Civic Engagement as a Point of Focus

Posted on May 20, 2013

 Reposted from the UNCG HHS Dean Blog

This essay is from a speech I gave to Community Partner Appreciation Breakfast, May 9, 2013, thanking those who work with our students and faculty in Greensboro and surrounding Triad areas. I was very honored and appreciative to be in the same room with our community partners and glad to talk with them. This was organized by Dr. Cathy H. Hamilton, Director, Office of Leadership and Service-Learning. After my talk, they broke into groups for discussion about a variety of topics, all related to community engagement in a democracy. I am in the middle of reading the book, Team of Rivals, by Doris Kearns Goodwin, and I am struck by how community engagement by regular citizens MADE our democracy from the beginning. Universities only recently came into play in community engagement—at least most of them.

Long ago (in the early 80s!) I was a member of the community, running a program for people with health problems in a nonprofit agency in Cleveland, Ohio. I supervised student interns from our two affiliated universities and I learned more from them than they from me. I also think I did a better job with a young person watching, and as I had to explain why I did what I did. But back then I didn’t think to ask the faculty to join me, to ask for help in solving some of the intense health care needs of the inner city of Cleveland where I worked…I didn’t think to work on having the university become a true partner –the university and community together. Cathy asked me to speak for a few reasons. One of those reasons is to address WHY I chose to focus on engagement as a critical piece to build a new School of Health and Human Sciences. In HHS the first thing I did, after getting the structure of the new school organized , was to set up the HHS Office of Community Engagement, coordinating our work with that of Institute for Community and Economic Engagement (ICEE). You cannot do this work well without support from the top of the university, starting with the chancellor and it cannot be limited to Academic Affairs…we need Business Affairs and Student Affairs…all parts of campus involved in many of our efforts. But it is a tough task…the hallmark of community engaged scholarship and working with community partners is a reduction of bureaucracy so that everyone can work in a more nimble fashion…it is a tense balance.

I asked Professor Bob Wineburg in social work to lead our efforts with a faculty committee representing almost all of our 10 departments and programs with a mission of health, wellness, and human services. I wanted our faculty and students to learn about the scholarship and activities of community engagement from all on campus who were community engaged. In many of our 10 departments and programs we had faculty and students working together in the community and we wanted to learn from those doing it well.

So what did we do and why?

We knew with the new school we were connected to the community but not sure how? We were not organized.

Survey, 83% response rate from faculty, 761 community contracts (we now have over 800)

Results showed that HHS faculty, on average, have four organizational affiliations where they:
– Conduct collaborative research with partners.
– Work with students on organizationally based research projects and other student assignments.
– Guide organizations in governance, such as serving as a board member.
– Participate in advocacy roles that promote and enhance the work of their partner agencies.
– Related to the above, respond to a request from an agency to partner (not lead or direct) in an important project. (I consider this the highest level of engagement.)

SO, we can call this many things: service, internships, externships, community based participatory research, community engaged research or community engaged projects, or we can become grander and say that we are doing something bigger altogether…in the thoughts of Derek Barker of the Kettering Foundation, we are…

We are “articulating a democratic epistemology,” WHAT?

We are partnering with citizens for the production of knowledge and creating a model of democracy

We are trying to figure out if we are partnering with you for what YOU need, not just what WE need….is the work of the university really in demand by you? Could you live without UNCG?

We are combining multiculturalism with community engagement. To “serve the larger purpose” as John Saltmarsh would say ( , we cannot be democratic if our work does not represent the diversity in Greensboro, NC, USA and the world

We have to go beyond service and jump into politics…I don’t mean democrat or republican, I mean beyond just “doing good,” but facing the tough issues and asking WHY are people unhealthy? Why are all students not graduating from high school in Greensboro, why did members of the Klan shoot citizens in our town, why are our immigrant citizens suffering, why is there still food insecurity in Greensboro, why are Latino girls not in Girl Scouts, why are older people still alone, why are children still stuttering and deaf children not receiving services and what are we doing about it?

How can we avoid being bogged down in bureaucracies when we know WE are a bureaucracy. And when we join with another bureaucracy, such as we have done with the UNCG HHS Middle college (joining UNCG and GCS), how can we avoid the stifling of great ideas and creative juices when two bureaucracies clash?

Can our faculty and students work with communities when we are a traditional organization with organizational charts in each unit and throughout the university when this type of work is lateral, non-hierarchical, chaotic, and the essence of democracy. Projects evolve from a need, someone answers a need…sometimes chain of command is not always followed, deans go crazy, communities need action fast, we are slow…how do we handle that. Can you help us transform higher education?

I think for great community partnerships step one is communication. It is not by accident that much of the work of community engaged scholarship comes from my home undergraduate discipline of communication studies. Someone who was an early campus model, and a teacher of my own mother at Woman’s College, was the woman for whom the Elliott University Center is named, Harriet Elliot. In Harriet Elliott: A Brief Appreciation, by Susannah J. Link, a book about her life, we learn that she introduced to students on campus the concept of “responsible freedom,” a change from the cloistered, dorm mother time of students before the 1950s.

    “We have long agreed that it is the major function of our college to train women in specific academic courses and to give students the opportunity of learning the art of living useful community lives.” (p. 30)

    “People do not live alone; they must confirm to the general standards of their society; and they must have knowledge of the history and literature of their society if they are to have a send of continuity.” (p. 31)

I think Miss Elliot was advocating for both a general education curriculum AND community engagement. She was inspirational to me although I never knew her. I did know one of her students, Celeste Ulrich, who later also became a dean at Oregon, who believes that Dean Elliott helped put UNCG on the road to connections with the community, including the greater community of NC, Washington, and the world.

So, in that spirit, I join the many here today who thank you, our community partners, and ask that you be patient with us and we work with you and not try to lead, that we work as equal partners in a democracy, not as academicians who come to teach. We ask you to teach us, and to teach our students and ask why we can’t solve problems together and, in the case of HHS, make Greensboro and beyond the healthiest, happiest place to live for all of our community. That’s why I chose to focus on community engagement and I am so glad you are with us.

Thanks for all you do!

Written by Celia Hooper
    Dean of UNCG School of Health and Human Sciences
    Learn more about Celia here

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