When I first sought out to apply to Ph.D. programs I was of the mindset, and still am, that I needed to work with communities. I was very critical of academics who only did work within the academy or “ivory tower” without any tangible ways of connecting it back to society or the very communities they were seeking to serve. Over the course of the last three years in my educational studies program, I have come to see the complexity of working with communities. Not in the sense that it should not be done, but that not everybody should do community engagement work. I did not think this way when I first applied in 2014 because I was immersed in my own experiences and those of my comrades who continually pushed themselves to remain critical, and check themselves on how they were engaging with communities.
Working with the Ginsberg Center for the summer allowed me to analyze the community benefit when working with community partners. In my view, Ginsberg is truly a center that is focused on the benefit of community partners and pushing university partners to be more critical of their own work and the why in their work with communities. I spent a portion of the summer reading, reviewing, and engaging with some community partners to better understand why they linked with the University of Michigan and what they received from their relationships. Like most universities, I believe that while intentions are good, they simply are not good enough when trying to challenge society to become more equitable and socially just, especially when working with marginalized communities.
Thinking about my own work, I was pushed to better assess the ways I have assisted the communities I have engaged with in the midst of my preliminary exams. I am interested in Black educational activism in urban areas and the ways in which they impact educational policies and push for greater democracy within their educational arenas such as schools, districts, and communities. After doing this work and then joining the Ginsberg Center as a part of the Rackham Public Engagement Fellowship, I began to think about who may not be able to or should not be able to do this work? Often, as scholars, I think we do not ask enough who should be involved in some of the things we are pushing the university to do more critically such as diversity, equity, and inclusion or public scholarship. This is not to say that public scholarship, in this case, should be discriminatory. No, I argue that the work of community engagement and activism requires particular skills that must be attained in critical ways. There must be trainings and reflexivity that requires interested university partners to undergo much needed feedback that may require them to assess their whys with their engagement with community partners and may result in a different approach or different partner, outside of communities.
This summer has allowed me the opportunity to engage more with the academic side of community engagement work in the sense that I was able to assess if I want to be a part of the academia or not after my Ph.D. I think this was particularly important for me since I entered my program with the confidence that I would not be a part of the ivory tower. After my coursework, in the midst of candidacy, and the work with the Ginsberg Center, I am thinking differently. This fellowship proved to be timely and important to not only my trajectory as a scholar activist but also, if in academia, how I might want my scholarship to be centered. Following this experience, I see a potential for me to work both within Black communities and also in the academy focused on the community engagement and public scholarship I wish to produce. While I definitely do not have all of the answers now, I feel that I am at least a little further on the journey of getting the answer of whether to join the academy or not. Finally, this experience has left me with the lingering reminder to myself that if I am not pushing my work to be in collaboration with communities for their ultimate benefit, then I must also reconsider whether I should be doing this particular work.
The Rackham Program in Public Scholarship (RPPS) supports collaborative scholarly and creative endeavors that engage communities and co-create public goods while enhancing graduate students’ professional development. We support graduate students looking to deepen their public engagement through four core offerings: The Institute for Social Change, Engaged Pedagogy Initiative, Grants in Public Scholarship, and Rackham Public Engagement Fellowships in sites across Southeast Michigan – all to support research, teaching, and projects that reach public audiences and foster impact beyond the classroom.
The views expressed in this post are the author’s and do not necessarily reflect those of Rackham Graduate School or the University of Michigan.