From the Editor: Partnering, Inspiring, Changing…and Taking Chances

Cassandra E. Simon, Ph.D.

The release of this issue of JCES coincides with the 2012 National Outreach and Scholarship Conference being held at the University of Alabama, October 1-3, 2012. The manuscripts in this issue continue to add to the ongoing and increasingly complex body of engagement scholarship knowledge. The topics presented in this issue are as varied as engagement scholarship itself. This particular selection of manuscripts seeks to contribute to strengthening methodological, theoretical, and practical applications relevant for engagement scholarship and our understanding of it. One manuscript demonstrates the successful application of concept mapping and influence diagramming through a community and university partnership. A community sidebar accompanies this piece and represents JCES’ first publication of such a piece. As a scholarly peer-reviewed journal, we recognize and appreciate the role of communities’ voices in engagement scholarship and look for different ways to have it acknowledged and included as part of the scholarly process.

Other manuscripts evaluate the effectiveness of a civic youth engagement program and assess the culture of engagement. Whether it is through articulation of how learning with as opposed to learning from survivors of trauma changes participants, processes, and outcomes or power dynamics and their influence on different constituent groups in engagement projects, this issue is sure to have something of relevance to engagement scholars of all varieties. We hope you will find something interesting and exciting…something that will inspire you to partner with others to effect change.

Partner! Inspire! Change! This is the theme of the 2012 NOSC conference and it is in that spirit that we present an essay submitted by Cheryl Keen, Ph.D. The essay is not your typical scholarly piece; nor is it a manuscript that JCES would have normally reviewed. We, the local JCES production team, did decide, however, that it had a certain kind of scholarly merit, especially with the NOSC conference upcoming and publication of this issue of JCES for release at the conference. Our publishing this piece represents our willingness to do what engagement scholarship dares to do, and that is to fulfill our commitment to you to be a high quality peer-reviewed journal, unafraid to try something new, and not restricted to what already is. We hope you enjoy the essay, as well as the rest of this issue.

The Formation of a Research Collaboration: Same Time, Next Year? An Essay

Cheryl Keen


This essay describes the evolution of two scholars’ discussion of common interests in a major national study involving faculty, students, and a community partner. A service-learning project involving analysis of a large service-learning alumni database by a graduate research methods class was central to the project. Compelling findings about the formation of civically minded professionals emerged. This essay focuses on that process, while identifying the major outcomes.

How many times have you attended a conference, met an exciting colleague, felt exhilarated about your shared interests, declared intentions, and then made promises to collaborate on research or write “something” together? And then, how many times have well-intentioned pledges evaporated within a few months?

My experience with a successful research partnership defies this pattern. What made it work this time around? Was it the diversity, dedication, or personality of the partners? Was it the allure of a robust dataset that could shed light on civic patterns of college graduates? Or was it the enthusiasm of a graduate student class using real data and working with real community partners?

My research focused on understanding the inclinations of others to work toward the common good. For years, Julie Hatcher, of Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis (IUPUI), and I said how wonderful it would be to work together on a project. We attended the same conferences, shared a commitment to the public purposes of higher education, studied the same books on civic engagement, and found each other’s work very compelling. And we were only separated by a two-hour drive! What promise!

Yet, years passed.

In 2009, both Julie and I participated in a Symposium on Civic Learning Outcomes, co-hosted by the American Association of Colleges and Universities and IUPUI. A few months after the two-day summit, I was asked to survey the alumni of 25 campuses of the Bonner Foundation’s Scholar Program and make a report at their 20th anniversary event. I was sure I could enhance this opportunity to learn about the civic development of 4,000 alumni of the four-year co-curricular service-learning programs if I included Julie’s recently developed Civic-Minded Professional (CMP) scale.

Forgoing the two-hour drive, Julie, Bobby Hackett, president of the Bonner Foundation, and I met by phone several times and developed a survey to reach our shared goals. The Bonner Foundation was most interested in program dimensions and current levels of civic engagement of the scholars, while Julie and I were most interested in understanding how dialogue, reflection, and interaction with faculty contribute to civic growth. The Bonner Foundation staff found 3,000 alumni email addresses. We were fortunate to get almost 1,000 responses. We presented descriptive data and preliminary findings at the Bonner alumni event. I remember Doug Bennett, soon-to-retire president of Earlham College, saying that most colleges would drool over a 33% response rate and the high levels of civic engagement reported by the Bonner Scholar alumni.

We swallowed some scholarly pride and shared the preliminary analysis of the data at the International Association of Research on Service Learning and Civic Engagement (IARSLCE) conference in fall 2010. We had wished to be further along by the time of the conference, but as full-fledged members of the sandwich generation, we each had to face and assume new responsibilities to care for aging parents, and this, coupled with our daily work, limited our ability to dive into the rich dataset. Nevertheless, we found the IARSLCE audience enthusiastic about the research, the questions, and the methodology. More importantly, Professor Dan Richard of the University of North Florida (UNF) was so impressed by the dataset, and the important questions represented by the many variables, that he approached us at the end of the session to inquire about our working together. So, promises were made to meet “same time, same place, next year.”

What happened in that year astounded all of us.

Dan was curious about service learning, but did not have experience in leading a service-learning class. The opportunity to engage his graduate statistics class in analysis of the alumni data was very enticing. Since I was traveling nearby, he arranged for me to meet his class. For the next 9 months, we communicated on the phone via Skype and through email. We had the Bonner Foundation president and Julie speak to the class via iPhone. At the end of the semester, the class presented their results to us via Skype. And when the semester was over, a core of students kept working with Dan to further analyze the data.

In November, we indeed met at the “same time, same place” and five partners—the evaluator, the researcher, the professor, the student, and the Foundation program officer, Ariane Hoy—presented a finely analyzed dataset with compelling results to attendees of the annual IARSLCE conference. The UNF team developed a great sense of ease with and ownership of the data. All five partners were deeply invested in the findings. We could ask questions of each other like family members concerned about the family farm.

When we presented, we must have modeled collaboration. The audience seemed torn between being impressed by the implications of the results for their own institution and by the partnership they witnessed. Most of all, the professional presentation of student Heather Pease was a manifestation of what we had to share.

So what had happened to make this partnership work? Why did our heartfelt promises at a conference not evaporate?

As a faculty member at an online institution, I lack access to a local research center where I can easily collaborate with colleagues. I trusted my intuition about a new partner willing to work virtually. I long ago shed my proprietary sense about data, having written a book with three co-authors and published most of my articles with others. Julie needed access to a larger dataset to conduct confirmatory factor analysis on her scale. As for Dan, he was first intrinsically interested in the possibilities in the data analysis and then realized that he and his students could be learning while also providing service to a community partner. Heather and her fellow students seemed to be drawn by the opportunity to find their own voice as researchers, to discern researchable questions in a large database to whet their curiosity and growing concern to understand the roots of civic engagement. The Bonner Foundation was patient with the year’s process, one of many collaborations they were supporting.

And how do we know it worked? Every partner in the collaboration benefited. The faculty types in the group (Dan, Julie, and I) are all quite pleased that a class of graduate students discovered the potential power of quantitative analysis to answer important questions. Heather has found that she “loves data” and is busy applying to a doctoral program to grow her research skills. The Bonner Foundation has found confirmation of their assumption that they should focus on connecting people, and that sharing data, and allowing others to muck with it, benefits everyone. Julie gained access to a diverse group of professionals to help confirm the validity of her CMP scale. Dan gained confirmation that service-learning didn’t just sound like a good idea, but also seemed to propel the kind of learning he was hoping for in his master’s level stats class.

And I? I’m feeling quite generative and satisfied at this culmination of some life work. And now I’m looking for my next partner to meet “same place, same time” next year. Anyone want to help me analyze some new and interesting data? Meet you at a conference soon!

About the Author 

Cheryl Keen is a specialization coordinator of Ph.D. in Education foundation and core courses at Richard W. Riley College of Education and Leadership at Walden University.

Community Planning for Climate Change: Visible Thinking Tools Facilitate Shared Understanding

Joseph Cone, Shawn Rowe, Jenna Borberg, and Briana Goodwin


An engagement project examined the effectiveness of the visible thinking tools of concept mapping and influence diagramming to facilitate community planning for climate change through a series of workshops. The workshops were developed in coordination with a local nonprofit as part of a strategy of communicating about climate risks. Guided by university engagement faculty, workshop participants thoughtfully identified and mapped how specific risks associated with climate change may affect their rural coastal community, what could be done to address each risk, and who was responsible for taking action. Post-workshop interviews and surveys revealed that participants recognized the civic importance of facilitating dialogue on the contended issue of climate change and that visible thinking tools were beneficial towards developing understanding and consensus. Through the project, the community members and university personnel learned about local climate change concerns and some effective means for future collaboration, and the community set initial action priorities.


Many coastal communities in the United States and, indeed, throughout the world, will need to adapt to the changing climate over the next century (Adger, Agrawala, Mirza, Conde, O’Brien, Pulhin, Pulwarty, Smit, & Takahashi, 2007; Nicholls, Wong, Burkett, Codignotto, Hay, McLean, & Woodroffe, 2007). Coastal communities in the location of this study, the Pacific Northwest, are already affected by major storms, shifts in ocean currents, and tectonic uplift and subduction, among other effects (Burgette, Weldon, & Schmitt, 2009; Huppert, 2009; Oregon Climate Change Research Institute, 2010). Anticipated future effects from changes in Pacific Northwest’s climate include increased air and water temperatures, shifts in marine ecosystems and fish species, increased flooding, and coastal erosion worsened by sea-level rise and increasing wave heights (Oregon Climate Change Research Institute, 2010).

Despite these stresses occurring or anticipated in the natural system of which they are part, rural communities that typify the Oregon coast have not been urgently preparing for climate change. While our research shows that lack of information about anticipated local effects of climate change is one impediment to local planners (Borberg, Cone, Jodice, Harte, & Corcoran, 2009), the lack of institutional resources (including expertise and funding) to address the issue is also a concern (Tribbia & Moser, 2008). Knowing where to begin and how to proceed with such a potentially long and complex undertaking presents many additional hurdles (Snover, Whitely Binder, Lopez, Willmott, Kay, Howell, & Simmonds, 2007). These conditions provide an opportunity for university specialists to assist communities.

Community engagement, in part, involves such specialists interpreting the results of applied and basic research in ways that can be adopted by community members (National Sea Grant, 2000). The principal difference between engagement and the older concept of “outreach,” however, is that engagement fundamentally involves a two-way, collaborative mode of interaction between scientists, university personnel, and community members, all of whom are seen to be specialized-information holders. In traditional models of outreach or extension, outreach is seen as transmission or translation of “expert” knowledge from the university specialist out to users who are seen to have little to no important contribution to that knowledge. Such “conduit” models of university communication (Reddy, 1979) have given way in recent years to models of communication that see all participants as possessing expertise. The role of the community members in engagement as co-producers of knowledge rather than passive consumers is thus crucial. Engagement in this sense is only secondarily about interpreting applied research. Priority must first be given to working with communities to understand their needs and interests, their own specialized knowledge, and the constraints on putting into action the resulting co-generated knowledge.

