Embedded Engagement: Communities Magnify the Value of Engaged Practices


Embedded Engagement: Communities Magnify the Value of Engaged Practices

Theme: Embedding Engagement

Zoe Freeman
Activity Coordinator / Volunteer Coordinator
Pike Market Senior Center, WA
Constituent Group:
Community Partners

The occasion of the Campus Compact 20th anniversary celebration, and the challenge of being included in the group of authors invited to share a personal vision of “embedded engagement” offers the opportunity to look forward — to speak in the language of possibility — and to do so to a large, diverse audience. This paper is written from a community partner perspective and will reflect my convictions, gained over fourteen years of working with service-learning students at the Pike Market Senior Center in Seattle.

The theme suggested for this essay, that of “Embedding engagement more deeply,” is an attractive one, especially if it applies to all institutions. From the community perspective, when speaking of all institutions, the vision goes beyond the campus. If the full potential of communities and campuses, mutually engaged, with the goal of benefiting society and stopping the erosion of natural resources is to be realized, community institutions must also aspire to embedding engagement. It is my view that the next phase of growth toward embedding engagement can receive a boost from strong community campus partnerships. Community voices inviting the academy to join them in finding solutions to global problems can magnify the value of engaged practices. Active community partners can help to fix the concept of engagement firmly in the mind of campus partners. Best practices and proven success can erode resistance to embedded engagement.

This paper, then, speaks of a vision for the future of our cities and communities, where issues of social inequity and environmental degradation are met with informed, lasting solutions. This future can be made possible by infusing communities with the capital of the accumulated wealth of our higher education institutions — a wealth that encompasses the resources of knowledge, ideas, research, technology and labor. This paper speaks of a vision for the future of higher education — a future where leadership and faculty believe in the high purpose of education: to educate students to be members of an informed, active citizenry. It speaks to a future where all our institutions of higher education commit themselves again to teaching democratic values and engagement in civic society.

In saying that our campuses will re-commit to the public purpose of education is to say that they have, somehow, left this enlightened purpose behind. Many within the field of higher education have been influenced by the same materialistic and commercial values as have influenced our media and our politics. It wasn’t always so.

“With the American Revolution arose the need for enlightened public servants for our democratic society. The Founding Fathers determined that colleges were institutions for training those leaders to their civic duties. Indeed, the president of Bowdoin College, in 1802, asserted that colleges were for the common good and not the private advantage of those who attended, and students had a peculiar obligation to exert their talents for the public good.”

(Dr. Toni Murdoch, President Antioch University in Seattle, commencement speech, June 8, 2006. Dr. Murdoch is now chancellor of Antioch University’s six campuses nationwide)

A large number of educators are finding their way back to the public purpose of education through teaching models that offer students the opportunity to take their newly gained knowledge on the road, so to speak. Teaching practices that combine classroom work and research with learning and serving in community have existed for several decades, since the 1960s. The advent of the coalition of university and college presidents, uniting to promote these teaching models, and the birth of Campus Compact, brought an insurgence of interest in connecting the classroom experience to real needs in cities and communities. Community based co-curricular activities and service-learning have become more visible on campuses. But, while there has been great success in developing civically engaged campuses, there is much yet to be done in raising the awareness of some educators and administrators to the duty of instilling a knowledge base that is connected to the real world experience — and to carry this awareness to a level that connects the student to his/her community responsibilities.

How, then, do leaders and educators who have a utilitarian view of higher education find their way to teaching civic responsibility? Or, how do educators who pride themselves on rigorous classroom experience make the leap to infusing their courses with the concepts and practice of community engagement? The former must see the practicality of sending students outside campus walls; the latter must see that community engagement will not mitigate the student’s learning experience.

Promoting the advancement of engaged practices within institutions of higher education cannot be the primary goal when planning and developing service-learning or other partnership projects. The goal must always be to address and solve the identified issues. But the topic of “embedding engagement” allows for a focus on a secondary benefit to promoting partnerships – that of catching the eye of those who are not yet engaged in teaching for the benefit of the larger society. It is my view that this is where the community voice can make the difference.

