). The critique creates intellectual space for community oriented tenure-track faculty to formulate visions of scholarship that include community engagement. The acknowledgement justifies efforts by interested senior faculty to build supports for community-engaged faculty members to carry out that scholarship.

As more faculty become involved with community-engaged scholarship, their work has often included responses to the structural impediments they face (Shapiro, Frank, May, & Suskind, 2009; Ellison & Eatman, 2008). Likewise, individual agents and units have worked to reform governance structures that hinder or devalue community-engaged scholarship. One way to categorize the range of these responses is in terms of contextual interventions, structural interventions, and structural transformations (Figure 1). Contextual interventions respond to and account for circumstances in context and in this case include adjustments to action-oriented practice and research such that the work meets the traditional academic expectations for teaching, research, and service. Such interventions can help individual faculty members survive within a structure that does not fully recognize or value their work, interests, or perspectives. Contextual interventions do not, however, alter, or even challenge, prevailing structures. Structural interventions are programs, policies, or practices that provide space, cover, and support for activities and understandings that are outside established institutional norms. Individual structural interventions constitute reform, but also fall short of fundamentally altering prevailing conceptions and policies unless they are coordinated and carried out in conjunction with complementary interventions. For example, the impact of policy changes will be limited if they are not coupled with efforts to change institutional culture (Kutal, Rich, Hessinger, & Miller, 2009). Finally, structural transformation is the product of strategic and accumulated structural interventions and constitutes a fundamental change in the procedural and cultural landscape—in this case in favor of conceptions of academic merit that encourage, support, and reward community-engaged scholarship.

Since returning to The University of Texas at Austin in 2005, I have developed contextual interventions that accommodate my interest in community-engaged scholarship. I have also been supported by structural interventions initiated by supportive faculty and administrators. My hope is to contribute to eventual structural transformation, which in this case would mean that the university’s policies, procedures, systems, and culture would support and reward community-engaged scholarship. Short of transformation, however, the interventions are critically important and have helped me to develop projects and programs through which I have experienced success as measured by standards that resonate both within the community and within the academy.

The programs through which I have experienced a sense of success and fulfillment were conceived of and operate in the context of the Institute for Community, University, and School Partnerships (ICUSP), which I founded as a vehicle to simultaneously conduct research, develop graduate students, and work with K-12 students, families, and schools. Our group, which includes myself, four graduate students per year, one full-time staff member, and administrative support that we in effect purchase from the university, has developed a range of student- and community-engaged programs. These include: an arts-focused residential summer leadership institute operated with a community partner; male and female student academic and leadership development programs for middle and high school students on 10 middle and high school campuses in central Texas; and embedded professional development where ICUSP project directors (graduate students or the one full-time staff member) work with schools to achieve specific outcomes related to teacher effectiveness.

Indicators of success that hold value within the local community include numbers of students who have gone on to college from our programs (115 of 121 seniors from 2007-2010); parent, teacher, and principal testimony about students who, instead of being suspended, are returned to the classroom as a result of conflict resolution skills acquired with the help of our university students; and local and national awards I have received for service to community. Few of these indicators of success hold anything more than symbolic value within the academy.

Indicators of success that are favored by the academy include program evaluations, quantitative data that attest to program outcomes, and peer-reviewed research publications. Funds brought in through community-engaged work may be appreciated as an indicator that projects or programs merit investment from outside entities, including schools, school districts, donors, or federal and non-profit agencies.

Contextual Intervention, with the Specific Example of Intersectional Scholarship

The work highlighted above is part of a program of community-engaged scholarship that is made possible by several contextual and structural interventions. An example of a contextual intervention that has sustained my work as a scholar has been the conceptualization of an intersectional approach to intellectual life within the academy. I call this approach and its outcomes intersectional scholarship. Working from John Venn’s 19th century model representing the intersection of overlapping sets (the Venn Diagram), and further inspired by the Hedgehog Concept approach to developing a business organization (Collins, 2001), I attempt to work within a conceptual space where three traditional academic activities—teaching, research and service—intersect. Such an approach stands as an alternative to a fractured professional existence where each academic area is treated independently and service inevitably ranked lowest (Ellison & Eatman, 2008).

By concentrating my efforts in those spaces where the three areas come together, I have been able to fully engage in service while living up to my responsibilities to teach and conduct research. I have done this through community-based research projects in partnership with my graduate students. The projects have concretely served middle and high school students (as evidenced by their high school graduation rates, scholarships, and expression of satisfaction with our programs in surveys), been a source of learning and funding for my graduate students, and led to publications in peer-reviewed journals. Instead of viewing teaching, research, and service as three disjointed arenas of activity, I teach my graduate students and full-time staff to view ourselves as working in one arena with three dimensions (Figure 2).

The overlap of the three traditional arenas of academic work creates a nexus where all three can be coherently, simultaneously, and fruitfully engaged to the mutually reinforcing maximization of each.

Intersectional scholarship constitutes an intervention because it involves rearticulating academic work in a way that, while discouraged at the outset by several senior colleagues, meets both my intellectual interests and the interests of the academy. This work remains on the contextual level, however, as it is just one scholar’s creative adjustment to a potentially limiting set of circumstances. As a concept, however, intersectional scholarship provides the intellectual groundwork for structural interventions to the extent that the alternative conception becomes institutionalized—whether through its future embodiment as a concept to guide policy (to the extent that university-sanctioned centers, institutes, or departments reproduce and further develop its rationale), or by other means.

Structural Interventions

Structural interventions include policy reforms, programs, supports, and actions that help produce an alternative outcome or systematically support an alternative practice or set of practices within an institution or institutions. Structural interventions considered here are those that make community-engaged scholarship more tenable for those on the tenure track. Such structural interventions can come from campus units that value community-engaged scholarship, from scientific and academic leadership organizations, and from the federal government. At The University of Texas-Austin, the leadership of the Warfield Center for African and African American Studies has become systematic and diligent in supporting faculty whose work significantly includes research conducted in the context of concretely serving communities outside the university. Carefully reviewing tenure files and writing letters of support that attest to the intellectual merit of the work of strong community-engaged faculty have become a diligently and carefully executed annual activity that also constitutes a structural intervention.

Federal initiatives and funding programs can also create structural interventions that support community-engaged scholarship. In recent years, several federal agencies and offices, including the National Institute of Health, the National Science Foundation, the President’s Office of Science and Technology Policy, and the Government Accountability Office (an independent bipartisan evaluator of the use of public funds), have developed programs, tools, or assessments to promote or measure the societal impact of scientific research. Their work tacitly, or in some cases tangibly, values research that most directly impacts society (AAAS, 2010).

The work of the National Science Foundation (NSF), which I observed for one year as a policy fellow at the American Association for the Advancement of Science, provides several strong examples of structural interventions that support engaged scholarship. The NSF provides over $7 billion annually in funds for basic research in science. In 1997, the NSF added “Broader Impacts” to its review criteria for determining which research projects to fund ( and has since produced a statement regarding activities that facilitate broader impacts ( Michael Marder, a prominent physicist and architect of the highly successful UTeach teacher preparation program (,, cites this change as being of specific benefit for drawing science faculty into the effort to prepare future teachers and support those already in the field. Referring in an unpublished paper to the NSF review criteria, Marder (2010) noted that:

Criterion I asks, what is the intellectual merit of the proposed activity? Criterion II asks, what are the broader impacts of the proposed activity? Since 2002, all proposals have had to address both questions explicitly in the opening summary, with a charge to promote “teaching, training, and learning,” and to “broaden participation of underrepresented groups” (pp. 10-11).

Marder further noted that while the “Broader Impacts” criterion has not led every natural scientist to deeply honor faculty engagement in K-12 schools, the criterion has inspired a critical mass to more seriously consider ways in which their work can directly impact society. Moreover, the criterion has created space for scientists to be acknowledged and rewarded for science education research that will directly impact K-12 teaching and learning. In short, such an esteemed independent federal agency as the National Science Foundation decided to require that to receive funding, researchers’ projects must have an impact upon society. This decision has lent credibility to calls for community-relevant work when issued by others, and lent both credibility and justification for community-engaged scholarship by faculty members.

Consistent with the framework established by the “Broader Impacts” criterion, and in response to authorizing language by the Congress, NSF also initiated the Math and Science Partnership Program, which further supports community-engaged scholarship by way of supporting Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM) faculty work in K-12 education (see From 2002 to the present, the program has provided over $800 million for university-school partnerships that engage STEM faculty in K-12 settings to improve student outcomes. Lessons learned include ways for STEM faculty to support teacher professional development, the establishment of reward structures that facilitate faculty choices to engage K-12 science education, and the realization that STEM faculty engagement with K-12 settings can produce benefits for the STEM faculty, including greater understanding of how to teach effectively at the university level (National Science Foundation, 2010; Zhang, 2010).

In addition to examples of support for community-engaged scholarship from the federal government, national scientific disciplinary organizations and several academic leadership groups and organizations have also produced guidelines, published position papers, or otherwise organized to support community-engaged scholarship. One example comes from the Association for Public and Land-grant Universities, which represents 218 institutions and has instituted Promoting Institutional Change to Strengthen Science Teacher Preparation among 26 of its member universities (McEver, 2010). This effort is not direct community engagement, but is concerned with developing the university structures that support and reward faculty engagement in schools. Another is the Imagining America Tenure Team Initiative, which was “inspired by faculty who want to do public scholarship and live to tell the tale” (Ellison & Eatman, 2008, p. ii). This initiative brought together university presidents, deans, faculty, and leaders of academic non-profit organizations to produce an analysis with recommendations on knowledge creation and tenure policy in contemporary universities. The goal of this initiative is to impact tenure procedures, policies, and expectations such that community-engaged scholarship is fully supported (Ellison & Eatman, 2008). Even where they have a “grassroots feel” (in that groups of individuals have come together to develop and implement a strategy for change), the examples of support so far mentioned are structural interventions because the actions are those of institutional entities (an academic center, a federal funding agency, and organizations representing disciplinary fields or strata of the academy) that are directly or indirectly part of the academy writ large and largely owe their credibility to that affiliation.

Beyond the examples given, an additional argument can be made that the support of tenured faculty members, especially those on a tenure review committee, also constitutes structural support because the tenured faculty members are agents of the university. But while such support constitutes an endorsement of an approach to intellectual work, the breadth and power of that support are limited and must be put into the context of faculty governance, according to which individual faculty members represent one institutionally sanctioned voice among many, and one sanctioned voice within a structure that allows for, and even encourages, a range of voices and perspectives. In short, while systematic support from agents or bodies within the structure constitutes structural support, the weight of that support is determined by their proximity to or relationship with tenure granting centers of power (provosts, regents, trustees, etc.).

In the case of supporting community-engaged scholarship, the impact of the structural interventions is to provide intellectual space for the support and re-articulation of faculty work so that it can be recognized as valuable in the context of a traditional view that primarily measures scholarship according to the number of articles or books produced (quantified intellectual production), the selectivity or reputation of the venues or presses within which the writings are published (qualified intellectual production), and the evidence of a scholarly trajectory that predicts a likelihood for continued intellectual production after tenure. However, structural interventions fall short of structural transformation and the guarantee that community-engaged scholarship will be given as much weight as research that does not include evidence of “Broader Impacts.” Until there is structural transformation, the question as to how their scholarship will be perceived and evaluated at the time of their tenure review remains open for community-engaged junior faculty.

Structural Transformation 

Contextual and structural interventions, though limited, are of particular importance because they provide building blocks for structural transformation. Contextual interventions are creative adjustments limited to an immediate sphere of action. Structural interventions are attempts to reform aspects of a structure or system. Short of transformation, they provide cover and support for intellectual efforts that are not part of an institution’s norms.

Structural transformation, however, represents the seldom seen far side of the continuum, where interventions have been rendered unnecessary (Figure 3). Examples of structural transformation in support of community-engaged scholarship are difficult to find. One possible example, which represents the culmination of a series of structural interventions over several years, comes from the State of Georgia. In 2006, the Board of Regents of the University System of Georgia approved a policy statement on work in schools. According to the Academic Affairs handbook:

The BOR [Board of Regents] values USG [University System of Georgia] faculty engagement with K-12 schools ( BOR Policy 8.3.15 states BOR expectation for faculty engagement with the public schools in institutions that prepare teachers. The Board expects presidents, provosts, academic vice presidents, and deans of colleges of education and arts and sciences in institutions that prepare teachers to advocate for, assess, recognize, and reward practices consistent with this policy (,,

With this policy reform, a conversation about faculty involvement in K-12 education has fundamentally shifted. For any of the 35 higher education institutions in Georgia that prepare teachers, engagement with K-12 schools to develop teachers and improve student outcomes is not something that faculty members need to defend to tenure or merit review committees. Rather, it is now required that such engagement will be rewarded. But even this seismic shift could have a limited impact if it faced enough resistance from sufficiently empowered agents within the university structure. Thus, the structural interventions preceding the policy change were also critical to the eventual production of a structural transformation.

In the Georgia case, longstanding efforts to promote partnerships across the educational spectrum from pre-kindergarten through college found additional support from the National Science Foundation (Kettlewell, Kaste, & Jones, 2000). The Georgia Partnership for Reform in Science and Mathematics (PRISM), sought to engage higher education faculty in efforts to produce K-12 reforms that would enhance student learning ( and Beyond calling for faculty involvement, the project included a strategic plan to fundamentally alter the collegiate landscape so that faculty could more freely engage in the work. The work included a series of structural interventions: convening, coordinating, and enrolling support of deans, department chairs, and other campus leaders; funding a cultural anthropologist to track and study the process of change; working with campus leaders to facilitate receptiveness of departments to engagement through workshops, symposia, and incentives; and proposing language and guidelines for acceptance and implementation by governance structures (Kutal, Rich, Hessinger, & Miller, 2009). Structural transformation in Georgia, then, was the culmination of a coordinated series of structural interventions that together produced a fundamental shift that systematically rewards faculty engagement work in schools.

Conclusion: Connecting Interventions, Knowledge Production, and Tenure

This article has so far introduced three categories of action-oriented responses to work and positioning within the academy among community-engaged scholars whose scholarly production is not automatically valued within traditional university reward structures. I have discussed contextual interventions, structural interventions, and structural transformation. In discussing contextual interventions, I also introduced the concept of intersectional scholarship. Unfortunately for the community-engaged scholar, there are few available examples of structural transformation in support of community-engaged scholarship. For tenure-track faculty, that leaves the reality of having to negotiate circumstances as best one can to produce work that one values personally and meets requirements for tenure. For community-engaged scholars interested in a rich theorization of their work, a nexus may emerge where a particular contextual intervention merits further consideration and subsequent incorporation into the literature and practice of a given disciplinary field or academic structure. In such an instance, the contextual intervention has become inseparable from knowledge production and thus becomes part of the justification for their tenure case. Further, contextual interventions that articulate a faculty members’ interests with that which contributes to a tenure case can help an individual faculty member avoid the fragmentation and “professional schizophrenia” referred to by Ellison and Eatman (2008). These are additional manifestations of intersectionality in practice.

Yet, as long as the interventions are contextual (or even structural), the risk remains that among community-engaged scholars “important areas of achievement [may be] illegible at the point of promotion” (Ellison & Eatman, 2008, p. 19). As Rice noted, it is notoriously difficult to fully discern how your work will be judged—something akin to “archery in the dark” (Rice, 1996, p. 31). O’Meara further commented that “a substantial amount of research concurs that promotion and tenure are often elusive, unpredictable and fraught with ‘conflicting expectations’ and unwritten rules” (O’Meara, 2002, also citing Rice, Sorcinelli, & Austin, 2000).

Because of the noted possibility that community-engaged scholarship may not be understood, valued, or appreciated as scholarship (Kutal, Rich, Hessinger, & Miller, 2009; Ellison & Eatman, 2008; O’Meara, 2002; Rice, Sorcinelli, & Austin, 2000; Rice, 1996), it would be foolhardy for untenured faculty members to stake their academic future on others’ perceptions of community-engaged work. Rather, until their university has been transformed, community-engaged scholars should aim to meet and beat the perceived standards for tenure–even as they conduct the work that they value most. As crass at it may sound–and to apply a familiar metaphor–this means to bean count, to generate a number of peer-reviewed articles that exceeds the number of publications of the scholars who came before them and to ensure that, in addition to publishing in the journals that most closely reflect the scholar’s interests, the scholar produces a high number of articles for more widely read and traditionally heralded and cited journals.

To some of us, the tenure process appears a conservative, brutish, and imprecise measure of intellectual worth coated with a veneer of civility. Yet if we are committed to the possibility of an academy that engages work and produces knowledge to transform lives and circumstances, then, to quote a memorable movie line, “we do what we have to do in order to do what we want to do” (Washington, 2007). Community-engaged scholars would do well to come to terms with the current academic realities and then steadily work to co-create possibilities and conditions (through contextual interventions, structural interventions, and finally structural transformation) that will allow for something different, and, from the standpoint of community-engaged scholarship, something better.


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I thank Ted Gordon and Heather Pleasants. Dr. Gordon is the initial architect for the framework that I develop in this article. His choice to focus on administrative aspects of institution-building within the academy has created space for community-engaged scholarship and space for a young scholar such as myself to develop ideas that I initially encountered in dialog with him. I thank Dr. Pleasants as an intellectually rigorous partisan for community-engaged scholarship and a supporter who introduced me to JCES as an outlet for my work and thoughts.

About the Author

Kevin Michael Foster is a science and technology policy fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science at the National Science Foundation and an assistant professor of curriculum and instruction in the College of Education at The University of Texas.

Leading the Dance of Learning: Using Reflective Questions to Promote Community and Understanding in Classrooms


“Pre-lesson reflections prove a valuable tool in connecting teacher educators with their students while creating opportunities for their professional growth.” 

Marilyn Nash and Judith Oates Lewandowski

A major challenge facing teacher educators today is creating a field-based opportunity for pre-service educators in which they are able to connect with K-12 students and differentiate instruction to fit the unique needs, attitudes, and diversity of the classroom. This action-research study addresses this challenge by measuring the effectiveness of incorporating pre-lesson reflection questions as a strategy to consider pre-service undergraduate students’ needs prior to the planning of the lesson. Investigators were successful in utilizing this pre-reflective strategy within three distinct populations of pre-service undergraduate students. The investigators partnered with a group of undergraduate students early in their education program, a group of students just before their student teaching experience, and a group of seniors during their student teaching placements. The investigators and students participated in classroom discussions on information about pre-lesson reflection development, on-campus classroom exercises, and small group feedback conversations about lesson implementation, which enriched the connections between curriculum, classroom learning, and community.

This action-research study was designed to measure the effectiveness of incorporating pre-lesson reflection questions as a strategy for considering student needs prior to the planning of the lesson. The pre-lesson reflective strategy was shared with three different groups of education students. The three groups were selected based on the courses being taught by the instructor during the fall semester of that academic year. The first group was composed of 20 undergraduate students just entering the Teacher Education Program. The second set of 19 students included students enrolled one semester before undertaking their student teaching internships. The final group was composed of six students engaged in their student teaching experience.

A major challenge facing teacher educators today is creating a field-based opportunity for pre-service educators in which they are able to connect with the K-12 students and differentiate instruction to fit the unique needs, attitudes, and diversity of the classroom. Struggling students are not fearful of challenging topics and/or information; they simply need classes that strengthen what they know and build on what they value. Lesson planning thereby could be strengthened if teachers are able to connect with students at a level that enables them to build on prior knowledge and personal values.

In order to create a learning narrative in the classroom, the teacher must be able to fuse the meanings found in texts and curriculum with the meanings enveloped deep within the lives of the students. In the context of a short-term field experience, it is extremely difficult for pre-service educators to do this effectively. Tisdale (1997) maintained that holistic learning gives a complete understanding of how to interpret and create a community of learners by looking at programs, processes, and persons. By incorporating holistic principles, pre-service educators may be able to build a stronger community for learning and thereby be able to design lessons with differentiated content activities.

Other disciplines encounter similar issues in terms of facing the need to connect quickly with participants in order to create a strong sense of community. Professionals in the realm of theology face a daily task similar to that of teachers. In order to connect with their parishioners, they must know the community in which they are working. Tisdale (1997) advised pastors to consider the use of reflective questions as a means to better understand the beliefs, attitudes, and diversity of the congregation. Additionally, she encouraged pastors-in-training to become active participant-observers in their own congregation as a means of connecting with and validating the voice of the members.

Tisdale (1997) further wrote about the importance of a pastor becoming an ethnographer for his or her congregation to better interface between their places of ministry and their surrounding constituents of faith. Her understanding of local theology was described as a theology crafted for a very particular people in a particular time and place. Tisdale defined congregational settings as churches where people can have a strong sense of belonging. She constructed a model for preaching that arises out of the midst of a pastor’s congregation. There is a strong emphasis on knowing who one’s church members are, what they do, and what is important to them.

Tisdale (1997) refers to this form of deep personal knowing as holistic preaching that leads to the construction of meaning and a dance of faith. Local theology is where a sacred text and congregations come together to encounter a meaningful impact on their lives. The preacher in such a place needs to be an ethnographer who is both an insider and an outsider to the community of believers. The preacher who is subjective as well objective can move throughout the context of the congregation with a deep knowing of self and the lives involved in the faith context.

Applying these same principles to the K-12 classroom seemed like a natural parallel. If preservice teachers are taught to consider the holistic needs of their students prior to planning lessons, a stronger classroom community and respect for diversity could positively impact the overall effectiveness of the curricular goals. In essence, as stated by Cushman (2006), pre-service educators needed a mechanism to guide their exploration of the classrooms in which they were teaching; they were in need of a structure to guide their view of the students and environment in a holistic manner.

By addressing the culture of the classroom before the implementation of the lesson, teachers can be proactive in advance of preparing their lessons for use with students in their classrooms. Classroom teachers will be able to increase their sensitivity to the diversity of their students and differentiated learning and intellectual capacities if time is spent prior to designing a lesson getting to know the students in the classroom. Kathleen Cushman (2006) maintained that teachers who know their students well can make powerful connections between academic subjects and the things children worry and care about in their lives. When a teacher truly knows his or her students, both the teacher and the students will feel more like partners creating meaningful knowledge that will impact their lives together. Significant learning begins when there are significant relationships.

The use of pre-reflective lesson questions creates a kind of local learning theory crafted for a particular set of people in a particular time and place. Students yearn for those classrooms where they have a sense of belonging and connection. Everyone is born with the ability to connect with others, so creating opportunities for students is critical in their learning experience (Kidron & Fleischman (2006). Teaching that has a meaningful impact on the lives of both the instructor and the students meets everyone at the level of their communally shared lives and gives all the stakeholders access to purposeful learning. When teachers give instruction from out of the midst of the community of learners, then holistically engaged and transformative learning occurs for all involved.

In support of holistic engagement and transformative learning, instructors must be reflective practitioners. According to Moore and Ash (2002), critical reflection needs to be a central part of the beginning teacher’s early classroom experience, in order to ensure that practice produces new learning rather than merely confirming existing understandings and position(ing)s. Reflective practice not only aids the growth of meaningful learning, but it also can lead to positive teaching and instructional outcomes. To create a stronger sense of classroom community and respect for diversity, greater use of reflective practice is needed to better understand students’ lives and contextual factors. Reflexive activity for educators is productive thought about and understanding of the impact on students’ classroom behaviors of social, cultural, and emotional lives outside the school walls. Reflective practice is an inquiry approach to teaching where knowing one another is of critical importance.

Parker Palmer’s (1993) enthusiasm for compassionate knowing and Rachel Kessler’s (2002) notion of the teaching presence come together at the crossroads of reflective practice. To become fully aware of and present in the lives of the students in the classroom, educators must think about, evaluate, and make changes to improve their teaching and learning. For Ron Miller (2006), reflective educators embody receptive awareness of themselves as instructors and the child’s personality and aspirations as well as the impact the world has on their classroom learning environment.