In its first steps, this work of engagement requires getting to know communities and providing forums for their interaction with university research, researchers, and communicators. Therefore, before engaging a specific coastal community, the project’s university team, comprised of Oregon Sea Grant1 research and engagement faculty and graduate students, had undertaken some preliminary inquiry of the study population. This included a largest-ever coastwide survey of Oregon coast professionals regarding climate change. Needs, interests, and barriers to action were explicitly queried in that 2008 survey. (The findings, the subject of a master’s thesis, are published and available at In addition, the university team conducted a set of in-depth interviews with a small sample of coastal residents (n=14 interviews with 19 total participants) who visited the Visitor Center at the Hatfield Marine Science Center or the Oregon Coast Aquarium, both in Newport, Oregon. While surveys and interviews are traditional methods for carrying out assessments with target audiences (Davidson, 2005; Patton, 2001), these don’t provide substantive opportunity for two-way communication among university engagement professionals or researchers and public decision makers. Therefore, in addition, two group discussions with coastal decision makers (n=20) were conducted with that goal in mind.


Rationale. Anticipating that the community engagement project described here would be the first of a number of such climate planning projects in Oregon and potentially in other states involving members of the university team, we conceived the initial community project as a pilot, particularly to examine the usefulness of certain methods while at the same time providing value to the community and direct feedback to participating scientists. Before the community engagement began, the university team had an overarching goal to assist the community in becoming more resilient2 to climate change. We had multiple potential communities with which we could work. Our selection criteria for this pilot were (1) a community of a manageable size and local issue complexity; with (2) an existing community organization with a good reputation; which was (3) able to convene community participants; and had (4) constructive working relationships with university and team members, reflecting apparent trust and goodwill between the parties; and (5) an interest in participating in a project aimed at improving the community’s resilience to climate change.

The small coastal community of Port Orford, Oregon (population 1,200) met these criteria. The university team approached the leadership of the Port Orford Ocean Resource Team (POORT), a local nonprofit organization, to act as community convener of the project and chief collaborator. POORT, directed by local commercial fishermen, dedicated to natural resources, and with a history of success in novel approaches to resource issues, agreed to convene an ad-hoc community group. Community members who participated in the working group included both public officials and interested citizens, but our intention was for the working group to be completely voluntary, without any official capacity. [A sidebar to this article provides a characterization of the organization, community, and project from the perspective of a community participant and staff member of POORT.]

Once the community of Port Orford was identified, this project proceeded with the following components: (1) empirical research to understand climate-related opinions, values, and information interests of the community; (2) engagement workshops to involve community members in identifying climate change risks and possible actions; (3) inter-workshop assessment of potential climate information needs by comparing results of the first workshop with an expert climate-change model; (4) a formative evaluation of the effectiveness of the project through interviews with participants, leading to (5) a determination of additional activities in the project.


Figure 1. From Wilson & Arvai, 2011


Structured Decision Making. We recognized that the community would want to know what knowledge and advice climate scientists would have for Port Orford. We did have some insights from the domain scientists, but in order to create conditions for two-way communication and the co-generation of interpretations of those recommendations, the workshop process would not begin with it. Nor would we begin with the “vulnerability assessments” that have become routine in the methodology of climate adaptation as conducted with professional and technical groups (NOAA Coastal Services Center, 2011). Instead, our approach was grounded in a structured decision-making cycle (figure 1), the first two steps of which are for the decision makers (here, the working group) to define the problem as they see it and clarify objectives that matter to them (Wilson & Arvai, 2011). These steps, we believed, are critical to successful engagement, since without them, target audience voices are not part of the interpretation of research findings. However, simply documenting how participants’ defined the focal problems and their objectives is not enough. Underlying both how a person defines a problem and conceives of objectives to address it are that person’s values, and identifying and acknowledging these are important aspects of creating forums for two-way communication about decision making.

Substantial research over the past 20 years demonstrates the critical role of values in the decision-making process. Decision processes that focus on discussing personal and social values in addition to arraying technical alternatives have been shown to lead to not only greater participant satisfaction but also better informed processes than those that focus on generating technical alternatives alone (Keeny, 1992; Gregory, McDaniels, & Fields, 2001; Arvai, Gregory, & McDaniels, 2001). “Value-focused thinking” (Keeny, 1992) has become a key feature of varying formulations of behavioral decision-making processes, including the “decision-aiding” model advanced by Gregory and colleagues (2001), the now prevalent notion of “decision support” (Moser, 2009; National Research Council, 2009), and the approach of “deliberation with analysis,” regarded as best practice by the NRC panel (2009) that examined Informing Decisions in a Changing Climate.

The planned design of the workshops was de­rived from a well-established framework developed in the disciplines of behavioral decision-making and risk communication. One synthesis of these two disciplines is a model of multi-party communi­cation known as “nonpersuasive communication” (Fischhoff, 2007). The essence of this model is that successful communication about scientific and technical issues is far more than just presenting the “best available [physical] science” –which is often all that is provided to decision makers (National Research Council, 2005). Instead, communica­tion that is successful, in the sense that it results in well-considered decisions, depends critically upon understanding the scientific issue (here, the effects of climate change) from the perspective of the user, stakeholder, or community (National Research Council, 2005; Cone, 2009).

Climate Concept Mapping and Influence Di­agramming. The 20 questions of the 2009 survey provided a baseline for understanding participants’ perspectives. To start the workshops, we knew we wanted to establish more clearly what the commu­nity participants believed about the local effects of climate change and the risks that the community faced from their perspective (the decision problem) as well as something about the values underlying those beliefs. While interviews and ethnographic work can be used effectively to document these things, we are particularly interested in tools that help target groups articulate to themselves and with researchers their beliefs, knowledge, and values. Our assumption was that unidentified differences in understanding, beliefs and values are often the cause of miscommunication in engagement set­tings. We were interested particularly in testing tools that make individual and group thinking visible to all participants as a way to identify areas of diver­gence and convergence in thinking about climate change and climate change decision making. Mak­ing thinking visible, we believed, is a primary step in co-generating expert knowledge and putting it to use in decision-making. Based on our team’s previ­ous work with visible thinking routines, we chose two tools for use in this context: concept maps and influence diagrams.

Concepts maps are simple, visual diagrams that link concepts (nodes) and propositions about them (connecting lines) from their creators’ perspectives (Novak & Gowin, 1984; Howard, 1989); they are used in many formal educational and informal learning settings as visual aides to learning as well as for assessment (Ritchhart, Palmer, Church, & Tishman, 2006; Novak & Cañas, 2006; Cañas, 2005; Stoddert et. al., 2000). Influence diagrams are graphs that show key variables of a system and the direction of influence of those variables. As specialized visualizations for thinking about risk, they have been used traditionally in risk analysis and risk communication processes, especially those involving both risk specialists and non-specialists, such as members of the public (Morgan, Fischhoff, Bostrom, & Atman, 2002).

Review of such visible-thinking with others can be valuable for several reasons: notably, individuals may refine, clarify, and negotiate individual understanding; diverging beliefs and values may be identified and honored without becoming the focus of discussion; unanticipated (from the researchers’ perspectives) ideas, beliefs and sources of fear or expertise may emerge (Wood, Bostrom, Bridges, & Linkov, 2012). The result is better communication within the group as well as a visible artifact for reporting back to that group (for member checking) as well as communicating to other groups (in this case university scientists and engagement professionals). Such outcomes have been demonstrated for many learning contexts (Kane, 2007; Markham, Mintzes, & Jones, 1994).

While sophisticated, computer-mediated, concept mapping has shown value in resolving conflict-laden social decisions (Trochim, Milstein, Wood, Jackson, & Pressler, 2004), these tools require familiarity with software, training of participants, and computer access. In engagement contexts, facilitators often do not have access to technology, and time is limited, so training is not feasible unless it is part of long-term efforts. Members of our team had had positive experiences with more “free-hand” paper-and-pen approaches to concept mapping in a variety of teaching, communicating and group-decision making processes, and we wanted to test such low-tech methods here.


Pre-workshop Surveys. Two workshops were planned for Port Orford in 2009. In consultation with the POORT conveners, the project team designed the workshops to address shared goals in a sequential way, to be partly planned and partly adaptive to what arose in the workshops. With the results of our previous coastwide survey, interviews, and group discussions as a foundation, the team invited prospective participants from Port Orford to take the same survey prior to the first workshop in 2009. Survey responses showed the working group-respondents strongly agreed that climate change was a concern to which both individuals and government need to respond. These respondents were also particularly agreed about their willingness to “take action in my work if I hear a sense of local urgency to do so.” In addition, while the respondents from Port Orford showed general similarity with coastwide respondents from the larger survey with respect to perceptions of climate risks,3 one notable difference was the Port Orford respondents’ emphases on livability and safety concerns. Knowing those community-based concerns helped prepare the university team for the workshops.

Climate Concept Mapping and Influence Diagramming. The initial workshop was conducted on a January 2009 afternoon and scheduled for five hours, beginning with a hosted lunch and ending by 5 p.m. The first activity began with the university team introducing the notion of “visible thinking routines” (Vygotksy, 1934/1986; Richert & Perkins, 2008) and the research that attests to the value to individuals and groups of making thinking visible. This was followed by a concise training on the rationale for and process of concept mapping. Two points were emphasized. First, by explaining the process through simple diagrams, (e.g., figure 2), we demonstrated that making a concept map is technically easy to do. Second, we underscored that the making of such maps enabled participation by all group members in a process of group understanding and co-generation of knowledge.

Figure 2. Concept mapping

After this ten-minute introduction, the team asked the 10 community participants to write on sticky notes their concepts of how climate change might affect their community. Only one effect was to be written on each note sheet. Following ten minutes of the group working independently and silently, the university facilitators then collected the sticky notes onto big sheets of paper. Asking the group members about the sorting as they proceeded, they organized the notes into a rough concept map that was later converted to digital format (figure 3).

During the sorting and organizing to create the concept map, group members considered how their individual elements were related to each other (such as causes, effects, or categories), and added new concepts (on sticky notes) to make certain relationships more explicit. From this activity, the group identified five broad climate change-effect categories of concern to them: effects associated with infrastructure, marine ecosystems, terrestrial ecosystems, economic issues, and extreme weather. In addition, the group generated new conceptual relationships from the primary groupings, pointing to second-order effects of a changing climate, such as new invasive species or new government regulations.

In the next step, participants were coached to create influence diagrams on poster paper by using the concepts generated in the previous steps. To begin, the learning researcher on the university team4 made a brief presentation to the group on influence diagrams, using a simple example of the risk of falling down stairs (Morgan, Fischhoff, Bostrom, & Atman , 2002, p. 37), in which an unseen toy on a staircase can cause a fall unless a decision is made to remove it. Influence diagrams are directed graphs, with arrows, indicating influences, connecting various “nodes” in a system. For our purposes, the nodes were causes, effects, and decisions that could be made to affect them. Then the task was presented to the group: to take one group/category at a time (e.g., Infrastructure effects) and list all of the risks associated with that category; identify what could be done to address each risk; and indicate who was or could be responsible for taking action.

 [Click for viewing “Figure 3. A community concept map regarding climate change”]

To model the task, two members of the university team (an Extension community planning specialist and the learning researcher) demonstrated the diagram-development process to the group with two categories of climate effects. These team members listed risks associated with the given category as community participants called them out, the list being written on poster paper on the wall for all to see. (The team members used the sticky notes generated in the previous step for reference, but did not actually pull them off of the paper, thereby retaining their agreed-upon concept placements.)

After 45 minutes of diagramming the first two effect-categories in plenary session, the group was divided into three sub-groups, each comprised of two or three individuals, to complete the remaining three climate-effect categories. Each group started with a separate category and was directed to refer to the initial concept map as a starting point for their development of a list of risks associated with the effects of climate change. After another 20 minutes, the groups shifted to consider and add ideas to diagrams on which the other groups had been working. Each group had a different color pen, so their contributions would be apparent. After five minutes, the groups shifted to their final diagram.

