Demands for Racial Justice Necessitate an Examination of Current Community-University Partnerships

By Castel Sweet, University of Dayton

“What the people in the streets are now demanding [is] that we interrogate as institutions–and [as] education institutions [we] can’t insulate ourselves from that conversation–is do we really understand that we are not just in the community but of the community? And are we prepared to look at the institutional policies and practices to see [whether] or not this toxicity of racism has affected what we do in the world?”
Thomas Parham, Ph.D. (president of California State University, Dominguez Hills)
CUMU August 2020 Virtual Forum on Anti-Racism Efforts

The historical moment in which we find ourselves has called for us to deeply reflect on how and why we engage in community-university partnerships. The murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis, MN, sparked widespread civil unrest that shines a light on the ongoing racial injustice experienced in this country. In the days following, as a video of yet another African American being killed at the hands of police reached the public, millions of people immediately took to the streets in demand for justice. Justice for George Floyd. Justice for Breonna Taylor. Justice for Ahmaud Arbery. Justice for Black Lives. Making demands for police accountability, for racial justice, and systemic change.

Just as swiftly as organizers and activists rallied communities together, corporations and businesses began to release solidarity statements and letters of support in rapid succession. Institutional leaders expressed concern for ongoing racial injustice, endorsed the mission and work of Black Lives Matter, and often pledged themselves to championing racial justice and committing to anti-racism. Yet this cascade of pronouncements did not diminish active efforts by members of the Black community and their allies who continued to call for urgent change. They called for the type of change that requires governments, institutions, and organizations to interrogate their complacency and contributions to the oppression of Black Lives. And, as California State University, Dominguez Hill President states in the above quote, that call also urges education institutions to examine our policies and practices.

We should not only hear that call but answer it. And we should do so with the same urgency that colleges and universities are reviewing campus operations with preventive measures in mind to reduce the spread of COVID-19. This means reflecting on our community engagement practices with a lens of racial justice in pursuit of being anti-racist institutions. In pursuit of racial justice, we must decolonize the way we approach community-university partnerships. We must ask uncomfortable questions, be open and transparent in acknowledging any offenses, and commit to actively addressing faults with the approach of humility and respect. We must identify and eliminate harmful practices that continue to marginalize Black and Brown communities.

"Upon comprehensive review of our existing practices, it may be that we identify the need to cultivate new partnerships that better align with our journey towards racial justice. This could mean shifting away from partnerships that tend to be transactional and toward partnerships that are equity-focused and address the root causes of systemic injustices."

We must also acknowledge that standing in solidarity with the Black community and other oppressed communities may require us to relinquish control of the practices and policies that influence how we engage. Relinquishing control means reflecting upon who is making decisions that impact community partnership and what knowledge and perspectives inform those decisions. It means not only inviting community representatives into conversations about engagement activities but prioritizing their contribution to the development and implementation of policies that guide partnership practices. This should include not only nonprofit organization leaders but also the perspective of individuals such as neighborhood residents or members of particular communities who are directly impacted by community-university partnership initiatives and practices. Instead of approaching community engagement as a form of humanitarian aid or service, we must create space that values the knowledge, contribution, and full participation of communities. Alternatively, by establishing the procedures and circumstances under which we partner without the guidance of the communities with whom we are partnering, we are reinforcing institutional power and privilege.

Upon comprehensive review of our existing practices, it may be that we identify the need to cultivate new partnerships that better align with our journey towards racial justice. This could mean shifting away from partnerships that tend to be transactional and toward partnerships that are equity-focused and address the root causes of systemic injustices. The process of rethinking community-university partnerships through a lens of racial justice calls us to be better advocates and more transparent about our individual and institutional awareness, or lack thereof, of racial injustice and how it manifests itself in our local communities. In lines with sentiments behind the proposal of AB 1460, a California bill to make ethnic studies and racial justice a requirement for undergraduates in the California State University system, the need for a deeper, sociohistorical understanding of inequality is more critical than ever. Therefore, ensuring opportunities for students, staff, and faculty to increase their awareness and recognition of systemic injustice, and their own role in creating a more equitable world, is something we should be well-positioned to accomplish as higher education institutions.

Even in this time when it is difficult to gather, learning communities through organizations such as Campus Compact, the Place-Based Justice Network, and the Coalition of Urban and Metropolitan Universities are holding space for representatives of higher education institutions who are committed to engaging with their local communities in ways that not only reflect a value of reciprocity but do so with the intent of deconstructing systems of oppression. Conversations are taking place around ways anti-racism can and should be centered in our missions and initiatives, methods for incorporating community decision-making into research agendas, and how to identify and remedy ways in which we have perpetuated racist ideas in existing community-university partnerships. In addition, the Association of American Colleges and Universities is working with a number of institutions to develop Truth, Racial Healing & Transformation Campus Centers that will increase the capacity of higher education institutions to bring about transformative change on campus and in the community by addressing the historic and contemporary effects of racism while advancing equity. Therefore, while we recognize that the journey ahead will be difficult, and that the transformations needed in community-university partnership practices will not be manifested overnight, we must also acknowledge that a movement is already underway and that we would benefit from joining together with our progressive associations, community engagement professionals, and engaged scholars who are actively doing the work to start the process.

The time is now. Not only are we watching history, we are making history (for better or worse) through our response to the demands for justice and change. Let’s not look back on this time in history and see just another statement of solidarity or letter expressing concern. As we enter a new year, let’s resist the impulsive desire to comfortably return to old ways of doing things. Let’s take advantage of this moment, examine our community engagement practices and policies, and make the needed changes to ensure we are not contributing to the racial injustice in our communities, but doing our part to eliminate it.

castel sweet headshot

Castel Sweet
Castel is the Director of Community Engagement and Diversity, Equity, & Inclusion in the L. William Crotty Center for Entrepreneurial Leadership at the University of Dayton. In her work, she supports the cultivation of intentional engagement practices through the center’s experiential learning programs and strategic initiatives.