Authentic relationships in service-learning:

Moving beyond traditional faculty and community partner roles

Travis Hicks
University of North Carolina at Greensboro

Liz Seymour
Resident of Greensboro, NC

Allison Puppo
University of North Carolina at Greensboro

In the discipline of architecture a groundswell in service-learning gave the pedagogy traction twenty years ago, around the time of Zlotkowski’s (1995) article “Does Service-Learning Have a Future?” A primary impetus was when Auburn University’s Rural Studio began building small-scale structures in Hale County, Alabama, one of the poorest communities in the country. Many other design and architecture programs have since developed other models of design/build, including disaster relief design, humanistic design, and most recently Public Interest Design (PID), which at its core means including people in the design process (Abendroth & Bell, 2015). The Center for Community-Engaged Design (CC-ED) at UNC Greensboro (UNCG) is one such program. The Center connects UNCG’s Interior Architecture majors and students from other disciplines to projects with various communities in and around Greensboro through PID. Travis directs the CC-ED, where Allison is an undergraduate student fellow and Liz is a community guest and contributor. And all of us are involved in interactions between UNCG and an adjacent neighborhood called Glenwood, collaborating particularly on the issues of homelessness, food insecurity, and community development.

As the three of us consider the future of service-learning and community engagement (SLCE) we suggest that the field must attend to relationships between stakeholders, ensuring that they are designed and conducted in such a way as to encourage democratic civic engagement (see Saltmarsh, Hartley, & Clayton, 2009). Such engagement proposes that “students learn cooperative and creative problem-solving within learning environments in which faculty, students, and individuals from the community work and deliberate together” (pp. 10-11). We value these attributes of engagement not only because they express what we aim for in our relationships but also because we have observed what happens when some of them are lacking. We have found examples of both democratic and less-than-democratic engagement at UNCG.

UNCG’s campus is growing “across the tracks” into the Glenwood neighborhood. As the university has expanded, the neighborhood has shrunk. The university has negotiated the limits of this southward expansion with the neighborhood association, but community-university relations have been strained, to say the least, as a result of the campus expansion. Glenwood is one of the poorest (42 percent of the residents live below the federal poverty line), hungriest (the USDA has designated Glenwood as a low income/low access food desert), and most crime-ridden (40 percent more property crime and 11 percent more personal crime than the city as a whole) in Greensboro. It is also one of the most richly diverse neighborhoods in Greensboro racially, ethnically, and culturally. As one example, the CC-ED partnered on a project to produce a mural that was painted on the exterior wall of a convenience store operated by Nepali immigrants, across the street from a Nation of Islam mosque, down the street from a furniture store owned by a Colombian businessman, and around the corner from a bookstore that was the activist headquarters for the local Occupy movement. That diversity of residents and organizations and the associated vibrant networks are among the neighborhood’s most powerful assets.

The CC-ED becomes an essential part of the issues surrounding the campus expansion because, although this process goes beyond any single discipline, planned expansion has everything to do with the design of the built environment and what architects and designers do. The CC-ED also occupies a storefront where the campus meets the community and offers a unique space in which the authors and others have developed new ways to imagine relationships between the university and Glenwood. This storefront works, in part, because it is neither on the campus nor embedded in any one neighborhood. The three of us have worked together, both formally and informally, on several initiatives in the Glenwood neighborhood, where Liz resides and Allison has family roots.

Our relationships have not been formalized in the context of a course, research project, design project, study, or any other structure tying us to a budget, schedule, or scope. Instead, they have developed through having informal discussions in the community and sitting around the coffee table at the CC-ED. Our relationships allow us to think big, asking those “what if” questions that a more rigid research grant might not allow. They also provide the space and time to consider assets as well as deficits in a given community. Such relationships require listening skills, problem-solving skills, and patience. For example, through this patience and listening we have developed a community garden project — which Liz brought to the coffee table — in Glenwood that has engaged students, faculty, and community members.

We have learned in our work together that the interrelationships among all stakeholders are critical to successful SLCE, being more authentic and more impactful than the all too common relationship between faculty member and community partner in which the faculty member’s expertise serves the community member’s needs. If SLCE projects are defined and originated only by faculty expertise or by community members’ needs, then our partnerships will be less than fully democratic and we will miss opportunities to learn and create change together. Our own experience suggests there is great value in collaborations that are not limited by the usual hierarchies in relationships between faculty, students, and community members but rather invite each partner to take on non-traditional roles. SLCE questions become more relevant and projects more meaningful as a result of these more democratic relationships.