Following a ten minute break, the university team redirected the groups to consider what decisions could be made to lessen the risks identified previously. The task was posed as starting with your highest priority risk, identify some decision “nodes”–places where a decision needs to be made in order to mitigate or manage that risk.

As before, the learning researcher demonstrated the procedure, referring again to the textbook falling-on-a-staircase example, and then applying it to one of the influence diagrams. The three small subgroups were then directed to resume with the diagrams, using sticky notes for the decision nodes and identifying who is responsible for making that decision. Each group had a different color pad of sticky notes for identifying decision nodes. Each had 15 minutes at the first diagram and then about 5 minutes at the remaining maps to identify anything the prior groups had missed.

Finally, after another very short break, the question was posed to the working group: Who has, or should have, the capacity and resources to act on these decisions that you’ve identified?

Again subgroups went to one of the five influence diagrams to identify the person/organization who needs to make the decision (based on the decision node). If known, they were asked to make a note if that party has the capacity or resources to address the risk or decision.

Thus, after about three hours of learning from each other and working together, this diverse community working-group had shared and consolidated its views on the effects of a changing climate about which they were concerned. And they described and diagrammed the risks those effects posed, the decisions that could be made about those risks, and by whom, into influence diagrams.5

Inter-workshop Comparison of Influence Diagrams and the Climate Specialists’ Model. Prior to the workshops, as part of the project design the team produced a climate science influence diagram that visualized the major climate change effects for the Oregon coast as predicted by university and agency scientists. This diagram was reviewed by regional climate change experts and changed with their input. Following the first workshop, the university team transferred the hand-written “community” concept map and influence diagrams to digital form (using CMap Tools—available at The intent was to make all elements legible and in a more permanent, sharable form, thereby permitting both ongoing analysis of the maps and the ability to share the maps with participating scientists, other community members, and engagement professionals. The resulting digital maps are artifacts for keeping the conversation going in co-generative ways.

One step in that co-generation was to return to the climate specialist’s concept map described above that had been assembled prior to the workshop. The project team compared the concept maps created in the workshop by the community with this specialists’ map, to better identify where regional climate scientists’ knowledge, beliefs, and values met or diverged from those of the Port Orford community. This assessment would help guide the second workshop, where the similarities and differences between the scientist and community maps would be displayed and discussed in terms of options for how best to proceed with co-generating useful interpretations of available information for future local decision-making.

Participant EvaluationAfter the second workshop we planned a set of interviews to sample satisfaction and interest in future engagement. The plan was for two or three of the university team to interview by phone about half the working group participants with a set of questions.


Comparison of Influence Diagrams and the Climate Specialists’ Model. A critical question for a lay community group addressing a specialized topic is, how does our understanding compare to that of specialists in the topic? Comparing the climate science map with the maps produced during the workshop allowed project personnel and (ultimately) community participants to see where community knowledge, beliefs, and values coincided with or diverged from ongoing research and the knowledge, beliefs and values of regional climate scientists. There was actually considerable convergence.

Very little climate-prediction information was available that specifically focused on the Port Orford vicinity, a well-recognized limitation of much climate prediction, namely, that it largely depends on models which have focused historically on regional geographic areas (Sarachik, 2008). In the absence of climate science data specific to the Port Orford area, the team’s development of the Climate Specialists’ Model for the coastal Pacific Northwest provided a serviceable approximation6. The team noted similarities between what scientists and the community participants recognized as significant effects of climate change. To highlight this similarity and display additional information developed by the working group, the team compiled the community influence diagrams into a community model (Figure 4). The team’s premise was that organizing and making visible a great deal of disparate information in a diagrammed form might help the community members and climate scientists see connections clearly that might otherwise not be seen (areas of overlap between community members and climate scientists are emphasized in Figure 4 by darker colors).

The community model was structured in columns containing items that linked graphically and conceptually from left to right, from broader climate effects to primary biophysical impacts to biophysical risks to potential social/economic impacts to potential interventions. The final column considered “who is responsible” for making those interventions. Both the climate scientists’ and community models highlighted infrastructure effects, a decrease in drinking water, impacts on fisheries, and increased disease and public health effects. The Port Orford community members’ model differed somewhat in focus, with stronger emphasis on social impacts, including displaced population, increased isolation, disruption in local livelihood, and loss of jobs.

It should be noted that the community model assembled by the university team did not include every detail contained in the influence-diagram sources. Also, the number of arrows shown converging on a particular column-topic is an indication of the factors associated with that topic and the degree of participant attention on them, rather than a strictly quantitative valuation of importance. Indeed, we did not attempt higher-order quantitative analyses that are sometimes developed when both the specialist and lay models are more detailed than existed in our situation (Wood et al., 2012).

Participant Evaluation. An evaluation was conducted at the end of the first workshop simply to determine what participants liked or felt needed to be changed (for other workshops). Among other points, participants requested more information on climate change and community effects–indications that the workshop engaged them and prompted further thinking. One unexpected and positive outcome of the workshop training occurred shortly afterwards, as POORT staff put to use their training in developing concept maps in conducting a planning workshop of their own.

Following the second workshop, university team members interviewed by phone four workshop participants. The interviewees were asked the same questions7 and the interviews recorded and analyzed.

The interviewed participants described satisfaction with the workshops, stating that their participation caused them to consider risks of climate change that they would not have thought about otherwise and as they will affect their community (rather than as a global and distant issue). One participant noted the range of backgrounds of workshop participants and the civic importance of bringing such a range of community members to a shared understanding of the climate issue. Another participant noted that influence diagrams worked well as a workshop tool because it allowed the group to work together, with everyone included, and helped the group come to consensus.

[Click for viewing “Figure 4. A community model of climate change effects, risks, impacts, and interventions”]

The interviewees suggested how additional workshops and related activities could be of value to the community, and the university team began planning to implement these suggestions for the following years.

In addition, the working group appears to consider the visible thinking methods valuable: In a 2011 follow-up survey, seven of eight participants in the first workshop in 2009 (which focused on the concept mapping) considered “production and publication of concept maps and related diagrams” as of high or medium value. The aggregate score placed these methods near the top of a list of 10 project activities. The 2011 survey also revealed a modest improvement in the amount of information respondents held about how climate change would affect their work, over pre-project survey levels of 2008. And this working group had an undiminished willingness “to take action in my work if I hear a sense of local urgency to do so” (average 4.3 on a 5-point scale8 in both survey years). Yet the 2011 survey respondents perceived, as they had in 2008, no great sense of urgency about local climate change effects from others in the community.


This community engagement project follows the recommendations of a NRC panel (Dietz & Stern, 2008) in recognizing that public participation in planning can create significant value. It also mirrors the current understanding that public participation in research can have far reaching implications for the valuing and relevance of climate-related science for public audiences (Bonney, Ballard, Jordan, McCallie, Phillips, Shirk, & Wilderman, 2009). Rather than a notion of participation in scientific or technical decision-making in which citizens are viewed as a hindrance and are consulted only via a public “hearing” or some other partial involvement, often late in the decision-making process, the university team held the premise that the community’s knowledge, views, values, and the objectives that derive from them are not only legitimate in their own right but should be heard before the presentation of specialist knowledge and incorporated in the interpretation of that knowledge. In short, the reason to engage the community is a belief that doing so improves both the quality of science long-term (Bonney et al, 2009) and what the NRC termed the “quality” and “legitimacy” of the resulting assessments and decisions.

As crucial as understanding and making deci­sions based on climate science is to long-term com­munity resilience, these are very unlikely to occur with public participants of widely varying views if the process does not explicitly consider the values of the participants and make them part of the two-way conversation with university and agency scien­tists. Analytic techniques framed by non-communi­ty “experts” may reflect value choices that may not be shared by the community (National Research Council, 2005). Indeed, those facilitating climate-change discussions do well to remember that all par­ticipants—scientists, engagement practitioners, and other citizens—see the claims of science through the lens of their own values. These may be deeply held and not easily negotiated, as recent “cultural cogni­tion” research illustrates. That framework highlights the role of certain pervasive “cultural” values in the U.S.—labeled dichotomously “individualistic” or “communitarian”, and “hierarchical” or “egalitar­ian”—in determining individuals’ receptivity to sci­ence (Kahan, Jenkins-Smith, & Braman, 2010).

In exploring the creation and use of concept maps and influence diagrams as well as developing other visual thinking routines for co-generative dialogue (Tobin, 2006), this project provides useful experience on the value of these techniques. Learning research has previously identified (Halford, 1993) that the ability to visually represent thinking with concept maps and diagrams illustrates two essential properties of understanding: the representation and the organization of ideas. To understand a concept means having an internal representation or mental model that reflects the structure of that concept; a concept map makes that mental model explicit so that it can be reviewed with others. It furthermore makes the beliefs and values that underlie those mental models explicit for participants as they rationalize or explain their thinking and their maps to themselves and each other.

Using these visible thinking methods, the Port Orford workshop participants produced thoughtful and detailed assessments of climate change risks that their community faces. Further, they identified actions that could be taken to reduce these risks. For example, in the Marine Ecosystem Effects category they recognized that climate change could lead to a loss of biodiversity, which could cause a decrease in tourism, and this could be addressed through diversifying the tourism base, with the local Chamber of Commerce taking the lead.

Given the likely continuing need for attention to a changing climate, developing shared understandings through techniques such as the mental model diagramming used here, and then proceeding as the community has capacity and intent, seems to us very sensible.


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The authors gratefully acknowledge our other university collaborators in this project: Patrick Corcoran and Michael Harte, Oregon Sea Grant; and Joy Irby and Kirsten Winters, graduate students, Oregon State University. We also acknowledge helpful comments from two anonymous reviewers of this article. This report was prepared by Oregon Sea Grant under awards NA06OAR4170010 (project M/A-21), NA10OAR4170059 (project numbers M/A-21, A/ESG-7, and R/CC-14), and NA07OAR4310408 from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), U.S. Department of Commerce, and by appropriations made by the Oregon State Legislature. The statements, findings, conclusions, and recommendations are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of NOAA, the U.S. Department of Commerce, or the Oregon Legislature.

About the Authors

The first three authors are with the Oregon Sea Grant at Oregon State University. Joseph Cone is the assistant director and communications leader. Shawn Rowe is a marine education learning specialist. And Jenna Borberg is a marine program specialist. Briana Goodwin was a member of the Port Orford Ocean Resource Team in Port Orford, Oregon.


Port Orford is not exactly the quaint fishing village it is painted to be. Among other things, it is vibrant, diverse, hard working, and progressive. We have a very active artist community and a working port that contributes to a quarter of the jobs in Port Orford. The community is driven by dedicated volunteers and has a large retirement population. Port Orford was the first community on the southern Oregon coast to pass a community supported stormwater ordinance and gained successful designation as a community supported marine reserve.

Most conservation organizations in the area work with the resource users themselves to find the best possible solutions for the users and the environment. The Port Orford climate change workshops worked very well because they were locally driven, as opposed to people from outside of town telling residents what would work best for them. Local knowledge was truly respected throughout the process. The design created by the Sea Grant Team could work in every community as long as the community is willing to shape the process.

The Port Orford Ocean Resource Team (POORT), as the local coordinating body, was asked to determine and recruit workshop participants. POORT chose community leaders who had the power to disseminate information to the community and to inform decisions at the local level. To ensure that the climate working group would be able to successfully act once decisions were made, a diverse group of stakeholders were engaged including local politicians, conservation organizations, educators, and commercial fishermen. The diversity of the working group reflected Port Orford and ensured that multiple viewpoints would be considered in discussions. The group had a strong sense of how natural processes affect our local community.