Reflective practice promotes the development of deeply meaningful knowledge for all involved. However, there usually appears to be a gap in these reflective definitions and processes as a practice that occurs after a teaching event or a learning moment, rather than prior to the implementation of a lesson and/or classroom activity. This study is designed to fill in the gap of missing reflective practice by encouraging preservice students to systematically reflect on their teaching lesson prior to using their classroom ideas and exercises with children using a set of pre-lesson reflective questions.


This study was designed to measure the effectiveness of incorporating pre-lesson reflection questions as a strategy to consider student needs before the planning of the lesson. The pre-lesson reflective model was shared with three different groups of students. The first group consisted of 20 undergraduate students entering the Teacher Education Program. The second set of 19 students was in the final semester before their student teaching internship. The final group was composed of six students engaged in their student teaching experience. This study began with introductory in-class activities about reflective practice, followed by pre-service student implementation and student discussions about the impact of using pre-reflective lesson questions on the learning environment.

The next step in the alignment process was to gather planning tools currently being used by the pre-service educators to determine the theoretical framework for developing educationbased pre-reflective questions. The Interstate New Teacher Assessment and Support Consortium (INTASC) standards are currently the foundation for many educational preparation programs. The INTASC standards were designed by a consortium of state education agencies and national educational organizations to enhance the reform of the preparation, licensing, and ongoing professional development of teachers. Therefore, since these INTASC standards serve as a governing influence in the field of education, these standards seemed to be a strong foundation for developing a set of reflective questions that were local-education based.

The investigators aligned INTASC standards with the pre-lesson questions seen in Table 1. The investigators created questions about the knowledge base of pre-service educators, asking about background information and content skills prior to creating a lesson plan. The pre-lesson reflection encourages and assists educators in knowing the distinctive characteristics of the teacher and their students. Another question asks pre-service teachers for an applicable pre-lesson inquiry about what was learned in preparation for a lesson about the teacher, his or her students, and other colleagues.

Table 1. Pre-Lesson ReflectionsPre-service educators often struggle with lesson plan development and tend to focus upon the compartmentalized sections of the lesson plan (e.g., the opening set, materials, and procedure) rather than viewing the lesson plan as one harmonious tool for encouraging holistic learning. As a means to synthesize the lesson planning process, the pre-reflective questions were embedded within the steps of designing a lesson plan. The pre-lesson reflection questions were designed to fuse the meanings found in texts and curriculum with the meanings enveloped deep within the lives of the students. The goal of the questions was to help education students becoming more aware of whom they are and are not in partnership with. A pre-lesson inquiry paradigm encourages students to be active participant-observers. Ethnography is an anthropological method of examining a community closely and discovering what it values, enabling an instructor to become a participant observer or a reflective practitioner. This action-based research method provides the instructor an inside view of those in a classroom. Pre-reflective lesson questions create a space for taking into consideration the classroom culture of the students. These pre- lesson reflections engage the instructor in using new questions and tools to interpret the community of learners. Once the questions were completed, it became critical to introduce the students to the concept of pre-reflective questioning and the skills required to become a participant observer in the classroom setting.

Sample Selection
The pre-lesson reflective model was shared with three different groups of students based on the courses being taught by the instructor during the fall semester of that academic year. Due to time and schedule constraints, the instructor decided to utilize fall semester students, rather than delaying the process until spring semester. The first group was composed of 20 undergraduate students who had recently entered the Teacher Education Program during the first semester of their junior year of college. The second set of 19 students included individuals enrolled in their final round of coursework prior to beginning their student teaching internship. The students in the second group were typically seniors. The final group was composed of six students engaged in their student teaching experience. All students in the third group were seniors ready to complete their educational degree.

All three groups of undergraduate student participants were individuals attending education classes on a full-time basis. They ranged in age from their early 20s to approximately their mid 40s. Each group of undergraduate students was predominantly female with a small number of male participants. All of the students were primarily white with two African American students and one Hispanic student. The research sample was a small with 45 undergraduate students in total. The first group of undergraduate students contained 20 people, the second 19, and the third 6. All were from within a 50-mile radius.

Procedure and In-Process Adjustments
As the process of integrating the INTASC reflective questions was set forth with each group of students, careful daily notations and observations were conducted in a variety of ways: (1) following each on-campus class discussion; (2) after every small group in-class exercise; and (3) subsequent to the reading of each student- formulated lesson plan reflection. These notations and observations were methodically recorded in the instructor’s action-research journal to inform the professor of the need to modify the questions and acknowledge an impact (if any) upon the planning success of the pre-service educators in each of the three participant student groups mentioned above. The notations and observations gathered from these student educator groups could also possibly be used in future implementation of the reflective questions with courses in upcoming semesters.

If feedback from the student groups was positive and modifications to the pre-lesson questions were needed, then the investigators, based on student feedback, would modify the reflective inquiries as needed and make the prelesson questions a regular component of their education courses. On the other hand, if the investigators discovered that the reflective questions were not helpful, then additional considerations and modifications would be made to the reflections and further analysis would be conducted, working closely with the students. However, reactions gathered from each set of pre-service educators in the original three student groups were quite positive and unique and represented clear differences in the levels of professional development. These differences among the three student groups linked directly to their current classroom and course preparation, ranging from the beginning level to the more experienced.

The first students introduced to the pre- lesson reflective questions had, for the most part, just entered into their methodological courses. They had had minimal exposure to and were only beginners in developing an understanding of the important components in lesson preparation. When the pre-lesson reflective questions were shared with these students, the background information of Tisdale’s reflective questions for preachers and their congregations for using such a tool were presented, followed by small group discussions on why this was or was not a valuable model to use with their future classrooms. When the small groups reported summaries of their conversations with the entire class, the students discussed how they felt it would be much easier constructing lesson plans if they took time to assess who the lesson was actually being created for prior to its implementation. However, the students also raised some interesting questions about their ability to construct an in-depth analysis of a classroom, when at this point in their educational programs, they were “only” at a field experience level.

Further clarification with the first group of undergraduate students about why they were hesitant to conduct an in-depth observation of the classrooms where they were doing field experiences was needed. There was a misunderstanding and incorrect perception of what could and could not be done in a field experience among the students. The next step in sharing the pre-lesson reflective questions with these beginning education students was to clarify the dynamics and meaning of field experiences. In other words, these students saw themselves as detached from or only as observers in the process rather than as the participant-observers described in Tisdale’s (1997) book on pastoral ethnography and community connections. With this additional dialogue about the meaning of being an active observer in their classrooms, the first group of students was eager to utilize the prelesson reflective questions in preparing lessons for use in their field experience contexts. The students were informed that detailed follow-up discussions would be held on campus for feedback about using the reflective questions.

Students taking methodology courses in their senior year before their student teaching experience composed the second group introduced to the pre-reflective lesson questions. These students are several semesters beyond the first group discussed above and typically bring a deeper understanding of the role lesson planning carries in a learning environment to their undergraduate classes. Immediately upon introducing these students to the questions, the students visibly stiffened as if they had been handed some enormous weight or edict concerning their own personal philosophies of teaching.

Additional inquiring into why they had had such strong adverse reactions to the pre-lesson reflective questions clarified for the instructor that the students were currently feeling overwhelmed with the amount of course work they were already being required to generate for their university instructors. An immediate discussion of how the pre-lesson reflective questions could be blended into their everyday observation and interaction with classroom children seemed to help the pre-service educators to feel much more comfortable moving forward with using this new tool within their field experiences. These students were definitely focused more on the products required with their education courses than on the actual process of knowing your students better in order to create the best practice lesson plans.

The final introduction of the reflective process occurred with students enrolled in the third group of student teaching internships. The introduction again began with a sharing of the theoretical basis for implementing such a tool into their classrooms, followed by conversations around the actual reflection questions. The student teachers initially responded with raised eyebrows and higher stress levels due to their alarm at assuming they were being given an additional component to include in their professional portfolios for student teaching. Not only were these student teachers concerned about doing additional tasks, but they also questioned how they would be able to find time in their already busy schedules to justify spending more of their day jotting down information about the children with whom they were working.

After lengthy discussions and explanations about how to use the reflective questions, the student teachers became excited about having a tool that empowered them to design better lesson plans that focused on classroom children becoming fully engaged in the learning process. During the in-class discussion, the student teachers in the third group openly asked about the reflective questions and received instructor clarification about inquiry details, and then were able to understand the purpose and goal of using the pre-lesson reflections. Following the in-class discussion, the student teachers were gathered into small groups to begin creating a lesson plan for possible use in their student teaching classrooms.

During the small group exercises, the student teachers began making connections between pre- lesson reflections and knowing more about themselves, the students, and the learning environment. They shared their insights with the instructor and the rest of the class. Given their in-class responses to the small group activity, the student teachers of group three understood that, by using the pre-lesson reflective questions, they would be able to improve their ability to make appropriate assessment and remediation decisions.

All three groups of undergraduate students were given approximately one month to apply the pre-lesson reflective questions into their various learning environments. At the end of one month of using this form of lesson preparation, all three student groups provided the investigators with their feedback about the pre-lesson questions during an in-class discussion. The investigators recorded all student comments and feedback from this first month of using the lesson inquiries

The students of group one and two were asked to work in small groups of two or three in order to respond to the pre-lesson reflection questions. Each set of students in both of these groups were able to encourage one another, assist in clarifying responses and look more closely at the educational placements for their field experiences. Their collected written responses to the pre-lesson questions were gathered at the end of the class session. This method was selected in order to provide guidance to the undergraduate students in each group, their peers, and the instructor.

The third group of students, engaged in their student teaching experience, was approached in a slightly different manner since there was less direct interaction with each of them. For this last set of students, an explanatory letter about the purpose and use of the pre-lesson questions was sent to each participant. In the correspondence, the student teachers were notified that the questions were to be embedded within their planning process and that written copies were to be turned in to their university supervisor.

The responses of all three groups were collected and analyzed over a period of three months.

Analysis and Findings
The analysis of the student feedback took place through a series of weekly discussions between the investigators and the students which extended beyond the 16-week course semester. After initial readings of the student feedback and reflections, the student data were analyzed through coding where two independent researchers looked for common themes throughout the discussions and reflective meetings. The two researchers examined the data as a means for validating the student feedback. The analytical tool of coding themes examined student responses, investigator reflections, and discussions with students held on campus about comparing and examining their lessons prepared prior to and then following the use of the reflective questions. As the analysis of the lessons and pre-reflective questions occurred, one reoccurring theme was an observable increase of pre-service educators’ instructional abilities as well as an increase in the expectations for performance and achievement of the children. The observable increase was measured through the theme of improved course grades assigned to the students at the completion of their assigned courses as mentioned previously.

The verbal responses and feedback from all three student groups in the extended campus discussions also showed a heightened understanding of appropriate tools and methods to use in their field placements. The majority of the undergraduate students connected with their field experience students and the different instruction required to fit the unique needs, attitudes, and diversity of the classrooms. The students in the three undergraduate groups were able to successfully integrate reflection, tools, methodology and meeting student needs through the use of the pre-lesson reflective questions. The investigators observed the student improvements in their ability to reflect and prepare lessons which increased in detail and planning from the lesson plans submitted at the beginning of the semester compared to the lesson plans completed at the end of the course.

All three of the student groups introduced to the pre-lesson reflective questions had in praxis shed their initial response and concentration on being product oriented to now having a focus on the process of using best practices in the classroom. This shift from a product oriented pre-service teacher to a more process driven educator occurred because the reflective tool had raised each of these students’ awareness and understanding of what it means to be a participant-observer in a classroom whether it is a university learning environment or a school room setting.

In each of the three student groups, students verbalized how the reflective tool assisted them in keeping the whole story or the goal of field and student teaching experiences in mind. The students stated they felt more competent in creating lessons and other materials because they had been given a tool which enabled them to move beyond their unending daily list of tasks and assisted them in focusing on being present and available to the children they were actually teaching.

The first group of students who initially saw the questions as one more task to be completed eventually indicated that they felt much more confident about moving beyond simply being passive observers in their classrooms. The pre- lesson reflective questions empowered these preservice students to become participant-observers who were then significantly more aware of the values, actions, and backgrounds of the children they were interacting with in their lessons. For example, in response to INTASC #2, which asks:

How well do I know the level of the students? What are the distinctive qualities of these students? What are the unique abilities and challenges in this class?
(#2 Child growth and development) What development levels are present with these students? How are you going to address different learning styles?

Feedback from the first group of undergraduate students consisted of comments such as:

“After I used these pre-reflective questions, I feel I also know my students like you know us. I can see a much deeper personal connection with the children. It is so much easier to prepare a lesson plan when you know what each of the student needs to be successful.”

The second and third groups of undergraduate students commented that when using the reflective tool, they found they were able to design better materials management plans for their lessons because they felt they knew their classrooms more thoroughly. These groups of students commented that they were better equipped to anticipate problems with children and to field content/subject concerns during the lesson, which also led to fewer discipline situations. Student responses to INTASC #4 questions were numerous. It asks:

Are the teaching strategies I plan to use going to be effective? Which lesson activities, events, and/or questions do you believe will be effective in your lesson?
And why? (#4 Instruction) And why? What, if any, portions of your lesson do you anticipate may be challenging to implement? Why?

A student from the second group commented on their response sheets collected at the end of their small group work:

“The thought of taking inventory of a class before you teach makes a lot of sense because when you know your students, you know how to keep each of them involved, focused and interested in what is going on in the classroom.”

One of the student teachers in group three stated in their feedback about using the pre- lesson questions:

“I can make students feel welcome to ask questions any time during the class lesson because they know I am much more relaxed since I’ve taken time to think about what I’m doing, what they’re doing and what being partners is all about in a classroom. I made sure everyone understood what was being discussed and presented so I didn’t have as many students as I typically do who are off task, restless and causing problems during a lesson”.

With an increase in student awareness of their field and student teaching classrooms, there also seemed to be an improvement in the class assignments and lesson plans required for the university courses. Specific improvements in the lesson plans were made follow the series of oncampus feedback discussions between the investigators and the pre-service students. From the student comments and shared educational experiences, lesson improvements included a number of items such as well thought out materials management plans, clarification in contextual factors, more attention to components of diversity and developmental levels, and greater connections between lesson objectives, standards, and assessment tools. It also seemed that the students who used the reflective questions also became better at reflecting on their work in the schools because they understood the particulars for which they were observing and responding to in their portfolio materials. These undergraduate students had a higher level of understanding for using educational tools in the classroom. Again, this shift from a product oriented undergraduate student to a more process driven educator occurred because the reflective tool had raised each of these students’ awareness and understanding of what it means to be a participant-observer in a classroom whether it is a university learning environment or a school room setting.

The use of the pre-lesson reflective questions both strengthened and challenged the investigators to know education students as well. As with all three of the student groups, the instructor had increased her observational skills and abilities to know the students in the classroom. For example, in each step of initially creating this reflective tool, the investigators took time to answer each of the questions for their own methodology classes. After thoroughly reflecting on each of the classes and coming to know the students better, the investigators also experienced a newly discovered confidence in their teaching strategies just as each of the three groups had in their field and student teaching experiences. These new insights provided a framework for how to better design educational courses and exercises that would have meaning and purpose for all involved.

Personal Reflection from the University Instructor
Using the questions myself and participating in implementing this tool with three of my classes helped me as well to see what areas of improvement I had as an instructor. For example, I very quickly realized that I needed to focus on what language I used and/or how I articulated various concepts and instruments to my students so that the focus remained on utilizing and implementing the information into their field and student teaching contexts rather than creating an undue shift onto the course artifacts themselves. I am much more sensitive now to keeping my classroom focused on the learning process and creating high quality course materials.

And as I had suspected in the first place, when I took the time to know my students better, I saw relational improvements among and with my students as well. Responding to the pre-lesson questions encourages higher education students to know themselves, their teaching and their own students’ learning experience. Osterman (1990) believes reflective practice is critical in meaning making and understanding of the learning experience. For example, the students’ sensitivity to the importance of respecting each other and their field or student teaching contexts increased because once again everyone had much higher levels of familiarity and background knowledge about themselves, the classrooms, and the schools.

The communal dynamics increased both in and out of my classes. I observed that the undergraduate students’ sense of validation and affirmation increased since they became a stronger community of inquirers. I knew the distinctives of my students which empowered me to tap into their knowledge base, their learning styles and their developmental skills. Partnering with the students’ abilities created a collaborative learning environment for all the stake holders in the classroom. This research allowed me to have an insider’s view of those in a classroom. Teachers who know their students well, make connections between academic content and student interests (Cushman, 2006). When a teacher truly knows his or her students, both the teacher and the students will feel more like partners creating meaningful knowledge that will impact their lives together.

I found this perspective on relational dynamics to be true for myself, my undergraduate students, and, hopefully, for my future education students as well when time was taken to know one another more deeply. The pre-lesson reflective questions gave all of us an avenue to be engaged in and to engage each other in the process of experiencing affirmative communal dynamics. Being an educational ethnographer confirmed my understanding of holistic learning that looks at programs, processes and persons for a complete understanding of how to interpret and create a community of learners through reflection.

By incorporating Tisdale’s (1997) principles of sermon preparation where a minister knows his or her congregational members and prepares for preaching based on reflection prior to sermon delivery, these pre-service educators were able to build a stronger community for learning and thereby able to design lessons to meet the unique needs of each group of learners. Tisdale (1997) advises pastors to consider the use of reflective questions as a means to better understand the beliefs, attitudes, and diversity of the congregation. Additionally, she encourages the pastors-in-training to become active participantobservers in their own congregation as a means to connect with and validate the “voice” of the members.

From the small group discussions between the investigators and the three student groups, lesson planning thereby can be strengthened if teachers are able to connect with students at a level that enables them to build on prior knowledge and personal values. The use of pre- lesson reflection questions with education students shows that these students simply need university courses and instructors will to support their learning that strengthen what they know and build on what they value. In order to create a learning community in the classroom, these students were able to fuse the meanings found in textbooks and the curriculum with the meanings enveloped deep within the lives of the children in their field experiences.

These students discovered in their teaching experiences that connections between subjects, students and themselves were a powerful platform for learning. When an undergraduate student truly knows their classroom students, both the instructor and the students create a partnership of meaningful knowledge. The use of pre- reflective lesson questions creates contextual learning crafted for a particular set of learners in a particular time and place. Students of all ages yearn for those learning environments where they have a sense of belonging and connection.

Everyone desires to connect with others in some way so creating positive educational opportunities for pre-service students and their field experiences is critical in their learning experience. From this action-research study designed to measure the effectiveness of incorporating pre-lesson reflection questions as a strategy to consider student needs prior to the planning of the lesson, the investigators and the students found that teaching can make a meaningful impact on the lives of all involved. Using pre-reflective questions with pre-service students based on Tisdale’s understanding of sermon preparation is an approach that meets everyone at the level of their communally shared lives and gives all the stakeholders access to purposeful learning.

There are several limiting aspects to the student groups. First, all of the undergraduate students in this action-research study were succeeding in their current educational courses. In other words, these were students who were not in danger of failing any of their current course work. And secondly, every student was very familiar with the use of post-reflective practices due to the widespread expectations that all course work and/or lesson plans involved this course component.


In summary, the pre-lesson reflective question process may have been a success in implementation in part because the instructor utilized the questions in the best situation possible with students who were excelling in their education program and who had high familiarity with reflection. However, building on these strengths, both the instructor and the students realized reflection develops a paradigm for cycling through the experiences of the educator, the student and the learning process. Dewey (1933) first pointed out and promoted the use of reflection because he believed that educators who are speculative and contemplative will be more open-minded, wholehearted, and responsible toward all stake-holders in the learning process. The reflective praxis becomes the connective link for every educational experience which in turn creates multiple opportunities for professional growth. Lasley (1990) explains an effective knowledge base for educators as a model that includes reflection with a deep knowing of the learning community rather than repetitive focus on techniques alone. Effective teaching and best practices involve communal dynamics and communicative reflections.

References Cushman, K. (2006). Help us care enough to learn. Educational Leadership, 63(5), 34-37. Dewey, J. (1933). How we think: A restatement of the relations of reflective thinking to the educative person. Boston, MA: D.C. Heath. Kessler, R. (2002). The soul of education: Helping students find connection, compassion, and character at school. Alexandria, VA: ASCD. Kidron, Y., & Fleischman, S. (2006). Promoting adolescents’ prosocial behavior. Educational Leadership, 63(7), 90-91. Lasley, T. (1990). Editorial. Journal of Teacher Education, 40(2), i. Miller, R. (2006). Reflecting on spirituality in education. Encounter: Education for Meaning and Social Justice, 19(2), 6-9. Moore, A., & Ash. A. (2002, September). Reflective practice in beginning teachers: Helps, hindrances, and the role of the critical other. Paper presented at the Annual Conference of the British Educational Research Association, University of Exeter, England. Osterman, K.F., (1990). Reflective practice: A new agenda for education. Education and Urban Society, 2, 133-152. Parker, P. (1993). To know as we are known: Education as a spiritual journey. Boston, MA: Harper. Payne, R. (2002). Understanding learning: The how, the why, the what. Highlands, TX: Aha! Process Inc. Tisdale, L. (1997). Preaching as local theology and folk art. Minneapolis, MN: Augsburg Fortress.

About the Authors Marilyn Nash is a lecturer in elementary education at Indiana University South Bend (IUSB). She holds a doctorate in theology and education from McCormick Theological Seminary in Chicago. Judith Oates Lewandowski is an assistant professor in secondary education, also at IUSB. She holds the Ph.D. in educational technology from Purdue University.

Teaching and Learning in Community: Staff-Student Learning Partnerships As Part of a College Education

“On-campus partnership between students and college employees proves to be a valuable educational experience with both groups undergoing change.” 

Alice Lesnick 

This paper offers descriptive analyses of two staff-student educational partnership programs of the Teaching and Learning Initiative (TLI) at Bryn Mawr College. The focal programs partner college employees with undergraduate students in unique, reciprocal learning partnerships and student-mentored introductory staff computing courses. While community engagement traditionally focuses attention beyond the campus and identifies off-campus community members as beneficiaries of college students’ efforts, these programs focus on students’ relationships with people whose labor sustains the campus in egalitarian, collaborative, educational experiences. In focusing this argument on the educational benefits of such experiences to students, I explore the connections to liberal education. I also argue that intra-campus community engagement enhances students’ understandings and capacities to challenge limiting hierarchies and divisions. I further argue that this kind of engagement enables students to learn within and across diversity, while developing as people and leaders of campus-based civic initiatives.

“The conversations I have with Maria are often on quite scholarly subjects, which is interesting because these conversations are in direct opposition to a very unfortunate, but very common, stereotype about people who hold service jobs. College students—at every college I’ve ever visited—often hold very elitist opinions about workers in service positions and frequently use rather pejorative terms when talking about them.… The common idea that the job you hold is directly related to your level of intelligence or your personal worth is ludicrous. I wonder, however, how many people even at Bryn Mawr College believe this ridiculous stereotype, and how staff-student learning partnerships would be able to break that idea down. While elitism isn’t confined to college campuses, they are prime places to test out ways to eliminate it and to produce people who will fight it. While this might be a little much to ask of a simple staff-student learning partnership, I don’t think I’m exaggerating the impact of these partnerships by suggesting that they might have that effect.” 

—Student, spring 2006, writing about her educational partnership with a member of the housekeeping staff at Bryn Mawr College

Introduction: Staff and Students as Teachers and Learners
Studying at college without engaging beyond functional roles with the people who work there distorts students’ understandings of where they are, what they are doing, and the social and political relationships that underlie their activities. It also obscures what they can achieve in relation to, rather than in ignorance of, the people whose work literally makes their studies possible. As a response to this common problem, campus-based civic engagement is an important part of liberal studies.