Students as Co-Creators of Projects with Community Members

For SLCE to thrive students must be able to contribute to initiating projects, not be limited to joining pre-determined projects initiated by faculty members. As an example, in 2014 a small group of students established a relationship with community members involved in the Interactive Resource Center (IRC) — a day center for people experiencing homelessness, formerly directed by Seymour — and the homeless community by engaging in a dialogue around tiny houses. What began as a small group of like-minded individuals meeting at the IRC weekly soon grew into a community-based movement. The group decided to build a tiny house prototype with donations and a small grant. UNCG students contributed significantly to the beginning of this movement, now Tiny Houses Greensboro.

Allison offers the following reflections about some of the impacts of this grassroots, community- and student- developed project:

For years I had driven by the IRC on my way to my daughter’s ballet classes but never knew exactly what went on behind these doors. Last summer, I was a research fellow at the Center for Community-Engaged Design and attended a community meeting at the IRC on the topic of “Housing the Homeless.” I was there to listen. Many organizations and individuals had been actively working on issues surrounding homelessness in Greensboro for many years without finding a solution. Was the solution rapid rehousing? Was it co-housing? This group at the IRC wondered if it might be the current trend toward the development of Tiny House communities around the country.

As summer students we were trusted to represent our university and connect with members of the community who I may have never encountered otherwise. Being part of the momentum to seek a solution has a reward well beyond a grade. You get plugged into real lives and learn that people struggling to survive on a subzero night have names, birthdays, and families. Slowing down to really listen and understand that you need to learn how to help is a gift. I would not know many people today who matter in my life if I had never gone to the IRC.

This summer work at the IRC led to further levels of connection between the community and our university. For example, through the CC-ED I met William, a homeless man who would eventually speak to faculty, students, and the larger community at our “Housing the Homeless” symposium. His life experiences strengthen our efforts to help end homelessness in our community.

The IRC Tiny House group still meets on Fridays, now with an almost finished full-size tiny house! No longer do I feel that I don’t belong at the IRC but instead feel that I am equipped to jump in and help change my community alongside other students.

Community Members as Builders of and Teachers about Relationships

Democratic engagement in SLCE also means that leadership roles must be played by community members in order to leverage the power of partnerships. They are the experts in community history, structure, resources, and needs. Their leadership — including in practical and symbolic forms — in turn, can be indicative of established social capital and an increased capacity to influence long-lasting change in the community.  In the following quote, Liz reflects on her experiences as a community member from Glenwood, specifically speaking to this capacity of community members to serve as experts and to the importance of relationships that can grow and shift in service of long-lasting impact:

Even those who live in a neighborhood like Glenwood see the community through a lens that is limited to—and often limited by—the networks to which they belong.  Service-learning projects that acknowledge that a community is not a monolith, and that dynamic and fluid relationships reach deeper than partnerships, are much more likely to have a lasting impact on the neighborhood they are serving. It is not unusual for community members to build new relationships within their own communities because of shared involvement in a university-initiated service learning project, which in turn forges deeper and more far-reaching relationships with the university. For students, those projects that include relationship-building skills, that broaden the definition of “expert” and are flexible enough to allow learners to test out new ideas and practices, service-learning goes way beyond simple philanthropy.

Faculty as Colleagues of Students

In order to reach these deeper, more sustainable relationships, faculty members must also be willing to play supporting roles in SLCE. They must be willing to give up, or share, ownership and even authorship of a particular idea, research question, or project. Ego must give way and make room for collaboration so that democratic ideals can truly be realized for the good of all actors involved.

In the case of another Glenwood project, a student serving as facilitator meant that the faculty role was redefined into supportive follower. The following reflection from Travis describes more in detail the benefits of that relationship balance:

I had been working ‘around’ the Glenwood neighborhood for several years, considering the design of the neighborhood-university interface with different interior architecture design studios; however, I had not gotten to ‘know’ the neighborhood until I engaged an undergraduate student. The student became the facilitator, with strong family ties to the community and the people on Glenwood. The initiatives and relationships that have followed her involvement have been more meaningful and deeper because of her strong ties to the community.

