Civics · Reflections · Teaching

My Intellectual Genealogy: Community

Past posts have covered several key aspects influencing my intellectual development, including my:

Each of these is an example of the many communities that have significantly influenced my intellectual development and are part of my intellectual genealogy.  If you’ve glanced through these, you may be picking up a theme that is at a core of my thinking: everything happens in community.  People do not pull themselves up by their own bootstraps.  I do think personal choice and responsibility are important, but individual development happens within community, being both influenced by and subsequently impacting community.  My Teacher of the Year award doesn’t happen because of my individual efforts alone or even in large part, but instead happens because of the rich communities within which I’ve been fortunate to find myself.

In that vein, it is important to mention the deep education I’ve received because of the East St. Louis community.  My early work in the community leading a service-learning project to bring computer labs into the community was framed within the context of consultation.  Prior to integrating service-learning into my Introduction to Networked Information Systems course, the final project consisted of a hypothetical library and students as consultants recommending a course of action integrating technology.  I kept the consultation metaphor when during that first semester in 2000 half the students did the traditional hypothetical final project while the other half worked to setup two computer labs in East St. Louis.

Several years in a team of students were having a problem clarifying specific goals and expected outputs with their particular site coordinator in East St. Louis.  I made an additional trip out to meet with the site coordinator and the pastor of the church to consider whether this was still a good fit for them and for our class.  During the conversation it seemed the pastor was being a bit rude, but after a bit I came to wonder if this was more an attempt at friendly throwing down of smack.  So I responded in kind and his face lit up and he said “Now we’re talking!  Now we’re getting somewhere!!”  He taught me that what he (and I subsequently came to find out others) in the community wanted wasn’t outside consultants but real partners.  He wanted more academic practitioners who followed the lead of the early East St. Louis Action Research Project who built much more participatory relationships, and in some cases even friendships, within the community (for background on the project and a review of it’s early days see Ken Reardon’s article “An Experiential Approach to Creating an Effective Community-University Partnership: The East St. Louis Action Research Project” in Cityscape: A Journal of Policy Development and Research (V5 (1), p59-74, 2000)).

That lesson has been transformational in the way I work in East St. Louis and also in the way I try to help students engage in the community.  In their recent article, Randy Stoecker and Mary Beckman describe the critical importance of building these participatory relationships, then finding ways to integrate students into specific projects that are part of a much larger community development initiative that arises from discussions that occur within these relationships, that is, a more project-based service-learning approach.

Over the last couple of years research has brought me into the East St. Louis community much more often.  At one point I took up the owner of the local ice cream shop, Mr. Pirtle, to learn his favorite card game, Conquain.  These days, any chance I get I’m at the shop on a stool playing Conquain and hanging out. That relationship with Mr. Pirtle means an awful lot to me just as a friendship.  But from that relationship has also come a much deeper understanding of the issues within the community and the seeds of a number of initiatives to address those issues.I find, too, that even choices like where I stay when in East St. Louis makes a huge difference.  For most of the first decade working in the community, I would leave each evening to stay at a hotel in one of the communities near East St. Louis.  But that changed with the opening of the Hubbard House, a Catholic Worker House in East St. Louis.  Whenever possible now, I stay there instead of the outlying hotels.  It’s hard to describe the many subtle differences in thinking when you invite community partners to join you in a dinner you help to prepare in a home-based kitchen just down the street from their house as opposed to having them join you at a restaurant near your hotel up the hill from their community. Plus, I prize my conversations with Sister Marge, and the way she has created a space for community building and reflection, all aimed at supporting and fostering work for justice.

My work with Lessie Bates Davis Neighborhood House has also been key to working in community.  I can’t make connections with the many different communities that exist within the larger East St. Louis community.  But this social service agency has built participatory relationships with many of them.  Over time I developed working relationships and even friendships with Brad Watkins, Bill Kreeb, Vera Jones and others.  They have taught me much about building participatory relationships as well as about specific issues working with different populations.

What has been so critical is that in each case these relationships are built on mutual respect, trust, and open communication.  They are not afraid to point out the many warts in my thinking.  I’m embarrassed to think how many times I came to town excited by a new idea on how to address a community issue because of some new research or theory I’ve found, only to have them point out how they’ve known about that for years and have even tried out the approach, only to find it lacking in many ways.  Or they may point out that the problem I thought existed wasn’t really a problem at all, or a problem that should not be identified for the harm to the community that would result.  How many times I came unintentionally as the “savior” to the community championing a specific approach only to find that they were very capably dealing with the issues already, thank you very much!  Or if they weren’t it was either by choice, or more likely because of systemic injustice that continues to oppress.

I now realize I really can’t know how to approach issues like hunger, poverty, poor education outcomes, or the many other challenges faced by marginalized communities unless I first build a participatory relationship with one or more people from those specific communities, or at least with those who have.  I thank my many partners and friends in East St. Louis who have extended such grace and patience to help me learn this valuable lesson.  And I thank those at GSLIS who have allowed me the time and provided the encouragement for me to invest in the time consuming process of relationship building even thought it’s not readily billable within grants and other budgets.

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