At Bryn Mawr College, a small liberal arts college in the northeastern United States, undergraduate students and college staff members collaborate as teachers and learners through their participation in the Teaching and Learning Initiative (TLI). The students claim a variety of majors, backgrounds, and ages (though most are of traditional college age). The staff comes from a variety of departments including Housekeeping, Dining Services, Public Safety and Transportation, and Facilities. The two faculty coordinators (including the author) are professors of education who believe that teaching and learning occur in most human interactions and occupations (Lesnick, Cohen, & Cook- Sather 2007). Collaborating with these faculty and staff are many campus colleagues, including administrative leaders, variously positioned staff, and students who participate in and help lead the project.

This paper explores how two of TLI’s staff- student educational programs support students’ engagement with what Schneider (2004) calls the “liberal arts of practice”: (p. 4) inquiry and intellectual judgment, social responsibility and civic engagement, and integrative and culminating learning. The goal of this paper is to contribute to the conversation about how a college may, and why it should, model educational structures and practices that connect all campus community members to the college’s educational mission and enable diverse people to participate and reflect as subjects in the educational process. I will argue that such modeling is best understood as part of undergraduate education, rather than as a complement to or extension of it.

Student participants in the ELP and computing programs report significant benefits of their participation to their education. For the purposes of this discussion, I highlight several overlapping areas of student development, each of which shares in the liberal arts of practice:

  • New Understandings and Experiences of Learning
  • Social and Emotional Growth
  • Increased Awareness of Social Positioning

In the discussion that follows, each area is discussed, together with a synthesis of their significance to the liberal arts of practice.

While a focus on staff members’ experiences is beyond the scope of this paper, I do not mean to suggest that students are dominant in the exchange of teaching and learning. From the outset of the staff-student branch of the TLI (discussed in Cohen, Lesnick, & Himeles, 2007), stakeholders have rejected the frame of “community service” or “service-learning” that would position the staff as beneficiaries of service on the part of students and the college. Instead, we have chosen to describe our efforts as “community building.” The mutual respect of a learning partnership, as well as the support afforded staff (through two hours paid release time per week for the semester) and students (through an hourly wage or field work credit), expresses the founding principle that each partner’s contribution is equal and worthy of recognition, and that no matter how they are positioned by the institutional division of labor, each is both a giver and a receiver.

While staff members at all institutional levels, service/craft, clerical/technical, and administrative/professional, are active in the TLI, this paper focuses on educational partnerships and mentoring relationships between students and service/craft staff. Given the position of service/ craft employment within campus hierarchies, staff in these occupations are especially subject to the elitist attitudes like those discussed by a student in the opening of this article. Further, the positions of the staff render it more likely for the knowledge and skills that enable their work, and that go beyond it, to remain invisible.

Theoretical Context
Until recently, colleges and universities themselves have not been considered sites of civic engagement (New England Resource Center for Higher Education, 2003), as service-learning and community-based research have been understood mainly to apply to communities beyond the campus. This is changing. In the words of Anderson (2003), co-founder of Learning for Life (L4L), a student-staff educational partnership program at Swarthmore College that pioneered this approach, “By conceiving of service as that which only serves those outside the immediate college community, we risk failing to recognize the needs of those who work among us” (p. 47). Importantly, we also risk failing to recognize the strengths and contributions—within and beyond institutional role and paid job function—of college employees and the needs and desires of staff, students, and faculty to relate to one another in ways that affirm our shared humanity and engage productively with the hierarchies and divisions around race, class, age, and formal education on and off campus.

Anderson (2003) speaks to this broader set of needs and desires in concluding that, through educational partnerships, “A mutuality of learning and teaching has brought students and staff close to what it means to be ‘liberally’ educated and educating…. This is perhaps the noblest and most lofty of liberal arts college goals” (p. 53). At the time of its enactment, Anderson’s and her colleagues’ participatory assessment of L4L focused on the experiences of staff members [“At this time we are less interested in research findings about students than about staff (p. 53)”], because they saw students as already beneficiaries of privilege and oriented toward progressive change and service-learning. In the context of this prior work, this paper focuses on the educational impact on students, as reported by students, of teaching and learning with staff.

While colleges often speak of being sources of new knowledge and thinking, education at all levels too often amounts to teaching students to divide the world (Willinsky, 1998) by ranking different traditions, forms of work, and people. These lessons are not always the product of instruction; they result from the social organization of work. They undermine the “sensitivity and alertness” (Nussbaum 2003, p. 8) to the experience of others, without which people cannot be well educated as global citizens.

In response to this challenge, educators are rethinking the unproductive opposition of scholarship and practice. Schneider, president of the American Association of Colleges and Universities, identifies three formative themes that integrate study and action through the “liberal arts of practice” (p. 3): inquiry and intellectual judgment; social responsibility and civic engagement; and integrative learning. While these pursuits in various guises are not new to liberal education, in today’s educational climate they are newly visible, and valuable, as evidenced by growing media attention such as the “College Guide” published by Washington Monthly (2006), which ranks institutions by “how much a school is benefiting the country” (p. 1). The editors define such benefit in terms of three indicators:

  • How well it performs as an engine of social mobility
  • How well it does in fostering scientific and humanistic research
  • How well it promotes an ethic of service to country.

Notably, Bryn Mawr College was ranked first in this list of liberal arts college when TLI was launched in 2006. Schneider’s first theme, “inquiry and intellectual judgment,” focuses on “the thoughtful and creative use of human reason; …From intensive first-year seminars on liberal arts topics to writing in the disciplines programs to undergraduate research to senior capstone projects and courses, colleges and universities are pioneering new educational practices clearly intended to teach all students how to make sense of complexity, how to find and use evidence, and how to apply their knowledge to new and unscripted questions” (p. 3).

The staff/student partnerships of the TLI carry the educational goals of the liberal arts of practice beyond the traditionally conceived classroom to include new structures and people previously excluded and invisible. Critical thinking, imagination, and judgment are engaged as students collaborate with staff to create respectful, reciprocal relationships and reenvision the college in organizational terms.

Schneider’s second theme, “social responsibility and civic engagement,” focuses on collaborative problem-solving and problemfinding. “Faculty at every kind of college and university are providing students with real-world experience and rich opportunities to address social problems in cooperation with others. Collaborative, intercultural, and community- based learning are the new civic frontiers for our twenty-first century world of diversity, contestation, and inescapable interdependence” (p. 4).

The TLI gives staff and student participants new access to one another’s experiences and perspectives. In Anderson’s terms, it seeks to be both “learner centered” and “community centered” (2003, p. 57). By fostering one-to-one relationships and a range of collaborative forums for planning, consultation, decision-making, and assessment, the TLI provides a framework for community building in which people’s social positionings may be better understood and become less narrow and isolating.

Schneider’s third formative theme is “integrative and culminating learning,” the deliberate fostering of connection rather than dichotomization between disciplines, theories, and practices and personal, scholarly, and professional pursuits. The TLI attempts to make integrative learning a resource for all campus community members by lowering traditional disciplinary and status barriers to owning, seeking, and sharing knowledge, thus forging new connections and ideas.

Context of the Study: Introducing the Teaching and Learning Initiative
The TLI was designed by a diverse, voluntary campus team to create new structures and spaces within which all members of the campus community collaborate as teachers and learners (Cohen, Lesnick, & Himeles, 2007). Financial support for the initiative reflects its boundary-crossing and collaborative commitments. Different parts of it are supported variously by The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation and Bryn Mawr College’s chief administrative officer, provost, chief information officer and Office of Intercultural Affairs. The TLI has three main branches: student-faculty work, staff-staff work, and staff-student work. Each branch has several distinctive projects stemming from it. Through the TLI, students serve as consultants to faculty on matters of pedagogy in which students, by virtue of their position, have deep experience and important insight (Cook-Sather, 2008; 2009). Particular programs within the faculty-student branch of the TLI address new faculty, experienced faculty working to meet the ongoing challenge of gathering student feedback on courses, and faculty concerned particularly with culturally relevant pedagogy. The TLI also fosters opportunities for staff members to teach and learn from one another by creating communities of learning in various offices and departments. Finally, the TLI connects students with staff members in teaching and learning partnerships, called Empowering Learners Partnerships, in student-mentored introductory computing courses for staff, and in adult literacy and continuing education programs. During the period reported on here, I served as Faculty Coordinator of these programs, together with two student co-coordinators/ research assistants.

A few snapshots of the Empowering Learners Partnership (ELP):
In a campus dining hall after the Sunday lunch rush, a student and a staff member in Dining Services meet in the office adjacent to the kitchen to conduct Web research about Islam. He is teaching her about his beliefs and practice as a Sunni Muslim; she is teaching him about computer security and keyboarding. Next time they meet will be to attend a campus lecture about Islam. 

A housekeeper teaches a student a range of arts and crafts techniques that she herself uses in a craft business she maintains. The student teaches the housekeeper how to download and email digital photos and introduces her to the social networking site Facebook, which she now uses to keep in touch with friends, students, and alumni she knows through her work in the dormitories. 

A rowing coach teaches a student the basics of pottery, which the coach has pursued as a hobby but never taught. The student teaches the staff member how to create a Web page using MySpace and together they chronicle their learning partnership online. 

As these examples illustrate, the ELP pairs a student and a staff member as teaching and learning partners to access one another’s particular experiences and interests. The staff-student pairs work in unique 10-14 week partnerships with financial support from the College (staff participants get two hours paid release time per week; students are paid hourly, as well, or are afforded field work credit for selected Education courses) and program support from TLI leaders. A faculty and a student co-coordinator help partners identify a focal subject to teach and a focal learning area that relate to their interests and goals. The partners meet two hours weekly, one hour for each subject, and track their activities and questions through weekly reflection logs as well as midcourse and final assessments with Program staff. Student participants meet for an additional hour of reflection each week; staff, students, and faculty collaborate in the program advisory committee. The 49 unique partnerships that have taken place to date have focused on such exchanges as: Greek cooking/research skills; woodcarving/email literacy; fresh fish preparation/Biblical diction and syntax; baking/ house painting; PowerPoint/Tae Kwon Do; and Bulgarian language introduction/ESL.

Computing 1, 2, and 3 were designed to help College staff gain access to computer basics and the College’s electronic communication system and to recognize their right to use the educational and electronic resources of the campus. Again, a few snapshots:

In the library’s computer training room, three students are mentoring three staff members as they learn to use email and gain access to the College’s computer communications system. Two of the staff are public safety officers, each with over 20 years of service to the College. The third is a young man who works in Dining Services. For the past three years he has worked side by side with his student mentor, a student employee in Dining Services. He has joined the computer training class, having learned of it at a celebration for prior participants; he now plans to teach his son what he has learned and is beginning to use the Internet to pursue his interest in music.

In the college’s alumni house and restaurant, a student is helping the staff member who works as the hostess practice checking her email and sending messages. The student has stopped by at the end of the work day, at around 6 p.m., in response to the staff member’s phone call asking for assistance. Both the staff member and student rejoice in their new friendship and in the staff member’s status as an insider in the world of electronic communication.

At the celebration of this cohort’s completion of the program, one of the students and one of the public safety officers perform a song they have co-written and digitally recorded. Two housekeepers from the more advanced computer course give PowerPoint presentations of their learning in the second level computer course. One housekeeper shares her new blog.

Computing 1 is a course co-designed by administrators, faculty, staff, and students with the goal of ensuring that all members of the College community can develop essential digital literacy. Designed with institutional and personal needs and opportunities in mind, the course meets once per week during the academic year; students and staff meet for an additional hour per week for one-on-one mentoring in which the staff members practice and extend their skills.

Computing 2 was created in the spring semester of 2007 in response to requests from staff to continue their computer education. This class meets twice a week to teach the basics of Microsoft Word. Staff learn about software, word processing, how to write a letter, a memo and a brochure in Word, saving files, inserting pictures into text documents, how to change fonts, and other Microsoft Office skills. Computing 3 is an independent study program through which individuals or pairs of staff work with a mentor and a technology specialist on a specially designed project. To date, two members of the housekeeping department have studied Web design and Contribute in order to begin creating a housekeeping department Web page. A staff member in Dining Services has studied Web navigation in order to plan for a Web page for his woodworking business.

In addition to the ELP and computing courses, two further TLI programs bring students and staff together in educational partnerships. Each program has arisen through the collaboration of administrative and faculty leaders, staff participants, and students. The programs include:

  • Reading, Writing, and Communication—a partnership program through which staff interested in developing literacy skills work with other staff, students, or faculty mentors using the twice-weekly model.
  • Continuing Education—a partnership program designed to provide coaching and informational support to staff seeking to complete a first degree: GED, Associate’s, or B.A.

The computing and ELP programs began at the same time, and the planning team chose to adopt two different paradigms for staff education: one more traditional in its training process and one open-ended. We have hoped, and found, that the existence of both models proves generative.

This paper is a descriptive analysis of students’ reflections on the impact of the two original programs, the Empowering Learners Partnership and computing. Since their inception in January 2006, 91 staff members (out of a staff of 500) from dining services, public safety and transportation, housekeeping, athletics, facilities, and the president’s house, and 82 students have participated in a total of 99 partnerships through these two programs.

With IRB approval and in the role of faculty coordinator of staff-student partnerships, I began a program assessment in January 2006. The goal of this assessment, which I undertook as a form of action research, grew out of goals resonant with Carr’s and Kemmis’s general definition:

“Action research is simply a form of self- reflective enquiry undertaken by participants in social situations in order to improve the rationality and justice of their own practices, their understanding of these practices, and the situations in which the practices are carried out” (Carr & Kemmis, 1986, p. 162).

I sought to explore the significance of program participation to the students in it, and to contribute, via a descriptive analysis, language that might help others within the community and beyond it interpret and assess the import of the program in the context of a college education.


Data Collection
The data for this assessment came from reflective processes built into the program. These reflective processes included weekly reflective logs completed by student participants, required as part of program participation, and non-graded field notes students completed as part of field work when their program participation counted toward an Education course I teach. They also included notes I took while facilitating weekly, hour-long reflective discussions among student participants. These discussions, part of program participation for students, took place outside of any formal course structure. Additionally, the course itself included discussion of students’ experiences in the program and the preparation by students of more formal written analyses of their experiences in the program. These discussions and formal written analyses were part of the data set.

Most quoted material in this descriptive analysis comes from individual students’ reflective logs, though a small amount comes from in-class and reflective discussion and, in three cases, a formal course paper. Specifically, the data set for this study encompasses the following kinds of documentation: 47 participant reflective logs, written by 14 students who participated in ELP and computing partnerships in 2006 as a paid campus position. These logs consist of 1-2 paragraph, weekly reflections on students’ activities, successes, challenges, and questions through the partnership and transcribed audiotapes of fall 2006 class sessions of an undergraduate education course, Education 225: Empowering Learners: Theory and Practice of Extra-Classroom Teaching. The audiotaped class sessions represent sessions that took place after the IRB approved the study and that focused on students’ presentations and discussions of their work with the Empowering Learners program. In this course, five students, out of the 14 whose logs were included in the data set described above, were active in the program as a course field placement.

Also included were:

  • 11 sets of field notes I took during fall, 2006 during weekly reflective meetings among student program participants (those doing the work as campus employment or as a course field placement).
  • Seven course papers written by 5 students involved in partnerships as course field work during 2006. These papers were in fulfillment of assignments for which students were required or allowed to analyze field experiences. The 5 students whose work was included in the data set were those whose field work was the TLI.

In addition to the material above, I had access to the following supplementary data sources that I read and considered repeatedly, and discussed with student co-coordinators/research assistants, during the process of formulating the focal areas for this paper. I used them as reference points for triangulating my evolving interpretations during 2007, a year-long period of data analysis and writing, and during 2008 and 2009, through revising the arguments and accounts presented in this paper:

  • Four sets of minutes and transcripts from once-per-semester meetings, two held in 2006 and two held in 2007,of the program’s advisory board( a cross-campus group of 16 stakeholders including representatives from staff, student, and faculty)
  • 13 observations I conducted of individual partnership meetings, during which staff and students taught and learned their focal topics.

Data Analysis
The analyses reported here derive from constant comparison/grounded theory methods (Creswell, 2006; Glaser & Strauss, 1967; Strauss, 1987) and member checking in the form of critical feedback on successive drafts from five student participants and three staff and faculty stakeholders to arrive at focal themes and framing literature. The process of data analysis occurred over the course of a year. The author and the two student program co-coordinators/ research assistants met weekly that year to discuss and categorize the data listed above. The process of preparing interim program reports, and planning for and experiencing advisory board meetings and biannual program celebrations, also served as opportunities to name themes relevant to student learning. Such is the process of action research, which is undertaken in the context of ongoing participation in the study context. Ultimately, this process, a blend of analytic and experiential engagement not possible to replicate literally, led to the themes discussed here.

Some categories that the group generated, such as “risks and barriers to program participation,” “conceptions of space (public, private, open, hidden),” and “access to campus resources,” did not prove important to the focus on student learning, while others, such as “re-framing knowledge,” “new knowledge and skills,” “communication,” “humility,” “friendship,” “patience,” “giving/gifts,” “reseeing self and others” were resonant with the evolving focus on student learning. Categories such as “learning about teaching” and “inquiring into adult learning,” while generative for a consideration framed by teacher preparation, did not ultimately connect with the framework of the “liberal arts of practice” which a later review of literature suggested would be a useful analytic frame for this paper. Schneider’s discussion of judgment, engagement, and integration as central to this frame suggested the value of analytic categories able to distinguish and clarify possible connections between cognitive, relational, and intra-personal arenas of learning. Given this frame, I settled on the three categories used here—one focused on “new understandings and experiences of learning” (extensions of and reflections on education), one focused on “social and emotional growth” (the affective dimension of learning), and one focused on “increased awareness of social positioning” (the political context of learning)—to maintain a focused yet inclusive examination of students’ perspectives on the impact of program participation on their learning.


Impact of TLI Participation on Students’ Learning
In this section I discuss three inter-connected forms of students’ learning through the programs: new understandings and experiences of learning; social and emotional growth; and increased awareness of social positioning. The discussion of these results is situated in terms of the goals of liberal education.

New Understandings and Experiences of Learning
Educational collaboration with staff brings students new experiences and understandings— and uses—of learning, the chief goal of undergraduate study. An illustrative case in point concerns the student who learned about Islam from a staff member who practiced it was also taking college courses in Religion. The student’s reflective logs during this partnership show how her academic study of Islam was informed by the perspective of practice and a practitioner. As she wrote, “I was able to grasp a better understanding of some of the daily things that must be taken in consideration if one is living his life as a Muslim.” She also gained familiarity with source material oriented to practitioners: “I learned the five pillars of Islam, the six articles of faith, and he also directed me to an amazing website (islamicfinder. com) that has a lot of information about Islam. It has prayer times, the direction you should be facing when you pray, books, etc.”

In another reflective log, the student commented on the intellectual fruitfulness of a dialogue with her partner about the challenge of following traditions in contemporary times:

We discussed one of my major concerns about Islam and organized religion in general: Is it necessary to follow certain religious traditions especially when they seem so disconnected from this current time and this current place? Although I believe that there are many religious traditions that we cannot relate to because we are in a different society, my partner mentioned that he still believes these laws still should be followed.

In another log, the student discussed how by learning more about her partner’s life, she was able to understand better what it means to claim a Muslim identity:

This week I learned that as teacher, a lot of times your daily agenda may not go as exactly as planned. It is important to have the space for there to be additions to your schedule, and today I learned that those additions can be great. I was able to speak with my partner with some issues that he is currently facing in his life.

This student’s discourse for her learning is rich and complex. As a teacher, she thinks through the need for flexibility and responsiveness in an education partnership, alert to the relevance of personal knowledge to the broader project of studying Islam. She integrates her roles as teacher and learner and demonstrates the value of communication and trust. Her inquiry into Islam is enriched by her partner’s experience and framing.

In addition to enriching their knowledge of areas already under study, TLI students working with staff develop skills in areas that they might not otherwise explore (such as cooking, woodcarving, crafts, ceramics, aspects of physical education). Pursuing inquiry in such unfamiliar domains allows students to better understand what is entailed in learning. As a student who participated in a group ELP between three students and three staff from the Facilities Department commented in her weekly log, “Really awesome. We learned to re-wire a lamp and talked about what we could teach them. Next week I’ll prepare to speak on China.” Another student, learning from a staff member how to prepare and cook fresh fish, wrote, “I had trouble filleting a whole fish—and my end products were not fit to eat!!” Claiming new realms and re-claiming knowledge of familiar ones generates engagement, excitement, and both new sense of expertise or something to share, in some cases, and humility in others.

Creating educative relationships with staff helps student experience disentangle learning from an exclusive, commonplace focus on achievement. One student explained, “I was more accepting of different appearances of traditional intelligence because I had a better sense of myself and didn’t feel as though I needed constant affirmation. I was calm and reflective, instead of anxious and high-strung” (course paper). As students support others’ learning and critically reflect on their own, they speak of becoming more patient, flexible, persistent, and confident. As a student reflected (in a weekly log), “This week I learned that it’s important to not let frustration get in the way of your teaching/ learning.” The pressured atmosphere of a competitive college can impede such expansive understanding. As the student wrote in the course paper cited earlier in the paragraph, “Perhaps more importantly, it

offered me to courage and confidence to begin making these relationships with people I didn’t know…. We are concerned so much with what others will think of us that we fail to engage each other, and remain in our own judgment-free world…. People always have more, as opposed to less, in common.”

Students also gain an opportunity to rethink and relearn things they already know (e.g., how to use technology) in order to make that knowledge accessible to others. In the words of a student computing mentor:

It is so interesting to be able to teach someone about a part of our lives that is so integral to us, yet foreign to anyone who does not have experience with it. Computers are like a whole other language that we have grown up with, as they have developed we have grown with them, and yet those who don’t have access or grew up before computers were so essential have not acquired this language and therefore are missing out on many opportunities that we take for granted.

As with students learning about realms they do not generally explore, the re-learning of a skill or body of knowledge they take for granted deepens understanding. In the words of a student who was teaching her learning partner to access his College email account, “I learned about speaking slowly and not assuming that the terms I used are universally understandable. Being aware of the learner’s point of entry.” Perceiving and responding to the point of entry of another learner can raise students’ awareness of their own points of entry and how easy or difficult the access is.

At times this challenge is humbling. As one student commented in a section of the reflective log asking if further support is needed: “I am having a hard time thinking of different ways of explaining what a website URL is. I have tried approaching the concept in several different ways as well as just repeating the steps of using different types of websites (like a search engine vs. e-mail). I am in need of some new ideas to convey this concept.” Finding the words to communicate, particularly about a topic for which the student may not have ready discourse, is an intellectual as well as practical challenge. By gaining new experiences of learning, students become better able to own and share their knowledge.

Social and Emotional Growth
Early in the TLI, one of the first student participants said (during a class presentation), “When I was a baby, people took care of me and I didn’t realize it. Now I am no longer a baby. Sometimes people still take care of me—and now I need to think about that—and sometimes I need to take care of myself and others.” This language of development speaks to the social and emotional context of the TLI—the way it encourages students to mature beyond ignorance of the staff who literally take care of their physical needs (for food, hygiene, and physical safety, among other things) and of the social and political structuring of these relationships. Waking, or growing, up to these relationships, so often invisible and unvoiced on college campuses and elsewhere, is an important enactment of the social responsibility and civic engagement Schneider names as vital to the liberal arts of practice. How can students pursue deep civic participation or responsibility without engaging directly and productively with the problems of ordinary hierarchies where they live and study?

In another instance of developing social awareness, this same student, the speaker from this paper’s epigraph, came to question her prior assumptions about where staff members at the college make their homes:

The first thing I noticed—and I must admit this rather sheepishly—is how far away Maria lives from the college. For some reason, I had just assumed that our staff members all lived relatively close to the campus. Of course, upon reflection, I realized how incredibly stupid that assumption was, but it struck me as interesting that I would have thought something like that. Why would I have made such an obviously naive assumption about the staff members? Would I have made that assumption about other types of professions? (course paper)

Questioning her assumptions, the student engaged in metacognition about the limitations of prior ideas.

