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From nonprofits to neighbors: Exploring the locus of campus-community partnerships

Author: Carmine Perrotti (Providence College)

  • From nonprofits to neighbors: Exploring the locus of campus-community partnerships

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    From nonprofits to neighbors: Exploring the locus of campus-community partnerships

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Abstract

Service learning and community engagement (SLCE) have become near ubiquitous across U.S. higher education. While much scholarship has demonstrated positive student learning outcomes of SLCE, there has been unequal consideration towards understanding the experiences of communities involved. Because community voices and perspectives have been largely missing from literature, this paper, drawing on a community-based case study, and neoliberalism as a theoretical framework, uniquely explores the significance of SLCE at one institution from the vantage point of community members, notably local residents. As a result of the community contributions shared, this paper offers a way of thinking about SLCE “from nonprofits to neighbors” with an aim of (re)imagining SLCE with those who have often been left out of research.

Keywords: U.S. higher education, service learning and community engagement, neoliberalism, campus-community partnerships, neighborliness

How to Cite:

Perrotti, C., (2024) “From nonprofits to neighbors: Exploring the locus of campus-community partnerships”, Michigan Journal of Community Service Learning 30(1). doi: https://doi.org/10.3998/mjcsl.4379

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Published on
27 Apr 2024
Peer Reviewed

Service learning and community engagement (SLCE) have become near ubiquitous across United States (U.S.) higher education (Butin, 2006). Since SLCE combines work in the community with academic learning (Bringle & Hatcher, 1996), students’ classroom experiences, coupled with their work at community placements, become sites for learning. Much of the existing literature has documented positive effects of SLCE on student learning and development. For example, Seider and colleagues (2013) wrote that more than 200 studies have been published over the last several decades about SLCE’s impact on student learning and development. However, though SLCE would not exist in the absence of community partners (Sandy & Holland, 2006), limited attention has been given to understanding the experiences of SLCE on the people who live and work in those communities intended to be served.

While research has made significant contributions in better understanding community voices and perspectives on SLCE (see, for instance, Leiderman et al., 2003; Sandy, 2007; Stoecker & Tryon, 2009), studies have most often used community-based organizations—the nonprofits, K–12 schools, and government agencies with whom SLCE courses and programs partner—as a proxy for “the community” to examine components of effective collaboration as well as the benefits and impacts of SLCE on such organizations. However, due to the influences of systemic power dynamics, including white supremacy and neoliberalism, within and between higher education, SLCE, and the communities where SLCE occurs, community-engaged scholars and practitioners cannot assume that the interests of community-based organizations are the same as local residents. As interest in SLCE continues to grow, additional research exploring the impacts of SLCE beyond the walls of institutions is imperative. Accordingly, drawing on a community-based case study, and neoliberalism as a theoretical framework, this article uniquely explores the significance of SLCE at one institution from the vantage of community members, notably local residents.

Specifically, this article examines SLCE at Providence College (PC), a regionally selective, predominantly white, Catholic, liberal arts college in Providence, Rhode Island (RI). PC credits itself as the first and still one of the only colleges in the country to offer an undergraduate major in Public and Community Service Studies, which was designed, in part, by the pedagogy and practice of service learning. As this academic program nears its third decade, it has been highly lauded and well documented in literature (see Battistoni, 1998; Hudson & Trudeau, 1995; Longo et al., 2017; Morton, 2012). I draw upon my experiences as an alum of this academic program and, today, as an Assistant Professor of Public and Community Service Studies at my alma mater, providing deep insights and rich connections into the efforts of the institution and the surrounding community. Drawing on these experiences and relationships built, I interrogate PC’s engagement efforts through the experiences of community members from the Smith Hill neighborhood (a predominantly lower-income, multiracial community that abuts the southeast corner of the campus) where I was first introduced to and participated in SLCE as a college student.

PC, like many urban and metropolitan campuses, is embedded with a conflux of several geographic or neighborhood and local political boundaries as displayed in Figure 1. While the college offers a range of curricular and co-curricular community engagement experiences for students within several neighborhoods and with community-based organizations throughout the City of Providence, over the past three decades, several key campus units and faculty, including the Department of Public and Community Service Studies, have built a core relationship with Smith Hill community leaders and organizations working on a number of concerted community projects. These projects have focused on affordable housing initiatives, community gardens, and afterschool programs, to a “youth positive” space for gang-involved youth, a café, and the PC/Smith Hill Annex, which operates as a “third space” (Oldenburg, 1999) for campus-community collaborations that the college has rented in the neighborhood for over a decade (see Morton & Bergabauer, 2015). Figure 2 displays several of the campus-community partnerships between PC and Smith Hill community-based organizations at the time of this inquiry.1

Figure 1 PC and the Surrounding Neighborhoods and Communities.

Figure 2 Campus-Community Partnerships Between PC and Smith Hill.

Research on SLCE strategies and practices tends to ignore the impacts on the social and material realities of the communities most directly engaged through these initiatives, an important aspect of this article. Of particular significance, this article draws upon not only community voices and perspectives, but also community knowledge and expertise to reveal how community-based organizations, namely nonprofits, when used as sites for SLCE, can become agents of the institution, having the potential to impose harm on communities. Following a discussion of neoliberalism as a theoretical framework and case study as a research approach, findings are presented, raising pertinent questions that are critical to community-engaged teaching and learning in higher education. As a result of the community contributions shared, a discussion of the significance of place-based education and pedagogical recommendations for practice are included. Ultimately, this article offers a way of thinking about SLCE from nonprofits to neighbors with an aim of (re)imagining SLCE with those who have often been left out of research.

