Sustainability of Our Planet and All Species as the Organizing Principle for SLCE

Kevin Kecskes, Jennifer Joyalle, Erin Elliott, & Jacob D. B. Sherman


There should be little doubt that sustaining our planet and its species is the global challenge of our times. We call on higher education institutions (HEIs) around the world to work collectively and with strategic intent and action to use sustainability as an organizing principle to focus service-learning and community engagement (SLCE) activities on the flourishing of our planet and its diverse species. This call positions sustainability as a meta-level organizing principle for HEIs and positions three distinct but connected organizing action strategies at the center: engaged departments, collective impact, and transdisciplinarity. At the core of the model are the key organizing delivery mechanisms of SLCE: place-engaged service-learning and community-based research

Focusing departmental work on one or more prominent community-identified sustainability goals can leverage individual faculty research efforts toward more of a cohesive whole; deepen, connect, and broaden learning environments as students may work over time and via multiple courses in the major on one complex, longer-term sustainability project; and add complementary wisdom and knowledge toward the solution of compelling community-situated sustainability problems. Formalized collective impact approaches include five distinct features: agreement on a common agenda; shared methods of measuring; mutually reinforcing activities; open and continuous communication; and a “backbone organization” that provides logistical and overall partnership support (Kania & Kramer, 2011). Ruppert-Winkel and colleagues (2015) coined the term “transdisciplinary sustainability science” as a way to scientifically contribute to addressing social problems by integrating varied disciplinary knowledge from the natural and social sciences as well as community-level experienced-based knowledge as an appropriate way to address many sustainability concerns.

In the context of properly identifying and addressing over time complex sustainability issues, adopting a transdisciplinary approach in SLCE research and teaching efforts is critically important; coupling this approach with a collective impact strategy in the context of an engaged department has proved to be especially powerful at Portland State University (PSU). Faculty, staff, and administrators have sought to strategically link the university’s commitment to sustainability with experience in SLCE in order to accelerate positive community change. PSU’s Sustainable Neighborhood Initiative serves as a campus-wide SLCE partnership broker. Through this initiative, PSU faculty and students have worked on SLCE projects around topics such as green building, renewable energy, youth literacy, community health, place-making, bicycle and pedestrian transportation planning, economic development, and environmental monitoring.

KEVIN KECSKES (kecskesk@pdx.edu) is associate professor of Public Administration in the Mark O. Hatfield School of Government at Portland State University (PSU) where he teaches masters and doctoral students and directs the department’s undergraduate academic program in civic leadership. For over a decade, he has provided university-wide leadership in various positions at PSU including associate vice provost for Engagement and director for Community-University Partnerships. He is on the editorial board of the Journal of Public Scholarship in Higher Education and edited Engaging Departments: Moving Faculty Culture from Private to Public, Individual to Collective Focus for the Common Good (2006).

JENNIFER JOYALLE (joyalle@pdx.edu) is a doctoral student in Portland State University’s Public Affairs and Policy doctoral program where she is studying organizational change, networked governance, and community engagement in the field of K-20 public education. She is currently an instructor in the department of public administration’s civic leadership program; formerly, she taught in PSU’s University Studies Senior Capstone program.  For over a decade, she taught in the Portland Public Schools as a middle school teacher in a service-learning program based on relationships, leadership, and community building.

ERIN ELLIOTT (elliott7@pdx.edu) is a doctoral candidate in Portland State University’s Public Affairs and Policy doctoral program where her research centers on critical nonprofit theory and citizenship studies. She is an instructor in the department of public administration’s civic leadership program, and also employs a community-based learning approach to teach other University Studies courses at PSU. She has worked extensively in the nonprofit sector. Most recently, she co-authored a book chapter on community-based learning and sustainability in Sustainable Solutions: Community-University Partnerships (2016).

JACOB D. B. SHERMAN (jdbsherman@gmail.com) is the housing program coordinator for the Portland Housing Bureau’s Lents Stabilization Initiative in the City of Portland. Previously, he served as program manager and sustainability curriculum coordinator at Portland State University’s Institute for Sustainable Solutions. He is co-editor of the Sustainable Solutions book series (2016) and is currently completing a second master’s degree in business administration at PSU.

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