I.03: Reciprocity in Community–University Engagement: Community Partners Discuss Tensions and Possibilities
Reviewed by Isabel Baca, University of Texas at El Paso, TX (firstname.lastname@example.org)
Chair: Paula Mathieu, Boston College, MA
Speakers: Estephanie Vásquez, Medellín, Colombia, “When Latin American Storytellers Risk Stories of War: A Struggle for University–Community Reciprocity”
Eric Sepenoski, Emerson College, Boston, MA, “When Latin American Story tellers Risk Stories of War: A Struggle for University–Community Reciprocity”
Ernesto Mario Osorio, Emerson College, Boston, MA, “When Latin American Storytellers Risk Stories of War: A Struggle for University–Community Reciprocity”
Tamera Marko, Emerson College, Boston, MA, “When Latin American Storytellers Risk Stories of War: A Struggle for University-Community Reciprocity”
Jessica Wirgau, Community Foundation of the New River Valley, Christiansburg, VA, “The Community Is Not Your ‘Lab’: The Risks and Rewards of Developing Mutually Beneficial Relationships”
Tana Schiewer, Virginia Tech University, Blacksburg, VA, “The Community Is Not Your ‘Lab’: The Risks and Rewards of Developing Mutually Beneficial Relationships”
Elizabeth Lohman, NRV Bike Kitchen, Christiansburg, VA, “The Community Is Not Your ‘Lab’: The Risks and Rewards of Developing Mutually Beneficial Relationships”
Respondent: Steve Parks, Syracuse University, NY
As Director of the Community Writing Partners Program in the Department of English at my institution, I am constantly seeking venues and resources to help me with the challenges I face when doing service-learning in my writing courses and with community engagement in general. I believe in the value of community–university partnerships, in the benefits of service-learning as a teaching and learning tool, and in the personal and professional outcomes that may come from community engagement. Thus, this panel on reciprocity in community–university engagement caught my attention. I wanted to explore more possibilities and help to address the tensions and challenges that come from such community-based learning and engagement.
Though not all speakers were present, this panel was appealing and engaging. The relationship between academician and community partner was strong and seemed to be beneficial to all parties involved. Together, Jessica Wirgau and Tana Schiewer, along with the introduction by Paula Mathieu, and closing remarks by Steve Parks, addressed the risks, rewards, and possibilities of researching and writing together.
At the beginning of the session, attendees were shown a video with Tamera Marko overlooking the ocean. One of the panel speakers who could not be present, Marko briefly discussed her presentation, “When Latin American Storytellers Risk Stories of War: A Struggle for University–Community Reciprocity,” which paved the way for a discussion on stories without borders and rhetorical mobility. In the video, Marko emphasized the importance of sharing our stories, and she made us think about how we are all connected as humans. By sharing our stories, we make the world more sustainable, more equitable, and more humane, noted Marko. Had she been present, I know the audience would have been even more engaged.
Nevertheless, Jessica Wirgau’s and Tana Schiewer’s presentations demonstrated their commitment to community-university engagement. Both of them addressed and described their community-university partnership. Schiewer is a PhD student working on her dissertation about how nonprofit organizations communicate by examining their missions. Wirgau, from the Community Foundation of the New River Valley, discussed Schiewer’s involvement with her organization.
The value of this panel became evident when the speakers, after describing their community-university partnership, opened the discussion to the audience. The ensuing dialogue addressed the different challenges faced in community-university partnerships.
Steve Parks, as Respondent, commented on how managing a community-university partnership is not taught in graduate school. He then asked, “How do we handle the challenges that arise in such a partnership?” I pondered on this question and realized how lonely and more difficult it can be when one has to face these challenges alone. Getting support from others is crucial.
Audience members shared different stories and described various community engagement and service-learning projects. Audience members gave each other advice and suggestions. One suggestion was to have an informal mentoring network for our community and service-learning projects. We were reminded by Paula Mathieu, the Chair, of the new and upcoming Conference on Community Writing – another venue for those of us involved with community engagement.
The importance of listening to community partners was recognized: we must value all our partners’ voices. Not only should we listen to our students and faculty, but we must also listen to the unheard voices of our community partners, as Randy Stoecker and Elizabeth A. Tryon (2009) suggested in their book The Unheard Voices: Community Organizations and Service Learning. This panel served as a good example of listening to the voices. The speakers, along with Paula Mathieu and Steve Parks, encouraged us to talk with each other, to hold conversations on what challenged us, what troubled us, and what we enjoyed about community-university engagement.
The challenge of getting departmental support was also addressed. It was suggested that we write to our Deans and to our institutions’ presidents to request grants and funding. It was recommended that we start with a request for a small amount of money. Audience members addressed the same challenges I have been facing on my own. Community engagement and service-learning do bring people together.
I walked away at the end of this session with ideas for teaching a nonprofit writing course, for being more assertive in approaching administrators for funding, and for continuing to educate others on the value of community-university partnerships. Just by being in a room full of people who shared the same interests and concerns about a pedagogical tool in which I believe gave me more confidence to continue integrating service-learning in my writing courses and to maintain and strengthen the Community Writing Partners program at my institution. Though tensions exist and challenges must be faced and overcome, the possibilities for community–university partnerships are endless, making them all the more valuable.
Stoecker, Randy, & Tryon, Elizabeth A. (Eds.). (2009). The unheard voices: Community organizations and service learning. Philadelphia, PA: Temple University Press.