Theoretical Framework

Neoliberalism is a global economic theory that urges the: (a) privatization of the public sphere, (b) deregulation of businesses, and (c) liberalization of trade and industry (Steger & Roy, 2010). As a set of practices aimed at advancing the economy, Casey (2016) inferred that neoliberalism is “the application of business logics to those areas of society that are not businesses” (p. 100). Neoliberalism, however, is not monolithic to economic practices as it can also be seen as modes of governance, working to shape subjectivities into ones that are useful for the nation, including the market (Brown, 2003; Deflem, 2008; Mirowski, 2013).

Neoliberalism, which is strongly linked to the government’s disinvestment in social programs (Duggan, 2003; Harvey, 2005), has been well established in relation to the increasing privatization and corporatization of U.S. higher education (Giroux, 2014). As an economic argument (i.e., defunding social programs and, thus, shifting civic and social responsibility to individuals and organizations, including community members, college students, nonprofits, and higher education), neoliberalism has also been used to analyze and critique the aims and practices of SLCE (Fletcher & Piemonte, 2017; Hyatt, 2001; Kliewer, 2013; Macfarlane & Tomlinson, 2017; Orphan & O’Meara, 2016; Philion, 2017; Raddon & Harrison, 2015; Rost-Banik & Perrotti, 2021; Scott, 2009; Stoecker, 2016). Likewise, as modes of governance (i.e., shaping the subjectivity of citizens, including college students to be useful to the nation and, thus, promoting social control), neoliberalism has been used to further analyze and critique SLCE (Dennis, 2009; Macfarlane & Tomlinson, 2017; Rost-Banik & Perrotti, 2021). These bodies of literature have examined how institutions of higher education, SLCE, and college students are deeply entangled in the neoliberal project, resulting in a SLCE that is defined in relation to a market society, limiting its impact and benefit on communities, and the justice aims that are often assumed to be inherent to SLCE.

Much of my thinking on the impact and implications of neoliberalism on SLCE has been informed by the literature referenced above. However, while “in the field” collecting data, Luttrell (2010) wrote that prior assumptions and “theoretical plotting” often are met with “serendipity and surprise” (p. 160). This article draws upon community contributions to reveal how nonprofits, when used as sites for SLCE, can become agents of the institution, having the potential to impose harm on communities. Thus, it became necessary to consider neoliberalism in relation to nonprofits.

Under neoliberalism, nonprofits have been increasingly relied upon to provide social services previously run by the government. Though many nonprofits have missions aimed towards addressing important social or public issues, and may have explicit social justice aims, nonprofits have come to operate under a capitalist structure known as the nonprofit industrial complex (INCITE!, 2007). This system resembles private corporations, forcing nonprofits to focus on, for instance, professionalization and expertise, clear lines of power and authority (including the establishment and professionalization of nonprofit boards), revenue generation through a constant competition for public and private funding, and by being process-oriented and data-driven, rather than mission-driven (Alexander & Fernandez, 2021; Eikenberry & Drapal Kluver, 2004; Ceema Samimi, 2019). These hegemonic ways of operating under neoliberalism, coupled with the fact that federal regulation restricts nonprofits (tax-exempt organizations) from engaging in political activities (Internal Revenue Service, 2024), can result in nonprofits and, in turn, SLCE having limited connection to and impact on the communities and constituencies they aim to serve (Alexander & Fernandez, 2021; Ceema Samimi, 2019; Stoecker, 2016). Thus, while service and community work can have a positive impact and benefit on communities, public administration scholars have warned of the potential harm nonprofit volunteer initiatives, under neoliberalism, can have on civil society and democracy (Alexander & Fernandez, 2021; Dean, 2015; Eikenberry, 2013; Eikenberry & Drapal Kluver, 2004).

For example, INCITE! (2007) has positioned the nonprofit industrial complex as a soft form of social control further aligning itself with neoliberalism. Under neoliberalism, Ah Kwon (2013) argued that the “social disinvestment and corporatization overburden” of nonprofits has increasingly situated “these organizations as important sites of care for marginalized groups” to promote individual and personal responsibility rather than collective and social responsibility (p. 5). Hence, it is noteworthy that, historically, SLCE has been predominantly implemented by white faculty, who send white, middle-class students to work with nonprofits located in low-income communities of color (Banerjee & Hausafus, 2007; Butin, 2006; Green, 2001, 2003). This mirrors the all-too-common narrative of white bodies surveilling and controlling Black, Indigenous, and other People of Color (BIPOC), a foundational dynamic of white supremacy (Mills, 1997). Therefore, the reproduction of nonprofits, volunteerism, and SLCE that are often presented as ameliorating social or public issues from a place of goodness and charitable work can replicate the ways in which neoliberalism—and white supremacy—provide surveillance and social control to shape subjectivities into ones that are useful for the nation, including the market.

Kliewer (2013) argued that because of the ways in which SLCE has come to operate under neoliberalism, “communities still confront many of the same injustices and inequalities that inspired the contemporary civic engagement movement” (p. 72). And because SLCE courses and programs most often partner with nonprofits, the above discussion on the impact and implications of neoliberalism on nonprofits may be one reason why White (2012) wrote that colleges and universities “fall short of sharing full responsibility, accountability and authority for civic work with our community partners, especially marginalized citizens and residents of economically distressed communities” (p. 5). While not explicitly mentioning neoliberalism, White continued, “the reason residents don’t find us relevant is not because we aren’t doing anything to help them. It’s because they have no stake in what we’re doing” (p. 10). Responding to Kliewer’s (2013) call for continued research on how neoliberalism shapes SLCE in higher education, throughout this inquiry, I drew on the above understandings of neoliberalism to frame my seeing; to interpret the larger systems at play in relation to how community members described and understood their experiences with SLCE, including who campuses tend to partner with and why.