Moving beyond naïve conceptions of dependence and independence, students in the TLI express maturing conceptions of interdependence and accompanying growth in their ability to foster the same. As they take unique responsibilities for others’ learning and critically reflecting on their own, they become stronger. In the words of a student mentor in the computing class: “After our one-on-one session [my partner] reported back to the class ‘[the instructor] is a great teacher—she shows me all sorts of different ways to do things—wow.’ And later [the partner] sent me an e-mail thanking me for my patience” (reflective log).

Students also gain experience grappling with the emotional and interpersonal challenges of relationships seldom made available for reflection. The following log entries bear this out:

  • I learned that students can tell when you are worried about something or when you are not quite sure how to explain a word/ concept. [My partner] asked me to explain a word to him, but I hesitated and started to think, but before I even spoke, he said, “Calm down, spokino” (that means slow down in Bulgarian). I was surprised that he could tell that I was worried about how I was going to approach this particular word explanation.
  • Being in a comfortable place with your teaching and learning partner is such a wonderful thing. [My partner] and I can be laid back during our sessions while still learning a lot (I think). I think our friendship provides her with the confidence she needs to succeed.

Through their work with staff, students come to see other people as multifaceted. The pressured atmosphere of a competitive college can challenge such understanding. Partnerships foster more commonplace, human-to-human exchanges in which being together is as important as accomplishment. Students become less rigid about demanding immediate resolutions and more comfortable with complexity.

Increased Awareness of Social Positioning Closely linked to these affective understandings is increased awareness of social positioning on the part of students. The ability to situate themselves is important to students’ capacity to assume social responsibility and civic engagement, particularly in terms of the meanings of formal educational attainment. Through participation in the staff-student programs, students gain perspective on their assumptions about themselves, staff members, and the College. In the process, some of them defamiliarize their privileges. During a reflective meeting, one student, herself a first generation college student, pointed out this process as one of “unlearning the attitude of entitlement” that the college atmosphere fosters in students.

When students stop taking for granted how College employees serve them, their stance changes from one of unconscious consumption to one of co-participation. With this shift they are positioned as civic participants in the campus community, gaining awareness of the organizational structure and its varying impacts on individuals. Diversity, intercultural communication, social responsibility, and collaboration take on specific, embodied meanings as students become conscious of the relationships in which they are necessarily a part. One example of this shift came about in discussion among students during a reflective meeting about why some staff express concern about occasional rude or dismissive conduct toward them by students. Another concerned students’ excitement about working with staff in public settings of the College in which staff- student collaboration is not commonplace, such as the library and the computing center. Thus, students re-see the culture of the College in ways both inward- and outward-looking.

The significance of choice came into view for another student as she reflected (in a course paper) on the contrast between her own sense of choice and opportunity on campus and that of staff:

As a Bryn Mawr student I am free to engage in the College community on my own terms. I am able to choose the courses I take, I am authorized to participate in clubs and seek out jobs, I am able to build my social network through various means which include all I have already mentioned as well as seek out any opportunity and use any available resource on campus, not to mention all of the opportunities available off campus that are brought here by both staff as well as outside entities.

Freedom of choice and physical freedom to move on campus are givens for students; not so for all staff. In surfacing how “endless possibility” is distributed on campus, this student helps us notice the limits of the College’s democratic philosophy. Recognizing these limits is an important part of thinking about changing them. The ability to think critically about social hierarchies is strengthened in students who participate in the staff-student programs. As one student explains, the meaning of superiority and inferiority is unsettled and made more complex through cross-class, intergenerational collaborations. A reflective log written by a student working as a mentor in Computing 1 synthesizes many of these gains:

This week I learned just how much we know about computers and basic usage than many people know. I learned how slow this process will be. I also learned in contrast to some of my previous mentoring experience that teaching an adult presents all sorts of new challenges. Whereas with a kid, you are older and more knowledgeable, this is not the case with the maintenance workers. It is difficult to strike a balance between being informative while not being condescending.… (H)e has much more life experience than me, but I am more knowledgeable about computers. I also realize just how fortunate I am to know computers and technology so well. It is a privilege that I have never had to even think about. Today he asked me how long it took me to learn computers and I realize that I have been lucky enough to work with computers since elementary school. I have slowly been able to learn about them all of my life.

Here, the student marks her generational privilege. She also surfaces a tension between her own “luck” in being able to learn computers slowly and her expectations about the speed with which her partner will learn. At the same time, she acknowledges that when she sees the Internet through her staff partner’s eyes, she is changed as “the awe comes back” to her.

Another element of awareness comes for students from the experience of working with people who, while different from them, are like them in ways they didn’t anticipate:

I learn best from repetition; I like to keep doing something or keep reading something until it sticks. I hadn’t ever thought about the different variety of learning methods, such as visual learning, writing things down, or logical learning (mathematical or scientific approach). I am lucky because [my partner] learns in a very similar way as me. (reflective log)

[My partner] also asks me some questions about myself and while working in the campus center she asked me what I was doing when I started people watching. It was funny because she said that she also liked to do that, and I think that finding little common things that we both can talk about and enjoy allows us to open up more to each other. (reflective log)

Indeed, questions of similarity and difference shift as students engage together with staff in the common roles of teacher and learner, creating a “commons” in which prior differences between people become less significant. In one striking pair of reflections, written several weeks apart, a student shows what such a shift can sound like. In the earlier reflection, the student focuses on a sense of isolation and frustration in relation to her partner’s current struggles in life:

Today, Isaac shared with me pieces of his personal life—some stories about his children, his brother, about growing up—which was really fulfilling, but he also shared some less cheery elements. We discussed his recent divorce and the difficulties that stem from it. I’m always eager to engage in conversations like these.… But it is challenging to be presented with problems to which one does not know the answer. I don’t know how to help make his life better. I wish I could offer some token of insight or an uplifting story, but my register of experience only tangentially relates.

Four weeks later, in writing once again about learning from her partner about his life experience, she expressed a greater sense of openness and less of a sense of separation:

We had been playing a bit with Googlemaps during class, a program which allows you look at 3-D maps of neighborhoods. Isaac showed me where he had grown up, where his school was, his grandmother’s house, his childhood home, and we began to have a discussion about his experiences as a kid…all, again, outside the realm of my experience. It was an interesting conversation, however. I feel that the implications of the cultural gap between us have lessened, at least in the context of our relationship.

A growing relationship seems to be able to encompass differences that the student first saw as capable of undermining the entire framework of the computing program.

Limitations of the Study
A layered structure of reflection, combined with my involvement with the program, constitute both strengths and limitations of this study. They strengthen the study through the opportunity they have afforded for analysis of students’ reports of their experiences over time and in several contexts, attentive to recurrent themes and issues. At the same time, as an action researcher, I am part of what I am studying, and while my involvement with the program and participants affords me rare access, it also means that I am not an impartial observer. As a descriptive analysis, this report does not offer points of contrast with students not participating in the programs, and is not designed, or able, to speak to whether students in other contexts find other, equally or more impactful, ways to participate in the “liberal arts of practice.”

Challenges for Further Research
As learners, student TLI participants face the challenge of doubling their vision to focus both on individuals and on the organizational setting of their partnerships. Further research on the impact of staff/student partnerships needs to further explore this challenge.

An additional question for further research is how to gain access to the richness of students’ learning through TLI collaborations when their verbal and written expressions of it are limited, or when they are asked to comment on learning experiences about which they are less practiced at speaking. It may be difficult for some students to find language with which to talk about the significance of learning and becoming skilled in craft knowledge, perhaps owing to how relatively little their formal education prepares them for this. Perhaps going forward this may become an explicit goal of the TLI projects that focus on such knowledge.

While this paper marks a beginning, it needs to be extended by case-based and intersubjective studies of the experiences and perspectives of particular individuals with the programs and, through them, with one another over time. Support for collaboratively written research, always a goal of the project, needs to be more centrally pursued. The relationships among and across TLI programs, and the people who participate across them, also call for further attention and understanding.

Conclusion In the context of teaching and learning with staff, students use inquiry and intellectual judgment. Teaching and learning with staff helps them learn to turn thoughtful, generative attention to another adult’s learning process. Gaining skill and understanding in these roles is not a matter solely of practice or intuition; critical reflection is crucial. Connecting inquiry to engagement with others’ learning is an important source of both integrative learning—the inter-meshing of lived, relational experience with the designs of theory— and of civic engagement and social responsibility, defined as participation in community-building activity. The development of teaching skills, on the part of those preparing for professional work as teachers and those not so oriented, connects inquiry and intellectual judgment to the theme of social responsibility as students learn how to contribute to others’ learning in a range of contexts. Social and emotional growth helps students gain capacity to take on the demands of the liberal arts of practice, helping them engage more patiently, humbly, and confidently with these demands. Finally, increased awareness of social positioning is both a result and a source of students’ inquiries into their own and others’ standpoints. Through the TLI, students consider what it means to be in a dynamic rather than reinforcing relation to the limitations of any single person’s standpoint, and of the need to respect and learn from all of them.

When the liberal arts are divided from practice, we run the risk of ascribing to scholarly knowledge more permanence and relevance than is warranted. When practice is divided from study, we run the risk of yielding to the instrumental ends of the moment without reference to a field broad or deep enough for imagination and growth. Study in the liberal arts of practice, then, must entail the ongoing revision of prior knowledge and its integration with new experience, ever outpacing earlier formulations and limitations.

Anderson, D. (2003). Students and service staff learning and researching together on a college campus. Michigan Journal of Community Service Learning, Spring, 47-58. Carr, W., & Kemmiss, S. (1986). Becoming critical: Education, knowledge, and action research. London: Falmer Press. Cohen, J., Lesnick, A., & Himeles, D. (2007). Temporary anchors, impermanent shelter: Can the field of education model a new approach to academic work? Journal of Research Practice, 3(2). Cook-Sather, A. (2008). From traditional accountability to shared responsibility: The benefits and challenges of student consultants gathering midcourse feedback in college classrooms. Assessment & Evaluation in Higher Education, 34(2), 231-241. Cook-Sather, A. (2009). What you get is looking in a mirror, only better: Inviting students to reflect (on) college teaching. Reflective Practice, 9(2), 473-483. Creswell, J. (2006). Qualitative inquiry and research design: Choosing among five approaches (2nd ed.). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications, Inc. Glaser, B. & Strauss, A. (1967). The discovery of grounded theory: Strategies for qualitative research. Chicago: Aldine Publishing Company. Lesnick, A., Cohen, J., & Cook-Sather, A. (2007). Working the tensions: Constructing educational studies within a traditional liberal arts context, 54-80. In C. Bjork & H. Ross (eds.), Taking Teaching Seriously. Boulder: Paradigm Press. New England Resource Center for Higher Education. Reversing the telescope: Community development from within, taking the first look. Retrieved July 31, 2009, from http:// within_project_summer_2003.pdf. Nussbaum, M. (1998). Cultivating humanity: A classical defense of reform in liberal education. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. Schneider, C. (2004). Practicing liberal education: Formative themes in the reinvention of liberal learning. Liberal Education, 90(2), 3-11. Strauss, A.L. (1987). Qualitative analysis for social scientists. New York: Cambridge University Press. Washington Monthly. (2006). College Guide. Retrieved July 31, 2009 from features/2006/0609.collegeguide.html. Willinsky, J. (1998). Learning to divide the world: Education at empire’s end. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

I thank all of the TLI colleagues on campus whose work and energy animate this paper. For critical feedback on earlier drafts, I thank the editor and two anonymous reviewers of the Journal of Community Engagement and Scholarship. For feedback, encouragement, and vital collaboration, I thank Nell Anderson, Jody Cohen, Alison Cook-Sather, Rob Goldberg, Darla Himeles, and Howard Lesnick. Finally, I thank the following students, most assuredly also my colleagues in this work and writing: Amanda Root, Rebecca Farber, Caroline Goldstein, Maggie Powers, Laura Hummer, Saskia Guerier, and Sydney Silver. Without their dedication, leadership, and vision, this paper—and the projects it explores—would not be possible.

About the Author
Alice Lesnick is senior lecturer in education and director of the Bryn Mawr/Haverford Educational Program. She holds the Ph.D. in Reading/Writing/Literacy and a Graduate Certificate in Women’s Studies from the University of Pennsylvania.

Developing a K-12 Rural School System Wellness Policy through Community Engagement

Joseph A. Brosky, Jr., Mark R. Wiegand, Alana Bartlett, and Tiffany Idlewine

“Community partners and service-learning students expand physical therapy roles while creating wellness policy for rural schools. “


The Education Strategic Plan of the American Physical Therapy Association (APTA) outlines initiatives for professional practice, including enhancing physical therapists’ roles in: 1) social, governmental, and regulatory practices and policies, 2) health promotion and wellness, and, 3) assessment of societal needs and health disparities. In this paper we describe a community partnership that involved development and implementation of a wellness policy for a rural public school system. A partnership was established to achieve compliance with government mandates for physical activity, nutrition standards, and school-based activities. Collaborative meetings with stakeholders identified the following issues: limited school expertise and resources, community awareness, resistance to change, and sensitivity of dealing with childhood obesity. A comprehensive wellness policy was developed and implemented. Opportunities were found to exist in local communities for health professionals and students to use their intellect, talents, and skills to meet educational objectives related to social responsibility, advocacy, disease prevention, and wellness. Service-learning experiences provided leadership opportunities to promote the role of physical therapists beyond traditional settings through community engagement.


The APTA 2006 Education Strategic Plan outlines initiatives that are crucial to realizing practice opportunities for physical therapists as delineated by Vision 2020 (APTA Vision Statement, 2009). Selected goals of this strategic plan include increased physical therapist (PT) involvement in social, governmental, and regulatory practices and policies, further enhancement of PT’s knowledge, skills, and public recognition in areas of health promotion and wellness, and PT contributions to the assessment of societal needs and health disparities. Furthermore, the priority goals of APTA promote PTs as the universally recognized provider of fitness, health promotion, wellness, and risk reduction programs to enhance quality of life for persons across the life-span (APTA Priority Goals, 2009). Effectively achieving these goals requires PT educational programs to explore ways of providing learning experiences in these areas. Service-learning can be a means for providing student experiential learning opportunities through the development and implementation of partnerships between universities and community-based entities. In addition to community goals, these partnerships may support the development of professional skills and behaviors in student PTs associated with the APTA Education Strategic Plan and Priority Goals. The purpose of this article is to describe one such community partnership with a rural school corporation that involved the development and implementation of a wellness policy necessary to comply with new educational regulations (IDOE/SNP Policy 87 Public Law 108-265). An important objective for this wellness policy was to address the growing problem of school age obesity.

Physicians, health policy experts, and health-care providers and wellness advocates see childhood obesity as a multi-factorial epidemic with serious implications for health-care delivery systems and society now and in the future. The effects of obesity in children include chronic illness, disability, low self-esteem and economic hardship for individuals, families, schools, communities, employers, and nearly all facets of the health-care system (Koplan, Liverman, & Kraak, 2005; Thompson, Brown, Nicholos, Elmer, & Oster, 2001; Finkelstein, Fiebelkorn, & Wang, 2004; Thompson, Edelsberg, Kinsey, & Oster, 1998; Tucker & Friedman, 1998; U.S. Department of Health and Human Resources, 2001). Children and adolescents are especially likely to develop serious health and psychosocial problems related to obesity, which may impair academic performance and social functioning (Schwartz & Puhl, 2003).

Perhaps the most significant component of the obesity epidemic in children is the likelihood of early development of adult associated health problems and risks. Obesity among young people is associated with increased risk for type 2 (formerly called adult-onset) diabetes mellitus (T2DM), high blood pressure, sleep apnea, and musculoskeletal problems (Koplan et al., 2005). Nearly 60 percent of overweight or obese 5-10 year-olds have at least one cardiovascular disease risk factor (e.g., high cholesterol or high blood pressure) (Freedman, Dietz, Srinivasan, & Berensen, 1999). Type 2 diabetes has become increasingly prevalent among children and adolescents as overweight and obesity rates rise (Rosenbloom, Joe, Young, & Winter, 1999). One study estimated that one in three American children born in 2000 will develop diabetes in their lifetime (Venkat Narayan, Boyle, Thompson, Sorensen, & Williamson, 2003). Ferraro, Thrope, and Williamson (2003) reported that children overweight by age eight were more likely to be morbidly obese as adults. Furthermore, it has been reported that overweight children and adolescents are likely to become obese adults (Freedman, Khan, Dietz, Srinivasan, & Berensen, 2001). Recently, it has been suggested that children in rural areas are particularly susceptible to obesity and increased risk for the development of T2DM (Yousefian, Ziller, Swarts, & Hartley, 2009; Adams & Lammon, 2007).

Physical therapists are uniquely qualified to embrace active roles in community health and disease prevention by providing consultative and intervention services for health and wellness issues to individuals of all ages (APTA Priority Goals, 2009). Opportunities in disease prevention exist in local communities and allow PTs and student PTs to use their intellectual property, talents and skills to meet professional objectives related to social responsibility, advocacy, and prevention and wellness. Community-campus partnerships are recognized in the health professions as an effective strategy in addressing many community health issues through service-learning experiences (Seifer, 1998; Seifer, 2000).

Service-learning is an educational strategy that combines community service with structured experiences, specific learning objectives, and directed student reflection (Seifer, 1998; Community Campus Partnerships for Health [CCPH], 2006). Successful service-learning emphasizes clear open commmunication between involved parties and balanced responsibilities and outcome benefits, mutually shared goals, accountability, respect and commitment (CCPH, 2006). In addition to supporting curricular objectives and skill development, service-learning can be a useful tool to develop professional behaviors and attitudes that are often considered part of the hidden curriculum of professional education (Hafferty, 2006; Stern & Papakakis, 2006). Service-learning experiences using the world as the classroom can be an effective way to provide real world training and leadership opportunities and promote physical therapy outside of traditional settings.

The primary and secondary education system offers a readily accessible network to provide information and intervention on two important factors associated with obesity: nutrition and physical fitness. Primary and secondary education systems should play an important part in a national effort to prevent childhood obesity. However, there are challenges facing educators promoting health and physical education in our school systems. For instance the 2002 federal “No Child Left Behind” legislation (U.S. Department of Education, 2001) mandated that all children pass standardized educational testing by 2014 placing greater emphasis on meeting academic measures and not physical fitness and wellness standards. As states and school districts rely on standardized tests to hold schools and students academically accountable, physical activity and health-related education have become a lower priority (Collins, 2007, p. 383). There exists an opportunity for PTs to help schools improve student performance in physical activity and health education (School Health Policies and Program Study [SHPPS], 2006). Elementary and secondary education facilities, in conjunction with academic institutions and community groups, can promote good nutrition, physical activity, and healthy lifestyles in children through health and wellness education, encouraging physical activity, and providing school health services (Michael, Dittus, & Epstein, 2007). In fact, results from SHPPS 2006 suggests improvements and initiatives are needed to increase collaborations with families and community-based organizations to support school health programs nationwide (Michael et al.).

The Community Partnership

Two student PTs interested in rural health and concerned about current health disparities in rural school-aged children fostered a community partnership with an Indiana public school corporation. The school system needed to achieve compliance with new government mandates (IDOE/SNP Policy 87 Public Law 108-265) for nutrition standards, physical activity, and other school-based activity programs. The school superintendent was contacted and a meeting was held to discuss current health promotion and physical fitness programming for the system. In this initial meeting, existing resources and needs related to the development of health and wellness initiatives were identified. The highest perceived need was the actual development of a school wellness policy to bring the school in compliance with IDOE/SNP Policy 87 Public Law 108-265. Accordingly the school-based wellness policy was mandated to:

• Include goals for nutrition education, physical activity, and other school-based activities designed to promote student wellness in a manner that the local educational agency determines appropriate.

• Include nutrition guidelines selected by the local educational agency for all foods available on each school campus under the local education agency during the school day with the objectives of promoting student health and reducing childhood obesity.

• Provide an assurance that guidelines for reimbursable school meals shall not be less restrictive than regulations and guidance issued by the USDA.

• Create a plan to measure implementation of the local wellness policy including designation of one or more persons within the local education agency, or at each school as appropriate, charged with operational responsibility for ensuring that the school meets the local wellness policy.

• Involve parents, students, representatives of the school food authority, the school board, school administrators, and the public in the development of the school wellness policy.

From this initial meeting with the superintendent a plan was devised to meet with stakeholders and conduct a formal needs assessment through interviews and focus group discussions.

Description of the School and Stakeholders

The Southwest Jefferson County Consolidated School (SWJCS) Corporation supports 1,500 students, kindergarten through 12th grade, in a community of 9,600 residents. The students at Southwestern Elementary School are almost exclusively Caucasian (96%), with the remaining 4 percent classified as African-American, Hispanic American, Asian, or multiracial. Regarding gender, the entire student population consistently measures nearly an equal number of females and males. The community is primarily residential and agricultural with some small business. The SWJCS is a public, state-funded school district in rural Indiana and has 15 high school and 10 middle school sports programs. The median household income in the school district is $37,944 (SWJCS website, 2005). Approximately 50 percent of the students in the school system participate in the free and reduced lunch program. Working with the school system superintendent, the following were identified as key partners: cafeteria staff, representative school faculty, physical/health education staff, district school board members, parents, students, and local community leaders. The superintendent played a central role by identifying and coordinating initial contacts with the stakeholders and articulating the need for development and implementation of the wellness policy.

Focus groups, meetings, and interviews with key stakeholders (e.g., administrators, faculty, staff, and parents) were held in the evenings using “brainstorming” strategies that identified system strengths, barriers, and potential strategies for implementing a multi-faceted wellness program. During these initial meetings, stakeholders were familiarized to the needs of the school system in regard to IDOE/SNP Policy 87 Public Law 108-265. While the underlying causes of childhood obesity were understood to be complex, the interaction of lack of physical activity and unhealthy eating was considered primary. These factors required input and direction from the cafeteria staff, parents, faculty, and specifically the health and physical education faculty. The barriers specific to SWJCS were limited fiscal and other resources, lack of community awareness about the childhood obesity epidemic, student extra-curricular involvement, and the potential for community resistance to change.

Significant consultants and collaborators in this project were the cafeteria personnel who played a key role in development of the nutrition section of the wellness policy. The head cooks from the schools and the food service director provided menus, recipes, and personal and professional opinions pertaining to nutritional content and food choices currently available to students. The cafeteria is a self-supporting entity within the school system and depends on adequate revenues to meet its budget. Because of this arrangement, the cafeteria needed to sell the items to cover expenses. Balancing the economic realities of the cafeteria enterprise with the nutritional requirements of the wellness policy was a challenging process. Cafeteria staff expressed concerns about changing menu choices from items that might be popular with students and tend to be inexpensive (processed or frozen items such as French fries and chicken nuggets) to items that might be unpopular and lead to reduced revenues. Healthy food items such as fresh fruits and vegetables tend to be more expensive and require more effort to prepare and are typically unpopular with students of all ages.

Health and physical education teachers assisted with the activity and health awareness components necessary to meet the state requirements. Physical education and health educators discussed the challenges regarding funding levels, gym time availability, the use of out-dated equipment, and coordination of class schedules. The physical education and health educators also indicated that the typical student tended to be indifferent to matters pertaining to physical fitness and wellness. They also noted a general lack of student accountability for their own health. School board members played an important role by critically reviewing, providing feedback, and ultimately adopting the collaboratively developed wellness policy. The board consisted of five active community members who served as educational consultants and provided community oversight of the school wellness policy implementation. The school board members demonstrated unanimous support for adoption of the wellness policy. Key community contributors in policy development and implementation were the state-appointed childhood obesity coordinator and the local hospital wellness coordinator. These individuals had worked together closely in the past to develop strategies to increase community wellness awareness and prevention of obesity and served as external consultants to the school system and student PTs in the development of the health and wellness policy.