The process used by the project team to engage the ad hoc group was very effective. Asking community group members what they thought established a level of trust and respect between the group members and the project team, quickly establishing rapport that increased the comfort level of participants and contributed to a willingness to participate freely.

Providing an opportunity for individuals to write their responses to all discussion topics before holding discussions as a whole group allowed even the most reserved of participants to have a voice. All discussions and ideas were written in an area that could easily be viewed by all participants. Using this visual process allowed group members to remain constantly aware of discussion topics, allowing members of the group to elaborate and build off of each other’s ideas.

The technique of creating influence diagrams in small groups was both efficient and effective. Each individual had the opportunity to record his or her own thoughts on the diagrams and then had the chance to discuss their ideas with small groups. This process was very thorough without exhausting participants’ attention. Creating the diagrams allowed for participants to stay within their comfort zones by including both oral and written forms of communication, thereby making it more comfortable for multiple personality types to engage in the process.

The strength of having community members create concept maps themselves is that a usable, community-supported document results. This process allowed the people that understand the community best to prioritize areas of vulnerability, thereby allowing the project team to provide focused information. Participants were able to take more out of the workshop because they directed the content.

The concept maps created from the workshop on climate change effects, combined with the influence diagrams, resulted in a visual representation of the community’s concerns, potential interventions and responsible parties. The concept maps made it easy for any community member outside of the ad hoc group to understand the discussions and conclusions of the workshops. Furthermore, having the community design the concept maps created a sense of ownership and responsibility when it came time to take next steps.

In Port Orford, a slow, careful process for decision making works best. Community members value being informed and having their questions answered before supporting any decisions. For this reason, the Climate Change Working Group chose to start small with their next steps to ensure community support before taking stronger action. The first step at the conclusion of the workshops was to make a presentation to the Port Orford Planning Commission about the increasing wave height and workshops. The commission was amenable to including changes in the climate in their comprehensive plan and was open to continuing a dialogue with Sea Grant and the Climate Change Working Group.

The mistake in this project was not setting up permanent, local support, which has left some of the action items unfinished. Though there was significant interest in continuing to meet, once funding diminished, the working group stopped meeting. In a community where volunteers are spread thin and the city planner is only on contract, it is necessary to staff projects such as the climate change working group. Fortunately, the concept maps, intervention, and responsible parties will not soon be outdated and could be picked back up if funding were to become available.

Briana Goodwin

Theoretical and Applied Perspectives on Power: Recognizing Processes That Undermine Effective Community-University Partnerships

Lorilee R. Sandmann and Brandon W. Kliewer


Interrelational power dynamics are intimately connected to the success of any relationship and are especially critical in developing and sustaining mutually beneficial, reciprocally engaged partnerships. This work analyzes how elements of power impact the negotiation of engagement in community-university partnerships. Although this piece is a general theoretical account of power, it indicates very specific implications for community partners. A hypothetical example is used to contextualize distinct power challenges that confront community partners and faculty members during the engagement process. Specific attention is given to how organizational structure, the academic calendar, and the creation of knowledge influence produced understandings of differentials in power and differentials in need. The paper concludes with a discussion of three applied strategies that can be used to neutralize differentials in power and recognize differentials in need associated with the development of community-university partnerships. The theoretical language of differentials in power and differentials in need will arm practitioners with analytical tools to shape more meaningful partnerships.


Relationships require nuanced and clearly orchestrated negotiations of power. The success of any relationship, regardless of type, is often tied to how interested parties negotiate expectations and obligations. Community-university partnerships are no different. Negotiating reciprocity and mutuality and maintaining a sustained relationship are fraught with power differentials. Most of the literature that investigates and theorizes power dynamics of community-university partnerships adopts the perspective of the university. However, there has recently been an effort to articulate a community voice in community engagement research (Jameson, Clayton, & Jaeger, 2010; Sandy & Holland, 2006; Stoecker, Tryon, & Hilgendorf, 2009). Despite this budding stream of literature, the theoretical basis of this research generally remains underdeveloped. Partners, often representing divergent orientations, strive to define their collaboration in terms of common interests and goals. However, partnerships exist within social and political contexts that produce differentials in power and inform differentials in need. If the practice of community engagement is to approach normative goals of reciprocity and mutuality, social and political structures that produce relative differentials in power and need must be recognized from multiple theoretical perspectives. This article analyzes how differentials in power and differentials in need impact the negotiation of engagement in community-university partnerships. Essentially, it confronts this question: How do differentials in power and differentials in need impact the negotiation of reciprocity and mutuality in the context of maintaining a meaningful “engaged” community-university relationship?

In order to work through the theoretical and applied elements of power, this paper is divided into three sections. The first section presents a hypothetical example, describing an engagement situation from the perspective of a community partner. The scenario situates the theoretical power dynamics that community partners must work through in order to initiate and maintain an engaged relationship. To construct a typical composite example, we have drawn the scenario from the systematic observation and study of community-university partnerships associated with a major engagement initiative of The University of Georgia. The second section relies on the hypothetical example to analyze how differentials in power and need influence the engaged relationship from the standpoint of community. The section considers aspects related to the organization of the university, the academic calendar, and the negotiation of knowledge production. The third section provides three applied strategies for managing differentials in power and need. The authors of this article, it should be noted, have not played the role of community partner. Rather our data and analysis come from rigorous study of both theories of power and community-university partnerships (Sandmann, Kliewer, Kim, & Omerikwa, 2010; Sandmann, Moore, & Quinn, 2012).

Hypothetical Example: Poliz City and a Concerned Community Partner 

Times are tough. The once-vibrant urban center of Poliz City has now withered to an unhealthy standstill. As industries shut down and relocate in the wake of the global financial crisis and subsequent economic slowdown, many local businesses and shops of the downtown area have closed, leading to urban blight and a significantly reduced tax base. The reduced tax revenue can no longer support the current level of public services (trash removal, sewage-related maintenance, public space maintenance, public employee pensions, etc.). In accordance with neoliberal theory and in the general interest of cost saving, essential social services have been cut from the city, local, and state budgets.

Cathy, a concerned citizen, knew that if nothing were done the situation would continue to spiral downward. Cathy and a small group of other citizens saw urban blight as the key problem that was stalling Poliz City’s economic and social recovery. However, Cathy lacked appropriate empirical and scientific knowledge to support her policy recommendations, as well as the “legitimated” and “empirical” language that is valued by most government, nongovernmental, and business organizations. She hoped that researchers and experts from the university could assist the community in contextualizing specific community issues in a manner that would support her policy approaches and lend credibility to multiple community groups attempting to address issues impacting the urban area.

Historically, the university and various elements within the community understood their objectives as being independent from each other. Cathy, and the community group that she represented, wanted to initiate a problem-based, hopefully long-term relationship with the university. However, after a few weeks of exploring potential connections with the university, Cathy still had no inroads into the university administrative structure. As a result, with the permission of the other key community partners, Cathy decided to work directly with a university partner. In doing so, she encountered three particular challenges. First, it was difficult to maneuver through the organizational structure of the university and make initial contact. Second, the academic calendar of the university did not mesh well with the community’s projected project timeline. Third, it was difficult for Cathy and the eventual university partner, Professor Robert, to agree on the type of knowledge to be produced from the partnership. Each of these not-unique challenges is discussed from the perspective of community and in terms of the potential tensions that can result from differentials in power and differentials in need. Overcoming tensions epitomized by these three examples represents an important step in producing a theoretical conception of power that supports meaningful community-university partnerships.

Organizational Structures and Initial Engagement 

Community-engaged scholarship ideally involves equitable partnerships characterized by mutuality and reciprocity (Boyer, 1990, 1996). Although these concepts are essential to community engagement praxis, research on community-university collaborations shows a wide range of differentiation (Driscoll, 2008; Enos & Morton, 2003; Sockett, 1998). The inability of community engagement practice to achieve these ideal standards can be tied to seen and unseen social and political structures, which not only produce relative differentials in power, but also contextualize the community engagement experience. In many instances, as in Cathy’s situation, the university is well structured, hierarchical yet decentralized, with its own procedural framework and infrastructure. The community represented by Cathy, on the other hand, is characterized by a lack of hierarchy and structure. One of the first obstacles Cathy had to overcome was entering and “engaging” with the university. Cathy did not know whom to contact to initiate such a relationship at the local university. Adding to the uncertainty, she had no specific project ideas that might help target a contact. She saw the potential to develop a variety of projects using both community and university resources, but this only expanded the number of potential entry points.

The lack of a clear entry point for Cathy to engage the university made it very difficult to initiate the process under terms of equality. Entering a highly organized, hierarchical, and formalized institution introduces degrees of power that shade any potential partnership. The community partner has to submit to a series of institutional structures and norms, but has no way of fully knowing what expectations are implicit when initiating contact with a university. In Cathy’s case the initial engagement not only was unnerving but produced differentials in power that threatened the partnership from the start. Our point is not to imply that initial engagement is always problematic. We do, however, wish to highlight how the structural organization of an institution can produce forms of power that undermine the viability of engaged partnerships.

Although university organizational structure posed a significant problem for Cathy in this case, differentials in power do not necessarily favor the university partner. Power differentials always occur in community-university relationships, but the community can sometimes be the more powerful partner (Van de Ven, 2007). This theoretical perspective applies equally to universities attempting to initiate a relationship with communities. Thus, just as negotiating the hierarchical yet decentralized structure of academia can be a daunting task for a community partner, organizational power within a community may also prove an obstacle for a university partner. However, discussions of the social, political, and anthropological dynamics of community power exceed the purview of this paper.

Cathy had to enter the imposing organization of the university to initiate the partnership. In this setting, values, internal structures, and bureaucratic patterns determine behavioral norms and influence performative actions. Entering the university structure and trying to learn and recognize these expectations without coaching or sponsorship placed Cathy at a power relationship disadvantage. The ways in which performative expectations can impact community engagement have been recognized in the literature (Miller, 1997; Moje, 2000; Smith, 1994). This dynamic can be particularly insidious for members of marginalized groups that lack certain performative behaviors and levels of social capital.

In a relationship characterized by mutuality, all entities are interdependent, all participate in the relationship, and all benefit in a commensurate manner (Still & Good, 1992). The differentials in power between the engaged scholar-researcher and the community partner affect the level of mutuality and reciprocity in the processes, purpose, and outcome of the collaboration (Stanton, 2007). However, a theoretical conception of power can enable partners to recognize sources of power differentials as elements that can enhance or undermine reciprocity. In practice, this could mean that individuals are able to recognize how contextual aspects of their organization influence and inform the partnership. For example, members of the professoriate are typically organized by academic disciplines and drawn to have a cosmopolitan perspective (Rhoades, 2009). Thus, the framework of the university might not be conducive to maintaining the types of partnerships that community partners’ desire. Understanding the basis for why community and universities have different orientations can help identify the origins of differentials in power.

Timing and the Academic Calendar 

Cathy was confronted with a second challenge once she navigated the differentials in power tied to maneuvering through the university structure. Professor Robert, the faculty member she eventually partnered with, would not be able to start the project until the spring semester, at that point six months away. In our hypothetical example, Cathy and the community wanted to start the engagement project immediately. However, Professor Robert could not accommodate this desire because his time was limited by work requirements for the academic semester. This is a case of differences in need challenging the effectiveness of a partnership in a context of power.

