In Soul of a Citizen, Paul Loeb describes a conversation with a college student shortly after President Obama took office. When asked about the national mood, she said, “Everyone’s unsure of what’s going to happen in so many areas, so we’re waiting to watch and see.”
Recently, the Office for Community Engagement hosted SynergyWorks, a university-wide conversation about GVSU’s community engagement. Roundtable discussions focused on building our infrastructure to support engagement, resulting in the specific recommendations listed below. Many are now waiting to watch and see what will happen.
But this way, it’s fairly certain little will happen. Infrastructure is by its very nature systemic, requiring contribution and change from almost everyone. Our university is perfectly aligned to get the results that it does. We each play a role to preserve our current structures or we intentionally redesign our system to meet the needs of a very real present and future. To rely on leadership or one office or one person is not only foolish, it also abdicates the responsibility to shape the areas that each “citizen” knows intimately, where each has influence, knowledge, and assets to share.
The time for waiting and watching is past. Whether you are faculty, staff, or student, as a GVSU citizen, you can help build infrastructure for engagement to benefit you, our university, and our communities.
The next part is simple: review the list below, find the area where you can contribute, and call us with your commitment.
- Secure the technical expertise and resources necessary to develop a web-based searchable partnership data collection system
- Link people around common interests and support emerging cross-disciplinary/cross-sector partnerships
- Build the case for a place-based signature engagement
- Create policy that will recognize, reward, and promote synergistic community engagement
- Increase ways for students to identify academic service learning and community engagement opportunities
- Create a student planning/design tool that builds on the Blueprint for Success
Special thanks go to the following contributors:
Mayor George Heartwell
President Thomas Haas
CCPS Dean George Grant
Provost Gail Davis
Brooks Liberal Studies Chair Wendy Burns-Ardolino
CLAS Dean Fred Antczak
KCON Dean Cynthia McCurren
CCPS Associate Dean WIlliam Crawley, Moderator
Heather Wallace, John Kilbourne, Danielle Lake, Patty Stow Bolea, and Nick Ryder
John Schmidt, Heather Wallace, and Abigail DeHart
Christine Rener, Patty Stow Bolea, Abigail DeHart, Michael DeWilde, Tim Syfert, Simone Jonaitis, Kirsten Bartles, Diana Pace, Jay Cooper, Kurt Ellenburger, Heather Carpenter, Melissa Peraino, Kristin Rahn, Shaily Menon, Chris Chamberlain, and Shawn Bultsma
In his book Community: The Structure of Belonging, Peter Block defines three important concepts that determine whether our future is stuck or emerging: accountability, entitlement, and possibility:
Accountability is the willingness to care for the whole, and it flows out of the kind of conversation we have about the new story that we hope will shape our identity. It means we have conversation of what we can do to create the future. Entitlement is a conversation about what others can or need to do to create the future for us. (48)
Possibility, for Block, is the name we give to the future into which we freely choose to live. Possibility without accountability results in wishful thinking, and accountability without possibility leads to despair, he says. Thus, the future emerges “at the intersection of possibility and accountability.” (48)
At SynergyWorks, we are hosting a conversation at the intersection of possibility and accountability. This event is an opportunity to vote with our feet. First, by our physical presence—or lack thereof—we will signify to our leaders and colleagues whether community engagement is important to us. Secondly, as participants, we will shape the structures and practices that support our community engagement—the ones that matter to us, the ones we may have requested or complained about in the past.
In this powerful way, we will guide the direction of the university. If this matters to you, please step boldly into this intersection so we can create the future of an engaged GVSU together.
Transformation can occur anywhere, and for GVSU students, it’s often in a community setting.
One young man’s life changed at an open-air chicken market in Jordon. He realized there were huge inequities in the world, and he could do something about them. He is now working on international issues related to poverty and education.
Another was transformed forever when a migrant worker invited him into his house for a meal and thanked him for tutoring his children in the fields. “I admire you,” the father told him. “Something you will realize in the future is that you have been a very positive influence with my kids.” Honored by this personal act of warmth and generosity, the student discovered that he had something to offer that was of value to others. With newfound self-confidence, he went on to work in a hospital in Costa Rica.
Sometimes, students discover what they DON’T want to do, such as NEVER working on a political campaign again or NOT teaching in an elementary school.