Following the interviews and focus group meetings, three phases of project development and implementation were identified:

Phase 1. Wellness policy development. The PT students met with the school system superintendent to discuss the progression and events needed to implement a successful and sustainable policy. The superintendent provided academic and administrative insight necessary for policy development. The student PTs conducted an extensive literature review on information relevant to the following topics: childhood obesity; physical activity, health, and nutrition standards; current status of physical health among young people; nutritional recommendations and requirements for children; pathogenesis of obesity-related disease; economic implications of obesity; and existing model wellness policies. Highlights of this review were presented to the superintendent and supported the collaborative development of the school system wellness policy. The superintendent provided a realistic framework of the system’s capabilities and resources to address policy recommendations. This framework, and the information obtained during the literature review, directed the policy development into three major areas: physical activity, nutritional standards, and other school-based wellness activities. An initial draft policy was developed by the student PTs, reviewed by the university faculty advisor and the superintendent, and revised. Upon compilation of a final draft, a school board meeting was scheduled to address the policy and the concerns of the board and other stakeholders. Initial concerns from the food service director were related to additional costs of major changes in the menu. Concerns included potential loss of revenue by eliminating the vending machine contracts that provided financial support to the athletic program. A copy of the draft policy was provided to all school board members a week prior to the school board meeting to allow for review and formulation of questions. A formal presentation was provided to the school board and community members during the school board meeting, outlining the policy and details pertaining to the policy implementation. The policy was unanimously accepted and endorsed by the school board for implementation during the 2006-07 school year.

Phase 2. Policy implementation. Following approval and acceptance of the policy by the school board, efforts were made to increase community awareness of the new policy. The local newspaper featured an article about the school system’s implementation of the wellness policy, highlighting the key factors for change in the school in response to the federal legislation (Whitney, 2006). A wellness team was formed consisting of the superintendent, food service director/manager, the school nurse, a parent representative, two student representatives, a staff member representative, a health and physical education representative, a member of the school board, and local health professionals including a dietician, physical therapist, and two doctors, one of whom was a pediatrician. Team members developed and discussed plans on how to implement the policy in the school system. A site wellness coordinator, who was a health and physical education faculty member, was appointed for the elementary school as this was the first area for implementation of the policy in the system. The final phase involved assessment of the effectiveness and outcomes of the policy.

Phase Three. Policy assessment. The final phase addressed policy assessment and program transition to the designated school site wellness coordinator. The development of a reference guide for the wellness team was the first step in transitioning the program to the site wellness coordinator. A reference guide was developed by the student PTs to serve as a source of information regarding nutrition and physical activity recommendations, the School Health Index (SHI), implementation ideas, wellness education, parent education, and additional resources targeting specific examples for ideas for elementary classroom parties, fundraising, and healthy snacks. The SHI was designed by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to help schools assess and improve their physical activity, healthy eating, tobacco use, and unintentional injury and violence prevention policies (Harrykissoon & Wechsler, 2004). The SWJCS reference guide was made accessible online through the school corporation website with a hard copy available in the central school office.


A written wellness policy was developed through a collaborative partnership between two student PTs and SWJCS in compliance with Public Law 108-265 Section 204. The policy was created through review of existing models of wellness policies and other resources from local, state, and federal government organizations. The policy was implemented in the elementary school and intended to be phased-in completely in the middle and high school by school year 2010.

Early anecdotal reports a year after implementation of the policy were obtained from the superintendent and administrative staff, cafeteria staff, school nurse, psychologist, school board parents, testing coordinator, and technology administrator. Examples of compliance with the wellness policy noted for nutritional improvements included: exclusive sale of baked snack chips and items containing zero trans fat on snack cart; sale of mostly diet, caffeine free soft drinks; offering water and healthy juice alternatives in vending machines; baking cafeteria food items with the exception of French fries (French fries are scheduled to be phased out by 2010); addition of healthy wrap sandwich options to menu; daily offerings of salad bar and baked potato bar; yogurt offered with breakfast options; introduction of alternative milk options, including vanilla and strawberry milk, which were very popular with the student body; and a daily “healthy sack lunch” available to elementary students. The cafeteria staff decreased serving fried foods from five days a week to only two days a week with plans to limit to one day a week in the next academic year. Other observable nutritional changes consisted of an increase in the number of school lunches consumed by faculty. Average faculty lunch consumption for the prior school year was 18 per day in the elementary school; this increased to 58 per day following implementation of the wellness policy and was attributed primarily to the availability of the new daily salad bar. An initial staff concern with policy implementation was the possibility of decreased cafeteria revenue, particularly for the elementary school cafeteria, which had been experiencing difficulty generating a profit. However, since incorporating healthier food options in the cafeteria, the elementary school cafeteria generated approximately $6,000 in profit in the first three-month period. While actual numbers were not available, the faculty and administration reported a decrease in the number of student visits to the elementary school nurse’s office during morning hours during this initial phase-in period. In response to the wellness policy implementation and administrative encouragement, many teachers adopted a policy of no cakes/cookies and requested healthy snack choices for all classroom parties. Any practices that promote the consumption of less nutritious snack foods and beverages in schools have been shown to be associated with poorer diets and higher body mass index among students (Brener, O’Toole, Kann, Lowry, & Wechsler, 2009). The changes related to healthy eating introduced by the cafeteria staff, the vending machine offerings, and the classroom party snack policy, have all been important and proactive changes to at least promote healthy eating, though the long term effectiveness of these changes will take years to determine.

Several barriers limited the progress of the physical activity components of the wellness policy. The primary limiting factors were the availability of gym space and staff required for an increase in structured physical activities, the perception of dissonance between academics and wellness and nutrition policies, and the minimal state physical education requirements for high school grade levels. Despite these limitations, observable changes have been made in the elementary school. A notable addition to the elementary school curriculum as a result of the new policy was the implementation of a daily 40-minute, four-week swimming course. Previously, the pool was only being utilized by the elementary school 20 percent of the available time during the school week. However, after the policy was enacted, the 3rd, 4th, and 5th grade teachers incorporated swimming classes for an hour a day for eight-week periods through the school year as part of the physical education curriculum. In addition, elementary staff attempted to incorporate additional physical activity into the scheduled lunch period, allowing students the opportunity for unstructured play after finishing lunch. However, an increased amount of plate-loss (uneaten food) was noted as many of the children were rushing through meals to participate in the lunch time physical activities. This resulted in a decision to temporarily discontinue the additional lunch period physical activity time until other strategies could be identified. Perhaps some of the most exciting and unanticipated developments involved the faculty and staff. The SWJCS faculty and staff initiated an after-school walking program on campus, a weight loss contest and a no-smoking policy. Additionally, because of the increased community-wide awareness of the school wellness policy, the faculty and staff were offered a free one month membership at a local fitness center. From a community perspective, the school has also opened up the pool to community members two nights per week for a nominal fee (one dollar) to cover the cost a lifeguard.


The rising incidence of childhood obesity requires grassroots efforts by many concerned parties. The development and implementation of a school system wellness policy by student physical therapists is one example of how academic institutions, community members, and local stakeholders can assemble talents, resources, and intellectual capital to work for a common cause. The community and academic partners were visionary, enthusiastic, dedicated, and driven through a common need to meet a state educational mandate. We have reported here that following the implementation of the wellness policy, substantive changes were made in the cafeteria offerings providing healthy food options, and there were increased opportunities for children to engage in physical activity during the school day. In addition to obvious benefits associated with the wellness policy, there were other immediate benefits to the school system, including an awareness of faculty and staff on role modeling through healthy food choices and regular physical activity. These non-classroom/non-academic life skills and behaviors are potentially as important as academic skills and behaviors learned in the classroom.

Several challenges were identified while assessing the needs of the school system. They included stakeholder expertise, limited resources and funding, the lack of community awareness, resistance to change, and perceived sensitivity of how to locally address the childhood obesity epidemic factor. However, through open and honest communication, planning and the combining of resources, the community stakeholders were able to work together to address these challenges. The many benefits reported from other school wellness program models (Michael et al.) have also been realized at SWJCS and include improved student morale, more focused children in the classroom, fewer headaches, healthier eating habits, and neutral or improved revenue streams from the cafeteria.

The primary intent of the wellness policy was aimed at influencing the current health and wellness practices of students, faculty, staff, and community members. Sustainability of the program will depend on continued community involvement with established local resources, the dynamics and dedication of the current wellness team, and, most importantly, parent, student, and family involvement. Parents and families may have the greatest responsibility to have positive and lasting effects on children through healthy living and setting good examples by incorporating regular physical activity and healthier eating habits into their daily routines. The superintendent (personal communication, April 17, 2009) reported in a telephone interview some preliminary observations and changes from the wellness policy including the elimination of all fast foods brought into the school, an 80 percent reduction in the days fried foods are served, and improved interaction with the cafeteria and nutrition staff about menu and best practices. When asked about the impact on the faculty and staff, he observed that faculty and staff are walking and/or swimming more than before and the elementary teachers have started the “biggest loser” weight loss contest with monetary incentives for those losing the most weight. He also believed the increased use of the swimming pool during school hours for the elementary children and creating community evening availability two nights per week were viewed as an example of increasing healthy behaviors for physical activity and exercise within the entire community. The superintendent also expressed what he felt were the two major challenges to incorporating lifestyle and behavioral changes in the school children. One is the “technology challenge,” which involves limiting (or at least balancing) computer, video, and television time with appropriate physical activity. The other is the “stranger/danger” phenomenon regarding the real or perceived problem of limiting outside play by children; rural communities have been shown to be particularly sensitive to this challenge (Yusefian et al.). These are issues perhaps best addressed by school systems, parents, families, and the communities working together.

The need to increase public awareness of the alarming statistics related to the childhood obesity epidemic and future health-care implications is real. There are important roles for community members and health-care providers from multiple disciplines to bring their expertise and intellectual property to the table to work collaboratively and meet the needs of individuals and society. Cultural, racial/ethnic, and socio-economic differences need to also be considered as childhood obesity has been shown to disproportionately affect minority youth populations, with African- American and Mexican-American adolescents more likely to be overweight than non-Hispanic white adolescents (National Center for Health Statistics, 2006). In response to changing demographics in the nation, it is crucial that local health-care communities initiate active roles in health awareness, education, wellness, and disease prevention and collaborate to address this epidemic.

The CDC conducts SHPPS every six years to assess school health programs in the United States, with the most recent information published from the 2006 study (Kann, Brener, & Wechsler, 2007). The SHPPS is a valuable resource for school and public health practitioners, policy makers, and advocates for those concerned about the health and safety of youth. Essential elements of effective school health programs include health education, physical education and activity, health services, mental health and social services, nutrition services, healthy and safe school environment, faculty and staff health promotion, and family and community involvement. Several of these essential elements were addressed through this partnership, although SHPPS 2006 recommends more family and community involvement is needed (Michael et al).

One of most important aspects of the policy was the recognition and importance of emphasizing opportunities to empower students. Incorporating physical fitness and nutrition into a daily routine within the curriculum allows even young children to appreciate benefits and begin to develop healthy lifestyles. It is anticipated and hoped these changes will lead to the development of a commitment to lifelong learning in which physical fitness and nutrition are incorporated into their daily lives. However, assessessing long-term impact of the wellness policy on actual student behaviors, lifestyle changes, and on childhood obesity is beyond the scope of this paper and will require years of ongoing evaluation to establish any cause and effect.

Impact on Professional Development of Physical Therapist Students

The PT students, now practicing clinicians, reported personal and professional growth through their involvement and leadership in this community-campus partnership. Reflecting on the personal impact, the PT students reported that this experience helped them with recognition and development of the core values of their profession: accountability, altruism, compassion, excellence, integrity, professional duty, and social responsibility (APTA Core Values, 2009). Furthermore, as students these individuals reported positive experiences in directing their own learning using the partnership as a vehicle for increasing their knowledge of health and wellness issues in children. As the project continued through the second and third curricular years, the PTs were proud of the accomplishments associated with the progress of the project and reported growing appreciation of the intellectual contributions that they were able to make as students to the community partnership. The project also provided opportunities and experience in disseminating their work in the form of scholarly endeavors at national meetings (Featherstone, Etienne, & Brosky, 2007; Abraham et al., 2008). These clinicians continue to be actively involved in the promotion and development of health and wellness initiatives in their workplaces and communities. It is important to appreciate that one of the initial challenges encountered by the student PTs and the SWJCS was the lack of resources available in the district to develop and implement the federally mandated wellness policy. This reality demonstrated the potential impact of partnership development between communities and academia, especially when students are involved through focused, credit-bearing service-learning. Truly demonstrative of a “win-win” situation, the work of the student PTs in development and implementation of the wellness policy saved substantial school system time, manpower, and financial resources.


As the profession of physical therapy advances toward APTA Vision 2020, there is relevance in community partnerships to promote physical therapists’ role in addressing wellness needs within local communities. Service-learning as a pedagogy has been effective in many health professions educational programs like medicine, nursing, and dentistry, but is relatively new in physical therapy educational programs. This current project may provide an idea or model for other physical therapists/students to explore community engagement and service-learning opportunities. According to Vision 2020, physical therapists will be guided by integrity, life-long learning, and a commitment to comprehensive and accessible health programs for all people; further, it states that PTs will render evidence-based services throughout the continuum of care and improve quality of life for society.

There is a real opportunity for physical therapists to act as change agents and advocates for preventative health care in the community and at local, state, and national levels. As the profession of physical therapy moves forward, it is necessary to validate a role in the provision of health-care services through research, addressing direct patient intervention and active health promotion and disease prevention. This validation will occur through endeavors that include advocacy and awareness, community partnerships, coalitions and collaborations, legislative action, appointments to federal panels, an assertive health services research agenda and infrastructure, and research capacity building (APTA Vision Statement, 2009). While academic programs will prepare physical therapists to effectively manage adverse effects of chronic adult diseases such as diabetes and obesity related illnesses, a continued emphasis may also include collaborative efforts on improving awareness and meaningful prevention measures in youth through multi-disciplinary community engagement.


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About the Authors

Joseph A. Brosky, Jr. is an associate professor in the physical therapy program at Bellarmine University in Louisville, Kentucky. Mark R. Wiegand is professor in and director of the Bellarmine physical therapy program. Alana Bartlett is with Healthcare Therapy Services and practices at Perry County Memorial Hospital in Tell City, Indiana. Tiffany Idlewine is a physical therapist at Union Hospital in Terre Haute, Indiana.

Including Latino Communities in the Learning Process: Curricular and Pedagogical Reforms in Undergraduate Spanish Programs

Felisa Guillén

“Partnership with community brings bilingual reality to college’s Spanish program, while strengthening campus and community ties.”


Since the fall semester of 2003, the Spanish program at Occidental College has been incorporating a community-service learning component in its intermediate and advanced language classes, as well as in all literature and culture courses. Based on the idea that culture-sensitive language instruction should include frequent and meaningful interactions with a language community, the Spanish program has developed a strong partnership with two local schools that have predominantly Latino enrollment. This mutually beneficial relationship helps college students improve their communication skills in Spanish while rendering a service to the Latino community through tutoring and mentoring programs, along with cultural presentations and artistic performances. Integrating the numerous activities resulting from this collaboration into the Spanish curriculum required rethinking program objectives, course structure, and responsibilities of the college, the faculty, and the students in the service-learning process. This article examines the pedagogical implications of embracing this teaching model at the departmental level, as well as the civic impact of the gradually increasing connections between the department and the neighboring Spanish-speaking communities. It also describes the program’s evolvement during four semesters of instruction; analyzes students’ reflections, community partners’ feedback, and departmental assessments; and evaluates the results, challenges, and benefits of becoming an engaged department.


Occidental College is a small liberal arts college in a residential area with a large Latino population. Its mission is anchored by four cornerstones: excellence, equity, community, and service. Consistent with its mission, the college has a long history of mutually beneficial interaction with Los Angeles, dating back to the mid-1960s when the College opened its Community Literacy Center and one of the country’s first Upward Bound programs. These initiatives provided high school students with greater opportunities to succeed in their pursuit of higher education. Today, almost half of Occidental’s students participate in some kind of community service through the Center for Community Based Learning and through the different academic departments that offer courses that incorporate community outreach and service.

Thanks to the leadership of the center’s director and a grant from the Mellon Foundation, workshops in service-learning have been offered to the faculty every summer since 2002. It was precisely one of these workshops in 2003 that inspired the Spanish department to embrace this teaching model and to attempt to incorporate it across the curriculum. The workshop provided us with the theoretical framework and the pedagogical motivation to revise our curriculum in order to create opportunities for meaningful and mutually rewarding interactions between our students and the community. Given greater than ever enrollments in Spanish classes and the increasing needs of the Spanish-speaking population, we felt compelled to open the new experience to a large number of students, faculty, and community members. Also, we chose not to conceptualize service-learning in terms of individual course design only, but to explore its potential as a vehicle of curricular reform (Zlotkowski, 2001). Therefore, instead of offering one or two courses with a service-learning emphasis, we decided to completely adopt this teaching model and to work together as a department toward the incorporation of service-learning across the Spanish curriculum. This decision has had many different repercussions, which we address by analyzing data collected during two academic years and by evaluating the objectives, results, and challenges of becoming an engaged department.

Theoretical Background 

Following the recommendations of the American Council of Teachers of Foreign Language in its Standards for Foreign Language Education (ACTFL Special Project, 1999), many Spanish instructors are working toward greater connections with their neighboring communities. Their experiences, methods, and models of service and community-based learning have been discussed in scholarly forums and publications. Particularly relevant are two volumes of collected articles entitled Construyendo Puentes (Hellebrant & Varona, 1999) and Juntos (Hellebrant, Varona, & Arries, 2003), which provide an overview of community settings and methods while underlining the pedagogical benefits of this teaching model in the area of foreign language acquisition. The focus of these studies and many others recently published is the increasing applications of service-learning to specific segments of the Spanish curriculum. This article, however, addresses the challenges and rewards of incorporating a service-learning component across the curriculum and the different implications for the way in which courses are designed and revised. It also assesses the interaction between the students, faculty, and community partners who participate in such an endeavor.

Program Overview

The first semester

Our initial trial took place in the fall semester of 2003. Thanks to the collaboration of the Center for Community Based Learning, the Spanish department developed a partnership with a local elementary school that offers a transitional bilingual program in Spanish from kindergarten through third grade. Toland Way Elementary School proved to be an ideal partner. Located a 10-minute walking distance from the college, Toland Way has 570 students, about 80 percent of whom are Latinos from low-income families who speak Spanish at home. Many of these students need help to improve their reading and math skills, and they require this assistance in Spanish. To meet their needs, we developed a tutoring program in which our students were able to help the teachers and the students in the bilingual program through after-school activities and a Homework Club. By becoming tutors, Occidental students had the opportunity to use their Spanish in a productive way, while learning from children who are native-speakers of the language. Both the Occidental undergraduate students and the elementary school students benefited greatly from this experience. Occidental students helped Toland Way students with learning techniques and comprehension of subject matter, and Toland Way bilingual students helped Occidental students with their Spanish skills (Table 1).

Initially, participation in this program was open to Occidental students enrolled in intermediate Spanish classes (Spanish 201 and 210). Involvement was voluntary and an alternative was provided for students opting not to engage in the service-learning activity. For instance, students had the options of going to the language laboratory for an hour each week to watch the news from Spanish-speaking countries or taking part in another service-learning activity for the same amount of time. Accordingly, the service-learning component of each class was worth 10 percent of the final grade, the same percentage assigned to language lab attendance.

In order to prepare students to become tutors, orientations were offered both at the college and at Toland Way in collaboration with Occidental’s education department and the elementary school faculty. The orientation sessions at Toland Way presented school-specific information such as dress code, use of supplies, and safety rules. On the other hand, the preliminary meetings at Occidental emphasized the importance of assessment and reflection as essential tools in the both the tutoring and engagement processes. To facilitate this evaluation task, the Spanish department provided students with two specific forms: an “initial set of goals” form that assisted them in identifying the particular needs of their tutees and the objectives to be pursued during the tutoring practice, and a “weekly progress report” form that contrasted expectations and achievements and provided space for the tutor to determine the necessary actions for the following session (see Appendices 1 and 2).

Participation in the Homework Club consisted of 14 hours, comprised of hour-long weekly sessions for which several schedules were available. A diary entry in Spanish was filled out for each tutorial.

During the fall semester of 2003, about 15 students from three different sections of Spanish 201 and one section of Spanish 210 (Intermediate Spanish for Native-Speakers) chose to participate in our pilot program. The students’ background was very diverse, both ethnically and socially: 12 participants were female and three male; five came originally from California, 10 came from different states; there were two Latinos, one African-American, one Asian, and the rest were Caucasian.

About one-third of the students were upper middle class, one-third middle class, and one-third came from underprivileged families. Regardless of differences in their backgrounds, all these students had three identifiable and relevant things in common: most were freshmen, they had a very good command of Spanish, and they had been previously engaged in community work through their former schools or churches. As the Report from the National Commission on Service-learning (2002) stated, primary and secondary school students are volunteering in record numbers for community service activities, but they don’t seem to have the opportunity to connect their volunteer spirit to their school work. Therefore, our undergraduates welcomed the prospect of service-learning and the possibility of connecting their civic responsibilities to their studies. The 15 participants in our first service-learning activity were excited about providing a much-needed service to the community while improving their Spanish.

Preliminary Results

On a personal level, students acknowledged that the experience initially was a challenge, primarily because it was a relationship with children—something new to most of them—and it was in Spanish.

For the first time for most of them, Spanish was not a language to be studied, but a language used for the transmission of knowledge. Taking part in the tutoring program made them reflect about educational methods and their purposes, and acknowledge the difficulties involved in becoming a good teacher and in selecting the appropriate materials. While appreciating teachers’ work in the school, the students did not hesitate to discuss those practices they deemed deficient or unproductive, whether in individual teachers or in the school’s pedagogical organization. Those who felt drawn to teaching valued the service-learning experience as a great opportunity to sample the field of education.

Students’ diaries also showed their reflections about the complexities of bilingual education and the importance of helping the Spanish-speaking children succeed in school. As mentioned before, students were asked to reflect on their experience by comparing their initial set of goals with the weekly progress report they filled out after each tutorial session. These reflections were written in the form of a diary entry collected by the instructor at the end of the week. The instructor would then include feedback consisting of questions and comments to help the student reflect on broader issues connected to the situations described in the journal. In addition to their educational value, the diaries were also used as a communication tool between students, instructors, and community partners. For instance, from the students’ comments we learned that they did not have the appropriate vocabulary to help the children with math, since the Occidental students had never studied math in Spanish before. To address this problem, we met with the bilingual faculty from Toland Way and put together a glossary of terms and expressions that could be useful to our students in becoming better math tutors. The students’ dairies proved to be an essential instrument in facilitating communication and enhancing collaboration.

In short, student opinion demonstrated that this program represented a favorably innovative experience that allowed for their personal fulfillment and reinforced their Spanish language skills, while rendering a helpful service to the community. The advantages of the service-learning activities over more traditional practices like language lab exercises were also recognized by the three faculty members participating in this trial program. First, we witnessed an immediate improvement in the students’ oral skills. Not only did they considerably increase their vocabulary, but they also perfected their pronunciation and showed a greater familiarity with grammar structures. Second, they gained a lot of confidence in their communication abilities and were more eager to participate in class. Most of them decided to talk about their service-learning experience in their mandatory oral presentations, showing pride in their accomplishments and a desire to instill the same interest in their classmates. Third, through those presentations and the entries in their journals, the Spanish department faculty witnessed an increase in students’ civic awareness and social responsibility.

Along the same lines, our community partner, Toland Way Elementary School, expressed a high degree of satisfaction with our students’ performance and attested to the positive impact of the tutoring program on the learning and motivation of the Toland Way students. All the Occidental and Toland Way faculty members involved in this project met twice during the semester, once on each campus. In addition to these formal meetings, there was constant communication by phone and by fax between the school principal and the Occidental instructor in charge of the program. Through these contacts, we learned that participation in the Homework Club had increased due to our students’ efforts and that the children were very happy to get more individual attention.