Methods

Critical community-based qualitative research is a collective practice of not only bearing witness and documenting community voices and perspectives, but also “revealing resistance, forgoing common interests and provoking possibilities” (Fine, 2018, p. 122). In doing so, Fine (2018) asserted that researchers “carry the responsibility to theorize, historicize, make visible, re-present, and re-circulate [community member’s] stories” and “are obligated to animate the histories, structures, policies, ideologies, and practices that have spawned their social exclusion, and perhaps have fomented their deep commitments to justice” (p. 12). Drawing on this understanding, the aim of this inquiry was not only to make sure that community voices and perspectives were represented in SLCE research, but also to begin to (re)imagine community engagement strategies and practices that more intentionally understand and support the interests of community members; support community assets; and allow for neighborhoods, communities, and campuses to come together to engage in critical conversations around systemic social issues.

Case Study as a Research Approach

I draw on Stake (1995) who asserted that case study research is not a methodology, rather a research approach; a choice of what is to be studied. Schwandt and Gates (2018) noted that this choice of what is to be studied is not from a predetermined list, but something that is already out there. This inquiry, informed primarily by in-depth interviews (Seidman, 2019), drew on case study as a research approach to understand how various community members from Smith Hill described and understood their experiences with SLCE by PC.

With a critical orientation, a single case can “represent a significant contribution to knowledge and theory building by confirming, challenging, or extending the theory. Such a study even can help to refocus future investigations in an entire field” (p. 49). Therefore, this inquiry, despite being a single case, provides key insights into SLCE at both the local or micro level of PC and within Smith Hill as well as the larger macro level processes of higher education community engagement.

Data Sources and Research Sample

To deeply investigate SLCE, 21 community members were interviewed using an in-depth interview process (Seidman, 2019). Interviews aimed to record how community members described and understood their experiences with SLCE by PC. While this article primarily draws on interviews with residents (n = 11), the full data set from which this article draws upon included more than 30 hours of interviews with a range of community members (n = 21 total), including residents, nonprofit staff and board members, and key campus stakeholders. I also had informal meetings, conversations, and email exchanges with 12 additional community members on background related to PC’s SLCE efforts in Smith Hill that became part of the data set. The full data set from which this article draws upon also included participant observations (Green, 2014) of numerous interactions between the campus (students, staff, and faculty) and community members; document and artifact collection on background related to SLCE at PC and within Smith Hill; and autoethnographic data (Chang, 2008).

Research Engaged Practitioners2

In deciding on my methods, data sources, and research sample, I built relationships with and took seriously the advice from Smith Hill community leaders, as well as key campus stakeholders, who were involved in SLCE at PC and within Smith Hill. Because SLCE has largely operated in a binary of “campus” and “community,” with “the community” most often represented by nonprofits, I was intentional about engaging a multivocal account of SLCE from a range of community members, including two community groups: the Smith Hill Partners’ Initiative (SHPI) and the Smith Hill Advocacy and Resources Partnerships (SHARP).

SHPI consisted of mainly nonprofit staff and was a space for various community organizations to come together to discuss community development in the neighborhood. Some of the community organizations had formal partnerships with PC. SHPI was also considered Smith Hill’s official Neighborhood Association by the City of Providence. SHARP was a grassroots organization of residents also working on community development in the neighborhood. SHARP worried that the community organizations that made up SHPI did not necessarily represent residents’ concerns, so they formed their own group separate from SHPI. While some campus units and individual faculty had relationships with members of SHARP, the college at large was most positioned to work with the community organizations that made up SHPI given their institutional and financial infrastructure, including staffing, liability insurance, and other resources to support community-engaged learning. To engage, interpret, and record the voices of a range of community members, I worked with both community groups to understand resident and nonprofit perspectives on the PC’s SLCE efforts in Smith Hill. As previously mentioned, several key campus stakeholders (students, staff, and faculty) also were interviewed. It is noteworthy to mention that because academic research norms do not necessarily translate to community-based settings, some community members chose to have their real names used throughout this inquiry, giving them ownership over their own words, while others were given pseudonyms.

Data Analysis

As this inquiry shifted to analysis, community members’ understandings and lived experiences with SLCE became the focus. Interviews were audio-recorded and/or video-recorded and transcribed (near verbatim). I wrote an analytic and reflexive memo to accompany each interview transcript. Each transcript and memo writings were read as part of the data set. Since qualitative research relies on the participants’ views as an insider and often reports them in quotes, participants were provided a copy of their interview transcription(s) for review and, if needed, to further elaborate on or clarify points (Creswell & Poth, 2018). In some instances, this process resulted in a follow up interview.

Drawing on Seidman’s (2019) in-depth interview analysis approach, and Jackson and Mazzei’s (2018) method of “thinking with theory,” my analysis procedures involved reading and rereading the transcripts and memos to make and analyze thematic connections within and across them, with particular attention to the words of community members, notably residents. As patterns and themes emerged, I established what Erickson (1986) termed “empirical assertions.” Assertions are not positivistic truths, but declarative statements of summative synthesis supported by empirical evidence. Assertions were also shared with participants for review, discussion, and clarification, as needed. Through an iterative and concurrent process with data collection, these data analysis methods allowed me to establish patterns and themes to better understand community voices and perspectives on SLCE in an intricate and multifaceted way.

Findings

SLCE as a Contradiction of Good and Harm

My overall findings were filled with contradictions of SLCE as both good and harmful; specifically, how campus stakeholders are centered in doing both good work in communities and having the potential to impose harm. For example, residents referred to PC’s SLCE efforts as a “saving grace” and an “example of community relations” between the college and neighborhood. Likewise, one resident said that those students working in the neighborhood “have always been the greatest ambassadors of PC.” And resident-parents talked about students “[making] an impact on the neighborhood kids” and being “instrumental” to supporting afterschool youth programs in Smith Hill.