Differing time orientations often create tensions and lead to unstable partnerships. Community members may perceive a need to address their issues quickly, although doing so would necessitate taking action based on limited information. In contrast, academic norms and standards encourage faculty members to develop carefully designed courses and research projects. Such norms make higher education institutions significantly less dynamic than some community organizations. However, the need to follow carefully designed curricula and apply academic rigor in executing research moves institutions of higher education toward having longer timelines preceding a project. The time frame of semesters or quarters also places unavoidable time limitations on collaborations that involve students, such as service-learning projects. Timing can be thought of as creating a difference in need at the institution-to-institution level that cannot be solved through individual power negotiations. Moreover, the nature of the issue being addressed in the hypothetical example, Poliz City’s economic recovery, is likewise a structural and institutionalized issue not amenable to immediate resolution, regardless of how urgent it seems to community members.

Even when the intentions of both parties are genuinely committed to collaboration (Stanton, 2007), the university’s schedule and timing often constrain community actions. By necessity, universities operate on prescribed schedules and academic calendars. Partnerships can extend beyond the semester, but the end of each academic term represents an artificial stopping point that interrupts engagement projects. For the community, these interruptions, although brief, may be perceived as a threat to a partnership and remind partners of the differential in need. Higher education institutions commonly measure time in semesters or other academic periods, and community engagement projects are often made to fit within the academic calendar. For the community partner, however, the need to accommodate the university-based time frame can undermine the partnership. In the hypothetical example, negotiating the timeline of the partnership was a significant point of tension Cathy confronted.

Negotiating Knowledge 

Understanding the negotiation of knowledge from the community perspective requires an appreciation of the relationship between higher education and knowledge. Within the past 30 years, fundamental assumptions underlying the relationship between the economy, the state, and the university have changed. It was once accepted that the state and the capitalist economy were structured to allow for compromise between the social needs of citizens and the outcomes produced by the market. Guided by Keynesian economic policies, the “welfare state” mediated between principles of social well being and principles of the capitalist system. Within this framework, the knowledge created within the university was seen to promote a “public good” and was removed from private industry. Essentially, the Keynesian welfare state supported a “public or common good” that provided a baseline protection and social/political space that was free from the market rationality of the capitalist system (Harvey, 2005; Slaughter & Leslie, 1997).

However, at some point the guiding theoretical impetus that grounded the welfare state was undermined by an emergent acceptance and application of neoliberal economic and social policies. Privatization, deregulation, re-regulation, and a general deconstruction of the Keynesian welfare state became the model. “The financialization of everything,” according to David Harvey (2005), highlighted the emergence of neoliberalism as a hegemonic force that reshaped existing social, political, and economic institutions. This neoliberal movement also impacts a variety of elements of higher education.

Market principles have begun to influence the general operation and administrative organization of universities, which now “commodify” research, teaching, and even service to fit within the logics of neoliberalism (Slaughter & Leslie, 1997; Slaughter & Rhoades, 2004). Basic inquiry-based research that promoted a broad conception of the public good started receiving less financial support compared to research with potential commercial value. Slaughter and Rhoades (2004) tracked how academic capitalism influences all levels and elements of the university. Further research suggests that entrepreneurial pursuits within higher education have become the norm globally (Slaughter & Leslie, 1997), so that the very notion of knowledge and its relationship to the “public good” has become commodified. The distinction between the state, the university, and industry has been blurred and in many ways has been completely eliminated. Academic capitalism, as conceptualized by Slaughter and Rhoades and Slaughter and Leslie, has become so pervasive that it must be assumed, or at least recognized, when negotiating the outcomes of community-university partnerships. In order for the community partner to successfully negotiate types of knowledge that community-university collaboration may produce, it is important to account for the way academic capitalism informs the policy environment of the university and contributes to institutional pressures that might be influencing university representatives.

As a result of the general move toward commodification of knowledge, Cathy was required to define the type of research to be performed within the partnership in this context. Community stakeholders were applying pressure on her to produce research and data directly applicable to problems in the community. At the same time, the forces of academic capitalism were applying pressure on Professor Robert to produce a research article or scholarly product appreciated within the academic capitalism paradigm. Cathy’s need for applied problem-based knowledge put her in direct conflict with her individual university partner; that is, differentials in power and differentials in need coalesced to create a tension within the partnership.

Cathy had confronted the initial problem of engagement, involving differentials in power, and then a differential in need tied to the academic calendar. This third challenge involves differentials in both power and need. The negotiation of different structures and power assigned to different forms of knowledge was even more difficult for Cathy because she had no idea of the larger policy context that informed the basis of academic capitalism. The precedence of commodified research over applied and problem-based research has evolved through time and is not intuitive. From the perspective of the community, commodified and technical research creates an access point that often excludes non-academics.

Whatever the complexities of the relationship between the community and the university, the most important goal of the community is the fulfillment of social needs (Todd, Ebata, & Hughes, 1998; Wuthnow, 1999). Ideally, the university endeavors to adhere to the standards of engaged research as suggested by Glassick, Huber, and Maeroff (1997), including (a) having clear goals for the partnership; (b) making adequate preparation for the research, including strategies of relationship building; (c) the use of appropriate research methods; (d) having significant results; (e) effectively presenting or disseminating results; and (f) reflecting on the process. However, these multifold concerns may conflict with the community interest. For example, the generalizable results that academic capitalism demands may not satisfy community stakeholders’ desire for a more specific utilitarian solution. Tensions between community and university preference can be reconciled by overlapping theoretical conceptions of power. By overlaying conceptions of power upon community-university partnerships, we begin to understand how both conscious and unconscious structures and expectations need to be recognized in order to achieve meaningful partnerships based upon commitments to equality.

In practice, this might mean that Cathy can recognize differentials in need that inform differentials in power within the negotiation process by articulating the competing objectives from her perspective, thus directing attention toward specific points of disagreement. A focus on these points avoids counterproductive negotiations centered on the general disagreement of the partnership. For example, both Cathy and Robert have an interest in making the project beneficial for all interested parties. Both agree that data produced from an empirical study would be beneficial in addressing community issues. In this case the general disagreement lies in the type of knowledge to be produced. The point that triggered the disagreement and allowed power dynamics to impact the negotiation process was the desire for a given outcome: applied knowledge in Cathy’s case and commodifiable knowledge in Professor Robert’s. By focusing on this issue, the two can negotiate acceptable terms of reciprocity and highlight differentials in need. This approach recognizes differentials of power produced in a policy context that assign privilege to certain forms of research.

The goal of any negotiation process is to manage power dynamics and recognize differentials in need throughout the process. Negotiations at the individual-to-individual level that focus on the trigger point of disagreement can create a space where power dynamics remain static and the interested parties can resolve points of contestation without affirming differentials in power.

Further in practice, this approach can take multiple forms. Cathy could ask the following question: How can we ensure that applied research is rigorous and attempts to produce new knowledge? This approach focuses the negotiation process on the trigger point of divergence. Furthermore, this approach empowers the community partner to maintain the terms of the partnership by highlighting aspects of differentials in power and differentials in need.

The point of this discussion is not to create an indictment of academic capitalism but to demonstrate how community partners need to consider larger social, political, and economic factors when negotiating terms of reciprocity. Community members interested in negotiating reciprocity should ask university representatives about institutional pressures and work through probing conversations that negotiate the criteria of the relationship. Once institutional pressures that inform differentials in need are identified, community partners can begin to use a shared language that moves toward more robust understandings of reciprocity.

Practical Implications 

For a community partner, challenges tied to negotiating the terms of effective community-university engagement occur throughout the engagement process. Community partners can better understand sources of conflict by recognizing differentials in power and differentials in need. Generally, community members and university administrators ought to establish parameters of communication that recognize how seen and unseen structures can produce differentials in power and need. Partnerships are more likely to be successful if the terms of the relationship are transparent and are the product of a clearly outlined communication process. Structured communication ensures that a partner does not intentionally or unintentionally exploit differentials in power and that partners recognize differentials in need. Next, we present three applied approaches that can highlight how issues of power and need can be managed to support effective communication in community engagement partnerships.

Contractual Obligations 

A formal memorandum of agreement or a legal contract can serve as an effective basis of communication that recognizes differentials in power and need. Contractual agreements can define the obligations and expectations of each partner in the engaged relationship. Essentially, the contractual model creates a context that formalizes the communication between the community and university. This type of quasi-legal approach forces both parties to discuss the components of the relationship in very specific terms.

A major strength of the contractual approach is that it forces university-community partners to make tough decisions about the relationship up front. In most situations engaged relationships respond to conflict when it develops. The contractual approach opens lines of communication and might help prevent serious disputes from developing. Furthermore, the contractual process transfers both conscious and unconscious power differentials to a conceivably objective juridical space. Instead of confronting differentials in power on a case-by-case basis, contractual understandings of partnerships allow the stakeholders to address structural tensions in an environment that is free from the stresses of applied engagement. Said plainly, the contractual negotiation of power and engagement permits partners to discuss the terms of an engagement relationship before emotional and relational baggage develops. It is much easier to discuss power differentials in community-university partnerships in an abstract and indirect way, before the pressure of real circumstances can threaten to sour the relationship.

A drawback to the contractual approach is that it could create a very impersonal relationship. The optimal university-community relationship is nuanced and operates at both professional and personal levels. Effective engaged relationships are made up of people concerned with relevant community issues. Contractual obligations could create a rigid and distant relationship between the community and university.

Furthermore, the contractual approach assumes that the process that produces the contract equitably represents the views of each party. However, one party of the relationship might dominate the contract negotiations, creating an engaged relationship that is not reciprocal. In some situations, strong incentives or external pressures might coerce a partner to accept a contract that does not create a reciprocal relationship. Particularly in such a case, it is possible that the contractual structure will not account for all forms of power and need.

Communication Training 

A second way to deal with power and recognize differentials in need in engaged partnerships is by providing communication training for participants. Effective communication is the linchpin that holds most partnerships together. Communication training can be desirable because it develops communication norms and approaches that can help engaged partnerships maintain high levels of reciprocity. Claims highlighting the importance of communication and democratic equality are also supported in political and social theory in a variety of ways. As capitalism reshapes the social, political, and economic spheres, citizens are no longer connected to historical understandings of political community (Allen, 2006). Citizens and community members, generally, are losing basic skills of civic communication and literacy (see Formalized engagement training has the potential to develop the skills, attitudes, and communication patterns that not only support effective partnerships, but also jump-start deliberative democracy in this country.

A drawback to communication training is that some parties in the relationship might not be receptive; this approach also assumes effective communication is something that can be learned. Ideal-speech patterns tied to standards of deliberative democracy will likely marginalize groups not able or not willing to perform the communication norms (Habermas, 1984). Besides the potential to marginalize groups lacking certain speech and communication patterns, the time and expense associated with this approach might preclude it from being cost-effective. In addition, because participants would gain different levels of understanding from the training, communication might still break down even when overall levels of communication improve.

Regional/National Engagement Governing Institutions 

Although an unlikely solution for dealing with differentials in power and recognizing differentials in need, regional/national engagement boards, created to regulate and ensure standards of engagement, would have the potential to be highly effective in producing more reciprocal engagement relationships. Unlike statewide Campus Compact organizations, which catalog and connect partners, these proposed institutions would go one step further and act as a governing body. They would have the power to accredit engagement units, set professional standards, establish rules and regulations, and resolve conflicts between partners. The Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching applies its community engagement classification (http://classifications. engagement.php) to assess whether institutions of higher education achieve a threshold of engagement institutionalization. However, there is the potential to develop a more robust community engagement governing board that moves beyond the description and general assessment of community-university partnerships. Conceivably such governing boards would be a type of combined regional accreditation body and mediation board.

