Putting community first in community-engaged teaching


What is community-engaged teaching, and why does it matter? 

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For decades, college campuses have launched and grown service-learning and community-engaged teaching programs in an effort to bridge the town-gown divide and prepare students for careers after graduation. While these university-community projects undoubtedly benefit students1 in linking their coursework with practice, how can we ensure that substantial benefits are also delivered to the community?

After coordinating more than 50 engaged learning courses over four years as part of the Center for Rural Engagement’s Sustaining Hoosier Communities (SHC) program, I believe we have some insights into this question.

SHC puts the primary focus on the community first. We build partnerships with diverse community representatives of all ages and at all stages of life—high school students, elected officials, retirees, educators, health and mental health practitioners, business owners, and concerned citizens. And we give these residents a chance to share their concerns, hopes, and dreams for their community.

We engage in an Asset-Based Community Development process where we ask community members to share their strengths, talents, and abilities on which we can build. Along with our community-based volunteer coordinators, we develop an Appreciative Inquiry question—a question that focuses on a positive future—to frame our partnership. This framing question asks community members to develop ideas for student work that builds on existing strengths and fulfills an aspirational vision for the community.

Washington County residents come together to brainstorm community assets and needs.
With the framing question in mind, we next ask residents to tell us exactly how they want to start moving towards that desired end state. They can imagine any kind of project, as long as they adhere to one rule: each project idea must build on an asset that currently exists in the community. This asset-based approach locates the county’s growth potential within its own capacities—it seeks nothing from external entities. This process takes residents away from a deficit mindset—one that all humans are prone to fall into—and instead asks them to reimagine and repurpose their strengths and capabilities.

In my experience, there is incredible power in these asset-based and appreciative processes. They allow residents to remember the things they treasure in their communities. They can imagine a future that includes resources that are familiar and leveraged in new ways. And the process generates significant community pride.

SHC offers support to both faculty and community partners to lay the groundwork for a successful relationship. SHC staff arrange meetings between faculty and community partners, we help community partners and faculty members develop shared expectations and outcomes for each project, and we support community partners when participating with classes as the de facto expert representing their community.
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SHC partners with Washington County, IN

With a population of 28,036, residents and tourists alike enjoy the recreational and cultural resources of Washington County. Through an asset-based approach, community leaders partnered with IU faculty and students to identify projects ranging from exploring agritourism models to increasing performing arts opportunities.

Explore SHC projects