However, residents simultaneously referred to the short-term, transactional dynamics of SLCE that often favor student learning over community impact and how those and other aspects of SLCE can uphold power dynamics, including racial power dynamics; producing fear and deficit-based thinking about communities, color-blind racism and white saviorism, and a lack of understanding of the root causes that created the need for service in the first place among participating students. While these findings, specifically on the racial power dynamics of SLCE, support previous research (Becker & Paul, 2015; Cann & McCloskey, 2017; Endres & Gould, 2009; Mitchell et al., 2012), they are significant because they are from the voices and perspectives of community members, notably residents. This is noteworthy given that much of the literature that has examined the racial power dynamics of SLCE have been conducted by interviewing participating students or analyzing students’ written reflections on their community experiences, rather than from community experiences shared.3

Discussing the tensions and contradictions of SLCE as both good and harmful, Heather, who wore multiple hats in the neighborhood as a resident, landlord, and local nonprofit board member, reflected, “I think there’s a lot of naiveté and a lot of goodwill.” “It’s a double-edged sword,” the local Councilwoman said, “People are angry about the lack of intentionality from PC students sometimes but also, we need kids in our Library, and they support that. We need community spaces. The Annex offers one.” One PC faculty member summed up these tensions and contradictions by saying: “[SLCE] can be both exploitative and it can be students and community members showing up and doing good, authentic work. It can be both/and…When there’s good, there’s good. Where there’s harm, there’s harm.”

In Versus With “the Community”

In relation to the tensions and contradictions of SLCE discussed above, something that stood out to me almost immediately during my data collection was the ways in which residents questioned who students primarily worked with through SLCE. Patricia, the co-founder of SHARP, reflected:

They’re a bunch of students picking up trash, gathering things in bags, and they’re all together. They’re not with “the community” per se. They’re at the community park with the [Smith Hill Community Development Corporation] who live elsewhere. So, they’re all with people that look just like them. They all get to pick up trash together. They’re going to bag it, carry it away, and then they’re going to go back to campus.

In this quote, Patricia was referencing one time day of service type of events and other traditional forms of community service or outreach, such as community clean-ups, tree plantings, and food drives that PC periodically co-sponsored with a local nonprofit, the Smith Hill Community Development Corporation (CDC). Here, Patricia was expressing frustration with how these traditional forms of community service often place students working with nonprofit staff, rather than connecting them with and working alongside residents. Adding to this frustration, Patricia noted that students were with “people that look just like them” and “live elsewhere,” calling attention to the fact that the CDC staff were predominately white and did not live in the neighborhood much like the college students. Referencing other forms of SLCE, including community-engaged courses, internships, and community work-study, Patricia elaborated, “I hear there’s some [students working] at the [Smith Hill] Library and at the CDC…but I don’t see them.” Patricia continued, “if you go to volunteer at the CDC…you might be on the phone with a few of their tenants…but you’re not necessarily interacting with the community.”

This tension expanded beyond the community work that students participated into how residents also saw the local nonprofits as being in Smith Hill but not necessarily working with and alongside and representing the voices and concerns of residents. Janice, a member of SHARP, elaborated on the differences she saw between the residents that made up SHARP and the nonprofit staff who made up SHPI. Janice shared:

I’m not joining SHPI. I have no doubt that they’re great people, but they don’t live here. SHPI doesn’t represent the people I want to serve. I mean, they talk about it, but they go home. They don’t live here, and I believe strongly that people who live here are the ones who are going to make the change.

Though Patricia often participated in SHPI meetings, in agreement with Janice, she said that she saw a significant difference between “working in” and “living in” Smith Hill and representing and advocating for residents’ concerns.

At the time of my data collection, SHARP had organized themselves around several issues and priorities identified by residents, including working with the Councilwoman and City of Providence to replace missing street signs in the neighborhood and addressing an infestation of rats in vacant lots throughout Smith Hill as well as coordinating a pop-up farmer’s market during the summer months to bring fresh produce to the neighborhood. Patricia, further reflecting on the work of SHARP, quipped:

All the groups work here…SHPI work here. [At] 5:00 PM, six o’clock, they go home. So, you don’t get to see our rats cause you’re gone by 5:00 PM and [the rats] come out at 6. So, we get to see them. They crawl under the cars and chew the wires out of our car, but you’re home by then. So, you don’t see that.

Patricia continued, “SHARP’s interests are so different from all the organizations that exist here.” “The stakeholders,” Patricia emphasized, “their priorities are so different.”

Patricia’s use of the word “stakeholder” is noteworthy. Patricia reflected, “When people say stakeholders, it’s always somebody from the outside.” Speaking about the nonprofits associated with SHPI, Patricia continued: “They’re stakeholders because their ‘stake’ is in Smith Hill only through their job. They literally get paid to be here every day.” This raises an interesting point about what then was PC’s “stake” in the neighborhood, leading to questions around the aims of SLCE and for whom SLCE is for. Patricia said that though she saw the “stakeholders” as part of the community and acknowledged and appreciated the work they did to improve Smith Hill, she still “sense[d] a lot of the self interest in their existence in the community.”