GVSU’s core mission is to prepare students to shape their lives, their professions, and their societies. One way we do this is to encourage students to follow the Four Year Blueprint for Student Success and its partner document, The Do-Something Guide.
The Blueprint demonstrates in no uncertain terms how much the university already values community engagement—in fact, the plan has an entire section for each undergraduate year devoted to engagement. Some items in this category involve the community, some items are devoted to campus involvement, but the point is clear: an undergraduate experience encompassed by dorm time and classroom time just isn’t enough. Personal transformation calls for bigger and broader experiences, messy situations, and opportunities to make mistakes that matter.
We have the blueprint; let’s follow it.
Follow up: Read the Four Year Blueprint for Student Success and the Do-Something Guide. You can always find links to these resources and more at gvsu.edu/community.
Most of us have heard the story of Stone Soup, in which a weary traveler happens upon a small village in search of shelter and a meal. When the villagers, one after another, inform him that they have no food to share—too little, in fact, to feed their own families—the traveler says that he will instead make stone soup to share with the entire village.
The traveler proceeds to bring a pot of water to a boil, and the villagers look on, perplexed, as he drops a stone in the pot. One by one, the villagers decide that they would like to have a part in improving upon this “delicious stone soup,” and they come forward with vegetables, meat, and spices, each giving what they can. In the end, the entire village is able to share a truly delicious soup that they each had a hand in creating.
Stone soup is a metaphor for an epistemology of engaged scholarship.
Put simply, if our container is already full—full of our knowledge, full of our expertise, full, frankly, of ourselves—it’s difficult to find space for the contributions of our community partners.
Community engagement begins with questioning our epistemology:
- Do we recognize that much of the world’s knowledge exists outside the academy?
- What assumptions do we have about the knowledge and resources our community partners might contribute?
- Do we respect these contributions as valid?
- As valid as our academic contributions?
The stone soup story reminds us that when our offerings of deep content knowledge, artful pedagogies, and empirical processes come together with the on-the-ground experience, mastered skills, and indigenous wisdom of our community partners, they have the power to effect real change—change to nourish us all and help our village thrive.
Over the past three months, I’ve been all over campus to listen and learn about the best of GVSU’s community partnerships. To date, over 80 faculty and staff members have shared compelling stories about how their community engagement work has transformed their students, their communities, and themselves.
In the process, I have had the opportunity to observe the unique culture of each college, unit, and center. I make sense of it all by thinking of the university as a dance floor—we’re all here for the same party, even if we’re doing a different dance. Regardless of individual cultures on campus, one thing is obvious: we are all dancing as fast as we can. Full teaching loads plus research plus committee work leaves little time for reflection. This is particularly true of our engaged scholars, integrating their teaching and/or research in a mutually beneficial collaboration with a community partner. Engaged teaching and engaged research simply take more time and more resources.
A farm girl by upbringing, I’m all for working hard. But what opportunities might we be missing because our heads are down, focusing on our steps? If we were to move from the dance floor to the balcony, we might find that others, just across campus, are also doing the tango. Or that someone could teach us a new dance. Or that if we planned and practiced a dance together, we might bring about a whole new movement.
Let’s connect. Join one of the new CLAS research clusters—Borders, Brain, Health, Urban, and Water. Infiltrate another college to look for allies. Or just call me with your engagement interests. With my view from the balcony, I may be able to connect you with someone who shares your passion and complements your work.
Our esteemed President Haas describes GVSU as “the community’s university.” Personally, I love this statement—it rings true to our entrepreneurial, community-initiated roots and is solidly supported with stories from individual faculty, staff, and students alike who believe we are called to be partners with our communities, whether they be in Grand Rapids or Ghana.
But I’m also curious: What does this phrase mean to us? What are our underlying assumptions and values? What does this work—being the community’s university—look like as we live it out? How do we embrace our community differently than other universities who have may taken up residence here but do not claim West Michigan as home? What structures recognize, encourage, and reward our efforts to do this work? What impedes our efforts? As a collective body, how will we make a difference in response to the opportunities, challenges, and needs of our communities?
The Office for Community Engagement is gathering perspectives on these questions, including big ideas about the possibilities for our future as an engaged university—the community’s university. If you haven’t yet weighed in, give us a call and let us know what you think.