The main benefit of this type of institutional arrangement would be standardization of processes and levels of engaged partnerships. Although the previous point highlights the potential of a governing board approach, many issues remain that could limit the success of the proposed organization. For example, many community engagement parties might be reluctant to surrender their own levels of internal autonomy to external governing bodies.

From a financial, decision-making perspective community engagement efforts at most colleges and universities operate at the fringes. However, community engagement seems to be trending toward widespread academic recognition. As of 2010, over 60 colleges and universities offered a degree for some curricular program tied to community engagement, civic engagement, or community studies (Butin, 2010). Looming social, political, and economic crises might also create a window for community engagement to enlarge its function within academia as an avenue for renewing the larger public purposes of higher education. As more campuses offer academic programs, degrees, and certificates tied to community engagement, the likelihood of the conditions changing to support a national governing and accreditation board would seem to increase. Such a body could help move community engagement toward the core of the university by defining engagement standards as they apply to individual academic disciplines.


Management of interrelational power dynamics is intimately connected to the success of any relationship. Engagement partnerships between the community and the university are no different. As this article has demonstrated, how flows of power are understood depends on the subject’s position in the relationship. From the community partner’s perspective, this initial theoretical analysis provides a framework that can inform the engagement process and define a structure that can be used to communicate the impact of power.

More than a decade has passed since Ernest Boyer (1996) called upon the academy to reconsider its public purposes. The civic and community engagement fields have come a long way during this time. However, as a practice we are reaching a critical point in academic engagement maturation. Student affairs, academic affairs, and to a lesser extent faculty units, have produced very dynamic student and community programming for various forms of engagement. Also, it seems to be clear that service-learning pedagogies and forms of community-based research have secured a place within the university structure (Sandmann, Thornton, & Jaeger, 2009). Many challenges remain despite all these points of success, but community engagement scholarship is now in a position to critically examine the praxis without fear of reprisal.

Recognition of limitations and weaknesses within the civic and community engagement practice must be brought into the daylight with the confidence that critical examination can only strengthen the approach. Civic and community engagement will achieve its true potential only if community practitioners and university scholars collaboratively and honestly address these issues. Scholarship and practice need to begin considering public engagement in relation to larger social, political, and economic issues. Traditional administrative assessment will always have a place in community engagement programming, but it is now time to consider how civic and community engagement efforts impact larger real-world issues. The focus should be on measuring the substance of partnerships and the degree to which conditions in the social, political, and economic spheres are impacted by these partnerships. The standard of success should be the degree of impact, not indicators tied to legitimizing the administrative structure of community engagement within higher education. We recognize that this work addresses only three of the many issues that would constitute a full account of power. Further theoretical work is needed in order to develop a more complex articulation of power in the context of engagement. The future sustainability and success of academic engagement depends on creating a theoretical basis that grounds descriptive and empirical research, particularly from the neglected community perspective.


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About the Authors 

Lorilee R. Sandmann is a professor in the Department of Lifelong Education, Administration and Policy at The University of Georgia. Brandon W. Kliewer is an assistant professor of civic engagement at Florida Gulf Coast University.

Assessing the Culture of Engagement on a University Campus

Nancy Franz, Jeri Childers, and Nicole Sanderlin


This article describes one team’s efforts to assess the culture of engagement at Virginia Tech. The team utilized a two-pronged approach to analyze the current culture of engagement on campus. This included focus groups with faculty, administrators, and graduate students in two colleges at the university to address pedagogy, implications, and practical issues related to engagement. Analysis of college strategic plans was also completed to assess language related to engagement and engaged scholarship. We found why faculty, administrators, and students conduct engagement work and the challenges and opportunities of doing so. We also discovered what criteria these individuals use to determine quality engagement, what they believe engagement on campus should look like, and the products derived from engagement work. This article describes our team’s efforts and documents the lessons learned to inform similar efforts on other campuses.


Enhancing the engagement culture on a university campus is a multifaceted effort. These efforts range from a one way outreach from the university to the community, to continuing education offerings, to applied pedagogy, to community-based research.

Despite the incorporation of the term “engagement” into strategic plans, mission statements, and organizational structures, outreach and engagement activities are often not fully institutionalized or as highly regarded as other missions of the university. As a result, how to more fully incorporate engagement into the academic cultures of our universities has become a national discussion. These discussions are especially salient for land-grant universities, for which engagement is a stated mission. These institutions continue to work to institutionalize and enhance engagement on their campuses.

A key component of catalyzing cultural change is assessing the current culture of an institution to inform an appropriate change strategy. This project as part of that work examined what Virginia Tech faculty, graduate students, and administrators perceive as the engagement culture on campus. The team conducted eight focus groups with faculty, graduate students, and administrators in two colleges at the university—the College of Natural Resources and Environment (CNRE) and the College of Architecture and Urban Studies (CAUS)—with the intent of further refining the definition of engaged scholarship, identifying barriers to engagement, enhancing opportunities for engagement, and creating internal and external opportunities for engagement collaboration. Engagement terminology and intent was also analyzed in campus strategic plans to assess the culture of engagement at Virginia Tech.

The Literature That Guided Us 

O’Meara, Saltmarsh, and Sandmann (2008) frame the paths institutions take in strengthening the culture of engagement in their institutions. Holland (2005a, 2005b) described the steps on the path as levels of institutional commitment to community engagement and provided a framework for assessing commitment and culture change. Institutions with high commitment to community engagement view engagement as a central and defining characteristic, making it visible in mission statements, strategic plans, leadership rhetoric, organizational structures, curricula, promotion and tenure practices, hiring guidelines, external communications, and capital campaigns. This commitment is fully integrated into the fabric of the institution. Evidence of its integration is measurable as shown by the Penn State UNISCOPE project (Hyman et al., 2001- 2002).

Ryan (1998) identified the competencies required of both leaders and institutions committed to a culture of engagement. Kezar, Chambers, and Burkhardt (2005) outlined the institutional change process in the academy, describing the institutionalization of engagement in terms of a national movement within higher education and as a process of culture change on campuses. Kezar cites key methods for facilitating organizational change that are evidence-based and measurable. Sandmann (2008) conceptualizes both the pathway of institutionalization and the role university leaders play in shaping and transforming the culture of engagement.

The change process requires institutions and institutional leaders to intentionally build a culture of engagement, including building an infrastructure to support the development and delivery of programs that provide measurable and sustainable results. Fostering leadership commitment requires the president and provost to develop a network of leaders across institutions that are able to articulate the vision, mission, and strategy of engagement and engaged scholarship (Childers et al., 2002). Creating and fostering a network of leaders with these competencies for engagement becomes a major mechanism of organizational change. A key role of administrators in supporting culture change is to make engagement visible in rhetoric and in demonstrated results, such as rewarding faculty, celebrating engaged scholarship, providing internal funding for engaged scholars, and aligning vision and practice (Driscoll & Sandmann, 2004). Driscoll and Sandmann (2004) clearly define a methodology that institutions can use to prepare the ground for assessing institutional culture and for providing administrative leadership to support engaged scholarship. Their work informed this study by providing a framework for assessing the culture, developing the focus group questions, and for shaping the analysis and recommendations. Their findings related to 1) assessing and achieving “institutional fit” for engagement, 2) setting an inquiry-based agenda for assessment, 3) identifying connections between engaged faculty, 4) supporting engaged faculty, and 5) exploring criteria for assessing and evaluating engaged scholarship and informed our study and serve as an excellent starting point for other institutions assessing institutional culture and readiness for institutional change. In particular, their findings indicate that the critical element of this assessment is determining the expectations that faculty and administrators have for engaged scholarship. Seeking the answer to this question became the cornerstone of our study.

Ramaley (2002, 2005, 2011) described how higher education institutions achieve transformational change and become learning organizations. In 2011, at the Virginia Tech program the Engagement Academy for University Leaders. Ramaley provided a framework and described processes of routine institutional change, adoption of innovation or strategic change, and transformative change and how engagement is viewed by institutional leaders during these change processes. Ramaley highlighted measurable steps that promote deep change and influences of the adoption process. Her framework facilitates the study of the institutionalization process and its impact on students, faculty, and the institution itself.

Any adoption of innovation within a university causes shifts in the organization’s culture. Universities that have adopted engagement, that is embedded the values and principles of engagement into the mission statement, strategic plan, faculty roles, and reward policies, and operating practices of the institution will have undergone organization and culture change. The scholars of engagement have studied organizational change in higher education and noted that the movement toward institutionalization of engagement in the organization’s culture is not a short or easy path and that some institutions may not succeed on their initial attempts at culture change (Holland, 2005b; Levine, 1980; Sandmann & Weerts, 2008). While the scholarship of engagement has yet to be fully embraced widely across institutions or disciplines, an increasing number of early-adopting institutions are moving down the path of culture change. Sandmann and Weerts (2008) have developed a framework of analysis of organizational culture that can explain why some institutions embrace engagement and why some institutions struggle with the change process. A key component of the ease of adoption is related to the change strategy used to introduce change. The first step in developing an appropriate change strategy is assessing the current culture of the institution. There are a number of strategies that can be employed during the assessment process.

Goals and Methods 

To assess the culture of engagement at Virginia Tech, the research team strove to:

• Reveal actual practice at the university

• Refine the definition of engaged scholarship

• Include all types of faculty/staff, diverse colleges, and administrative units

• Identify barriers

• Enhance opportunities

To meet these goals, a mix of research methods was utilized. First, eight focus groups were conducted with 62 faculty, graduate students, and administrators in two colleges (see Table 1). The College of Natural Resources and Environment (CNRE) and College of Architecture and Urban Studies (CAUS) were chosen for two reasons: a) their disciplinary traditions as applied colleges with strong outreach and engagement activities and b) members of the research team worked within these colleges and therefore had access to key administrators and faculty in each college. Internal Review Board (IRB) human subjects approval was secured in order to undertake this research. The focus group protocol was then piloted with select graduate students before full implementation. Second, strategic plans from all Virginia Tech colleges were also attained and analyzed for attention to engagement using Holland’s matrix (1997).

Table 1. Project Focus Group Participation Summary

This section explains the rationale and procedures for conducting focus groups and document analysis in this study.

Focus Groups 

Focus groups bring together a group of people to discuss a particular topic or range of issues. Focus groups are designed to determine the perceptions, feelings, and thinking of participants about issues, products, services, or opportunities. In addition, focus groups are regularly used to provide insight on organizational issues (Krueger & Casey, 2009), and are commonly found in organizational research (Schwandt, 2007).

As outlined by Stewart, Shamdasani, and Rook (2007), there are several signature aspects of focus groups useful to this study. First, focus groups allow the gathering of qualitative data from individuals who have experienced a particular concrete situation that serves as the focus of investigation. In this case, the situation was engagement at Virginia Tech. Second, focus groups aim to better understand the group dynamics that affect individuals’ perceptions, information processing, and decision-making. As described by Patton (2002), through the interaction of key actors in focus groups, data quality is enhanced as “participants tend to provide checks and balances on each other” (p. 386). Additionally, in a group setting participants stimulate each other’s responses, often leading to an exchange of ideas that might not occur through one-on-one interviews (Krueger & Casey, 2009). Capturing these dynamics is important when exploring the colleges in which faculty work. Third, a main belief behind focus groups is that live encounters with groups of people will yield incremental answers to behavioral questions that go beyond the level of surface explanations, thereby revealing deep insights (Stewart, Shamdasani, & Rook, 2007). As such, the group involvement of focus groups often elicits emotions, associations, and motivations not revealed in individual interviews.