Considering these reflections from Patricia and Janice, one can begin to see how campuses and nonprofits can mirror one another regarding their work in, but not necessarily with the community, leading to additional questions around who campuses tend to partner with and why, and if those partnerships truly represent “the community.” Unlike a grassroots organization like SHARP who may not have a physical location and liability insurance, community-based organizations that support SLCE tend to resemble the CDC and the other nonprofits that made up SHPI—501(c)(3) organizations with physical locations, liability insurance, among other “protections” that can help mitigate risk and ensure safety and liability for students when they are working off-campus (Scott, 2009). While communities are not unitary, Patricia and Janice’s experiences and reflections raise concerns about campuses solely partnering with nonprofits rather than working with and alongside resident groups like SHARP who have organized themselves around issues and priorities identified by residents but who have no formal institutional or financial backing. It is noteworthy, however, that SHARP, given several members preexisting relationships with some campus units and individual faculty, regularly met as a group at the PC/Smith Hill Annex given that it was a “free space” (Evans & Boyte, 1986). And during the time of my data collection, a PC philosophy course was working with SHARP to develop an online/social media presence and resident e-newsletter as part of the course’s SLCE requirement.

Exploring the Locus of a Campus-Community Partnership

Sticking with this example that Patricia provided of students working alongside the CDC staff helps to further illustrate the contradictions of good and harm within this one partnership. The mission of the CDC was “to providing safe, affordable housing” as well as “[offer] resident services, community garden beautification, youth programming, and neighborhood events” (CDC, 2022, paras. 1–3). Since the mid-1990s, PC and the CDC had worked together on several concerted community projects in Smith Hill, including those mentioned in the introduction of this article. PC also had provided the CDC with financial resources, including a $750,000 donation in 2014 to support their affordable housing work (Troop, 2014).

Similar to how my overall findings were filled with contradictions of SLCE as both good and harmful, the same was true for how residents experienced the CDC. On the one hand, residents saw good in the work of the CDC. Residents saw value in the work that the CDC was doing around affordable housing as well as the various projects that the CDC was involved in with PC. Residents described the CDC as doing “important work” and acknowledged that the CDC had “done more to develop housing in Smith Hill than anyone else” and, in doing so, “ha[d] positively impacted the standard of housing in the neighborhood.” On the other hand, residents had experienced the CDC, which was originally started by a group of local community leaders, to come to resemble a business. As residents witnessed the corporatization of the CDC—undergirded by white supremacy and neoliberalism, and the resulting nonprofit industrial complex—they experienced the largely white staff (who were not from Smith Hill) making decisions around funding, priorities, and staffing that one resident said, did “not always hav[e] the best interest of the community in mind.”

Further speaking to the corporatization of the CDC, several residents described the CDC as a “housing business” and “realty company” with a “corporate structure.” Patricia said that “[the CDC is] the housing builder, the housing provider, the housing property manager, and the rent collector.” The following quote from Heather connects to Patricia and Janice’s previous concerns about the differences between working in rather than with “the community” as well as demonstrates one way the CDC had caused harm in the community—as being an organization focused on providing affordable housing and promoting community development, but also having the ability to evict people. Heather reflected:

[T]he CDC has this messed up dynamic of being able to evict people. So, on top of all the: “You’re not a resident.” “You don’t look like me.” “Now you’re kicking me out of my neighborhood?”…[I]t’s certainly a service to provide housing, but there’s this messed up component too.

Throughout my conversations with nonprofit staff, however, “care” was expressed for Smith Hill and its residents. For example, the Executive Director of the CDC said, “I may go home at night and lay my head elsewhere, but I dedicate my life to this community and the concerns here and I take it to heart.” Talking about the CDC’s afterhours emergency phone line for their residents, the Executive Director continued, “I come back here at night when the phone rings. My husband comes back here at night. My children come back here.”

Drawing on McKnight (1995), White (2012) argued that though individual people who work for nonprofits may care, they are professionals—“stakeholders,” as Patricia described—embedded within larger systems and structures, such as white supremacy and neoliberalism, and the resulting nonprofit industrial complex. In other words, White (2012) argued that though individual people within nonprofits may care, “institutions don’t care” (p. 5). While the Executive Director of the CDC may have indeed cared about the organization and its constituency, residents experienced the CDC as a manifestation of the larger structures at play, resulting in the CDC’s hegemonic ways of operating and creating top-down relationships between the CDC and Smith Hill residents.

Further discussing who worked for the CDC and how the CDC had operated in the neighborhood, the Councilwoman said:

It’s kind of like the classic well-intentioned White people thing where they think that they’re doing so much good housing work that they can’t open themselves up to any sort of criticism. So, we cannot have a conversation about the times when they do mess up…

The Councilwoman continued:

There are residents in CDC housing that have called me and have been like, “Hey, I can’t afford to pay my rent right now. I owe them some money.” This has happened before. They’re an affordable housing organization. Sometimes people owe them money and they have to deal with that. And they say, like, hostile things and the residents will call me and be like, “I don’t think they know how to talk to poor people.”

The Councilwoman added that because the CDC had not been “super intentional” about how they engaged with residents, they had often been met with pushback for taking on more than they can handle, including taking on too many community projects with PC and other local organizations. “[T]here’s kind of a misunderstanding,” the Councilwoman said: “[the CDC] know[s] they provide such great service in the housing [but] I don’t think they always understand that they do a lot of harm in some ways, which is unfortunate.”

Critically reflecting on the nature of campus-community partnerships within the context of SLCE, Hicks Peterson (2018) asked, “Are there any ways in which…the partnership itself inadvertently causes harm in community?” (p. 169). The various experiences and reflections shared from Janice, Heather, Patricia, the local Councilwoman, and other residents made me consider this question from Hicks Peterson and wonder how, if at all, PC’s partnership with the CDC might have been inadvertently imposing harm on Smith Hill residents. In continuing to discuss how the CDC had caused harm in the community, the Councilwoman talked about PC putting “most of their eggs in the CDC’s basket,” which she said could be perceived by residents as enabling the harm caused by the CDC in the neighborhood. The Councilwoman reflected:

PC I know has a lot of relationships across Smith Hill, but, like, I kind of think they put, like, most of their eggs in the CDC’s basket…I think they’ve given the CDC so much money that there is a need for, like, someone or a group of people that come to the CDC and address the issues and the harm that they’ve caused to the community, and I don’t think that has happened before. And because PC [has] given them so many resources, they’ve kind of enabled this culture.