Due to the positive response, during the second semester the Spanish department decided to continue its commitment to service-learning by opening up more opportunities for student involvement and by expanding its scope across the curriculum. Consequently in spring 2004, our second semester implementing service-learning, we extended our program. In collaboration with the principal of Toland Way, we multiplied the opportunities for tutoring, helping the school develop an “intervention program” to assist the students identified as not learning on schedule and falling behind in reading and math.

Failure to attain full level proficiency in reading and math is a very critical problem in bilingual education and demands additional resources that most schools lack. Research suggests that the attainment of age-appropriate grade level achievement in a second language is typically a four to five year process and that students’ progress depends on receiving well designed, linguistically sensitive instruction (Jimenez, 2002). Therefore, it is imperative that English-learning immigrant students get as much individual attention as possible inside and outside the classroom. With this goal in mind, we also offered our students the opportunity of helping the teachers in the kindergarten classes to provide the children with a more personalized experience.

A total of 51 Occidental students chose to engage in service-learning that semester, accounting for 50 percent participation from the eligible students in the intermediate and advanced classes. Four faculty members from Occidental and three bilingual teachers from Toland Way supervised their participation in the tutoring program. Participation was organized in three ways: Homework Club, which consisted of group work on each day’s assignment; Intervention Program, which focused on individual reading to improve comprehension; and teaching assistance in the kindergarten classes. Once again, the tutoring program was regarded as a positive experience. It was evident that the students had benefited tremendously from reversing the roles that they traditionally play in the classroom. By becoming tutors, they had to assume the responsibilities of the teacher and be proactive about communication and learning. Since all the activities in the Tutoring Program were conducted entirely in Spanish, the Occidental students also needed to overcome the language barrier. Nevertheless, as the students felt more confident about their speaking abilities in Spanish, they found the interaction with children very rewarding and they enjoyed being productively involved with the local community.

The Spanish faculty also agreed on the pedagogical value of these activities, inasmuch as they foster the acquisition of expertise and skills complementary to the classroom experience. The only issue questioned was the relevance of this program for Occidental students who were already native-speakers of Spanish. After some research and discussions on effective service-learning programs for Latino students, we concluded that for native-speaking students, too, the advantages of service-learning in terms of student ownership of the experience surpassed possible shortcomings. However, we did agree to look for alternatives other than tutoring for the bilingual students.

The Second Year

After a very successful first year, the Spanish faculty decided to continue the incorporation of service-learning across the curriculum. Since we were aware of the need of learning more about this teaching model, we asked the director of the Center for Teaching and Learning to organize a workshop specifically for our department. Ethel Jorge from Pitzer College led the one-day meeting. Every faculty member in Spanish, including part-time instructors, attended the workshop, and all of us became energized by the ideas and enthusiasm of Professor Jorge. Most of the workshop consisted of brainstorming sessions to identify additional activities that would work with the different language and literature classes as well as with the interests of the faculty teaching those courses. Professor Jorge led those discussions and answered many questions regarding logistical and pedagogical issues. She was supportive of our efforts toward becoming an engaged department and encouraged us to reflect on the challenges. One of the main concerns that we had was the potential disorder that could result from expanding our service-learning involvement by adding new activities and reaching out to other community partners. We decided that one person had to take the responsibility of becoming service-learning coordinator in the department to set up, supervise, and evaluate a variety of service-learning activities suitable for students in language and literature classes, as well as becoming sensitive to the needs of our community partners.

Since the coordination of all these activities entails a workload similar to teaching a regular class, we asked the administration for a course release for the coordinator. Institutional support was required to consolidate the role of coordinator and to fund some segments of the program. Therefore, we submitted a proposal for Community Service-Learning Initiatives to the dean of the college and to the Center for Community Based Learning. Our proposal to the Mellon Foundation was successful, and we received the approval of the college administration to implement the planned initiatives.

One of our goals for this second year was to help spread Spanish/Hispanic/Latino culture outside the classroom while allowing our students in advanced literature and culture classes to include the community in their learning process. In collaboration with Toland Way Elementary, we created two new activities: a series of cultural evenings intended for families and a performance of a play based on the windmills episode of Don Quixote. The cultural evenings involved group presentations on Latin American culture prepared by students in Spanish 303 (Contemporary Latin American Literature). The academic component of these presentations was directly tied to the content of the course. The Spanish 303 instructor helped the students with the conceptual organization of the material, but the PowerPoint presentation was entirely the students’ own creation. The first cultural evening was entitled “Mexican Culture: Poetry and Art,” and the students analyzed the works of famous writers and painters such as Diego Rivera in the context of the Mexican Revolution. The second one, entitled “Mexican and Peruvian Culture: Handicrafts and Music,” explored the connections between artistic productions in Mexico and the Andean regions. In their presentation, students showed a variety of national handicraft traditions, played Andean music, and encouraged the audience to think about the popularization of handicrafts in the age of tourism. Both cultural evenings were successful. The audience consisted of 45-50 people, including the Spanish-speaking students at Toland Way, their parents and other family members, and some teachers and administrators. The audience was particularly receptive to the effort made by the non-native students and very satisfied with the ability of the native-speakers to maintain their language and their culture. The students in turn were gratified by the sense that they were participating in the affirmation of a culture while sharing their experience with the community.

The second project that came out of our commitment to disseminate the Spanish/Hispanic/Latino cultures was the adaptation of the windmills episode of Don Quixote by the students in my class, Spanish 351 (Cervantes and the Renaissance), an upper division literature class that studies most of Cervantes’ narrative works, including numerous chapters from Don Quixote. This class consisted of 19 students, most of them seniors, who had taken many literature and culture courses in Spanish both at Occidental and abroad and who had very good command of the language.

Under the leadership of two theater majors, everybody took responsibility for one or more tasks according to their interests and expertise. Given their motivation and resourcefulness, I chose to step back and play the role of facilitator. I provided them with funds, supplies, and information at their request, but did not interfere in their decisions. Along these lines, I only revised the final version of the script for linguistic and historical accuracy, but did not make any changes in the content.

While working on the adaptation of the windmills episode, the students showed a great awareness about the needs of an audience consisting of bilingual children in kindergarten through third grade. They realized that adapting a narrative text written in the 17th century into a brief play for elementary school children was a very challenging, but also creative, experience that required them to be faithful to the literary work. All involved were satisfied with the outcome of this activity. My students were particularly proud of the children’s reaction to the play, because they seemed to have both comprehended and enjoyed it. This positive reaction was confirmed by the feedback we received in the children’s thank-you letters that included pictures and comments about their favorite part of the show. Similarly, the teachers in the bilingual program sent us a collective note expressing their gratitude and satisfaction about the performance. As a teacher, I was extremely happy and proud of my students for their dedication, hard work, and, above all, for the intellectual caliber of their reflections. Overall, it was a very rewarding experience. Everybody took away a great message about learning, friendship, and the value of a bilingual community.

Finally, during spring semester 2005, we expanded the possibilities of service-learning involvement by becoming partners with another school, Glendale High School, and by increasing the number of activities at Toland Way Elementary. We were especially satisfied with the computer lessons we provided to the Spanish-speaking parents of the elementary school children. Five Occidental students committed their time to teach a group of mothers how to use computers to help their children with their homework and to access valuable information and resources.

With Glendale High School, we developed a mentoring activity that had two main components: an intellectual collaboration between high school and college students, and a practical introduction to higher education and college life. For the first part, over 40 Latino students attending bilingual classes at Glendale High worked in groups with Occidental students to enhance their literary analysis techniques in Spanish. All our students in the intermediate and advanced classes were invited to participate, and among the 80 students who qualified to participate in this activity, 38 signed up for it. The partnership evolved during three weeks in which the students got to know one another via e-mail and worked together analyzing a short story by the Mexican author Juan Rulfo. Then both groups met at Occidental for a day. They toured the campus, visited professors from different departments, and discussed their academic interests and other aspects of college life. In the afternoon, they convened to give their oral presentations. Three Spanish faculty members, the director of the Center for Community Based Learning, and the Spanish teacher from Glendale High attended the oral presentations, and all of them were positively impressed by the quality of the analysis and by the speaking and presentation skills of both groups.

After the meeting, all of the students had to answer questions reflecting on the value of this activity in the form of an essay in order to receive credit. In these essays, they had to cover three major areas: their personal involvement in the activity; the short-term and long-term impacts that such activity can have on the community; and the value of the activity as a learning tool (see Appendix 3). Many Occidental students commented about becoming more aware of the privileges they enjoyed, from computer access to financial stability, and expressed their happiness for being of some assistance to high school students. Glendale High students, on the other hand, mentioned that being able to do oral presentations side by side with college students boosted their self-esteem. Overall, considering the information in the students’ essays along with our own observations, we concluded that the activity was meaningful because it served to encourage the younger people to continue their education and increased the civic contribution and responsiveness of the college students.

In sum, more than 200 Occidental students from more than 15 different Spanish classes had the opportunity to engage in service-learning. All faculty members in the Spanish department, full-time and part-time alike, were able to incorporate a service-learning component in their classes. Over 150 community members participated in our service-learning activities, and a strong partnership was developed with two educational institutions in our area. Above all, we worked hard to promote civic awareness through our curriculum, making the Spanish classes a valuable tool not only for linguistic improvement, but also for responsible service to the community. In return, the interaction with the surrounding Spanish-speaking population made possible an authentic and meaningful use of the language, facilitated multicultural appreciation, and instilled in the Occidental students and faculty a sense of belonging in the local community.

Program Evaluation

The Objectives

Many of the service-learning activities implemented by the Spanish faculty were intended to address some of the issues that were a matter of concern in the intermediate and advanced language classes at Occidental, such as the lack of time for student oral participation and the excess of teacher-centered exercises. A recurrent problem in second- and third-year language courses is that students and teachers struggle to cover all the material, usually combining a review of grammar with an introduction to literature and culture. Owing to the fast pace of such classes, student participation is limited to answering questions prompted by the teacher, monitored group activities, and a few oral presentations. These presentations are the only opportunities students have to express themselves in a more independent and personal way, but most of the time they choose a rather impersonal topic and their delivery tends to sound rehearsed, not spontaneous. Another alternative for students who wish to improve their oral skills is to enroll in conversation classes that match their language proficiency. Although somewhat more informal than the regular course, the conversation courses still take place in a structured academic environment where students continue to play a passive role. To overcome those restrictions, interactive and context-based service-learning activities that enable communication without the teacher’s presence are recommended (Hale, Mullaney, Boyle, & Overfield, 1999). Interactions with native speakers such as those promoted by tutoring programs are an ideal vehicle to facilitate a more spontaneous and authentic communication that empowers college undergraduates as well as school children, and helps both to develop new skills. Research shows that by negotiating meaning on their own, each group of students becomes more resourceful and less inhibited (Mullaney, 1999).

In that regard, Occidental students’ journals contained numerous reflections on the newly acquired communicative and learning strategies. One of the students remarked: “With the children, I don’t feel disoriented or embarrassed when I don’t know the exact word in Spanish. I just explain to them what I am trying to say and they help me find the right word.” The students’ journals also underline the additional benefits of this kind of interaction over the more traditional practices such as the language laboratory. For example, one student wrote: “I like participating in the Homework Club better than sitting in front of a computer in the language lab because I really get to talk and not just listen.” By being removed from the teacher-centered setting of the class or the technology-oriented surroundings of the lab, students took ownership of the communicative process and engaged in a true collaboration with their community counterparts.

The other pressing issue our service-learning activities aimed to tackle was the impossibility for many students of Spanish to completely immerse themselves in the Hispanic/Latino/Spanish cultures. Since the option of studying abroad in a Spanish-speaking country is not available to everyone for academic or financial reasons, service-learning involvement works as an alternative to off-campus study, as well as an incentive to appreciate the richness and diversity of the local community. Research demonstrates that community-based learning opportunities also increase and diversify student exposure to cultural and linguistic material (Feal, 2002). A service-learning component may not have the intensity of a whole semester overseas, but it has the potential of promoting long-lasting interactions that are more difficult to attain in a few months of studying abroad. As a student commented in her journal: “I would like to continue to work with the same kids next semester, for I want to get to know them well. I want to forge relationships with them based on trust and respect.” Of the total number of Occidental participants, at least 30 percent extended their service-learning engagement a second year, becoming a valuable resource for the children, the faculty, and the parents of the neighboring elementary school. Significantly, each of those students has also applied and been accepted to study abroad in Spanish-speaking countries, which demonstrates how service-learning constitutes a valuable preparation as well as an important stimulus for transition from local to global communities.

As mentioned before, there doubts remain among the faculty about the value of these activities for native-speakers of Spanish. The main criticism was that the service-learning experience emphasized the improvement of oral skills, which is an aspect of the language in which the native-speakers already excel. Moreover, it was argued, talking in Spanish to younger students is not an unusual practice for many of the Latino students. However, their experience does not merely duplicate a practice that they have in their homes and communities; instead, it offers the Latino students the academic framework to re-evaluate the significance of their cognitive and linguistic skills and to reflect about the importance of their civic involvement.

For a variety of reasons, the participation of bilingual college students in projects such as the tutoring program can be extremely productive. First, given their language sensitivity and their parallel learning experience, Latino students can easily identify the more problematic areas of study for the children and help them to effectively overcome those difficulties. Second, the educational achievements of the bilingual undergraduates can be perceived by the children as a strong motivation to succeed in school and in life. Third, college-age bilingual students’ retention of their language and culture proves to the elementary school students and their families the value of their heritage. At the same time, the reflections made by the Latino students’ in their journals throughout the semester showed considerable increase in their self-esteem because of the positive impact that they were able to make in the children’s bilingual instruction. One said: “It’s really amazing how the children trust me and follow my advice. They seem to be very comfortable with my presence.” Another student commented: “I usually work with the kids who have been absent during the week and help them to complete the work that they haven’t done. The teacher says that without my assistance they would keep on falling behind. “

According to their own words, the insecurities many bilingual speakers feel regarding their linguistic competence seemed to be neutralized by the pride, empathy, and responsibility resulting from their civic engagement. Therefore, service-learning activities give Latino students a sense of purpose and motivate them to continue their education in Spanish and their involvement with the local community.

The Challenges

Many unforeseen challenges had to be faced throughout these two years, and many valuable lessons were learned in this process. First of all, the whole Spanish curriculum had to be gradually revised in order to re-evaluate the objectives and structure of most of the classes to allow the incorporation of a service-learning component. Making service-learning an integral part of the program and not just an add-on required finding the best approach to implement this teaching model to achieve the specific goals of each class. Given the diverse content and expectations of the many classes that integrate the Spanish curriculum, it was impossible to come up with a unique solution. The main problem was to identify what segment of each course could be considered equivalent to the service-learning experience and therefore interchangeable with it. In the intermediate Spanish classes it was easy to establish a parallel between the students’ participation in the tutoring program and their Language Lab attendance. Both activities consisted of weekly sessions and included a written summary. However, in the advanced language courses and in the literature and culture classes, it was more difficult to single out a class component that had a close equivalence to the service-learning activities available through the tutoring program. A connection had to be established in a somewhat arbitrary way or by creating ad-hoc activities tied to the content of the courses, such as the cultural evenings or the theatrical performance, that was relevant both for the class and for the community partner

From a practical point of view, having interchangeable course requirements makes things more complicated for the instructor, for he/she has to collect and evaluate different assignments with various due dates. The professor must develop diverse assignment routines and acquire a new expertise in order to help the students in the reflection process. For instance, it became clear that the students’ diaries should not be graded just in terms of the grammar and that the teacher had to provide meaningful feed-back in relation to the content. Therefore, the instructor ought to assist the students to transcend their particular experience and consider issues of social justice and civic responsibility by guiding their reflections and expanding their learning. At the same time, the teacher also needs to release some control on the transmission of knowledge and trust the pedagogical value of the off-campus segment of the class. While all the instructors agreed on increasing the community outreach, not every teacher was ready to create specific activities for his/her classes. In those cases, the professors encouraged their students to participate in the ongoing service-learning departmental activities under the supervision of the program coordinator, whose role is to inform the students of the different possibilities of service-learning engagement and to work out the logistics of their participation (schedule, training, transportation, etc), in conjunction with the community partner and any other agencies involved. The coordinator also generates the reflection questions in consultation with the faculty, although determining the format in which the students’ reflections should be presented—journal, essay or oral presentation—remains the responsibility of the class instructor as does the collection and grading of those assignments. Frequent conversations need to take place between the service-learning coordinator and the faculty to address any questions or concerns that may arise as the service-learning activity evolves and to assess its worth or appropriateness once it has been completed. Service-learning coordinators should be leaders and facilitators and should view the expertise in this pedagogy as an important aspect of their professional development. Participation in conferences and workshops is highly desirable, increasing familiarity with the new developments in this pedagogy. With the appropriate institutional support the position of service-learning coordinator should be consolidated with the due compensation and recognition. All full-time instructors should be granted the opportunity to become coordinators throughout the years to promote a greater participation from the faculty and to guarantee the continuity of the program. Consequently, teamwork and faculty cooperation are key elements in any attempt of incorporating service-learning across the curriculum for they prevent individual instructors from feeling overwhelmed with the methodological and practical innovations that are inherent in this teaching model.

A more active communication between faculty and students is also necessary to ensure that the service-learning experience is truly productive and not just another course requirement to be fulfilled in a mechanical way (Varas, 1999). Moving back and forth from the classroom to the community requires that the students switch gears regarding their own position in the teaching and learning process. In class they may continue to have a somewhat passive position, but in the community they need to become agents in the transmission of knowledge. It is the responsibility of the faculty to help the students negotiate the difficulties they may face in this transition. The reflections contained in the students’ journals served as a point of departure for an on-going dialog that brings the community into the classroom. In this course of action, students and faculty learn to work in close collaboration toward the betterment of the community.

All over the country, but especially in areas with growing Latino population, Spanish departments ought to become vigorous partners and embrace the main goals of the “scholarship of engagement” (Boyer, 1994). Spanish departments are potentially very valuable resources for the Latino community and ought to be open to working with the community instead of functioning as independent satellites. Organizations such as immigration and civil rights groups, health-care providers, schools, and youth groups need the involvement of Spanish-speaking people and offer innumerous opportunities for the students of Spanish to enhance their communication skills. Nevertheless a responsible interaction with the community not only requires the punctual assistance in the solution of a specific problem or concern, but also to concentrate in building relationships beneficial to all (Jorge, 2003). The association that the College Spanish department has constructed with Toland Way Elementary responds to this aspiration. For the last two years the close collaboration between both institutions has yielded very significant and constructive results. The homework club, the intervention program, the series of cultural evenings, the theatrical performance and the computer skills classes for parents are meaningful examples of the kind of projects that an ongoing partnership can produce. Thanks to all these activities, the faculty and students from College became knowledgeable about the complexities of bilingual education and took an active role in building support for the school, the students and their parents.

While working primarily with one partner simplifies many logistical aspects of the service-learning experience—transportation, schedule, training, for example—an effort should be made to achieve a far-reaching rapport with various community groups. This is not an easy task and requires that the different partners show a similar commitment and an equivalent degree of responsibility. Not every partnership will work, some will never get started and others will have to be stop in the middle of the process for lack of accountability or miscommunication between the different groups. For those reasons, it is very important to be able to count on the assistance of an intermediary, such as the personnel of the service-learning center, in order to find the right partner for each project. Another way to build solid partnerships is to work in association with a community group that already has a relationship with another department on campus. Through this venue, most of the initial uncertainties about the viability of the partnership can be avoided and a more extensive institutional cooperation with the community counterpart can be established.


The need to understand other languages and cultures is one of the challenges that our society and higher education, in particular, face in the present and will continue to confront in the future. In this context, foreign language courses should be re-examined for their practicality in communicating colloquial spoken languages (Yankelovich, 2006) and colleges and universities should look at the often multilingual surrounding communities both as providers and recipients of valuable services. Spanish departments should be especially receptive to the rising number of Latinos in the nation, as well as the large enrollments in language, literature, and culture classes. Opportunities for meaningful interactions between faculty and students and the neighboring Spanish-speaking communities can be established easily with the appropriate collaboration. Though it initially may appear to be an overwhelming task, a gradual implementation of a service-learning component across the curriculum is a feasible endeavor as long as the different participants work as a cohesive group. Faculty members must be willing to revise their course objectives and learn to evaluate the community-based activities, with consideration to their pedagogical and civic value. Institutions must recognize the academic merit that the incorporation of this teaching model entails and provide the necessary support to the departments. Students need to become more proactive about the language acquisition process, both to enhance their communication skills and to be able to render a positive service to the community. Finally, the community members should work together with their academic partners to set up relevant and long-lasting off-campus programs. Reaching out to the community is the logical path to follow in the pursuit of a culture-sensitive language instruction, for there is no language without the existence of a language community.


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Boyle, J., & Overfield, M. (1999). Community-based language learning: Integrating language and service. In J. Hellebrandt & L. Varona (Eds). Construyendo puentes (building bridges): Concepts and Models for Service-Learning in Spanish. Washington, DC: American Association for Higher Education.

Feal, R. (2002). Foreign language study: World needs now. MLA Newsletter, 34(4), 5-6.

Hale, A. (1999). Service-learning and Spanish: A missing link. In J. Hellebrandt & L. Varona (Eds.). Construyendo puentes (building bridges). Concepts and Models for Service-Learning in Spanish. Washington, DC: American Association for Higher Education.

Hellebrandt, J. & L. Varona (Eds). (1999). Construyendo Puentes (Building Bridges). Concepts and Models for Service-Learning in Spanish. Washington, DC: American Association for Higher Education.

Hellebrandt, J., Arries, J., & Varona, L (Eds) (2003). Juntos: Community partnerships in Spanish and Portuguese. Boston: American Association of Teachers of Spanish and Portuguese Professional Development Series Handbook.

Jorge, E. (2003). Outcomes for community partners in an unmediated service-learning program. Michigan Journal of Community Service-learning, 10, 28-38.

Jimenez, T. (2002). Fostering the literacy development of Latino students. Focus on Exceptional Children, 34(6), 1-10.

Mullaney, J. (1999). Service-learning and language-acquisition: Theory and practice. In J. Hellebrandt, J.L. Varona, (Eds) Construyendo Puentes (Building Bridges). Concepts and Models for Service-Learning in Spanish. Washington, DC. American Association for Higher Education.

Report From the National Commission on Service-Learning. Retrieved July 23, 2003 from

Varas, Patricia. Raising cultural awareness through service-learning in Spanish culture and conversation: Tutoring in the migrant education program in Salem. In J. Hellebrandt, L. Varona, (Eds). Construyendo Puentes (Building Bridges). Concepts and Models for Service-Learning in Spanish, Washington, DC. American Association for Higher Education.

Yankelovich, D. (2006). Higher education in 2015. The Chronicle of Higher Education, January 2006, 43-53.

Zlotkowski, E. (2001) Mapping new terrain: Service-learning across the disciplines. Change, 33(1), 24-33.

About the Author

Felisa Guillén is a professor of Spanish and department coordinator of the Community-Based Learning Spanish Program at Occidental College in Los Angeles.

Organizing Community Change: STD/HIV Awareness in a Greek Student Body

Naomi Sleap, Allyce Heflin, Adrian J. Archuleta, and Wendy P. Cook

“Students play key role in a major university’s decision to include STD/HIV information in risk-awareness seminars. “


Sexually risky behaviors coupled with alcohol use elevate college students’ risks for contracting STDs and HIV. College students in sororities and fraternities often perceive that risky behavior is a normal part of Greek life. This paper describes a structured change effort led by students who urged Greek student leadership, university administrators, and health educators to incorporate sexual health information and the associated risks of alcohol use into risk awareness seminars. In fall 2005 and spring 2006, 1,500 and 1,000 Greek students between the ages of 18 and 24 entering 55 Greek organizations at Florida State University participated in the risk awareness seminars. Incoming Greek students were provided with sexual health information that promoted responsible sexual practices and detailed the risks associated with alcohol use. Because of this change effort, Greek student leadership and Greek Life Administrators have standardized sexual health information as a component of the risk awareness seminars.

