In thinking through my intellectual development, it’s useful to look at a few theoretical underpinnings that have been particularly influential since coming to the University of Illinois.
The challenges for constructive communities are as old as humanity and there will never be an absolute or universal solution to them. One reason is that every member of a community has unique experiences in life and thus unique perspectives, beliefs, and values. This diversity can be a source of strength within communities, but it can also lead to frustration, disappointment, conflict, and even violence. Diverse institutions have been created to address community challenges, including public libraries, public schooling, procedures for democratic governance, and venues for free expression. Often, however, these institutions are reduced from their idealized conception. With community inquiry, diversity becomes a resource and institutions are knit together productively.
Community inquiry provides a theoretical and action framework for people to come together to develop shared capacity and work on common problems in an experimental and critical manner. The word community signals support for collaborative activity and for creating knowledge that is connected to people’s values, history, and lived experiences. Inquiry points to support for open-ended, democratic, participatory engagement.
For a great introduction to Communities of Inquiry, see Patricia M. Shields “The Community of Inquiry: Insights for Public Administration from Jane Addams, John Dewey and Charles S. Peirce” available at: http://ecommons.txstate.edu/polsfacp/3
Participatory Action Research
In 1999, residents of East St. Louis asked their University partners in the East St. Louis Action Research Project to help address the digital divide in their community. The director at that time, Varkki George, knew of the work Prairienet had been doing in East Central Illinois and asked us to join their efforts. An excerpted version of a book chapter about the value of the service-learning project that resulted from this opportunity can be found online at: http://viewer.zmags.com/publication/4696d0a9#/4696d0a9/30. Beyond the service-learning aspect, which has been a monumentally important learning moment for me, this engagement also introduced me to the foundations of Participatory Action Research (PAR). There are many different permutations of PAR, but an essential aspect is that scholarly work in community is applied, it engages all stakeholders in the process as deeply as possible, and it is the cyclical process of research that leads to action that leads to research. The work is heavily influenced by Paolo Friere, captured in his book “Pedagogy of the Oppressed”. A good overview of PAR can be found in Bud Hall’s article “In From the Cold? Reflection on Particpatory Research From 1970 – 2005” in Convergence, (v38(1), p5-24, 2005) and of ESLARP in “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).
Community Based Research
Ann Bishop introduced me to the work of Randy Stoecker and his concepts of Community Based Research through his 2005 book, Research Methods for Community Change: A Project-Based Approach. Stoecker clarifies that we are all part of communities and that communities are constantly changing. He considers research an integral part of a process of diagnosing a community’s current condition, prescribing interventions for improvements within the community, implementing that prescription, and evaluating its impact. He also considers the work of researchers and higher education to be the equipping of community members themselves to directly participate in the process of research whenever possible. His recent article “Making Higher Education Civic Engagement Matter in the Community“, co-authored with Mary Beckman, emphasizes the importance of participatory relationships in the strategic design and the measurement of impact of community development efforts.