It is noteworthy that the Councilwoman was not alone in making this connection between the CDC and the college. Referencing both the human capital (through SLCE courses and programs) and the financial capital that the college has provided the CDC over the years, residents alluded to PC enabling the CDC to continue to perpetuate harm in the neighborhood. Specifically, several residents referenced the $750,000 donation PC made to the CDC in 2014, which was made following a financially difficult time for the CDC due to the 2008 national real estate and financial market collapse. While residents expressed deep appreciation for PC investing in the CDC and, in turn, the neighborhood, they simultaneously said the donation was viewed by some as an effort to “rescue,” “save,” and “keep [the CDC] afloat” despite its harmful practices in the neighborhood. Though one resident, who asked to remain anonymous for this portion of our interview, said they did not think the college knew “how dire strait” the CDC’s financial situation was in 2014. The same resident said, “had [PC] known, maybe they wouldn’t have supported [the CDC] financially in the same ways.”

My intention is not to single out the CDC as a harmful organization, because, as previously discussed, residents saw good in their work. And I note that I am glossing over much history and context for the purpose of this article. I also recognize that a limitation of place-based work is that campuses tend to partner with those organizations who are well established and have the infrastructure to support community-engaged learning; and the CDC met both of those criteria. However, I focus on the CDC to demonstrate how campus-community partnerships can contribute to the contradictions of good and harm with SLCE. The various experiences and reflections shared from residents raise pertinent questions that are critical to community-engaged teaching and learning in higher education; critical questions that scholars and practitioners should consider in their own settings and contexts: Who is “the community” in higher education community engagement? Who does the field of SLCE intend to work with and why? Can colleges and universities partner solely with nonprofits and still consider their work an authentic form of community engagement? How might campuses extend a different invitation to work with and alongside residents and nonprofits to increase the impact they can have through SLCE? In other words, what would it take (and what would it signal) for campuses to invest in relationships with grassroots organizations like SHARP rather than putting “most of their eggs in the…basket” of nonprofits? What would it mean for colleges and universities to work with the neighborhoods and communities that surround their campuses as neighbors with neighbors?

From Nonprofits to Neighbors

In addition to the findings presented above, the idea of campuses needing to see themselves as neighbors emerged from several community members, including residents and campus stakeholders, who referenced the following quote from former PC president, Rev. Brian J. Shanley, at the opening of the PC/Smith Hill Annex in 2012: “In addition to being in a city, we’re in a neighborhood and this is our neighborhood…This is our local neighborhood and this place [the PC/Smith Hill Annex] represents our anchoring in this neighborhood…and it’s long term” (PC, 2012, 2:23). Community members noted that this was the first time that they had ever heard a campus leader acknowledge PC as part of Smith Hill. Rev. Shanley’s reference to “neighborhood” emphasized that PC was not separate from but rather a part of Smith Hill. When reflecting on the college’s SLCE efforts in Smith Hill, residents called for a similar neighborly approach. To provide insight into the above-mentioned questions around neighborly engagement, the following discussion further connects the findings to existing literature as well as to community knowledge and expertise shared for learning to be an effective neighbor and developing an “ecological consciousness” of place.

Learning to Be an Effective Neighbor

At the start of my data collection, members of SHARP were concluding a series of two community classes, entitled, “Introduction into Community Engagement” and “Introduction of Community Resources.” The classes, which were held at the PC/Smith Hill Annex, were open to anyone in the community who wanted to participate. The curricula for both classes were developed by members of SHARP and facilitated by Ms. Althea, the co-founder of SHARP who was frequently described throughout my data collection as the “godmother” or “matriarch” of the neighborhood. The five-week curriculum for “Introduction into Community Engagement” provides insights into what members of SHARP, as residents of the neighborhood, believed were most important to be an effective neighbor. Hence, the curriculum can offer insights for those involved in SLCE on how to be in neighborship with the communities that surround their campuses, recognizing their place, roles, and responsibilities to the community as a neighbor.

Built around song, poetry, and excerpts from various readings, the curriculum engaged participants in questions, such as: “Do I Know My Neighbors? Why Does it Matter? How Can It [A]ffect Me or My Community?”; “Do I Know the Community Resources?” and “Do I Use or Recommend Them to Others?”; “Am I a Good Neighbor?” and “What Do I Bring to the Table?”; and “What Have I Done or Can I Do to Make [the neighborhood] Better?”. Through engagement with such questions, the class included discussions and activities around the following themes: “When I Walk/Drive Through My Community I See… I Feel… I Know…”; “The Good, the Bad, and the Mundane” of community life; and “When I Think of Home” and “My Ideal Community.”

I read and interpreted SHARP’s curriculum as a starting point for the foundational commitments and responsibilities that campuses (students, staff, faculty, administrators) need to prioritize to be seen as an effective neighbor. The curriculum centers community knowledge, individual or personal responsibility alongside collective responsibility, including organizational and institutional responsibility as well as an assets-based approach to community engagement. Asset-based community development (Kretzman & McKnight, 1993) is an approach that is touted as central to SLCE but has often been met with the predominance of deficit-based thinking and discourse among instructors designing and implementing (Mitchell & Perrotti, 2023a), and students participating in SLCE experiences (Cann & McCloskey, 2017; Endres & Gould, 2009; Houshmand et al., 2014; Mitchell et al., 2012; Rougeaux Shabazz & Cooks, 2014; Vaccaro, 2009). Therefore, the questions posed, and themes embedded within the curriculum can provide insights into how campuses can begin doing their own internal work of learning (and unlearning) how to be an effective neighbor as shared from community perspectives.

