Want to Dance? Community-Campus Partnerships as a Place of New Energy, Insights, and Knowledge Development

November 27, 2017

By Nora Pillard Reynolds, Globalsl editor

Not Dancing, but Disappointment: Moments in the Middle

  • I’ve sat in meetings as “the community partner” and listened to faculty/ administrators suggest that their students – freshman who do not speak Spanish – spend one week in Waslala, Nicaragua to provide our organization with recommendations about how to do microfinance. Keep in mind, during that conversation, no one asked about our Nicaragua team’s experience implementing microfinance programs over the past few years. We had already engaged in and evaluated a pilot micro-lending project – the evaluation can be viewed here.
  • I’ve read marketing materials that state that these same university students provided expertise and built water systems in Waslala….with no mention of our local team which included a certified water system technician.
  • I’ve sat at a conference and received a call that our Nicaragua office was broken into – all computers stolen, and there was concern that the police chief was complicit in the robbery. I’ve headed to the hallway to take the call and put some next steps in motion and returned to the pre-conference session to discuss how to “better understand our community partners’ perspectives.”
  • I’ve had “community partners” come to me with published articles they’ve found online about their organizations and ask me what they say – to translate the articles they didn’t know were written about them or their organization.
  • I’ve worked to justify the value and rigor of qualitative methods to a room full of engineering faculty who just kept asking: “But what are you measuring?”
  • While facilitating a faculty workshop on ethical community partnerships, I’ve been told, “but you have capacity (in comparison to other community partners), you’re one of us (presumably because I was a PhD candidate).”

As I finished my PhD coursework and the time came to start my dissertation, I was scared. I was scared of combining my love, my drive, my motivation – Water for Waslala – with my “job” – my dissertation. I was scared that converting my vocational work as a nonprofit leader to the plodding methodology of dissertation development would ruin the fun. I figured, I could keep moving forward in both of these worlds, carrying both of these parts of myself separately.


At work with colleagues across different settings
TOP – Presenting at the IARSLCE conference in 2016 with Eric Hartman & Cynthia Toms; BOTTOM – Heading to a meeting with Water for Waslala team member, Dennis Taleno.

I could continue leading an NGO, continue achieving our mission in Waslala, Nicaragua – access to clean drinking watercontinue gaining credibility for our organization in the NGO world and in the WASH (water and sanitation) sector. At the same time, I could research, could complete a dissertation to move forward in academia. I made a choice to step right into the middle. Into the middle of….

  • Practitioner & scholar
  • Nonprofit leader & researcher/ academic
  • My complex positionality
  • The “messiness” of participatory methods
  • The hard work of exploring the nuances of language and translation in Spanish and English
  • And the time consuming and tricky nature of participation at the dissemination stages of research….of who tells the stories of our community-university partnerships.

In the middle, I encountered discomfort – I had to put myself out there. In the nonprofit world, or at least in the community where I work in Nicaragua, my friends and colleagues are skeptical about the value of research to “actually impact” what is going on in the world. Revealing my identity as a researcher to nonprofit colleagues felt uncomfortable at times. In academia, most faculty have not been exposed to or simply dismiss methodologies and traditions that clearly value the knowledge and expertise that community-based organizations bring to the table. Sometimes sharing that I spend a large amount of my time “en el terreno” focused on evaluation that may not have a strong (at least explicit) theoretical grounding, felt like I compromised a degree of credibility in the university world.

I am learning how to move between these worlds – conversations in someone’s home become “semi-structured, open–ended interviews using ethnographic methods” and vice versa. The middle feels uncomfortable. Yet it is a space of learning. Stepping into these tensions is what led me to grow as an individual. Walking through these tensions with many collaborators is what helped Water for Waslala pursue partnerships as the path to support access to water and sanitation and, ultimately, launch the Alianza Agua Para Waslala.

Finding community across spaces perceived as separate and different, and growing with that community, is fundamentally what globalsl is about. These disparate communities may be methodologically distinct fields, indigenous or modernist knowledge systems, or campus and practitioner methodologies and assumptions.  We work to collect and share insights of others who have worked across spaces like this, such as CCPH and Imagining America, or through the individual reflections of people struggling with and through this work like Kari Grain, Sarah Stanlick, Richard Slimbach, Richard Kiely, and Brandon Blache-Cohen. Another scholar-practitioner’s work recently helped me understand this. I hope it’s helpful for you too (below), and that it will inspire you to share some of your story. (If you’re a globalsl reader, I imaging you can identify).

In exploring the existing scholarship about communities of practice, I read Wenger’s (2000), descriptions of boundaries and brokers…and I suddenly thought, “that’s what I’ve been trying to say!”

“There is something disquieting, humbling at times, yet exciting and attractive about such close encounters with the unknown, with the mystery of ‘otherness’: a chance to explore the edge of your competence, learn something entirely new, revisit your little truths, and perhaps expand your horizon” (p. 233).

I saw my stepping into the middle in the description of brokers. Wenger (2000) writes, “although we all do some brokering, my experience is that certain individuals seem to thrive on being brokers: they love to create connections and engage in ‘import-export’ (p. 235). I heard my putting myself out there in the sentence, “brokering knowledge is delicate. It requires enough legitimacy to be listened to and enough distance to bring something really new” (p. 236).

I’ll use the language of brokering while writing a conference proposal, but if we head to grab coffee together, I’ll ask you, “do you want to come dance in the middle?” I’ve been lucky to find some folks willing to dance in the middle with me (in this growing GSL community of practice) because that is where we know we come alive, where those interactions happen that you remember, that change you. To me, the middle is where the potential, possibility, and learning resides. It’s where we’re going instead of where we’ve been, and it is growing through tensions created by perceived dichotomies. In addition to our regular GSL Summits, what globalsl works to do is span boundaries and operate as a community of practice among diverse positionalities and perspectives. We gather insights, research, teaching and partnership tools, and practitioner-scholar reflections through entries like this one, so that we may all continue to grow and create together. As editor, I’d love to hear from you, about how your work dancing in the middle has led to new opportunities and insights.

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