©2004 GEO, P.O. Box 115, Riverdale, MD 20738-0115

Building Genuine Campus- Community Partnerships: A Retrospective and Power Analysis

By Mary Bombardier and Kiara Nagel

Community Partnerships for Social Change, Hampshire College

Anticipation is bubbling over in the 150-year-old Lyman Mill Building as the 11-piece salsa band begins a sound check, the drummers releasing a rhythmic combination from the congas as a tease of what is to come. Charged conversations have overflowed into the main space as conference participants spill out, still abuzz from the many creative workshops and carefully assembled panels representing a range of diverse perspectives not readily available at academic conferences. A feast is generously spread before the buffet line. At the other end of the enormous factory space, high school students work alongside college and graduate students to move the lecture podium and stack chairs from the earlier keynote speakers. This historic mill building, which sits at the base of the city of Holyoke's industrial past, is in transition from de-industrial factory space to mixed-use arts and industry district, with apartments, small business offices, a cafe, and a large venue for music and entertainment. But today, it has been transformed into a vibrant conference space accommodating 350 participants from around the country who have come to discuss practices of progressive and participatory planning in Holyoke and in their own communities. This is the 2002 National Planners Network conference, “New Visions for Historic Cities: Bridging Divides, Building Futures,” hosted jointly by Community Partnerships for Social Change of Hampshire College and a coalition of local community and college organizations. The event realized a vision many of us had cultivated over an entire year; it was also the beginning of a long road of work ahead.

Overview: Community Organizing in Community-Based Learning

We are writing this article as two staff members within an academic institution who seek to challenge the often inequitable power relations between colleges and their surrounding community. In our work as staff within a community-based learning program, we face this question of equality daily. Our experience has been that regardless of good intentions, in practice the benefits for academic institutions far outweigh those for community organizations. In the worst situations, communities are seen as laboratories for student experiences and research, and receive little or no useful information, much less aid in making needed long-term changes.

Hosting the Planners Network National Conference provided an opportunity to create a different working relationship between our college and local community organizations. We organized the Conference putting questions of power at the forefront—and in ways which would effect the direction of our future work. This conference would be a first step in organizing for larger systemic change in the power relationships between our academic institutions and the communities they continually impact. What follows is the story of our process in organizing a non-traditional community-driven conference and the tensions and struggles we faced along the way.

Mobilizing Academic Resources for Democratic Social Change

Community Partnerships for Social Change (CPSC) is a program at Hampshire College in Amherst, Massachusetts. CPSC works with students and faculty who wish to integrate their academic interests with their social action commitments in local community settings. Together with local and national organizations, we develop community-based internship and research opportunities, training seminars, and a variety of resources to strengthen students' social justice organizing skills. It is our belief that academic resources should be mobilized to assist community-initiated organizing projects for social change.

This work is often framed in the context of service learning or community-based learning (CBL). CBL work combines formal classroom study of a particular issue with direct “real-world” exposure to that issue in a community setting. Liberal arts colleges have increasingly seen the value of CBL work in enlivening overly academic curricula; in another time, it may have been referred to as “experiential education.”

The language of CBL work gushes with rhetoric about helping communities or building partnerships that are mutually beneficial, but what we have seen in practice is far different. Communities have been studied forever, while their work with universities and colleges has often drained their resources and time, failed to recognize the expertise and skills of local citizens and organization staff, and left next to nothing that is sustainable or could create systemic change once the project is over or the grant runs out. The relationship between academics in their ivory towers and the nearest poor community or community of color can often resemble a colonial relationship. Although we have seen positive examples of community-campus partnerships, for the most part the power dynamic remains the same. Ultimately, there is a lack of accountability from academic institutions engaged in CBL.

One of our major questions over the past year has been how do move beyond this jargon of reciprocal relationships between academia and communities to something that truly challenges the power structure and helps create needed social change. How can research projects and academic initiatives be structured to follow community leadership in identifying important and pressing issues regionally? How might staff, faculty, and students become participants in a community's efforts for systemic change?

Seeds of Change

Within what is often a murky field of mainstream service learning, we were struck by the vision of Ken Reardon, Professor of Urban Planning at Cornell University and member of the national steering committee of the Planners Network. Planners Network is an association of professionals, activists, academics, and students involved in many sorts of community-based planning in both urban and rural areas, who promote fundamental change in our political and economic systems. They believe that planning should be a tool for (re-)allocating resources and developing the environment to eliminate the great inequalities of wealth and power in our society, as well as racial, economic, and environmental injustice and discrimination by gender and sexual orientation.