Developing an “Ecological Consciousness” of Place

This notion of being a “neighbor” can be understood in relation to what the field of SLCE has termed “place-based community engagement;” “a long-term university-wide commitment to partner with local residents, organizations, and other leaders to focus equally on campus and community impact within a clearly defined geographic area” (Yamamura & Koth, 2018, p. 18). In this article, however, I draw upon indigenous knowledge, which Penetito (2009) argued has a “well-rehearsed tradition and historical affinity” for place-based education (p. 24; see also Carwile, 2021; Poitra et al, 2021; Santiago-Ortiz, 2019).

Penetito’s (2009) article, “Place-Based Education: Catering for Curriculum, Culture, and Community,” aligns with what residents of SHARP shared as necessary for campuses to enter into neighborship with their surrounding communities. Discussing place-based education in the context of the New Zealand education system and principles and practice from the Māori and other indigenous peoples, Penetito focused on two fundamental questions for place-based education: “What is this place?” and “What is our relationship with it?”. These questions, which are central to the “Introduction into Community Engagement” curriculum, are significant given that campuses tend to be detached from—separate and apart—rather than in relationship with their surrounding communities. In engaging these questions, Penetito encouraged those involved in place-based education to develop an “ecological consciousness” of place, including cultivating knowledge and understanding about the community as a place and the people that make up the community. The emphasis on people is noteworthy because the language of partnership in SLCE has typically been geared towards place (i.e., nonprofits, K–12 schools, and government agencies with whom SLCE courses and programs partner) and not necessarily the people impacted by the partnering organizations and student engagement.

Penetito’s discussion of place-based education, coupled with the “Introduction into Community Engagement” curriculum, encourages staff and instructors designing and implementing SLCE experiences to have less of a focus on having students “do” service, especially for students who may have variable interests in and commitments to service and community work, and most often are not from the communities they engage with through SLCE. Rather, place-based education intends to equip students (and other campus stakeholders) with a more robust understanding of the community, supporting students in coming to see, know, and understand themselves; public, civic, and/or social justice issues that they are passionate about; and their campuses in relation to the larger contexts of the places and people they intend to engage with through SLCE. Developing an “ecological consciousness,” Penetito wrote, becomes the primary lens to convey academic subject matter required to maintain sustainable commitments to community. Accordingly, the following introduces several foundational pedagogical approaches and practices for learning to be an effective neighbor and developing an “ecological consciousness” of place through neighborly engagement.

Foundational Pedagogical Approaches and Practices for Neighborly Engagement

Staff and instructors need to begin by clearly articulating (to themselves, students, and with community partners) for whom and what purposes SLCE is for. This should be named in syllabi (Mitchell & Perrotti, 2023b) and extended to engagement with the following topics and questions through course materials, assignments, and in-class activities and discussions:

  • What is SLCE and why is it a part of the course experience?

  • Who are the partnering organizations and who do they serve? What is the locus of the campus-community partnerships? In other words, who is centered as the “the community” in the partnership: nonprofits or other community-based organizations, local residents, campus stakeholders, or a range of these community members and stakeholders?

  • What level of involvement does “the community” have in the partnership? Is student engagement “in,” “to,” “for,” and/or “with” “the community”?

  • Who benefits and who controls and sets the terms of the partnership and resulting student experience and community work: campus stakeholders, including students, “the community,” or a collaboration of both?

Starting from this intentional place can situate SLCE and the resulting campus-community partnership as central to a course experience, allowing students, staff and instructors, and community partners involved to critically reflect on the larger purposes of SLCE. This work should then extend to include topics related to participants’ identities and positionality in relation to the community work, including students’ motivations for SLCE and topics related to power, privilege, and oppression as well as institutional power dynamics. It is also critical for SLCE preparation to include a root cause analysis of why the community work students participate in is needed in the first place.

Recognizing that communities are not monolithic, instructors should further develop students’ “ecological consciousness” by situating “the community” as a central text to the course experience, providing a range of readings, videos, podcasts, and other materials that teach students about community histories, cultures, languages, demographics, and experiences. Instructors should also situate social issues relevant to their courses within the local context by assigning, for instance, local newspapers as well as local and state government reports, data, nonprofit annual reports, or white papers as course readings. Instructors can also engage local government, nonprofit, and grassroots organizations’ social media accounts in their courses. Using social media as a pedagogical tool in the classroom can help students identify real-world applications for the social media tools that they already use. Collectively, these approaches and practices should engage students in ways that allow them to understand communities as sources of knowledge and community members as producers of knowledge (Hall & Tandon, 2017).

Building upon the above-mentioned course materials, staff and instructors can further develop students’ “ecological consciousness” through, for instance: listening projects as well as asset and power mapping activities of their campus and surrounding neighborhoods; include community site visits and neighborhood walking tours with community leaders (with appropriate compensation) as part of a course experience; hold select class sessions or co-curricular workshops at community sites; and hire community members as co-instructors (again, with appropriate compensation). These additional pedagogical approaches and practices focus on students developing a more robust understanding of the community by being in dialogue in and with community members, and less focused on deficit notions that communities are in need of students’ “service.” It is also noteworthy that some of these strategies encourage engagement with community members on campus, rather than assuming that engagement always needs to occur in the community.

