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Fall 2022 Book Circle Takeaways Rewriting Partnerships: Community Perspectives on Community-Based Learning

Someone practicing hand lettering

Developing community partnerships is like writing in calligraphy. The intricate lettering of calligraphy spans across cultures and time, as it was relied upon for centuries to illuminate the beauty of words and letters before the advent of printing presses. On the surface, the art form of pen/brush to paper/parchment captures letters and words, but the process of mastering it only improves with time and practice. Similarly, in the book “Rewriting Partnerships: Community Perspectives on Community-Based Learning  (Utah State University Press, 2022), Shah challenges community-engaged university staff, faculty, and students to practice a new form of knowledge construction within a partnership. If we want to work with community partners, we have to shift our lens as academia to one of looking for assets (beauty) and context (culture and stories). Universities have the opportunity to highlight the assets/knowledge of the community and work towards “a space where answers can be explored collaboratively”(pg 172). The following is a group of community engaged members overview of the book (parchment), reflections (Illuminations) and future plans (pen to paper).

The Parchment:

Dr. Rachel Shah proposes a new heuristics on community partnership through her years of experience building partnerships at multiple universities. Shah challenges the notion that higher education institutions are the sole providers of knowledge to our community. Instead, this book emphasizes how community members and participants are rarely tapped for their insights on engaged teaching and research, but without these perspectives, it is difficult to create ethical and effective practices. Rewriting Partnerships calls for a radical reorientation of the knowledges of community partners, emphasizing the voices of community members themselves. She introduces Critical Community-Based Epistemologies (CCBE), a practical approach to knowledge construction that centers on the perspectives of marginalized participants. The framework contains three major strands: experience, participation, and assets. And within each of these strands, Shah works to build a case for why “community partners are creators of knowledge, why their stories and analyses should be considered important forms of knowledge, and how these knowledges can be engaged” (pg 14).

Through interviews, personal experiences, and voices of the community, Rewriting Partnerships features community knowledge. The author and interviewees offer practical strategies for creating more ethical collaborations, including how programs are built, how projects are introduced to partners, and how students are prepared to serve in the community. The book also explores three approaches to partnership design that create space for community voices at the structural level: advisory boards, participatory evaluation, and community grading.

Process of Illumination

In fall 2022, a small group of faculty, staff, and a community partner met weekly to discuss insights and take-aways from the book created unique community guidelines to engage in open, respectful dialogue with one another. Over seven sessions, six of us (faculty, staff and a community partner) engaged in reading this insightful book to:

  • Unpack Critical Community-Based Epistemologies, an approach to knowledge construction that centers on the perspectives of marginalized participants.
  • Develop an understanding of how to center community voice in engagement work.
  • Identify the tools necessary to embark on partnerships with the community and the university, including advisory boards, participatory evaluation, and community grading.
  • Build community among faculty and community participants.
  • Reflect on our perceptions of knowledge and experiences to apply changes in our daily practices as members of the academic community.

Each session was guided by reading questions, discussion questions, and sharing personal experiences. Ultimately, the group emerged with five takeaways to enhance our teaching, partnership and personal relationships. Here are the groups main takeaways:

1. Build trust; connect on a personal level to elevate traditionally silent voices.

“People that have experienced marginalization -including epistemological marginalization – have learned that their voices may be dismissed.” (pg 65)

2. Relationships should be fluid as “Give:Give” (or“Learn:Learn”).

[Role] “fluidity can help resist the white savior cultural script that can frame some engagement programs”. (pg. 63)

3. Nurture space for the co-creation of knowledge between participants

“Answerability seeks to shape the relationship between academic and community partners towards this stance of co-creation and conversation.” (pg. 172)

4. Prepare students to open their minds to knowledge construction to counteract centuries of epistemological hegemony.

“Open-mindedness requires that [students] expand their definition of intellectualism to include a respect for the knowledge that community members hold” (pg 105)

5. Design learning environments with a participatory evaluation with partners

“Creating opportunities for community participants to hold engagement programs responsible in substantive ways, therefore, requires changing structures” (pg 169)

Putting Pen to Paper

From these takeaways and more, our group is pursuing changes to how we “write” our future partnership practice and center community engagement partnerships, pedagogies, and programs. Specifically, we encourage the following steps:

  • Prepare students for the practice of partnership.
    • Develop a disposition of openness, which includes discussions about conversations that can be had with community partners about assets each partner is bringing to the collaboration, ways to balance voice, and having a positive disposition in difficult situations. Use the Openness Heuristic with the Student in Appendix A (pg 183)*
    • Require or provide background research on the context of the partner’s history, location, and organizational culture before beginning service.
    • Include reflection on students, faculty and partners perceptions and biases to begin an open and safe co-creation process that includes all participants’ voices
  • Co-create an experience that respects community traditions and knowledge
    • Develop project deliverables with partners that challenge students to learn from participants/clients/staff.
    • Engage partners in advisory boards, grading, and evaluation for agreed-upon outcomes.
    • Develop guided open conversational formats to build relationships with the community members
    • Debrief community-based experiences with informal check-ins that are structured
      as storytelling using the “What, So What, Now What” reflective model.
    • “Invite community residents … to coffee, [it] is a step nearly everyone can take.”
  • University-wide influence
    • Coordinate partnership holistically across campus to ensure integrity, community voice, and alignment of resources and sustainability.
    • Utilize the CCBE Application Heuristic (pg 179)* to guide the creation of structures and roles for community members to advise engagement in other units on campus.
  • Communities of practice
    • We will continue the book circle with a new group of faculty and partners in Spring 2023. If you are interested, please share your interest via our interest form

Rewriting the story of engagement will require illumination of the process of taking pen/brush to paper/parchment and centering “community partners, not as service projects, but world builders”(pg. 181) community builders, world changers, and knowledge enhancers. The process of mastering community partnerships takes time and practice similar to the art form of calligraphy and if we want beauty to stand out across cultures and time, we must begin rewriting our stories.

*please see the book for these details

Learn more about purchasing this book

Written by: Mike Stefancic, Annie Ponce, Kara Brascia, Alex Brooks, Gail Shuck, and Nicole Bruce-Mercer