Learning From and With Community Organizations

to Navigate the Tensions of Democratic Engagement

Brandon Whitney, Stacey Muse, Barbara Harrison, Kathleen E. Edwards, & Patti H. Clayton


The SLCE movement can learn much from what may prove to be more democratic and cutting edge approaches in the broader community than are often found in the academy. [We share here the stories of two] community organizations that work diligently to achieve democratic ends through democratic means in social and cultural contexts that make doing so difficult: The Interactive Resource Center (IRC, http://gsodaycenter.org/) in Greensboro, North Carolina, is a daytime center for people experiencing homelessness. ioby (www.ioby.org) is an online crowd-resourcing platform headquartered in Brooklyn, NY, and powered by a national network of leaders, donors, and volunteers who support citizen-led, neighbor-funded initiatives in urban areas around the United States.

We find in candid examination of their efforts some illumination of the [challenges] associated with democratic engagement, as illustrated here with four leading tensions: (1) adopting an asset-based orientation in a culture that tends to focus on needs and problems, (2) positioning everyone involved in SLCE as co-creators despite the hierarchies into which we are socialized, (3) engaging with the contexts of local places in work that is also of necessity and by design caught up in large scale (e.g., national) structures, and (4) valuing the dynamics of empowering processes in the face of pressures to focus almost exclusively on products.

We believe examples such as the two shared here merely scratch the surface of an incredibly rich tapestry of democratic engagement work being done in civil society by non-higher education institutions. We call on our campus-based SLCE colleagues to seek out and learn from examples of community organizations that, in their day-to-day work, enact the principles of democratic engagement; and we call on our community-based SLCE colleagues to share and critique their own efforts. We can all find encouragement and guidance in self-critical stories of on-the-ground efforts, happening day to day in communities, of persistence and resilience in the face of the very norms we seek to disrupt and replace with more hopeful and empowering alternatives.

BRANDON WHITNEY (brandon.whitney@gmail.com) lives in Brooklyn, New York, and is cofounder & COO of ioby.org, a crowd-resourcing platform powered by a national network of leaders, donors, and volunteers that support citizen-led, neighbor-funded initiatives in urban areas. He is an accidental techie interested in how blending technology and civic life can help us build healthier neighborhoods, more just communities, and more sustainable cities. An environmental anthropologist by training, Brandon is also an amateur chef, fair-weather runner, and urban gardener.

STACEY MUSE (staceymuse@gmail.com) is a doctoral candidate in the Higher Education program at the University of Denver. Having worked in the nonprofit sector for over a decade and holding an MA in nonprofit management, she is interested in the community voice/perspective and outcomes of community-university partnerships. She currently leads the Office of Service-Learning and Civic Engagement at the University of Nevada, Reno. When she’s not working on her dissertation, Stacey enjoys sharing her love of music and “dancing” with her 1-year old daughter, laughing with her husband, and cuddling with her dog.

BARBARA HARRISON (barbara.a.harrison@gmail.com) is a community-based practitioner-scholar currently engaged in projects with NGOs responding to the refugee crisis in Greece. She was previously a research associate with the Community Engaged Scholarship Institute/Research Shop at the University of Guelph and a campus leader in an institution-wide service-learning initiative at Brock University, both in Ontario, Canada. Barbara is an avid vegetable gardener who has a great love of dogs and their shenanigans.

KATHLEEN E. EDWARDS (kathleen.e.edwards@gmail.com) volunteered at the Interactive Resource Center starting in 2010 and then accepted a full-time program director position from 2014-2016. Now she is focused on writing her dissertation, which challenges U.S.-based status quo frameworks for addressing homelessness. Additionally, she works part-time in the Institute for Community and Economic Engagement at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro where her multiple years of experience with both community and campus partner roles serve her well in supporting SLCE partnerships. Kathleen keeps a growing list of what she will do with her free time once she has finished her dissertation.

PATTI H. CLAYTON (patti.clayton@curricularengagement.com) is an independent consultant and SLCE practitioner-scholar (PHC Ventures) as well as a senior scholar with IUPUI and UNCG. Increasingly seeing democratic community engagement as co-inquiry among all partners, her current interests include critical reflection for civic learning; the integration of SLCE and relationships within the more-than-human world; and the power of such “little words” as in, for, with, and of to shape identities and ways of being with one another in SLCE. Not known for brevity, Patti is enjoying learning to co-author short essays and even blog posts with friends and colleagues old and new.

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