Discussion and Investigations: ‘Community Engagement’

By October 1, 2019Faculty Blog

The Mission of SSU is “to prepare people, through academic, personal, and spiritual development, for a life of justice, beauty, and compassion, enabling a humble, creative engagement with their world.” This is a lofty and admirable mission and it requires us to actively review and rethink how we do things. Over the 44 year history of the university we have developed many different academic programs and right now we are exploring something called ‘community engagement.’ Why are we focusing on this now? Our preliminary research suggests that ‘community engagement’ is something that is related to many things we have done previously, but could also extend our academic program further in useful and desirable ways. How will ‘community engagement’ aid us in our mission? This is one of the big questions we are just starting to unpack.

Of course, this question of how community engagement aids us in our mission leads to many other questions. What do we mean by “community engagement?” What do others (people and institutions) mean by this term? Do we not already engage with our community? Which community are we talking about anyways?

It is often helpful to begin a journey into unknown territory with questions, and as an academic institution we know that questions are at the heart of our studies across the disciplines we are passionate about. So we ask even more questions, organize them into groups and peck away at answers. Some questions are important to ask because they help us pay attention to who we are, and not just the information we collect in our research. As we look around at various ideas and expressions of community engagement we ask: what are we drawn to? What are our goals? What will we add that is desirable by focusing more ‘community engagement’? What will we add that is undesirable?

Many institutions of higher education, in Canada and abroad, are talking about community engagement. It is a very trendy topic. Investigating what different people are talking about when they talk about community engagement is helping us get a clearer sense of what we would like to do. Some institutions, such as the University of Calgary (U of C), talk about community engagement in the sense of making spaces and activities as connected and accessible to the people who live in the space around the university. The U of C website has a page dedicated to explaining their approach to ‘community engagement’ and it lists almost every part of the institution, from its facilities to ‘Indigenous Reconciliation’, as being a component of ‘community engagement. 

At Simon Fraser University (SFU) in Vancouver, the activities associated with ‘community engagement’ are different. SFU does not list the ways in which its facilities are part of engaging with the community, rather SFU has set an institution wide target to become “Canada’s most community-engaged research community.” It lists on its website the objectives it associates with community engagement as well as its priorities. Objectives include: “increase experiential learning opportunities”, “develop new programs for mature, returning and non-traditional students.” Priorities include: “measure, communicate & celebrate”, “improve community access.”

Finally at Western University in London Ontario we see another approach that seems to be as different from those taken by SFU and U of C as they are from each other. At Western the faculty of Arts & Humanities has a department of “Public Humanities.” The Public Humanities is not a strategic focus for the university but rather conceived of as a discipline of the humanities. As an academic discipline it works on reimagining “the place of public scholarship, experiential learning, and mutually beneficial forms of campus-community collaboration across the Arts and Humanities disciplines.” What does this mean? Well rather than seeing community engagement as something to be bolted onto university programs, or a new program that is added alongside others, the Public Humanities at Western appears to understand ‘community engagement’ as a part of the humanities, or a way of doing humanities itself. It is something that is created through academic ways of asking questions, engaging in dialogue, and producing knowledge.

Many universities beyond these three are actively talking about ‘community engagement.’ How ‘community engagement’ is talked about varies widely. How it is deployed varies widely. At SSU we have long talked about community, engaging with one another, and being changed through that engagement. Now we are looking to go deeper and broader, to again re-examine the mechanisms and purposes of our academic program as we continue to try and provide a place that prepares people for a life of beauty, justice and compassion. Throughout this academic year the research being undertaken by our faculty, and the conversations happening among leadership, will move out in various forms to broader community spaces. Look to this blog and various public events for opportunities to learn with us as we move forward. Also feel free to email me, Dr. Matt Balcarras, Associate Dean of Arts, with any questions you have about community engagement or our process: mbalcarras @ ssu.ca

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