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A celebration of community-engaged learning and research

What does ethical, reciprocal community engagement look like?

Participants in the inaugural Community-Engaged Learning and Research Symposium, held in Williams Hall on April 25, tackled that question in a full day of dialogue and discovery. The event, intended to celebrate and showcase local and global examples of exemplary community-engaged research and learning, invited participants to make connections and consider new ideas.

Sarah Stanlick, director of Lehigh’s Center for Community Engagement (CCE) and professor of practice in sociology and anthropology, hosted the day’s events. The CCE, which opened in August 2015, provides assistance to faculty, staff and students involved with service-learning classes or community-based research projects. The center fosters university-community partnerships, promotes knowledge and research for the common good and helps cultivate engaged citizens.

“We hope today serves as a catalyst to spark your own ideas about how to further engage your teaching, research, academic study or individual citizenship,” said Lehigh President John Simon in his welcome remarks. “Community engagement is woven into the fabric of who we are as an institution. ... Through our work together, we can help make the world a more just, equitable and sustainable place. The impact of Lehigh research collaboration is clear, and the road ahead is filled with possibility. Today is about celebrating what we’ve accomplished, but also looking to the future and asking, ‘What’s next?’”

Lin Erickson, executive director and CEO of the Da Vinci Science Center, gave the keynote address, in which she shared the history of the interactive museum and activity center and its collaborations with community organizations, including Lehigh.

Alan Snyder, vice president and associate provost for research and graduate studies, invited participants to listen and remain open to learning, both when engaged with the community and throughout the day’s events. 

“As every scholar knows, every encounter with the unanticipated, the unexpected, the poorly understood, is an opportunity,” said Snyder. “That’s where new knowledge comes from. Working with the community presents a special opportunity in that regard, specifically because people from other walks of life know things and see things that we don’t know and we don’t see.”

Two breakout sessions provided opportunities for faculty, staff, students and community partners to discuss their work. Presentations included initiatives focused on community support for language and learning, ethical community engagement abroad, entrepreneurship and urban planning. Lunch, catered by several local restaurants, complemented the community theme.  

“We wanted to be intentional about truly including community in all facets of the event, and the inclusion of our South Side businesses was an unequivocal success,” said Stanlick after the symposium.

‘We have to humbly listen’

An afternoon panel discussion directly addressed the question of ethical and reciprocal community engagement. Panelists Kim Carrell-Smith, director of the Community Fellows Program and professor of practice in history; George White, professor of educational leadership; J. Andrew Cassano, director of the Zoellner Arts Center; Adrienne Washington, associate vice president for community and public affairs; and Carolina Hernandez, director of the Community Service Office and liaison for the Center for Community Engagement, shared anecdotes and insights.

“So much of what we’re doing this year depends on partnerships. [It] depends on connections and working together meaningfully and strategically to advance the positive work we want to do alongside the community,” explained Stanlick.

White, who serves as director of the Center for Developing Urban Educational Leaders (CDUEL), discussed how partnerships helped broaden the mission of the center.

“Everything we do is centered on and directed to developing meaningful partnerships to improve the quality of education for students and families in small to mid-sized urban communities,” said White. “We’ve begun to change the way we prepare our future school leaders, to understand what it means to be a reciprocal partner. ... We use a community-based participatory approach to all the work that the center does. It’s a giving as well as a getting.”

Carrell-Smith discussed the importance of working with the community rather than for the community.

“Once you’ve identified the needs and you know where you’re headed, prepare yourself as a university member to understand the community: What’s out there? What are we doing there? Who are we working with?” said Carrell-Smith. “So thinking about [a community’s] assets, not just deficits, because I think we all have a tendency to think about the thing we’re going to fix or the thing we’re going to do that’s going to make things better, but we don’t necessarily identify the assets of the community.”

Hernandez noted the impact of effective community engagement on students.

“Transformative experiences happen when our students are able to completely engage with the community and truly listen and respond to the community voice,” said Hernandez. “... We have our ideas of what we want to happen in the community and we all feel duly passionate about our experiences and [the] opportunities that we want to implement out into the greater good. But, in reality, for the greater good to occur we have to humbly listen and serve and be willing to truly partner. And for me that’s what transformation is truly about. And it occurs every day on our campus. It truly does.”

White emphasized that when conducting a community research project, researchers should work with the community to generate the questions, maintain a standard of ethics and ensure that the study’s findings are available to the public.

“You need to make sure you’re doing with, not doing to,” said White. “...You want to make sure that when you leave that community research project that you’ve been involved in, there is capacity for growth in the community that you were working with, that one of the things that you leave behind is not just the answers to your questions, but the capacity for that group to ask further questions and engage in additional research.”

When asked what advice they’d give to colleagues regarding community engagement, panelists responded from their unique perspectives.

“[Community engagement is] about the collective in all of us,” said Cassano. “And to me that means fixing your drive and passion for doing something with a healthy dose of humility because you don’t have all the answers. And the people you might get the answers from are going to come from some of the weirdest places, and while you have great strength and great drive, it can’t always be about you because you’re working in a community.”

Washington, who serves as a liaison between the university and Bethlehem, emphasized the importance of collaboration: “There’s a lot of momentum in the community around the investments we have made but I think now it’s time to really shift the conversation to … recognize that Lehigh has many resources to offer with faculty, staff and students that move beyond money and are certainly more sustainable. There are many of us that work in engagement in different areas, and it’s really going to be important for us to work internally and externally a little closer to leverage our resources to make sure that we’re working to support each other, mutual reinforcing activities, versus against each other.”

“The large majority of feedback we have received has been positive, and so many of our participants—attendees and presenters—have talked about connections they made while at the symposium and new partners they could consider working with,” said Stanlick after the event. “That, to me, is a huge indicator that there is a place for this event, and it can develop into something that our community—on-campus and off—will look forward to.”

The Community-Engaged Learning and Research Symposium was presented by the Office of the Provost, the Office of the Vice President for Research and Graduate Studies, the Center for Community Engagement, the Lehigh University Community Fellows and the Lehigh University Sesquicentennial Celebration Committee.

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