Implementing an educational program that inspires a community to take preventative action requires the concerted effort of stakeholders who are dedicated to and affected by change. Such collaboration often necessitates amalgamating community resources to address the needs of high risk populations. At Florida State University, approximately 4,500 students participate in the Greek community as members of both sororities and fraternities. Greek council constitutions require all new members of the Greek community to attend two risk awareness seminars per year. Past seminars focused on alcohol related issues, but omitted the effects of alcohol and other substance use on sexual behaviors. Therefore, Risk Awareness Seminars offered by the university did not provide the Greek student population with information regarding risky sexual behaviors and Sexually Transmitted Diseases (STDs)/Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV).

Research indicates that alcohol abuse increases risky sexual behaviors such as unprotected sex and multiple sexual partners (Huang, Jacobs, & Dervensky, 2010; Paul, McManus, & Hayes, 2000; Wechsler, Dowdall, Davenport, & Castillo, 1995). While risk awareness seminars address alcohol use, they do not address the connection between alcohol use and risky sexual behaviors that increase the risk of contracting STDs and HIV. The propensity of Greek students to abuse alcohol increases their potential risk for acquiring an STD or HIV (Wechsler, Kuh, & Davenport, 1996) and requires prevention and interventions strategies that incorporate invested community members. This paper presents a student-led change project approach that assisted in standardizing sexual health education in risk awareness seminars to address risky sexual behaviors and alcohol consumption among a high-risk Greek student body.

Literature Review

Contributing Factors to Risky Sexual Behaviors

National College Health Assessments (NCHA) between 2000 and 2009 indicate that STDs/HIV, condom use, and the number of sexual partners for college students within a 12 month period remained relatively consistent (American College Health Association, 2000-2009). For example, in 2000, 24.3% of students reported having two or more sexual partners within the last 12 months. In 2009, 23% of students reported the same number of partners (American College Health Association, 2000, 2009). Additionally, only 6% (oral sex), 51.6% (vaginal sex), and 30.2% (anal sex) reported using a condom mostly or always during sexual activity within the last 30 days (American College Health Association, 2009). As a result, college administrators and health officials are increasingly concerned with the prevalence of risky sexual behaviors within the college-age population (Scholly, Katz, Gascoigne, & Holck, 2005).

There are many factors correlated with risky sexual behaviors among college students, but perhaps the most significant is the use of alcohol or mood-altering substances. Alcohol myopia theory provides a link between alcohol use and risky sexual behavior, contending that the pharmacological effects of alcohol alter one’s ability to process information and thereby disinhibit behavior (Steele & Josephs, 1990). When a person drinks alcohol, he/she processes basic biological cues such as sexual arousal, but is unable to process complex concepts such as the possibility of contracting diseases from sexual behaviors. Evidence suggested that drinking in a potential sexual situation increases the probability of sexual intercourse, while decreasing the chance that risk discussion will occur (Cooper, 2002). Simons, Maisto, and Wray (2010) found a reduction in condom use during oral and vaginal sex and an increase in risky sexual behaviors while under the influence of alcohol and cannabis. Therefore, using marijuana and other substances likely affects the possibility that risk discussion will occur since such substances also reduce higher order cognitive functioning that allows individuals to evaluate risk taking behaviors (Pattij, Wiskerke, & Schoffelmeer, 2008).

Other factors, such as perceived normative views or peer pressure, increase a student’s risk for contracting STDs and HIV (Paul et al., 2000). Students’ perceptions about their friends’ sexual practices, activities, and attitudes reflect their own sexual choices and behaviors (Lynch, Mowrey, Nesbitt, & O’Neil, 2004; Paul et al.). From a normative view, friends’ attitudes and sexual behaviors may be indicators of a student’s inclination to engage in unprotected sex (Bon et al.). College students’ perceptions of increased sexual activity and the number of partners among peers may lead a student to engage in riskier sexual behaviors (Lynch et al.).

Risky Sexual Behaviors and Alcohol Consumption

People under the age of 25 account for half of all newly diagnosed HIV infections (Centers for Disease Control, 2002), and three million new cases of sexually transmitted diseases each year (Barth, Cook, Downs, Switzer, & Fischhoff, 2002). The primary reason for the increased risk of STD and HIV infection among college age students is their propensity to engage in risky sexual behaviors (Anastasi, Sawyer, & Pinciaro, 1999; Barth et al.). College students frequently engage in risky sexual practices such as unprotected sex and sex with multiple partners, and they also engage in sexual activities while using substances (Anastasi et al.; LaBrie, Earleywine, & Schiffman, 2002; Lewis, Malow, & Ireland, 1997; Lynch et al., 2004; Paul et al., 2000). Bon and colleagues (2001) reported that 14% of students had engaged in unprotected sex and 19% of students had engaged in oral sex while intoxicated, thus highlighting the frequency with which students engage in risky sexual behaviors while using substances.

Although condom use is the primary method of STD and HIV prevention, less than half of college students reported using condoms consistently (Stern & Zak-Place, 2004). HIV and STD testing is also an important indicator of safe sexual behavior; however, only 2% of students reported a known diagnosis of HIV, while 3.8% reported known diagnoses of other STDs (Stern & Zak-Place). Because some STDs develop over longer periods with few symptoms, failure to be tested will likely increase the problems among this age group (McCaul, Miltenberger, Smyth, & Tulloch, 2004). Greek affiliated students’ social activities elevate their risk for engaging in sexual behaviors that expose them to STDs and HIV (Larimer, Irvine, Kilmer, & Marlatt, 1997).

Risks to University Greek Populations

A study examining the effects of Greek membership on risky sexual behavior and alcohol use found that alcohol abuse and unsafe sexual activity were the most problematic issues within Greek organizations (Eberhardt, Rice, & Smith, 2003). Greek students were found to be more likely to consume unsafe amounts of alcohol than their non-Greek peers (Eberhardt et al.). Approximately 86% of fraternity and sorority members reported engaging in binge drinking, defined as five drinks for men and four for women (Wechsler et al., 1996). Of these members, 36% and 57% of non-resident and resident member men and 28% and 43% of non-resident and resident member women reported binge-drinking three or more times in the last two weeks (Wechsler et al.). Consequently, members of Greek organizations are more likely to report experience with the negative consequences of binge drinking, such as unwanted sexual advances and risky sexual behaviors (Eberhardt et al). Larimer and colleagues (1997) contended that alcohol-related risks and the sexual and academic consequences stemming from its use have become a normal part of fraternity and sorority life. While Greeks and non-Greeks both engage in risky sexual behaviors, there are alarming differences in the sexual practices of Greek women. Overall Greek students reported more instances of unprotected sex while intoxicated than non-Greek students, and Greek-affiliated women were less likely to use a condom during vaginal intercourse than both non-Greek women and Greek-affiliated men (Eberhardt et al.).

Intervention Strategies

Many college health education programs attempt to heighten awareness of high-risk behaviors using threats of adverse effects, which demonstrate no effect on reducing students’ high-risk behaviors (Scholly et al., 2005). However, individual self-efficacy significantly predicts one’s intended condom use (Stern & Zak-Place, 2004). Self-efficacy is “confidence in one’s personal ability to achieve a specific behavioral outcome that is said to enhance protective behavior” (Lewis et al., 1997, p. 153). College students’ belief in their abilities to engage in preventative STD and HIV behaviors is the most important factor in their intentions to act (Stern & Zak-Place). Therefore, intervention strategies should bolster efficacious behavior by educating college students about the rates of STD/HIV infection for their peer group, the importance of risk communication with partners, and the increased risk of STD/HIV transmission when alcohol or other substances are involved in risky situations.

Some effective interventions utilize social norms theory to address risky sexual behaviors among college students. Social norms theory postulates that students’ perceptions of their peers’ behaviors influence their decision to engage in similar behaviors (Scholly et al., 2005). Acting on this perspective, universities should enact awareness campaigns using posters, fliers, pens, and campus-wide screensavers to provide students with statistics that reflect their peers’ behaviors (Scholly et al.). Due to the correlation between risky sexual behaviors and perceptions of peers’ sexual practices, educational interventions should provide information and statistics that reflect actual trends of students’ sexual behaviors in order to correct any misconceptions about existing norms (Bon et al., 2001). For example, the National College Health Assessments (2009) indicates that 77.1% of college students report one partner or fewer in the last 12 months (American College Health Association). Intervention strategies that reflect students’ actual sexual behaviors will likely encourage students to make safer sexual choices that reduce STD/HIV transmission.

Current intervention strategies for risky sexual behaviors and STD/HIV transmission focus on abstinence or safe sex practices. If partners use a condom properly and consistently during sexual intercourse, they may reduce the risk of HIV by 70-100% (Lewis et al., 1997). Partners who discuss condom use are more likely to use them (McCaul et al., 2004). College men tend to use condoms when their partner puts forth the suggestion, while women are more likely to rely on their partners to initiate condom use (Lewis et al.).

However, college students are least knowledgeable about the STD/HIV infection rates for people in their age group (Opt & Loffredo, 2004). In a study of college students who voluntarily sought HIV testing, 75% of students indicated that they perceived their risk for STD/HIV transmission to be low or very low (Anastasi et al., 1999). Due to deficiencies in sexual health awareness, intervention strategies should be adapted to include an educational component addressing the risks that elevate STD/HIV contraction among the Greek student body. However, incorporating such information often requires change to an existing system where such deficiencies rest.

Change Strategy

To undertake a project that will elicit change in one’s community and environment, a thorough approach that considers the depth and influences of proposed activities should be utilized. To consider the potential impact of the change, a well developed and proven approach that considers the change agent, target system, structural factors, and critical and facilitating actors is necessary. The field theory approach to implementing change provides a framework for examining and balancing action (Brager & Holloway, 2002). This approach identifies a potential problem within a particular organization or environment that will become the target system for change. Formally, the target system is “the individual, group, or community to be changed or influenced to achieve” a desired social goal (Barker, 1995, pp. 378). Identifying a target system, critical and facilitating actors, and driving and restraining forces requires an iterative process fueled by brainstorming sessions that helps understand the problem holistically.

Brainstorming sessions often allow groups proposing change to identify interrelated components of the target system and generate potential interventions that draw on the experience of group members. Brainstorming during meetings at different phases of the project (i.e., prior to and following interaction with critical and facilitating actors) is an essential component in working with a target system and conducting and reassessing the group’s analysis of the problem. Brainstorming allows groups to maximize the amount of input available, draw on the strengths and wisdom of group members’ experience, and ensure that a project’s direction and goals remain collaborative (Brager & Holloway, 2002). Initial brainstorming sessions assist in narrowing the target system to maximize the effectiveness of the change project.

Once the target system is identified, a force field analysis is conducted to examine the continuity of forces that support or defer opportunities for change. This analysis involves identifying critical and facilitating actors or those individuals who could make important decisions related to the overall goal(s) of the change project, as well as individuals who can contribute important resources toward its completion (Brager & Holloway, 2002). Thoughtful consideration of driving and restraining forces is critical to advance change, along with selection of potential interventions that will ameliorate restraining forces and maximize driving forces.

Methods for Targeting Change

Overview of Change Strategy

A field theory approached emphasized by Brager & Holloway (2002) was used as a foundation for a generalized change strategy. Figure 1 outlines the process utilized to enact change.

The student change agents (i.e., students who conceptualized and organized the initial change efforts) began by conducting initial brainstorming sessions to identify a social problem to address. The students’ experiences with Greek organizations elicited concern for the risky sexual behaviors and alcohol/substance use among Greek students. Once the students targeted a problem, they conducted an initial force field analysis to identify critical and facilitating actors to include in decision-making processes, driving (i.e., resources) and restraining (i.e. barriers) forces, as well as the information and research needed to convince the critical actors of the severity of the problem.

Following an initial assessment, the student change agents conducted additional brainstorming sessions with the critical and facilitating actors during face-to-face meetings. These sessions considered how health educators could incorporate the information into the risk assessment seminars, determined the content most pertinent to the Greek student body, and helped to discover driving and restraining forces not previously identified by the group. Toward the end of the project, the meetings moved from brainstorming sessions toward a task group orientation to transition the project’s implementation to the critical and facilitating actors. Through these meetings, the students hoped to build collaborative relationships between the University Health Center, Greek organization leadership, and the Greek Life Administration that would lead to the inclusion of sexual health information in the risk awareness seminars to benefit the target system (e.g., Greek student body). Overall, the goal of this project was to receive commitment from Greek student and administrative leadership to include sexual health information in the risk awareness seminars while establishing lasting relationships between the Greek Life Administration, Greek student leadership, and the University Health Center. The following sections provide more depth to the process described above.

Target Systems 

Of the 55 fraternities and sororities at Florida State University, 35 Greek organizations are affiliates of the Panhellenic Sorority or Interfraternity Councils (University Office of Greek Life, 2008). Twenty fraternities and 15 sororities compose the interfraternity and Panhellenic councils, which act as governing bodies that oversee decisions and organize activities related to Greek life (University Office of Greek Life). Two additional governing bodies also regulate activities for different fraternities and sororities. Collectively, these sororities and fraternities are composed of racially and ethnically diverse groups comprised of males and females between the ages of 18-24. Unfortunately, leaders from the Multicultural Greek Council (11 fraternities) and the National Pan-Hellenic Sorority Council (nine sororities), representing a substantial number of racial and ethnic minorities in the Greek system, did not participate in the planning process.

As a result, the target system involved three components of the Greek community: the elected presidents from the Interfraternity and Panhellenic councils, the University’s Student Health Center, and the Greek student body. Each component maintained a vital role in implementing this educational change in the Greek community. The presidents from the Interfraternity and Panhellenic councils coordinated and made determinations about including information in the risk awareness seminars. The University’s Student Health Center recognized the importance of incorporating information on risky sexual behaviors and STDs/HIV and provided health educators who presented these topics at the risk awareness seminars. It was necessary to connect the health educators to the Greek presidents, who plan and implement the risk awareness seminars to new members.

The last target system, and specific target population, consisted of the approximately 4,500 students who are members of Greek organizations at Florida State (University Office of Greek Life, 2008). Although it is important to address sexual health and risky behaviors among all Greek members, only those individuals entering the Greek system for the first time are required to complete the risk awareness seminars. Therefore, only individuals new to Greek life will benefit from the sexual health education. These individuals are consequently a more specific population of interest, or target population. After identifying the target system, the student change agents conducted an initial force field analysis to target key actors to contact.

Force field Analysis of Target Systems 

Critical and Facilitating Actors

To identify critical and facilitating actors as well as driving and restraining forces (Brager & Holloway, 2002), a force field analysis was conducted (Figure 1). Through collaboration with the Greek Council advisor, the students identified the critical actors as those in charge of choosing topics for the awareness seminars and hiring the speakers to present the information: the presidents of the Panhellenic Sorority Council and the Interfraternity Council. Their approval was necessary before the risk awareness seminars could include content on risky sexual behaviors and STDs/HIV awareness. It was paramount that these two people were aware of and understood the importance of including sexual health education in the risk awareness seminars.

Facilitating actors help support change by gaining the attention of the critical actors (Brager & Holloway, 2002). Through face-to-face meetings with the critical actors, the group identified facilitating actors within the critical actors’ and students’ social networks. These facilitating actors could further assist in accessing the population of interest or lend their services and expertise in delivering the sexual health curriculum. Identifying facilitating actors with an established relationship with a group member or who assumed a position of influence among critical actors (i.e., individuals specifically identified by critical actors) assisted in gaining commitments to accomplish the change project and remove barriers likely to impede project implementation (i.e., restraining forces). After the student change agents (those organizing the initial project) identified critical and facilitating actors, the group held several meetings to discuss the important parameters for including the sexual health content in the risk awareness seminars (Figure 2)

For this project, the student change agents identified the assistant director of Greek Life and the health educators at the University’s Student Health Center as facilitating actors. The assistant director provided information about the Greek community and the relationship between the Greek Council and the risk awareness seminars. Her understanding of the risks faced by the Greek community and approval for including risky sexual behaviors into the seminars likely influenced the critical actors’ decision. The health educators’ interest in including sexual health training in the awareness seminars, knowledge of STDs and HIV information, and accessibility to students made them important facilitators. The health educators’ willingness to include risky sexual behavior information and perform the risk awareness seminars demonstrated to critical actors that changes in the seminars were possible.

Driving Forces

A driving force is something or someone that supports change. It includes concrete things such as people and physical locations and more abstract ideas such as attitudes, public opinion, and motivations (personal communication with co-author Wendy Crook, February 29, 2005). The group identified driving forces in two phases. First, the group conducted brainstorming sessions in the classroom with the instructor and peers to organize potential driving forces that would assist in the completed project and required procurement. Second, the group reassessed the driving forces for the project after initial and subsequent meetings with the critical and facilitating actors. Although the driving forces did not change, utilizing these opportunities to reassess the resources available to the project was crucial as social and organizational change demands flexibility.

The group identified existing research, time, space, and materials as driving forces for the project. The research literature helped clearly identify college students as a high-risk population for engaging in risky sexual behaviors resulting in greater exposure to STDs and HIV. Following a reassessment, it became clear that the assistant director of Greek Life and the University’s health educators occupied multiple roles, as their time, expressed interest, and support for the project became driving forces. The assistant director’s monitoring of the Greek community activities was particularly important because of her potential influence on risk awareness topics. The student change agents utilized the health educators’ expertise on the subject matter, as well as data specific to the university’s Greek student body, to influence the decision of the critical actors. Time, money, space, and materials were also driving forces for this change project. The project’s focus and limited number of tasks minimized the amount of time required to accomplish the identified goal and objectives. The availability of resources through the university allowed costs to be defrayed and use of existing space and materials increased the feasibility of changing the curriculum.

Restraining forces

The student change agents recognized that several restraining forces, or factors deterring change (W. Crook, personal communication, February 29, 2005), could significantly impact the short and long-term effectiveness of this change effort. Because HIV is stigma-laden, individuals sometimes presume that certain qualities predict who will contract the disease. In addition, social stigma often prevents individuals from being tested or discussing sexual health issues with their partners (Chesney & Smith, 1999). This stigma likely persists among college students, who may assume that STDs and HIV/AIDS awareness is not relevant. In addition, the relevance of alcohol abuse in Greek life socialization and the previous omission of information on sexual health and risky behaviors in the risk awareness seminars were additional concerns.

Engaging Systems in Change

To minimize restraining forces and maximize driving forces, the student change agents acted as coordinators, educators, and facilitators to engage the identified systems in the change project. The students helped to establish relationships between the University’s Student Health Center, the Interfraternity Council, the Panhellenic Sorority Council, and Greek Life Administration. Facilitating relationships supported by open dialogue through coordinated face-to-face meetings was critical because these relationships connected the individuals in Greek student leadership positions with key support (i.e., Assistant Director of Greek Life and the University Student Health Center). As educators, the student change agents presented research on the risky sexual behaviors of college students to critical and facilitating actors.

The unanticipated role of planner arose from engaging these different systems. The Panhellenic Council president requested assistance in developing the seminars. Working together, the Panhellenic Council president, health educators, and student change agents developed ideas for the seminars. These ideas included the creation of an educational pamphlet to distribute to students, as well as interactive role-play by students that addressed potential consequences from engaging in risky sexual behaviors due to alcohol use. The Panhellenic Council president felt that an open forum including information on alcohol policy and the effects of alcohol would engage students.


Attainment of Goal and Objectives

The goal of the change project was to receive a commitment from the Greek community leadership to include sexual health and risky sexual behaviors information in the risk awareness seminars. The Interfraternity and Panhellenic council presidents committed to including information on risky sexual behaviors, STD and HIV awareness, and alcohol consumption in the risk awareness seminars. Assurance was given that healthy and safe sexual practices would be a major focus of the risk awareness seminars for Fall 2005. In addition, the Panhellenic Council president documented all of the planning and research to encourage future seminar planners to include sexual health education. In fall 2005, approximately 1,500 Greek students entering fraternities and sororities participated in the risk awareness seminar, and an additional 1,000 students completed the seminar in spring 2006. Unfortunately, the health educators and Greek Life Administration did not collect demographic information on individuals attending the risk awareness seminars. Therefore, the demographic makeup of these groups could not be determined, representing a significant limitation.

Two important objectives were established, both of which were accomplished during the course of this project. The first objective was to establish relationships between the Student Health Center, the Interfraternity Council, the Panhellenic Sorority Council, and Greek Student Affairs Administration. The second objective of the project was to increase awareness among Greek leadership of the importance of including risky sexual behavior training in their risk awareness seminars. During initial brainstorming meetings, the Panhellenic Council president requested specific information about the university’s student population to create a pamphlet for participants in the risk awareness seminars. The health educator offered help in developing a pamphlet and offered to update the information as needed. The connection between the health educator and the council president was helpful in standardizing the sexual health information in the risk awareness seminars.

Evaluation of Force Field Analysis

The force field analysis was an accurate depiction of the anticipated events for the change project. Despite identifying individuals as critical or facilitating actors, not all individuals participated because of personal and professional time conflicts. Due to an unforeseen personal predicament, the Interfraternity Council president was unable to participate in the change project. His removal did not impede the change project because the Panhellenic president actively participated and played a key role in organizing the Greek risk awareness seminars. Due to scheduling changes, one of the University’s health educators was unable to participate in the meetings. However, the personal and professional time conflicts did not affect the overall outcomes of the project. All decision-makers were amenable to including information on risky sexual behaviors in the risk awareness seminars. They recognized the risk to Greek students and were more than willing to include the sexual health education component. Although decision-makers provided little resistance, it is difficult to determine whether educators relayed the information in a non-stigmatizing manner or whether students created obstacles for others by stigmatizing the sexual health information.

Target population and Target System

In evaluating the engagement of the target population, it is apparent that the project could have included more members of the Greek council and members of the Greek student body to provide a representative group of potential beneficiaries and benefactors. The Panhellenic Council president agreed to include the risky sexual behavior information in the risk awareness seminars, thereby successfully including the education component identified in the target system. By agreeing to include this new topic in the risk awareness seminars, the Panhellenic Council president helped to ensure the inclusion of sexual health information in future seminars.


There were several limitations related to this process that should be considered. First, the student change agents transferred the responsibility of disseminating the sexual health information to the health educators and the Interfraternity and Panhellenic Councils, none of whom routinely gathered demographic information on individuals completing the risk awareness seminars. Therefore, the characteristics of those individuals participating in the risk awareness seminars are unknown. Second, this process did not include an evaluation of students’ attitudes or behaviors following the educational session, so the immediate or long-term changes in Greek students’ attitudes toward risky sexual behavior and alcohol and substance use also remain unknown. Lastly, the Multicultural Greek and National Pan-Hellenic Council leadership did not participate in the planning process. Therefore, the planning and brainstorming sessions represent a limited perspective and the delivery of the sexual health information may lack an important cultural perspective.


The purpose of this paper was to present an approach for addressing risky sexual behavior and substance use among a Greek student body at high risk for STDs and HIV contraction. Utilizing this approach, student change agents obtained commitments from Greek organization leaders, a university administrator, and university health educators to incorporate sexual health information into risk awareness seminars. Administrators, Greek leadership, and health educators presented this information to 1,500 (fall) and 1,000 (spring) Greek students in the 2005-2006 academic year. In subsequent years, administrators and Greek leadership have continued to present this information to incoming Greek students. By empowering the Greek student leadership to promote healthy sexual practices, the Greek student body was be exposed to educational material that hopefully will increase their awareness of how risky sexual behaviors affect their potential exposure to STDs/HIV.

