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The “we-do-good, feel-good” conversations that encapsulate higher education civic engagement discourse are boring, comfortable and ignorable.   Very few people in our field want to jump into a conversation about the issues swirling around our lived realities --race and policing, Islamophobia, & income equity for women -- to name a few. Instead, we mask our work in unusually narrow safe words like service, civic duty, democracy, enlightenment, peace and hope. Words that I only hear when talking among colleagues and themes that have left change-makers in cities doing the work of placemaking to stop paying attention to our work. 

There are colleagues of mine who may argue that these words keep conversations in check, preventing them from becoming inflammatory.  I would argue that our tendency to couch our work in these terms does more to protect either those of us who lack the skills, emotional and communicative, necessary for transformative engagement, or who, potentially worse, possess a self perceived higher intellectual ground and only entertain discussions that result in compliments identifying the moral imperative of higher ed civic engagement.  

Last year, during a conversation with a college president of Boomer generation age – who leads a small 4-year private institution on the east coast – I was reminded of just how necessary and important it is for some of us to hold up these idealistic notions. His institution is very deeply engaged with its local community, a locale of largely working class immigrants of color.  During the conversation a part of which focused on the challenges facing today’s urban America, he shared his takeaways from Ta-Nehisi Coates’ book Between the World and Me. He felt that although Coates’ narrative was beyond exceptional--it did not offer readers a sense of hope or leaving them to feel optimistic about the future. 

I immediately thought, what an interesting takeaway about Coates’ book by this campus leader and wondered why he felt the need to see and feel hope about the future of the challenges of urban areas and perhaps more generally the impact of campus civic engagement on those challenges. From a practical sense, it had been a year since the release of Coates’ book and on his blog at the Atlantic, in countless interviews and within his twitter feed, Coates talks rather plainly about, “how if you strip away the talk of hope and dreams and faith and progress that what you see are enduring structures of racial oppression and no great reason to conclude that the future will be better than the past.”

I walked away from our conversation wondering how many of us in the higher education civic engagement space hold on to and search for hope and use words to give a sense of safety in the work? If Between the World and Me is not about uplift or feeling safe what directions could Coates be pointing us?   

For me, Coates’ Between the World and Me rendered me to an unrelentingly uneasy place; a place that asked me as the reader to constantly bear witness to the uncovering of sides of our democracy that are uncomfortable and ugly.  As a practitioner assisting universities claim their identity within the university-community partnership space what Coates ask of me is simple - be uncomfortable in your work. In the higher education civic engagement space, that means getting people to become aware and make sense of the disregarded truths of the voices from people who live on the margins.

In a sense, for many of us, holding up and onto a “hope-filled” message in today’s world is vitally important in preaching the “public good” message of higher education generally and campus civic engagement more specifically, to the converted and those it hopes to convert.  This is especially so after an extremely devise presidential election which has resulted in an elected president who uses speech to insult, instill fear, confusion & conflict and accelerate verbal and physical violence in our country and around the globe. Words and phrases like service, civic duty, and democracy give us inspiration and aspiration to be our better selves. 

In another sense, for change-makers in cities doing the work of placemaking, those words and the work associated with them are easy to ignore  because-- "they are safe"--never moving university-community engagement conversations to an uncomfortable space; for it means that as a field we might enter into an awareness by the public about our higher ed civic engagement work that would mean giving up a sense of who we understand ourselves to be – “do-gooders.” 

While I like the inspiration and aspiration filled conversations of our field, we must share with our local communities and their change-makers - the perspiration; that we are in fact willing to move to those spaces that are uncomfortable.  At the core of our work is the notion of working with the public, which inheritably embodies public awareness. 

I’d like to hear from thought leaders in the field: How and why are your local civic change-makers paying attention to your institution’s civic engagement work?


[1] "higher education civic engagement" - A catch-all phrase for colleges and universities who work in their local communities.  It includes town-gown relations, civic teaching & learning, community based faculty research, service-learning, volunteer & charity programs, and large scale community and economic development initiatives - also known as anchor institution projects.

[2] While it is oftentimes the case in the higher ed civic engagement space to focus attention on macro systems, network, and industry, I use the term change-makers to specifically refer to passionate people working every day leading urban change. Various national philanthropic foundations and nonprofit organizations have been focusing and investing in people leading successful civic engagement work that transforms neighborhoods. This work is increasingly not tied to large institutional citizens like universities or colleges. For more on this see: Work of the Knight Foundation; Kresge Foundation,  Animating Democracy and Art Place America.

[3] Placemaking is a multi-faceted approach to the planning, design and management of public space.  It capitalizes on a local community's assets, inspiration, and potential. Increasing this is how Millennial generation change-makers are participating in local community change initiatives. For more on this see: Markusen and Gadwa 2010 White Paper for The Mayors’ Institute on City Design, Creative Placemaking

[4] Between the World and Me, Ta-Nehisi Coates (2015)