Block 5: The State of Community Engagement at CC
In Block 5, the CCE strategic planning steering committee sought to evaluate the state of community-engaged work on our campus, including the assets and strengths we might leverage and the challenges we face. We gathered input from around 50 people engaged in campus/community partnerships through focus groups of faculty, staff, students, and community partners; interviews on the history of engaged work at the College; an open listening session for campus stakeholders; and digital surveys. In addition, we analyzed historical documentation as well as data on student engagement and partnerships. The following narrative is a summary of what we learned.
We begin with deep roots. Colorado College has a long history of community engagement, and this is reflected in our current campus culture. This legacy means that the College is primed for deep and meaningful community work. Our students and many of our faculty are interested in and motivated to take initiative to engage the community. This is evidenced by the pockets of engaged work that exist all over campus. Across a diverse array of departments, offices, and student initiatives, students and faculty are finding their niche and participating in community-engaged work. Moreover, our students and faculty are highly capable of capacity-building and effecting change, bringing strong skillsets and knowledge to our community.
While the sheer variety of initiatives on campus attest to broad interest in community work, this decentralization comes at the cost of coordination and strategy. Engaged projects, initiatives, and coursework can operate independently of one another, leading to a sense of isolation and ‘siloization’ –ultimately inhibiting our capacity to make a deeper community impact and strengthen student learning. Externally, this lack of coordination weakens the coherency of CC’s institutional narrative and identity in the community and leads to an underutilization of college and community assets. Internally, this lack of centralization and clear communication of resources diminishes our capacity, leaving some campus stakeholders with a desire to engage but without knowledge of how to do so meaningfully, democratically, and collectively. Lastly, without a strong coordinating body, the burgeoning number of community-engaged initiatives rarely originate from communities beyond the campus and instead emerge from disparate student or faculty passions.
Our block plan lays a context for and presents unique challenges to community engagement on our campus. The short-term nature and unique rhythm of the block precludes ongoing work and sustained impacts through courses. The block also makes it difficult to build long-term and consistent relationships with community partners and stakeholders. Relatedly, the culture surrounding the block plan lends itself to student engagement that is episodic and lacks a deep commitment or community impact, and a corresponding expectation to witness immediate impacts or solutions for long developing social and environmental issues.
Additionally, our location as a progressive-leaning institution within a conservative-leaning city can present cultural divides and ideological conflicts between Colorado College and Colorado Springs that are both real and perceived. Moreover, our students sometimes, though certainly not always, come from social locations and backgrounds that differ from the communities in which they engage, heightening the need for students to have a strong awareness of their positionality and dynamics of privilege and power.
Our opportunities as an institution and office emerge clearly from this context. Through greater coordination of engaged initiatives and coalition formation across the campus, we can harness our passion and creativity toward shared goals – deepening our community impact, adding coherency to our institutional narrative and identity, and strengthening student learning. Through greater centralization and stronger communication of the resources available to support community-engaged work to stakeholders on and off the campus, we can provide clearer pathways to building, expanding, and deepening community partnerships. A coordinating body can overcome some of the limitations of the block plan by meaningfully sequencing and integrating short-term projects with focused partners, sustaining continuous and deep institutional relationships over the flux of project-based work. Lastly, a coordinating body with strong community relationships can have a pulse on community needs and provide spaces to invite and leverage community expertise, helping to guide student and faculty passions towards the intersection of campus and community interests.
Additionally, we have the opportunity to build communities of learning and generate spaces for dialogue and reflection that increase our campus capacity to engage more deliberately and effectively. Students and faculty hunger for and would benefit from more and deeper education around conceptually framing and motivating engagement (what it means and why we do it), as well as understanding pathways to do so beyond direct service. Our faculty and students seek a deeper understanding of the larger contexts within which we engage, and the long-term, democratic nature of social change. Our students want to be able to articulate how engagement connects to their academic trajectories and postgraduate lives. Finally, our campus community seeks spaces in which they may learn about and grapple with how to engage in intentional, humble, and beneficial ways that attend to and do not reinforce inequalities and privilege.
Colorado College has a tremendous opportunity to embrace our place in Colorado Springs and the Pikes Peak region. Increasing engagement in local and regional arenas and ecosystems can foster a deeper sense of investment and citizenship in our local community, affording greater opportunity for long-term impacts work and sustained relationship building. Our unique location also presents an opportunity to learn and apply democratic skills of engaging across differences in background, identity, and perspectives. The differences between our institution and local communities provides a space for dialogue, deliberation, and cross-cultural understanding. By providing opportunities to interact with multiple ways of knowing and being, we can promote dignity and inclusion, challenge and expand worldviews, and begin to alleviate political and social divisiveness.
Lastly, we have an opportunity as an institution to make community engagement more central to our mission and priorities as a College. We can deepen the weight of our commitment by increasing the resources dedicated to community engagement, meaningfully acknowledging and rewarding community-engaged work, and centering engagement more clearly in our institutional narrative and identity.