In addition to these aspects, there are several additional advantages to utilizing focus groups. Focus groups serve as an efficient source of data collection, as the researcher learns the perspectives of numerous individuals within the span of approximately one hour (Patton, 2002). In addition, the open response format of focus groups provides an opportunity to obtain large amounts of rich data in the respondents’ own words (Stewart, Shamdasani, & Rook, 2007). Finally, focus groups are enjoyable for participants, (Patton, 2002), which encourages sharing of perspectives. Because discussions are relaxed, participants often enjoy sharing their ideas and perspectives (Krueger & Casey, 2009).

Despite these advantages, there are some limitations to focus groups. Participants may not share complete or genuine perspectives due to political concerns or group think (Cresswell, 2005; Patton 2002). Group think is a phenomenon in which individuals may conceal or confuse their personal perspectives to appear in alignment with group trends and priorities (Carey & Smith, 1994, Fontana & Frey, 1994). In other words, the concern that others in the group may disagree with their perspectives or that their answer could reflect negatively on them could cause participants to suppress or invent an answer (Krueger & Casey, 2009). To compensate for these potential weaknesses, focus groups in this study were completed with multiple groups within each college. Two focus group sessions with faculty and one focus group with administrators allowed comparison of responses within each college. In addition, a second data collection method—document analysis of strategic plans—was utilized in this study to provide triangulation of data with focus groups and field notes.

Focus Group Procedures

Focus group participants for each of the two colleges and three groups from within each college (faculty, administrators, and students) were chosen through convenience sampling (i.e. potential participants were selected from those who were close at hand). The CNRE and CAUS associate deans created a list of faculty involved with engagement work and invited them to attend the focus groups. Sixteen faculty members participated in the two CNRE focus groups and 22 faculty members participated in the two CAUS focus groups. For the administrators’ focus group, all administrators were invited to attend by their dean or an associate dean. Seven administrators from CNRE and six from CAUS participated in the focus groups.

For the graduate student focus groups, an invitation to participate in the research project was sent twice through the graduate school’s announcement listserv, which reaches all graduate students enrolled on or off campus. A total of six students participated. Although college affiliations were not targeted for graduate student participants, those students who responded and participated were all enrolled in CNRE and CAUS, respectively. The five graduate students participating in the focus group pilot also granted permission to use their comments for this project.

Although focus groups allow flexibility in the content and sequence of questions asked, it was important to maintain consistency of procedures across all the focus groups. First, in cases in which consent forms had not yet been signed and received, they were presented, read, and signed before the focus group officially began. Second, as recommended by Merriam (1998) and Patton (2002), the facilitator took minimal notes during the focus groups to maximize listening and eye contact. To capture ideas and comments, between two and five note takers were present at each focus group. Third, each focus group ended by inviting participants to share other information related to the topics discussed and inquiring if participants had any further questions about the study. By opening the door for additional insights and addressing participants’ concerns, the researchers sought to maximize the benefits of the focus groups.

Following the recommendations of numerous qualitative research experts, conversations of all focus groups were audio taped (Merriam,1998; Patton, 2002; Stewart, Shamdasani, & Rook, 2007). Audio taping was useful to provide a complete record of the discussions and a reference for voice inflections and other nuances not captured by note takers during or after the focus group sessions.

Document Review

Collection of documentation was an important part of this project. Although documents may include a wide range of materials (Miles & Huberman, 1994; Stake, 1995; Patton, 2002), in this case the documents reviewed included strategic plans from seven Virginia Tech colleges and the Graduate School.

Analysis of the strategic plans served important purposes for this study. First, documents provide exact information (Yin, 2003). Since organizational processes in higher education institutions tend to have a paper trail that can be mined for empirical research (Patton, 2002), documents enable the researcher to not only confirm, but provide complete details on evidence presented in interviews and focus groups (Merriam, 1998; Patton, 2002; Yin, 2003; Creswell, 2005). Second, documentation is an unobtrusive way to obtain and assess data (Yin, 2003). Lastly, documents enable the researcher to make inferences about the culture of engagement at the institution, to be explored during focus groups (Yin, 2003). Information in documents also provided context and confirmation for data collected from focus groups. For example, by observing the strategic plans of the two colleges studied, the researchers could observe the frequency and levels of engagement communicated by each college, thereby confirming comments made during focus groups.

Table 2. Methods Used to Improve Credibility, Trustworthiness, and Transferability

Document Collection Procedures

The documents utilized in this study were strategic plans from the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, College of Architecture and Urban Studies, College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences, College of Business, College of Natural Resources and Environment, College of Engineering, the College of Science, and the Graduate School. To collect these documents, the researchers first searched the websites for each of the eight units to locate plans posted online. In cases where plans were not available online, the dean of each unit, through his or her assistant, was contacted and asked to provide the strategic plan for their college by email. These plans provided documentation of college-wide work, including priorities, objectives, and strategies.

One challenge in the document collection process involved revisions to the strategic plans. Some colleges were updating their plans at the time of this study. Therefore, a few strategic plans were more current than others, depending on the college revision processes.

Data Analysis

Focus group data were analyzed by hand, noting common themes within and across groups. Researchers coded lines in the notes to identify emerging themes. Quotes from the notes were then arranged around each theme. After the coding process was conducted by individuals, the team as a group compared and contrasted interpretations of the themes and patterns. This practice moved back and forth between inductive and deductive processes across focus groups. These procedures follow the case analysis processes suggested by Eisenhardt (1989) and grounded and pattern theory approaches to data analysis (Cresswell, 1998; Strauss, 1987).

Several steps were taken to enhance the credibility, trustworthiness, and transferability of the data (Koch, 2006; Anfara, Brown, & Mangione, 2002; Guba & Lincoln, 1989; Rogers & Cowles, 1993). Table 2 describes these actions in detail.

Strategic plans were plotted on the engagement matrix (Holland, 1997) and compared with focus group findings. Key word comparison was used to plot the plans on the matrix.


At Virginia Tech, specific factors are perceived by faculty, graduate students, and administration as leading to successful engagement. Findings are summarized in Figure 1. Most often discussed about the engagement culture was the role of promotion and tenure for measuring the impact of engagement for faculty. A variety of results from successful engagement were also identified. Specific findings are detailed below.

Figure 1. Campus Engagement Model

What is engagement? Three predominant perspectives on engagement were expressed in the focus groups. Engagement was defined as: a) one way outreach from the university, often continuing education offerings (it is interesting to note that this definition is not consistent with the definition and principles of engagement and is evidence of a lack of a shared definition of engagement), b) student learning through service-learning and other forms of applied pedagogy, and c) human satisfaction through problem solving, development of reciprocal relationships, trust building, contributing to the common good, and increased reputation and self-esteem. Some faculty saw engagement as a natural part of the research process.

Why do faculty, administrators, and graduate students conduct engagement work? The main reason these individuals engaged with communities was for the intrinsic value of the experience. They also believed engagement helped them keep in touch with industry and professions to be aware of trends, issues, and opportunities for student career development. Finally, they believed engagement improved their teaching and research efforts. One faculty member said, “The community has more to give me than I’ve had to give them.”

What are the challenges to conducting engagement work? The most voiced challenge in conducting engagement work was faculty recognition. All participants felt the promotion and tenure system and administrators do not fully value engagement or that engagement “doesn’t count.” Other commonly voiced challenges to engagement were the time needed to develop partnerships and other engagement logistics, funding for engagement activities, and the differences between academic and community cultures. One long-time faculty member said, “Everyone who I have seen try [to get promotion with engagement work] has failed.” Another said, “The university has a fundamental structure and culture that runs counter to engagement.”

What are the opportunities created by engagement work? The most common benefit of engagement was the enhanced reputation of students, faculty, and the university. Participants also said engagement can lead to better teaching and research, funding for projects, valuable connections with those outside the university, and career development for students. As mentioned by one faculty member, “They [students] are really excited to work with actual people on actual projects.”

Who does engagement? Most focus group participants believed engagement is the responsibility of everyone on campus due to the land-grant mission and the university’s motto, “That I may serve.” Campus centers and groups were specifically mentioned that focus on engagement. There was a strong feeling that people who conduct engagement work are those with a passion for it. Some faculty and administrators believed this work is best carried out by those with tenure.

Where does engagement take place? Faculty and students engage with a wide variety of audiences in many venues from local to international. Some faculty feel the campus climate values and supports international engagement work more fully than local engagement. One faculty member said about her local work, “If Appalachia was another country, [my engagement work] would be highly valued.”

What criteria determine quality engagement? Participants most often felt the hallmarks of quality engagement were ongoing, reciprocal relationships with community partners, the ability to evaluate and share the impacts of engagement, and serving a need or solving problems. Other criteria for quality engagement included feedback from partners, ownership by the community of the project, co-learning between partners, scholarship, pedagogical impact, personal development, and being meaningful for all involved. One faculty member summed up the criteria of quality engagement as, “Serves a need, solves a problem, addresses real world issues, is targeted, relevant, and has duration.”

What should engagement look like? Overall, participants want engagement to be more fully supported and valued. Suggested methods for how this might be achieved included improved integration of engagement in the promotion and tenure process and increased support for engagement through the words and actions of administrators. Specific recommendations included increased funding to support engagement work, the provision of release time, sabbatical, and graduate assistant positions, mentoring and training for faculty, logistical assistance for engagement projects, and networking opportunities with other faculty. They also requested changes in the academic culture to more fully address community needs since academic and community needs often differ and this can stall action. Other suggestions to enhance engagement were expanding the university’s engagement strategic plan focus, work load balance with other missions, and to make engagement voluntary for faculty. One faculty member said he needs “a system where we’re not swimming upstream.” Overall, faculty want more support for engagement activities but not in exchange for increased bureaucracy.

What are the products of engagement work? A variety of engagement products were mentioned by participants. The general categories were scholarship, physical artifacts (i.e. plans and designs), successful long term partnerships, student development, faculty development, project development, enhanced personal and institutional reputation, and enhanced teaching and research. One senior faculty member said, “I’m asking better research and scholarly questions due to engagement. [My work is] more relevant and more powerful.”

What are the similarities and differences on perceptions of engagement between focus groups? Overall, the CNRE focus groups centered more fully on research and engagement while the CAUS groups focused more on teaching. The CNRE faculty described the natural complementarity of discovery and engagement while the CAUS faculty described teaching and engagement as fully integrated. There were no notable differences between faculty and administrators within the two colleges on these topics. This difference in perception may be due to the nature of norms of the disciplines in these two colleges (Diamond & Adam, 1995).

Faculty believed engagement improves teaching and research. They were worried about measuring engagement and the mixed messages they get from administration on the value of engagement. For example, they found the recommendation to convert engagement into publications as a sign that administration does not understand what engagement is or the time it takes to conduct it. Finally, faculty believed engagement is critical for transformation of student perceptions and practices.

Students saw engagement as real life application of academic work. They believed faculty need more training in how to engage with communities. They believe the term “service” has baggage in communities. Students also believed one goal of engagement work was to tell the untold or underrepresented stories about communities. Overall, students were more focused on the personal benefit of expanded learning as a result of engagement rather than how engagement could fit into teaching or research.