We attended the National Planners Network Conference in Rochester, NY in 2001, and were inspired by the energy of the group and what they were trying to create. There was more community participation than in any other academic conference we had attended, and conference participants were able to visit Rochester neighborhoods where local community organizations explained their work and toured us through actual projects and were engaged in all the dialogues.

When Ken approached us to host the 2002 conference in western Massachusetts, we actually thought he was joking. We did not think we had the staff time or resources to host a national conference. On the other hand, we realized the conference could be used as a vehicle to hold our institution accountable while creating an opportunity for true collaboration and dialogue among members of the academic community and representatives from local non-profits.

We accepted the challenge to create a coalition of regional campuses and organizations to host the national conference. Seeing this as an opportunity to engage in more direct political organizing towards social change, we immediately began strategizing how the conference might look in our area.

The most important first step was building the organizing collective. Initially, we brought the idea to the organization with which we had built the strongest relationship over time: Nueva Esperanza, a south Holyoke Community Development Corporation with Latino leadership that has focused on change through affordable housing, youth work, and health initiatives. (Editors Note: see GEO issue #28 for more on Nueva Esperanza.) We proposed the goal of challenging our own work at Hampshire and posed the question to Nueva as to whether this conference could be a catalyst for moving their own organizing work forward. Each community leader within Nueva responded with different concerns and ideas, and we talked through the potentials and possible pitfalls. We wanted Nueva to be an equal partner in this project from the beginning.

We went to our own administration only after we brainstormed with Nueva Esperanza and a few other off-campus organizations and felt we had the support of our community partners. While we are critiquing academia, it is also important to recognize Hampshire College for its support of our program's vision of building genuine community partnerships. The administration's flexibility and trust supported our efforts to make this project a priority, and the social consciousness of the students and creative faculty put Hampshire in a position to develop this innovative model. We are fortunate to work at an institution that is willing to take risks with us.

Our intention for the conference planning was to involve a broader collective of Holyoke and Pioneer Valley community organizations, members of city government, and colleagues from the area's colleges. Hampshire sits in a college consortium, which includes Amherst, Smith, Mt. Holyoke, and UMass Amherst, making it important, both logically and geographically, to think and work as a region. As our outreach to the Five Colleges began, we were clear we were asking our colleagues to join in creating a new model for working with the local community.

What was probably the most difficult point to explain was that the Conference was not something the colleges would own; rather, they would be part of larger partnership—taking direction on the Conference's focus from the local community. Some of the immediate resistance we received was perhaps shaped by the received idea of what a conference should look like: our idea did not fit into a traditional academic model, so it seemed impossible or confusing. We have found a neat, planned, perfect process is difficult when working collectively, addressing power relations, and creating a shared vision among a diverse group of stakeholders—all in a relatively short period of time.

Some of the comments we heard along the way included: “There's not enough time to organizing a national conference.” “Do it next year.” “You are biting off more than you can chew.” But the clear message we were getting from our community partners was to move forward.

Creating Equity in an Organizing Committee

The organizing committee consisted of staff from three community organizations, a city planner, and staff and faculty from three area colleges. Because of past experiences, Holyoke organizations were skeptical of big dreams and big promises from the academic community, or from this outside group, the Planners Network, that wanted to come and talk about Holyoke's struggles. Even with these tensions, we arrived at two core common goals: to use the conference as a catalyst for change, and to develop reciprocal working relationships between the community of Holyoke and local academic institutions.

We had to take time to brainstorm together, to hear each other's gripes and grievances and the stories of struggles that folks have had over the past 20+ years of organizing in Holyoke. Even though many of us shared the goals of building community and creating social change, members of this collective had not worked together before. The organizing circle we created sought to break down traditional community/campus boundaries. We worked daily to develop a decision-making process that respected each person's opinions with equal weight without being influenced by notions of status or power that exist in academia, city governments, and most non-profits. After observing and participating in campus-community relationship building over the past ten years, we have found that even with the best of intentions, people who hold more traditional notions of power tend to dominate a meeting, silence others in the room, or are unable to really hear what is being said when people do speak up. We understand in the world of academia, these skills of assertiveness and confidence in one's own knowledge are important for success. Still, if we are to create different organizing spaces, we need to challenge these academic cultural norms.

