Beyond Superheroes and Sidekicks:

Empowerment, Efficacy, and Education in Community Partnerships

Sarah Stanlick & Marla Sell


Albeit well-intentioned, the messages young people receive from many directions as first-year students (if not before) – that they should become innovative entrepreneurs – over-emphasize a particular conception of leadership: one that assumes technocratic power centered on innovative individuals at the top of social hierarchies. Similar expectations of faculty, staff, and community partners – for instance, as expressed in many funding opportunities – encourage us to found and create new programs, initiatives, and research projects rather than to enhance those that already exist or to support the work of colleagues. The role of follower or nurturer is implicitly or explicitly discouraged, and a power dynamic is thus created that elevates single individuals into the role of “hero.” The value placed on that role is wrapped up in the ideal image of ourselves as helpers. This superhero mentality can lead to bold action, but it can also relegate others – often, community partners – to the role of sidekick, or worse, recipient. Our bold call for the SLCE movement is to name and avoid the superhero mentality and to focus instead on connecting and sustaining, with the goal of collective empowerment at the forefront.

We have three high priority goals for the future of the SLCE movement in mind: the need to cultivate humility and reciprocity, avoiding the narrative of heroes and protectors, and the difficult task of illuminating when service can be a disservice. At the center of these goals is the balance of power to ensure that transformational reciprocity can take place when power and agency are held in different measure by multiple stakeholders.

While it is a noble desire to want to “help,” we must examine our own motivations when entering into a partnership, especially one in which the power dynamic has traditionally been skewed to one side. Let us take care in our rush to provide assistance and right wrongs that we not assume a role that disempowers and reduces agency.

SARAH E. STANLICK (ses409@lehigh.edu) is the founding director of Lehigh University’s Center for Community Engagement and a professor of practice in Sociology and Anthropology. She previously taught at Centenary University and was a researcher at Harvard’s Kennedy School, assisting the U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, Samantha Power. She has published in journals such as The Social Studies and the Journal of Global Citizenship and Equity Education. Her current interests include inquiry-based teaching and learning, global citizenship, transformative learning, and cultivating learner agency.

MARLA J. SELL (msell@bethany.org) is the refugee site director for Bethany Christian Services. She has worked for over a decade in social services for refugees, previously supporting and leading efforts for Lutheran Child and Family Services and Catholic Charities. Sell is responsible for the vision and creation of the Refugee Community Center that recently opened in Allentown, PA, to provide services such as ESL classes and dinner gatherings to bring neighbors together over meals. Her work has been featured in a number of media outlets including WFMZ-TV, The Morning Call, and The Express-Times.

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