What do college strategic plans say about engagement? We assessed the level of engagement and engaged scholarship in college strategic plans using the Holland Matrix (1997). It was often difficult to find language pertaining to the concept of engagement and engaged scholarship in the plans. However, no one college strategic plan ranked consistently high or low for support of engagement. The majority of college mission statements did not reflect engagement but the plans showed strong integration of engagement into external communications and fundraising with stakeholders. According to the plans, institutional leadership and the organizational structure supported engagement, but all colleges ranked low for supporting engagement through promotion, tenure, and hiring. This was consistent with the findings of the focus group discussions. There were a variety of degrees to which colleges described the integration of engagement into student involvement and curriculum. All but two colleges described integrating engagement into faculty involvement with community-based research and learning. Almost all of the college strategic plans indicated support for community involvement through partnerships with communities.

Other thoughts about engagement from the focus groups. Participants offered a variety of suggestions for improving the engagement culture at Virginia Tech. These included sharing engagement models from other universities, encouraging a bottom-up approach to culture change, providing more opportunities for faculty to meet and learn from each other about engagement, provide more incentives for faculty to engage, and recognition that engagement is not always consistent with the university as an economic enterprise. They also suggested that engagement needs to be more clearly defined internally. As described by participants, the community members that faculty and students work with are not concerned with the scholarship of engagement—how engagement work is termed or defined by the academy—as long as they get help with problems and issues.

Lessons Learned 

What seemed like a relatively straight forward plan to determine what faculty, administrators, and graduate students in two colleges at Virginia Tech believe about engagement instead became a study of a very complex concept. We hope these lessons below help other institutions with engagement work.

Building on the University’s History and Vision. Virginia Tech has a long history of engagement due to its land-grant status, motto, and long held values of public service. This history positioned the institution well to more fully integrate engagement into the university’s culture that resulted in receiving a Carnegie Engagement Classification, being awarded the C. Peter Magrath/W.K. Kellogg Foundation Engagement Award, and creating a campus Center for Student Engagement and Community Partnerships. These actions converged as a critical tipping point in institutionalizing engagement at Virginia Tech. Assessing the culture of engagement on any campus is context-specific. Other universities undertaking a similar assessment should design assessment tools with their specific history, context, vision and mission in mind.

The Need for Recognition and Rewards. The major theme that surfaced from all groups was that engagement does not count as much at Virginia Tech as it should and that more support is needed to carry out strong engagement. When you unpack the issues embedded toward this sentiment from an organizational perspective, there is evidence that the institution does not have a unified view of scholarship or a unified typology for publicly engaged scholarship. There may also be a lack of a shared understanding of how to appropriately document this scholarship for accurate assessment and evaluation of the scholarship within the department, college, or institution. This finding is consistent with the literature on engagement (Doberneck, Glass, & Schweitzer, 2010; Finkelstein, 2001; Nicotera, Cutforth, Fretz, & Summers- Thompson, 2011). However, in spite of this perception, everyone we interviewed highly valued engagement both personally and professionally for students, communities, faculty, and the university. Focus group participants were highly motivated by the intrinsic value of their engagement activities even though they perceived an absence of extrinsic rewards such as promotion and tenure.

We discovered that words count. Faculty, administrators, and students want to know how the university defines engagement and why it should be conducted. It is also clear that incentives count. Everyone felt the engagement culture at Virginia Tech could be enhanced by providing a variety of ways to recognize and reward quality engagement. A joint effort by university administrators and faculty to tenure and promotion guidelines could improve recognition of these activities. At Virginia Tech, the Committee for Outreach and International Affairs could serve as a catalyst for this process. At other institutions committees should begin the process of reviewing reward mechanisms for engagement work in collaboration with those faculty members who are heavily engaged. One example of this process is the Penn State UNISCOPE effort (Hyman et al., 2001- 2002).

Faculty, students, and administrators believe engagement is more than service-learning. They asked that a wide portfolio of engagement topics and activities be recognized and valued by the university. These appear to be important levers for catalyzing cultural change in disciplines, departments, and colleges.

Incorporating Student and Faculty Paradigms. The difference in perspectives between graduate students and faculty should be noted. Passion for engagement expressed by students is based on giving back to communities and helping unheard voices be heard. On the other hand, faculty and administrators focus on the academic benefits of the engagement process such as improved teaching and research. A productive engagement culture would ideally incorporate both of these perspectives—both the personal, intrinsic value of engagement work as well as the scholarship of engagement. Future research to assess university culture would benefit by including the perspectives of graduate students, many of whom will become future faculty members and will thereby shape engagement activities on their own campuses.

Integrating Teaching, Research, and Engagement. Faculty and students often articulated the tensions between academic and community work. To address many of these tensions they integrated core elements of their academic work with their community engagement. For example, faculty indicated their work with communities improved their research questions and helped them generate increased revenue through grants and contracts. They also stated that students more deeply understood how theory works by applying it to community-based projects. Graduate students intentionally integrated their community engagement into course assignments and research projects. It is clear that faculty and students who successfully engage with communities as academics focus on integration rather than separation of academic and community work.

Connecting Engaged Faculty Members. The design of our study to include focus groups as a methodology was an intentional effort to connect faculty members who are conducting engagement work. We also started each focus group with participants providing case studies of engagement work. This helped set the stage for those who are cautious about engagement to get a better sense of what those faculty actively involved in engagement work were doing. Indeed, a theme that emerged in the focus groups with faculty members was that they wished for more opportunities to connect and network with other faculty members across the university who are also conducting engagement work. As individual interviews would not have allowed for these connections and conversations to occur, focus groups were a highly successful method to enhance personal connections.

Expanding the Definition of Engagement. We discovered in our focus group conversations and in follow-up discussions with engagement groups on campus that some people are trying to expand what counts as engaged scholarship while others are trying to make engaged scholarship fit the traditional revenue generation and research publication lens. Participants in this project felt the traditional scholarship lens does not recognize the intrinsic value of engagement, the time and effort required to conduct engaged work, the value of locally and regionally disseminated knowledge, and the lack of refereed publication venues. These different approaches to defining and shaping engagement as a part of scholarship illustrate that future assessments of campus culture would benefit from discussions with faculty, administrators and students about how they themselves define engagement and how it is defined in their disciplines or at other institutions.

Shaping Culture as an Act of Scholarship 

The research team’s project design aimed to contribute to the scholarship of engagement. We designed the project to provide scholarly products about engagement. We gained Institutional Review Board approval for the project and made participants fully aware of our intent to share what was learned about engagement in scholarly ways. We chose to involve a variety of partners using action research methods to help determine the best next steps to enhance the engagement culture based on our findings.

Providing Tools and Resources. We discovered that strategic planning documents at Virginia Tech take on a variety of forms and use a variety of lenses in their development. A next step to more fully communicate engagement and engaged scholarship intentions through strategic plans could include 1) using consistent engagement language in all strategic plans across the university, 2) making administrators, those who create strategic communication plans, and those faculty participating in the strategic planning process more aware of the distinctions outlined in the Holland Matrix, 3) addressing the lack of information on the relationship of engagement to promotion, tenure, and hiring on campus, and 4) aligning the strategic intention and rhetoric. In many cases, institutions have aligned promotion and tenure policies with the strategic intent to elevate engagement but there is a lack of awareness of the policy changes, a lack of a unified view of scholarship, and/or a lack of consistency in the messages in strategic communications across the institution.

A theme that emerged in the focus groups was that many faculty were unsure how to go about measuring engagement. It appears that models of a wide range of engaged scholarship products or artifacts and specific efforts to help measure engagement that leads to those products could be the most important lever for changing the engagement culture on campus.

All of the focus group participants felt there was a wide variety of resources available to help them with their engagement agenda. However, they didn’t know much about these resources. The project team suggested developing an online engagement toolbox for faculty, students, and engagement partners to address this need and to help unify the engagement entities on campus. We found it is critical to have a clear vision for who owns and maintains the website to ensure long term benefit for users.

Learning about Culture Change. Culture change is a slow process and must involve a broad cross-section of the university to be successful. It is very much an evolutionary act rather than a revolutionary one. Clear definitions of new terms, a wide range of engagement models, and engagement champions appear to be critical elements for culture change. We found change processes work best when they are inclusive, not exclusive. In fact, we hope our work will stimulate conversations with campus staff and engagement partners to determine how their perspectives are similar and different about the engagement culture for a more holistic and successful engagement effort.

Limitations of the Study

This qualitative study focused on the engagement experiences at one university and may not reflect the engagement culture or context at other institutions. The two colleges selected for inclusion in the focus groups were chosen based on the visibility of their outreach activities and a historical tradition of engagement at this particular university and may not reflect all disciplines and units at the university. The faculty and administration in this study were invited to participate by administrators so may have felt obligated to participate. Staff were not included in the study since we were specifically interested in the faculty engagement experience and their perspectives of the administrators who guide them and the students they work with. A needed expansion of this research would include the perspectives of staff involved with engagement activities. Also, there was minimal student participation. In spite of these limitations, we believe all institutions, academic units, and disciplines working to enhance community engagement will find helpful suggestions and affirmations in our findings and lessons learned.


Despite strategic emphasis on engagement, for a strong university-wide engagement agenda to be sustained as an integral part of the daily life of the university, faculty members need to see benefit to their own professional development as well as benefits to students, the university, and the community. With increasing pressure for faculty members to demonstrate excellence in research, scholarship, or creative activities, faculty members’ engagement efforts need to be recognized and valued by the principal advancement structures of the university, the promotion and tenure process, and other relevant reward structures. Traditionally, outreach and engagement activities have not been as highly regarded as other missions of the university. Ultimately, those faculty involved in engagement work must voice their perceptions of the value of engagement work. To generate broad support for engagement among the faculty as a whole. Engagement activities must be viewed as equal with other missions in the evaluation of faculty.

Culture change is never easy for large organizations. However, change can often be catalyzed by listening to the voices of those closest to the points of change and taking action accordingly. This project discovered, through the voices of faculty, administrators, and graduate students, that engagement is a multifaceted and complex phenomenon that requires a holistic and intentional change strategy at many levels. The passion for engagement work at many institutions is clear. However, the academic context often runs counter to the engagement culture. Universities need to find mechanisms that bridge these gaps to enhance engagement.


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About the Authors

Nancy Franz is associate dean for extension and outreach for families and 4-H youth director at Iowa State University. Jeri Childers is a fellow at the Center for Organizational and Technological Advancement at Virginia Tech. Nicole Sanderlin is director of international programs in the College of Engineering at Virginia Tech.

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.


Bruning, S.D., McGrew, S., Cooper, M. (2006). Town-gown relationships: Exploring university-community engagement from the perspective of community members. Public Relations Review, 32, 125-130. DOI: 10.1016/j.pubrev.2006.02.005

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Fisher, R., Fabricant, R., & Simmons, L. (2004). Understanding contemporary university-community connections: Context, practice and challenges. In T.M. Soska and A.K. Johnson (Eds.), University-community partnerships: Universities in civic engagement. Binghamton, NY: The Hayworth Press.

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Shannon, J., & Wang, T.R. (2010). A Model for university-community engagement: Continuing education’s role as convener. The Journal of Continuing Higher Education, 58, 108-112. DOI: 10.1080/07377361003661499

Thornton, C.H., & Jaeger, A.J. (2006). Institutional culture and civic responsibility: An ethnographic study. Journal of College Student Development, 47(1), 52-68.

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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.


Anderson, D.K. (2006). Mucking through the swamp: Changing the pedagogy of a social welfare policy course. Journal of Teaching in Social Work, 26(1/2), 1-17.

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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.