Regarding the actual community work that students participate in, neighborly approaches and practices must center community priorities as identified not only by nonprofits but also residents. This type of engagement may or may not be guided by consistent plans, such as a set number of required service hours. It also may or may not be centered on myopic tasks as traditional forms of SLCE tend to be, such as students working at an afterschool tutoring program, food pantry, or soup kitchen. In other words, through a neighborly approach, community work may or may not look similar to what some SLCE experiences already look like while other community work might be unpredictable at times, as community identified priorities and tasks may shift from day to day. This tends to be less favorable to those designing SLCE experiences for a host of reasons, including students’ availability, the rigidness of academic calendars, and institutional concerns related to risk management. How then can SLCE experiences be structured in such a way to be nimble to shifting priorities as identified by community members? Partnering directly as and with neighbors will require campuses to be creative and collaborative, and adaptable and flexible, to show up in and with community and build capacity, as well as leverage campus resources, where community members say they are most needed.

Though subversive in its simplicity, these neighborly approaches and practices are centered on developing students’ (and other campus stakeholders’) knowledge, commitment, and responsibility in understanding their obligation (as individuals and as part of a larger campus) in and to the community as a neighbor. Potentially, from this intentional understanding of and commitment to being a neighbor, campuses may begin to build more generous and relational partnerships across community members—from nonprofits to neighbors.

Future Research

While the findings presented in this article offer utility to the larger macro level processes of higher education community engagement, I acknowledge that this inquiry was grounded in the specific context of SLCE at one institution and within one community. Much like communities, this idea of being a neighbor is not going to be monolithic across higher education and the communities involved in SLCE. Penetito (2009) wrote that place-based education “is rooted in what is local and therefore unique to a place” (p. 18). Thus, place-based community engagement will vary across “each institution’s and community’s cultural, historical, community, and organizational context” (Yamamura & Koth, 2018, p. 21). I wonder, then, how being a neighbor in the context of SLCE might differ across varying institutional and geographical contexts, and diverse student populations.

Further research might consider what being a neighbor means across, for instance, anchor and place-based institutions, urban and metropolitan institutions, rural institutions, Minority Serving Institutions (MSIs) as well as within cross-institutional collaborations in the same geographic location. Research might also consider what being a neighbor means for diverse student populations. For example, previous research has analyzed MSIs (Ward & Wolf-Wendel, 2000) and BIPOC student experiences with SLCE finding that BIPOC students tend to experience SLCE differently than their white peers given the predominance of whiteness in SLCE and across higher education (Evans et al., 2009; Mitchell & Donahue, 2009; Valencia-Garcia & Coles-Ritchie, 2021). What might being a neighbor then mean in the context of SLCE across not only MSIs and for BIPOC students, but also undocumented students, first-generation college and/or low-income students, rural institutions/students, and alternative institutions serving adult learners? These questions have the potential to move the discussion of neighborliness beyond pedagogical approaches and practices, as discussed in this article, to consider where and how neighborliness might be located institutionally.

Finally, while this article and its framing of “from nonprofits to neighbors” was intentional about listening to and representing the voices and perspectives of community members, what might being a neighbor look like beyond SLCE and higher education? What other disciplines and fields; places, institutions, and structures in society; and/or practices might represent neighborliness that higher education community engagement can learn from? These topics and questions offer future directions for continued research.

Conclusion

A significant outcome of this inquiry was a deep investigation of SLCE from the perspectives of a range of powerful community voices. This inquiry aimed to not only better understand and take seriously community voices and perspectives, but also community knowledge and expertise in relation to higher education community engagement. Through the community contributions shared, this article reveals and provides an understanding of the complexities of who constitutes and represents community within the context of SLCE. In doing so, this article offers the field of SLCE a glimpse into examining its work towards the vantage point of standing in “the community” and looking into the campus, rather than the other way around.

Shifting the locus of partnership from solely working with nonprofits to with and alongside neighbors can allow campuses the opportunity to more intentionally be in relationship and build partnerships with the neighborhoods and communities that surround their campuses. This shift, however, does not dismiss nonprofits but rather encourages “reflective and working relationships with individuals and groups of community members alongside the community institutions” (Morton & Bergabauer, 2015, p. 27). Not until the field of SLCE takes seriously “the community” and community contributions will it be able to begin to (re)imagine community engagement strategies and practices that more intentionally understand and support the interests of community members; support community assets; and allow for neighborhoods, communities, and campuses to come together to engage in critical conversations around systemic social issues. College and universities can begin this work by stepping into the neighborhoods and communities that surround their campuses as neighbors with neighbors, (re)imagining the work of community engagement in higher education together.

Notes

  1. Figures 1 and 2 were created with support from U-Spatial, Office of Research and Innovation at the University of Minnesota using the following sources: University of Rhode Island, Esri, Garmin, TomTom, SafeGraph, GeoTechnologies, Inc, METI/NASA, USGS, EPA, NPS, US Census Bureau, USDA, USFWS, Esri Community Maps Contributors.
  2. Carlisle-Cummins (2015) introduced the term “research engaged practitioners” to recognize community members, including residents who partner with university researchers but are often not acknowledged in literature.
  3. While these findings are important and much more can be said about them, they are beyond the scope of this article.

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Author Note

In addition to the editors and peer reviewers of this journal who provided insightful feedback, I am grateful to the many critical friends who contributed their time, knowledge, and expertise to the research process, especially Ms. Althea Graves, Wole Akinbi, and Dr. Keith Morton. Likewise, I am grateful to Dr. Tania D. Mitchell for helping me think through the framing for this article — “From Nonprofits to Neighbors.”

Author Bio

Carmine Perrotti is an Assistant Professor of Public and Community Service Studies at Providence College, his alma mater. His teaching and scholarly interests focus on a range of critical topics related to the philosophy, pedagogy, and practice of community-engaged scholarship in U.S. higher education. Dr. Perrotti holds a Ph.D. in higher education from the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities, and a Master of Public Policy from American University.