The most meaningful project on which this student and I collaborated was a mural for the Glenwood neighborhood. The student connected the CC-ED to several schools in Glenwood, led a group of these students in the design of the mural, and followed through by assisting these and other neighborhood children in painting the mural. Shared responsibilities between myself and this and other students resulted in a mural that was of the community and executed by both university students and community volunteers. This modest project has been a catalyst for the neighborhood and has spurred additional investment in the neighboring buildings.

Challenges to Establishing Authentic Relationships

Establishing relationships like those we describe has its challenges. First, on most campuses tenure and promotion guidelines — including those guidelines that incorporate SLCE paths to tenure or promotion — encourage faculty members to pursue scholarly work that can be measured in, for example, grant dollars, publications, committees, and impact (often defined by journal readership). Second, universities divide students by major, discipline, and degree program and encourage them to arrive at a disciplinary focus and to graduate as quickly as possible. And, community members do not operate on academic calendars or organize their work by semester-long projects or assignments, and they have many personal and professional demands on their time. With faculty busily trying to “fill the buckets” of teaching, scholarship, and service to meet promotion and tenure pressures and with students scrambling to finish degrees on time and without much room to explore big ideas, higher education provides little time to form meaningful relationships across boundaries between campus and community or boundaries between the various people involved in these relationships.

It becomes imperative, therefore, to leverage relationships – meaningful, democratic relationships – to share the weight of creating change and positive community transformation. To overcome these challenges we recommend that students be encouraged to collaborate with community members; that community members be empowered to lead projects and identify community priorities; and that faculty learn to see students and community members as colleagues and to collaborate on projects democratically.


In summary, students, community members, and faculty need first to find ways to forge relationships that cannot necessarily be accounted for in an annual report so that the perspectives they each bring are valued and understood through listening. And, the boundaries between these various labels, roles, and responsibilities need to be challenged so that each contributor feels empowered to be an originator or follower, a teacher or a student on any given idea or collaboration. We have experienced the power of these two principles in our work at the Center for Community-Engaged Design in Greensboro. Our relationships have allowed us to engage with a community that otherwise views the university with skepticism, and they have produced SLCE opportunities that come from all who involve themselves in these community-engaged design efforts. Future efforts in community-engaged design projects — and the SLCE field at large — can heed lessons learned from this type of collaborative relationship. Commitment to these principles, along with a shared off-campus space in which to collaborate, can lead to sustainable relationships focused on social action and community-building, thus bringing the field closer to fulfilling the civic promise of SLCE.


Abendroth, L., & Bell, B. (2015). Public Interest Design Guidebook: SEED methodologies, case studies, and critical issues. London, UK: Routledge.

Freear, A., Barthel, E., & A. Oppenheimer D. (2014). Rural studio at twenty: Designing and building in Hale County, Alabama. New York, NY: Princeton Architectural Press.

Saltmarsh, J., Hartley, M., & Clayton, P. H. (2009). Democratic engagement white paper. Boston, MA: New England Resource Center for Higher Education.

Zlotkowski, E. (1995). Does service-learning have a future? Michigan Journal of Community Service Learning, 2(1), 123-133.


TRAVIS HICKS ( left a successful career in architecture and interior design five years ago to teach full-time at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. An assistant professor of Interior Architecture and director of the Center for Community-Engaged Design, he embraces SLCE pedagogy, focusing his scholarship and teaching on projects that advance social justice while recognizing conditions related to poverty, empowerment, degraded environments, and lack of education resources. Travis received his master’s degree in architecture from Princeton University

LIZ SEYMOUR ( retired in 2014 from her position as the founding executive director of the Interactive Resource Center (a day center for people experiencing homelessness) in Greensboro, NC. A former freelance writer for various design magazines, she made a career change to lead the IRC in 2009 after becoming more intimately involved with Food Not Bombs and the Greensboro homeless community. Liz has a degree in American Studies from Smith College.

ALLISON PUPPO ( is a senior in the Department of Interior Architecture at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. She will graduate in May, 2016 with a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree in Interior Architecture and a minor in Sustainability. As a  research fellow at the Center for Community Engaged Design she has worked on several projects, including the Glenwood Mural Project and the Servant Center. Allie served as an undergraduate research assistant in the areas of Teaching Green Buildings and Housing the Homeless.

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