November 20, 2014

Community Engagement: Who is Best Served by Service Learning?

TigonzalesBy Teresa Irene Gonzales

Community-engagement. This is a term that is used quite a bit amongst college and university presidents, administrators, faculty, staff, and students in thinking about ways that colleges and universities can bridge the town-gown divide between university campuses and the towns, neighborhoods, and/or cities in which they reside. At the same time, it’s a hot topic given the Obama administration and the Department of Education’s support for initiatives surrounding community and civic-engagement and learning.

Some colleges view community-engagement as a form of service and require students to clock-in service-learning hours via volunteerism. The belief is that students have useful skills and resources (particularly time) that may benefit a variety of communities. Through their work in various different types of communities, the students in turn gain work and educational experiences.

If implemented with only the university’s goals in mind, this process, however beneficial it may be to students, can unintentionally replicate social inequities and may place a further burden on the off-campus community group or agency that partners with the university.

Community-engagement often centers on low-income neighborhoods and residents that are within close proximity of the university. This perception of what is meant by “the community” inherently sets up a class-based dichotomy of the wealthy university (“the gown”) that has the resources (time, money, technical expertise) to help the poor communities (“the town”) that surround it.

Even when these activities include students or faculty who may come from low-income backgrounds, university members working with (and sometimes for) “the community” are at an advantage in terms of power and privilege. This may result in either a savior complex (“I just want to help them and I have the resources to do just that!”) or guilt complex (“I feel bad about my privilege and so I must help them!”). Furthermore, in helping underserved low-income populations, universities and colleges gain valuable PR and marketing strategies as institutions committed to the public good. All of this, however, runs contrary to the true nature of community engagement.

In Progressive Community Organizing, Loretta Pyles suggests that community-engagement is a way for individuals to become embedded within a community (however one wishes to define that) and move towards collective action via community building. A community can be a college campus, a family, or a defined geographic area like a neighborhood, among other things.  Community-engagement is also about building relationships, listening to what off-campus community members envision the community to look like, and working together to create that vision.

In her study of engagement practices on five campuses, sociologist Susan Ostrander claims that civic-engagement is about moving away from questions and issues that only faculty or students deem worthy of investigating. Instead, she highlights the need for faculty and students to work on questions and issues that off-campus communities believe are important. This includes creating a truly collaborative and reciprocal partnership with off-campus community members that benefits both the learning goals of the university and the needs of the community partner. Ostrander claims that community-engagement is different from service-learning because there is a scholarly component, and collaboration (or cooperation) between the university and a community to develop solutions to off-campus community-defined social issues.

Recently, I’ve encountered a number of discussions that revolve around ideas and theories of community-engagement. For instance, I was recently in Chicago for a university-sponsored conference on ways to think about urban development. Much of the conversation centered on increasing cross-collaboration among various private and public development agencies (both in terms of human capital and physical bricks and mortar development) and improving the quality of life for all of Chicago’s residents without engaging in displacement or gentrification.

During the keynote address, the audience was introduced to four sixth graders from the Bradwell School of Excellence in the South Shore neighborhood of Chicago. As fifth graders, these students (and several of their classmates) wrote an opinion piece to the Chicago Tribune as “a counternarrative to the constant negative publicity their neighborhood [and many like theirs] receives as a result of gun violence.”

The audience previewed a short video that showcased a number of the Bradwell students narrating a part of the opinion piece. After we watched the video, the four students in attendance detailed their dreams and goals, and also commented on the ways that they intend to stay engaged with their neighborhood. Given the power that discourse has in shaping public opinion, the creation of these counternarratives serves as a way for these students and their teacher to create an active intervention and control the discourse surrounding them, their neighborhood, and their community.  

In the article (which was picked up by several Chicago news stations) and throughout the video clip, the students highlight the short amount of time that outsiders, in this case local news journalists, spend in the neighborhood. The students state: “we saw your news trucks and cameras…we want you to know us…if you listen…this is home. This is us.”  The keynote address provided an uplifting reminder that children from poor and African-American communities can be articulate, smart, critical thinking, and that they matter.  

At the same time, however, both the keynote and the article highlight ways that various types of communities (most often poor and/or including residents of color) are excluded from conversations surrounding development and placemaking. The article and keynote were an intentional intervention into the processes of placemaking and its attempt at including residents in development plans.

Yet, although conference organizers and audience members celebrated this intervention, the rest of the conference was aimed at conversations with public officials, executive directors from various nonprofit and philanthropic agencies, sociologists, and urban planning practitioners about how development could and should look. Furthermore, audience members were comprised of mostly graduate and undergraduate students, professors, and heads of various public and private organizations. The Bradwell students were not asked how they would like South Shore to look, and residents from a variety of other neighborhoods around the university were not asked about the issues that they would like addressed during the conference. Given the aim of the conference this could have been a great opportunity to either begin or continue to foster those conversations.

Maybe this particular conference was not the time or the place for those discussions. If universities are increasingly working towards bridging that town/gown divide and are receiving public funding to engage in collaborative activities, how can students and faculty work to ensure that we’re creating true collaborative relationships that move beyond tokenization and don’t further marginalize off-campus communities? In thinking about our home institutions, how does your university address service-learning and community- and/or civic-engagement?


Thank you for stirring the conversation, Teresa. I coordinate service learning at Lewis University, and these concerns echo some of my own about perpetuating stereotypes and, yes, the "savior" mentality that you mention. I continue to worry that we're sending out privileged students who are largely if not entirely oblivious to their privilege and may think that paternalistic/maternalistic responses are a chance to "do good" for others as if community members cannot do for themselves; collaboration and humility are often missing. I appreciate your reminder that community voices are the ones that should set the pace for the conversations and actions we engage in the "community." While overall, semantics are not the heart of your blog, I would encourage us to clarify what we mean by the various labels we give service in the community. For instance, service learning and volunteerism should not be used interchangeably; my hope is that the former enriches curricular efforts and the other is a co-curricular attempt to encourage students to grow a desire to serve throughout their lives. But HOW we serve is so very important and how we SEE those with whom we serve and ourselves as "servants" is essential to transforming the "town-gown divide." Thank you again for enhancing the conversation.

This community engagement approach proved to be a very effective strategy in project delivery. However, this project outlined that community engagement is essentially the ‘starter motor’ to a service delivery model that prioritises community development.

Very good presentation.

A thought provoking article.

Nice article Teresa. I think all universities should embrace community engagement philosophy

all work and no play makes a student a non-mingler

Beneficiaries are limitless

great article

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