The conference organizing process was not perfect, but it was a glimpse of what was possible; it was messy, as all good organizing work is. It took long meetings—tension was allowed to be expressed, not every idea was realized—but it was a beginning of something new and real.

Creating a Conference of Many Voices

We had no interest in organizing a conference that only gave academics the space to lecture or read papers, and devalue local knowledge. Instead, we structured panels and workshops from each section of the Conference in a painstaking effort to balance representation and to assure that community organizers and college staff were in, rather than out, of the conversations.

Overall, the conference was a great moment of celebration for our growing partnership. We had over 350 participants from as far as Puerto Rico, London, Canada and all across the U.S. with almost half the participants coming from the immediate regional area.

The conference featured a mixture of voices and activities. On the first day, there was an extensive bus tour in which participants were oriented to Holyoke and its diverse neighborhoods and issues, and then presented with four very different approaches to economic, community, and affordable housing development. There were site visits to innovative neighborhood projects involving youth issues, education, historic preservation, racism, affordable housing, environmental justice, community gardens, micro-enterprise and locally-driven economic development, the arts and culture as revitalization, and community organizing. The next day featured a Conference plenary and workshops with carefully assembled panels in which community leaders, parents, and students presented alongside academics and community development professionals. Local representatives were balanced by those offering national perspective. The ensuing dialogues were rich and multi-layered.

As organizers we worked to keep the flow of the conference moving with speakers, tours, films, photo and slide presentations, live performances, poetry, DJs, dancing, music, and numerous discussions and debates. A local theater group performed a play on the industrial history of the city and its canals. A featured artist called people back after lunch with some bilingual spoken words and introduced the keynote speaker with a poem. A local teen sang a near perfect rendition of US and Puerto Rican national anthems followed by “Hero,” dedicated to all the community organizers in the house. Later, a local 11-piece salsa band played until late in the evening. Even later, steering committee members joined planners, academics, students, youth and residents on the dance floor for a frighteningly enthusiastic intergenerational Electric Slide.

Even with all our efforts to create access and be inclusive, we still made mistakes and fell short on many of our goals. Yet it was quite a moment—energizing, exciting, and the jumpstart we all needed to keep the organizing work we had started going.

Closing Thoughts

We are excited that our initial objectives, seeking to create an ongoing dialogue and develop equitable collaborations between more affluent colleges and local communities, has continued beyond the conference. The steering committee has continued to meet and discuss the future of the partnership between Holyoke and area colleges. We have chosen the name Holyoke Planning Network, created a working mission statement, held community forums to increase membership, and generated a list of project ideas that emerged from the conference and subsequent meetings. The Network is also looking into funding sources to initiate a few of these projects and to bring additional resources into Holyoke. Some of the exciting ideas being explored are improving public transportation hubs between Holyoke and the upper valley where many of the colleges sit, establishing a center for political education, development of revolving loans and micro-lending to support small businesses, and increasing rates of young people from Holyoke attending the Five Colleges, and many more. The network is seeking to centralize the community-based work of the different colleges and create a historical archive of research and collaborative projects that have focused on Holyoke over the years.

As a group, however, we are now also faced with falling back into old patterns of working together. We can already see the strong influence of academic (or government or philanthropic) culture moving back into our work. For example, there is the issue of access to funding, who decides if we have the go ahead to proceed with a grant—and who will control the money.

Academic institutions have the privilege to “wait until next year”—“we need more information before we can proceed.” On the other hand, our communities and community partners continually confront fiscal crises most academic institutions will never face. As one community organizer expressed at a recent meeting, “We must have the political will to move forward”.

As academic institutions, if we do not see that our fate is tied to that of our neighboring communities and that we have a responsibility to one another, how then can we talk of social justice? How can we say we support social change, if we are not ready to break down the boundaries and privileges that are preventing us from actually achieving this goal? Our community partners have made clear to us what changes are necessary—have we been listening? Communities have been studied long enough by academic institutions; it's time to join them in making those changes.

Mary Bombardier and Kiara Nagel are coordinators of the Community Partnerships for Social Change program at Hampshire College. Contact them at: 413-559-5689; mbombardier@hampshire.edu; knagel@hampshire.edu.

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