Risky sexual behaviors, coupled with inappropriate alcohol use, represent a significant problem among college age students that leaves them vulnerable to contracting sexually transmitted diseases, including HIV (Halpern-Felsher, Millstein, & Ellen, 1996; Hingson, Heeren, Winter, & Wechsler, 2003). This risk is higher for members of Greek communities because alcohol and substance misuse resonate through their social activities (Larimer et al., 1997; Wechsler et al., 1996). Finding an appropriate venue for distributing information and preparing incoming students for Greek life is a challenge that is only complicated by the stigma associated with STD/HIV testing and prevention efforts. College students are the least knowledgeable about STD/HIV infection rates among their group (Opt & Loffredo, 2004). Additionally, stigma, limited exposure to information about STDs/HIV, perceived severity of the disease, and perceived consequences of infection influence whether college students pursue testing (Barth et al., 2002). Therefore, interventions and strategies that identify and address multiple facets of the target system are needed. Institutions and organizations may often omit the critical relationship between alcohol and sexual health practices or neglect to address the role that norms play in guiding risky sexual behavior and alcohol use among students.

In instances where vulnerabilities are supported by existing educational deficiencies and organizational reinforcement, it is necessary for interventions to identify existing community support and resources to implement change. Furthermore, it is important for universities and Greek organizations to present sexual health information that raises awareness and promotes responsible and healthy sexual practices (e.g., condom use and testing). Drawing from Brager and Holloway (2002), the social action approach provides health professionals, organizations, and institutions a systematic method for recognizing and addressing risk for various populations.

Future change projects could benefit from broadening critical and facilitating actors. Inclusion of the student population is likely to harness additional support, creativity, and engagement of the target population and aid coordinators in identifying underlying forces not clearly accessible to outside groups. In addition, including leaders from the Multicultural Greek Council and National Pan-Hellenic Sorority Council in the planning process represents an important perspective that was not present. Including leaders who represent diversity could assist in determining whether the material presented was sensitive to a broader range of Greek students. By noting these improvements, future change projects could prove to be greatly successful and beneficial to universities or communities in need.


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About the Authors

Naomi Sleap is a project coordinator for the Florida State College Office of Institutional Effectiveness and Accreditation in Jacksonville. Allyce Heflin is staff director for the Florida House of Representatives’ PreK-12 Appropriations Committee. Adrian J. Archuleta is an assistant professor at the Kent School of Social Work, University of Louisville. Wendy P. Crook was an associate professor in the College of Social Work at Florida State University. Since the completion of this manuscript, Wendy Crook has passed way and we would like to acknowledge her amazing contributions not only to this research but also to this world. The positions and analyses presented in this article are the authors’ and theirs alone.

Youth-Centered Service-Learning: Exploring the Professional Implications for College Studentsice-Learning: Exploring the Professional Implications for College Students

Russell L. Carson and Elizabeth A. Domangue


The purpose of this study was to explore the professional impact that a youth-centered service-learning program had on college students. Participants were 34 undergraduate students (28 females, 6 males) enrolled in an academic core course that integrated Lifetime Exercise and Physical Activity Service-Learning (LE PAS), an after-school program developed to address the physical and social needs of hurricane displaced K-5 youth living in a travel trailer community. The students worked in LE PAS-related activities and completed a series of reflections. Inductive analysis revealed that a youth-centered service-learning program was effective for (a) getting college students to think seriously about working with youth professionally, and (b) discovering and adopting valuable strategies for working with youth.


Concerns about the daunting issues facing today’s children and youth (obesity, drugs, and crime, for example), especially in economically deprived settings (Ball & Crawford, 2005), and undergraduate students’ wavering interest in and attitudes toward working with culturally diverse children (Barnes, 2006; Proctor, Rentz, & Jackson, 2001), have motivated educators to find ways to attract future professionals to work with young populations (Ingersoll, 2002; Merrow, 1999). Interspersed shortages in early child care, education, recreation, and other youth-related fields are becoming more and more common (Howard, 2003). One largely overlooked strategy that has great potential for increasing the supply of youth-oriented professionals is service-learning.


Service-learning is a hands-on experience that simultaneously fulfills a local community need and the learning goals of an academic course (Bringle & Hatcher, 1996). While this form of real-world learning, also referred to as community service learning, can take many shapes (Eyler & Giles, 1999), it is essential that both the community and the students benefit; that is, the service must be meaningful to the community while enriching the learning of the student. Researchers have added a third element to service-learning, purposeful civic learning. This element highlights how this forum of learning prepares students to be future contributors to their communities. (Bringle & Hatcher, 1996; Howard, 2001). Programs that fall short of these ingredients, or that emphasize one ingredient more than others, should not be referred to as service-learning (Eyler & Giles, 1999; Howard, 2001; Richardson, 2006).

The central thread between the meaningful service provided to the community and the enriched educational growth of the students is reflection. Reflection can come in many different written and oral forms—reflective journals, class discussions, directed readings, personal narratives, directed writings, and reflective interviews, for example). Reflection is most effective when it incorporates the “4 C’s”: (a) continuous—is undertaken throughout the service-learning experience; (b) connected—is directly related to the course objectives; (c) challenging—demands high quality student effort and facilitates instructor feedback; and (d) contextualized—complements the level and type of learning activities of the course (Eyler, Giles, & Schmiede, 1996).

Youth-Oriented Service-Learning

Service-learning programs have been implemented in higher education courses throughout the United States since the mid-1970s (Zlotkowski, 1998); yet, it was not until the mid-1990s that service-learning principles surfaced within the course syllabi of child-centered programs (Anderson, Swick, & Yff, 2001). Since then, the presence of service-learning within mainstream youth circles has ballooned. The most common examples include placing future teachers in school- or community-based field settings (Baldwin, Buchanan, Rudisell, 2007; Domangue & Carson, 2008; Hale, 2008; Malone, Jones, & Stallings, 2002; Potthoff, Dinsmore, & Eifler, 2000; Slavkin, 2002; Strage, Meyers, & Norris, 2002; Vickers, Harris, & McCarthy, 2006); or involving teachers and K-12 students themselves in the design and implementation of service-learning assignments at local schools (Nelson & Eckstein, 2008).

Research pertaining to youth-oriented service-learning programs has predominately focused on documenting the academic, behavioral, or civic learning outcomes acquired by those providing the needed public service (e.g., preservice teachers) or those receiving the needed public service (e.g., youth). Findings have clearly demonstrated that service-learning can significantly increase both providers’ and receivers’ personal identity and esteem, interpersonal and leadership skills, sense of civic and social responsibility, cultural and racial understanding, connectedness to school and each other, application of course content, and, for receivers only, academic skills and knowledge, school attendance, motivation to learn, and graduation likelihood (Eyler, Giles, Stenson, & Gray, 2001).

Another body of research suggests that service-learning contributes to the future intentions of those involved, whether it is in their commitment to service or future engagement in community organizations (Astin, Sax, & Avalos, 1999; Yates & Youniss, 1996). However, what is less known is the impact that service-learning has on participants’ future career endeavors. In a literature review, Richardson (2006) concluded that service-learning has been successful in enabling participants to become more knowledgeable and realistic about their careers. Perhaps, service-learning might not only have the power to increase career awareness, but also to attract future professionals to certain careers.

Given the pressing employment needs in youth fields today, it seemed important to investigate how service-learning can influence the careers aspirations of college students. Thus our purpose was to explore the professional impact of a youth-centered service-learning program on college students.


Participants and Course Description

The participants were 34 upper division undergraduate student (28 females and 6 males, of whom 27 were Caucasian Americans, two were African-Americans, two were Hispanic Americans, one was Asian American, and two were self-identified as “other”) enrolled in an academic core course at Louisiana State University. The main objective of the course, Lifespan Motor Development, was for students to develop an understanding of the age-related changes in human motor behavior (e.g., reflexes, locomotor skill, fine motor skills, object-control skills) from infancy to adulthood, and the cognitive, social, and physical processes that underlie these changes. The course is a requirement for all allied health, rehabilitation, wellness, and athletic training majors at LSU. It is generally conducted in a lecture-style format. Students are assessed via exams, a presentation, and a series of assignments. Beginning in the spring semester of 2007, LE PAS was integrated into the course as an assignment.

Service-Learning Program: LE PAS

Following the destruction of hurricanes Katrina and Rita in the fall of 2005, government-funded travel-trailer communities were established throughout the Southeast to house evacuating families. An array of local and state service providers, including universities, responded to the immediate and long-term needs of these evacuees. Services that targeted youth focused on increasing their educational outcomes and life success through stable, safe, and structured homework and after-school activities. LE PAS was one of the many valuable after-school programs provided at the largest government-funded, temporary living community (1,600+ residents, 550+ trailers) in the United States at the time.

The purpose of LE PAS was to address the physical and social needs of children and teens displaced by the hurricanes, while allowing college students the opportunity to authentically experience course content relative to teaching methods in physical education (see Carson, 2008) and the motor development process in childhood and adolescence. LE PAS took place four days a week for two hours a day in conjunction with an after-school tutoring program. During the first hour, general education service-learning students tutored the youth who then went outside to participate in physical activities led by either a LE PAS instructor (a graduate student or paid LE PAS students from previous semesters) or undergraduate LE PAS students. The outdoor activities varied, but generally included some form of aerobic/rhythmic movements, cooperative challenges, or lifetime sports. Before the closure of the housing community, LE PAS was in place for five consecutive semesters, enlisting a total of 141 undergraduate service-learning students, and serving an average of 28 children and 12 teens a day.

Procedures and Data Sources

This study was conducted across the spring and summer semesters of 2007. At the onset, we obtained Institutional Review Board approval and the students’ informed consent. We also verbally emphasized to the students that participation was voluntary and in no way would affect their course grade. Data transcription and analysis did not commence until after the summer 2007 semester had concluded.

Prior to the first visit to the service-learning site, all participants completed a study-designed questionnaire that pertained to their previous youth-related work or volunteer experiences, future career plans, and initial thoughts about how LE PAS might impact their career choices. Then, as part of the service-learning portion of the class, participants were required to provide the displaced youth with five hours of service throughout the semester. Participants fulfilled this requirement by either organizing and leading LE PAS outdoor activity sessions or assisting with after-school tutoring. Throughout the service-learning experience, participants were asked to (a) reflect on each visit in a course journal, (b) contribute to in-class discussions related to LE PAS, and (c) reflect on the entire experience by writing an overall, more thorough, final reflection. These reflections were guided by questions that addressed their concrete experiences (e.g., “What happened at the community service site?”), academic learning (e.g., “What did you learn about the course content as a result of your involvement today?”), and personal and professional growth (e.g., “What impact might your service have on your career path?”). The instructor also recorded personal observations and reflections in a journal, which was later transcribed and used as a data source along with students’ course journals and final reflections.

Service-learning course credit was based on the number of LE PAS participating hours and corresponding reflections students completed throughout the semester, not on the content of their journals or final reflections. Therefore, college students were encouraged to reflect freely and openly.

Data Analysis and Trustworthiness

Data were inductively analyzed (Patton, 2002) using the three-step process of open, axial, and selective coding (Strauss & Corbin, 1998). That is, the central ideas of the journals and reflections were first labeled and grouped into conceptually similar categories, which were deepened from the close examination of related and unrelated meanings, and finally constructed into larger relational statements or themes that resemble the essential elements of interrelated categories. The results of this study, therefore, are grounded in and abstracted from the data rather than being imposed a priori from preconceived premonitions or propositions. We attempted to minimize some degree of researcher bias or distortion by having a second researcher, who was not involved in LE PAS in any way, conduct all analyses. Final interpretations were member checked and shared with a peer debriefer, who was also unrelated to the research studies of LE PAS, to ensure that findings were trustworthy and dependable. Participant and service site anonymity were maintained through the use of pseudonyms.


LE PAS provided a unique opportunity for the college students to become involved in a service-learning experience. Many were enrolled in the university when Hurricane Katrina struck, and LE PAS allowed them to give back to the residents who were affected. Susan emphasized an important reason for providing the youth-aged residents with regular physical activities, when she wrote:

Due to their circumstances, some of the family members may feel extra stress in their lives. It is especially important during times like this that exercise be incorporated into people’s lives. Not only does exercise increase health, but it can decrease stress, which is important in times of turmoil.

The college students not only were able to provide physical activities for the youth, but also found significance in the work they were doing. Cassie stated:

It has to be hard to have your home completely destroyed and have to live in a trailer for two years. These children were taken out of their comfort zones and placed in an area and school that they probably never even heard of before the storm. The families had to start all over and make the best of a bad situation. They are hanging in there, and the kids are actually benefiting from this experience.

The empathy these college students felt perhaps served as a springboard to allow them to make meaningful connections to their future interests and career paths.

Two themes emerged pertaining to how college students’ involvement in LE PAS impacted them professionally. First, LE PAS allowed college students to confirm or discover a future career in youth service fields. Second, college students realized and adopted valuable strategies for working with youth. The remainder of this section will explore these themes.

Confirming and Discovering a Career Path 

That Includes Youth Populations

This theme is significant due to the fact that only 8 of the 34 college students initially believed their career paths would entail working in youth-centered environments. For example, Julia, who already assisted youth at a pediatric physical therapist clinic, expressed a continued interest in serving youth due to her enjoyable LE PAS experiences.

Additional comments echo these sentiments.

[Susan] This opportunity to work with children at New Start Village [service-learning site] has really been a glimpse into the future. I want to go into pediatric physical therapy, and it may be that I will have a child in my care whose family goes through what these families have gone through.

[Ashlee]My experience…[in LE PAS] was an important learning lesson. I will be able to take what I have learned and apply it to my future career as a nurse. As a nurse, I want to work with children. I believe that working with the children was similar to the interactions that I will experience as a nurse.

Cameron presented an alternative way to continue working with youth. In addition to her goal of being a coach, she stated that after participating in LE PAS, she now plans on finding ways to get her student-athletes involved in community service activities. She commented:

[LE PAS] has encouraged me to do more around me…when I become a coach.… It will be extremely important to me to always be involved in the community…and to share that feeling with the girls that I will coach.

By the end of the service-learning program, there were 14 students who either reconsidered their initial career paths to include youth populations or expressed a new-found interest in assisting children in the future. As a result of working with the youth in LE PAS, Mary, who previously was uninterested in a youth-oriented career, wrote:

Before this experience, I planned on focusing my future career aspirations on rehabilitation. Whereas, now I would also like to help promote physical activity among youth, especially due to the rising epidemic of childhood obesity. At first, I was more interested in dealing with individuals around my age because it is easier to relate to them than those not in my age group. I am now considering working with younger populations.

Molly is another example of a student who originally did not intend to choose a youth-oriented career path. However, after her experiences in LE PAS, she stated that a career in pediatric medicine is now a very realistic option for her. She wrote: “If I were to go into pediatrics I would be able to use the knowledge that I’ve gained from forming relationships with these kids to form relationships with my future patients.”

Although each student’s future career plans were unique, this service-learning experience appeared to open the door to new considerations and possibilities.

While the professional horizons of several participants were expanded to youth settings, not all of the students arrived at this conclusion. Eleven of the students revealed that the service-learning experience had less of an impact on their future plans. Laura reflected: “I know from this experience that this [age group] is not a population I would work well with.” Her comments reiterate the important role of reflection in service-learning; without reflection Laura might not have come to this career realization.

Adopting Strategies to Reach Youth

Through meaningful connections to their service efforts, the college students were able to learn, adopt, and adapt effective strategies for working with the youth of LE PAS, which seemingly had identifiable career implications. One valuable method they learned when relating to and involving children was the power of making activities fun. Once many of the students realized that it was important for both them and the children to have positive movement experiences, they were able to reconsider how to structure and organize the activities to include a high level of enjoyment for everyone. Patrice wrote:

It challenged me to think of fun ideas and games, to make sure the kids were having fun. For example, instead of just playing catch for thirty minutes, I had to think of ways to make the game a little bit more challenging and fun.

Likewise, Sarah stated: “This experience has taught me to never underestimate how much of an impact you can have on someone by simply playing a game.” She also discussed a time during her involvement in LE PAS when a child told her that he had never had so much fun. Similarly, Jessie realized the impact that “having fun” had on the children. She wrote: “I think the most significant aspect of service-learning is experiencing the kids’ joy. I loved seeing the smiles on their faces and knowing how much fun they were having.”

A valuable lesson Susan learned from observing and interacting with the children was that, “No matter how hard life gets, you can always put on a smile.” Her experiences in LE PAS increased her fervor to adapt exercise and physical activity so that it is fun and exciting. She astutely noted: “The more fun people have at exercising, the more likely they are going to stick with it and incorporate it into their daily lives.”

The students learned the power of fun not only by observing the children having fun, but by having fun themselves. Andrea reflected: “…working with them [kids] you have to…know that they are kids and just want to have fun….Being with kids allowed me to loosen up and just have a good time.” Julia agreed:

No matter what my attitude was going to the site, the second a little kid smiled, it was as if everything that was going wrong suddenly did not matter. I could feel sick or have a ton of homework that I needed to do, but once I got there and saw the kids, the other stuff faded to the back of my mind and no longer mattered. It was a whole body recharge. Playing with the kids made every problem in my life become insignificant. My focus became making what time I had with them enjoyable and hopefully memorable.

Marcus expressed similar reactions to the fun he shared with the youth. He wrote:

Before going to New Start Village, I didn’t expect to gain much from the experience. I considered it just another assignment which I had to get done…. But after the first trip, I found myself looking forward to the next one. The great thing I’ve always found about kids is that they allow me to forget my own age. I can act silly, forget about all the other responsibilities and commitments in my schedule, and just have fun.

These reflections emphasize the need for service-learning students to recognize that their contributions are not just unidirectional.

Enjoying the service-learning experience was not the only strategy learned when working with children; two other strategies emerged from the reflections. The college students became aware of the importance of being creative to spark youths’ interests. For example, Alexis wrote: “Having this experience really taught me that I have to be able to be creative in order to keep the child’s…attention.” Additionally, college students learned the importance of maintaining patience, which is an essential strategy in all careers paths. Camille reflected:

I feel that this experience will help me out with some of my future plans. I plan on going into the field of pediatric cardiology. The interaction with children was definitely a learning experience for me. They helped me to build the patience that I know I will need in the future.

Similarly, Anna acknowledged: “…I believe that this experience could affect my future career. I think it helped me with having patience with other people, especially since you may not know what they are going through at the time.” Although Anna plans to be a personal trainer and does not intend to work with youth in her future, she acknowledged that the skills gained from her LE PAS experiences can be applied across the lifespan.


The purpose of this study was to explore how a youth-centered service-learning program influenced college students professionally. Findings support the professional impact of a youth-oriented service-learning program, as two-thirds (22 of 34) LE PAS appeared to alter their preconceived notions of children. Moreover, the participants also learned successful methods for working with youth populations, such as the power of fun, creativity, and patience, which they felt would be helpful in any career path.

There are several explanations for why LE PAS might have influenced the decisions of college students to serve youth in their future. First, this service-learning program provided the college students with an impressionable positive experience with children that, to most, was seemingly unexpected. Certainly, the LE PAS experiences reaffirmed the professional interests and passion of those already striving for a career in a youth field. However, for almost half of the college students, LE PAS appeared to alter their preconceived notions of children. The structure of LE PAS, with planned, movement-related activities as the focus of each session, allowed initially unenthused college students to interact with youth in a fun and meaningful way. For many of the college students, this was their first time leading movement activities for youth, giving them the opportunity to increase their confidence and attitude toward youth.

Second, it appeared that the college students felt their service really mattered. This is not too surprising given that service-learning is expected to result in some tangible community benefit (Bringle & Hatcher, 1996). But the observed gains in the LE PAS youth struck a deep human chord with the college students that seemed to fuel a need for similar experiences in the future. One possible reason for the future impact of this human connection is that they probably experienced frequent success reaching youth. Due to the harsh circumstances in New Start Village, it is highly possible that the college students felt the youth benefited from their efforts each and every visit. These feelings could have easily carried over to a belief that they could reenact similar feelings again in the future with other youth populations.

Third, the outcomes of any form of service-learning cannot be realized without reflection. The assignment of a youth-oriented service-learning program might have been a rewarding experience to college students, but in all likelihood would have probably been less influential on their careers if reflection were not part of the process. Following the recommendations of Eyler et al. (1996), college students were constantly asked to specifically reflect on the career implication of the service-learning experience. While this was not an easy connection for everyone, this study confirmed that the reflection process did instill greater career awareness in college students–whether confirming one’s professional interest (or disinterest) in working with children or learning strategies that can apply to any future job settings (Astin et al., 1999).

Related to reflection, and crucial to uncovering this study’s findings, is the need for service-learning coordinators to consider college students’ initial perspectives or apprehensions toward working in youth-oriented settings. Through such inquiries, instructors can gain insight into college students’ perceived strengths and weaknesses regarding youth, while also accessing information that can assist in the development of a service-learning program that is sensitive to previous experiences and perceptions. For individuals who have future plans to work with youth, the instructor can shape the environment so that it provides opportunities for these students to maintain their youth-oriented career interests while learning useful career-related skills. If the instructor discovers that individuals are disinterested or have trepidations toward working with youth-aged populations, the instructor can provide these students with helpful tools to work with the targeted population.

This study found three tools to be helpful for college students when working with children: having fun, being creative, and maintaining patience. These three tools have previously been shown to be effective for motivating children in education settings (Garn & Cothran, 2006; Weinstein, 1989; Ward, Wilkinson, Vincent-Graser, & Prusak, 2008), and this study indicated that they are also beneficial to those working with children. Regardless of career aspiration, college students realized that the lessons learned from serving youth (e.g., enjoying the task at hand, challenging oneself to be imaginative when meeting goals, and recognizing that individuals acquire knowledge/skills at different paces) are also applicable to most professions, especially in service-oriented settings. This study highlighted that working with youth allowed college students to broaden their professional skill set and thus enhance their career path.

Practical Implications

The suggestions we offer to service-learning coordinators as result of this study are threefold. First, expose college students to people of all ages in service-learning. As Gutheil & Chernesky (2006) found with older populations and we confirmed with youth, exposing college students to individuals outside of their initial interest can be an effective means for teaching college students about this population and attracting them to a related career. Second, include contemplative, career-oriented questions throughout the service-learning experience. As noted above, these questions might first be included at the outset of the service-learning experience as a barometer for how the service-learning experience might be shaped to meet college student needs. Sample pre-service-learning questions might include (a) what are your career plans?, (b) how do you see your career plan linked to this service-learning experience?, and (c) what do you think you might gain professionally from this service-learning experience? Similar questions could be included in the reflective process throughout the service-learning process as well. Besides those posed in the procedures section of this study, these questions might include (a) how did your career plan change as a result from today’s experience?, (b) how can you best use what you experienced today in your future career?, and, (c) professionally, did you gain what you thought you might gain from this experience? Third, give college students the freedom to have fun and be creative in youth-oriented service-learning settings. Adopting the same strategies college students learned from youth in this study could very well be successful in altering career decisions and mapping out future goals to include serving youth. Future research is needed to confirm this relationship.


This study is one of the first to examine how youth-centered service-learning influences the future interest and career paths of college students. This study examined how youth-centered service-learning impacts the future interest and career paths of college students. While college students only engaged in LE PAS for five hours throughout a semester, this service-learning experience with youth also allowed college students to recognize important strategies for working with children, all of which were believed to be significant skills they could use across ages groups and professions. Follow-up efforts should elucidate the actual long-term career effect from youth-centered service-learning programs.


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We sincerely thank a) Rosie O’Donnell’s For All Kids Foundation for building the spacious children’s plaza used for LE PAS, complete with playgrounds and open-play spaces, (b) Louisiana Campus Compact and LSU’s Department of Kinesiology for funding the graduate assistants and undergraduate students who served as LE PAS on site instructors, and (c) LSU’s College of Education, the U.S. Office of Disease Prevention and Health Promotion, and the U.S. Office of Public Health and Science, Department of Health and Human Services for the varied and developmentally appropriate equipment.

About the Authors

Russell L. Carson is an assistant professor of kinesiology at Louisiana State University, where Elizabeth A. Domangue was a doctoral student until her recent employment by Harrison School District 2, Colorado Springs, CO, in the curriculum and assessment department. She was involved in programs at New Start Village from its opening to closure.

Exploring Career Implications for College Students

Students in an LSU service-learning program, some of whom are shown here, became more likely to consider working with children in the future and learned strategies for doing so effectively.