This voice, if it is to be heard by those who resist the service-learning movement, must be passionate and knowledgeable. These qualities show forth if campus partners take seriously their commitment to creating infrastructure that supports preparation of community groups to take their place in the partnership. Well-deepened community partners will understand the connection between the student’s experience in the classroom and his/her experience of civic engagement. If the work done through community campus partnerships is to be noticed by those who are still questioning the value of teaching civic engagement, these partnerships must carry the identifying marks of effectiveness and sustainability. Partnerships must be founded and continued on such solid principles as the Community Campus Partnerships for Health’s nine principles of partnership, developed in 1998.

Once an institution has defined its role in a partnership, it can take the next critical step of engaging the community. In this process an institution of higher education can view the entire society that surrounds it as a potential learning ground where students will engage in practices of civic responsibility. In this discussion of “Embedding engagement more deeply across all institutions”, I will discuss factors which I believe will lead to more active and stronger commitments from communities.

When campus advocates for community and civic engagement take their convictions to the community, marketing the benefits of getting campuses and communities together to solve problems, these groups will then push back on the academy with interest and enthusiasm, making engagement all the more possible. Certainly, strong and effective community campus partnerships already exist. What is being discussed here is taking these partnerships to new levels. What is suggested is going to professional coalitions, associations and councils. The community leaders who comprise the membership of these groups, if well informed of how community campus partnerships can get things done, will then encourage their member organizations and constituents to get involved.

Awakening to the public purpose of mission is not just the responsibility of higher education. Community organizations, also, have an obligation in this dynamic that is most often not acknowledged. When mission statements are written they focus on an identified population or issue and how the needs of this population or issue will be served, or addressed, through the work of the organization. I believe firmly that these mission statements should also include the role the organization has in educating the next generation to continue the work. I believe it is the obligation of community organizations to share their work with the greater community — to invite fresh ideas and insight into their work if it is not to become stale. The training of the young is not just the role of the academy. Community organizations employ experts in their fields. These organizations contain a body of knowledge already in practice — a body of knowledge that should be demonstrated to the public. Community campus partnerships offer the perfect opportunity for community organizations to fulfill their obligations to the public purpose of their mission.

If a community organization is to participate in embedding engagement there must be a buy-in to the partnership by the entire organization. It is no longer enough for just one or two individuals within an organization to act as partners. Executives and boards of directors need to embrace partnerships with campus programs that will help them achieve their institutional goals. The only reason for an organization to welcome and work with student learners is the clear connection between the presence, and service of the student, and the accomplishment of the organization’s mission. This evidence will lead to institutionalizing service-learning within community organizations.

As with the campus partner, the community partner wants to engage in projects that will be effective and sustainable. People working for an agency or organization do so with limited resources and time. Evidence of progress in accomplishing a goal has to be measured and reported to governmental and private funding partners on an ongoing basis. If a community group can see that partnering with a campus will be productive, the partnership will be welcomed.

The availability of campus resources to cities and communities is still a relative secret. There are fine examples of service-learning everywhere. When one thinks, though, of the possibilities that await, possibilities of growth in numbers and types of partnership projects, it is clear we are only just beginning to make a difference. Greater creativity is needed when envisioning partnerships. Increase of public information about the mechanisms of service-learning will engage more community groups.

“Embedding engagement more deeply across all institutions” is a joint effort between campus and community leaders. The discourse promoting embedded engagement has until now taken place on the campus. Now and in the future, the discourse must welcome the voice of cities and communities. If students in higher education are to be educated for their role in an engaged, intelligent citizenry, campuses should be seen as having doors open to the influx of knowledge and experience that surrounds them. If cities and communities are to meet the ever-changing challenges to which they awaken every day, they need the infusion of resources available to them through the channel of community campus partnerships.

Do you have something to say? Leave your remarks in the dicussion.

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