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May 14, 2019

Stephen Esquith: Community engagement is key

May 15, 2019

Stephen Esquith is the dean of the Residential College in the Arts and Humanities.

It is no accident that The Chronicle of Higher Education has recently signaled out the Residential College in the Arts and Humanities as an exemplary public institution committed to the common good. What makes civic engagement in RCAH different?

Many other departments and programs in other colleges at MSU stress the importance of academic outreach. It is a natural part of the university’s land grant mission. What makes civic engagement in RCAH different is its conception of the arts and humanities for the common good.

This is not a slogan or a tag line. It plays out consistently in three ways: reciprocity, sustainability and curricular integration. Together, they add up to a distinctive form of community engagement committed to the co-generation of new knowledge through lasting partnerships.

Since we began in 2007-08, RCAH has cultivated and expanded a set of relationships with local, national and international community partners. Even before we enrolled our first class of entering students, we met with community organizations to learn their needs, understand their assets and strengths and discuss with them how our faculty and students could help them build on these assets to meet their needs.

We wanted faculty to share their expertise and students to gain from the experience, but we also wanted to be sure that we understood these communities from their perspective. The result has been a close reciprocal and sustained set of relationships with organizations that serve students, adults and families in very diverse communities. These partnerships include the Lansing Public Schools, the Lansing Refugee Development Center, the Lansing REACH Studio Art Center, the Lansing Allen Neighborhood Center, Peckham Inc., Conversa School in Costa Rica, the Institute for Popular Education in Mali and many more.

A client of Lansing’s Peckham, Inc. with RCAH student Ezra Kushmaul ’20 (right) in the Peckham art room.

All RCAH students participate in community engagement work. The community engagement elective pathway in the curriculum allows students to pursue the theory and practice of this kind of applied scholarship in more depth to do this. But all RCAH majors are introduced to community engagement through a required course early on. Equally important, many other RCAH classes that focus on the arts, the humanities and language and culture have civic engagement components and projects as integral parts of the course. In other words, community engagement is woven into the fabric of the curriculum. 

Community-based civic engagement is also part of the many co-curricular activities and special residencies that enrich the student experience in our residential setting. Poets hosted by the RCAH Center for Poetry lead workshops for students and community members together. Visual and performing artists-in-residence conduct workshops for RCAH students that occur in community settings, bringing students and partners closer together over common concerns. 

For example, this can happen through the construction of a large outdoor mural in Old Town in Lansing, a sustainable agriculture project in Costa Rica or with refugee and indigenous high school students working with visiting photographers, book artists, fabric artists and ceramicists.

RCAH faculty take a leading role in these projects; they are not just observers. For some faculty, community engagement is a central part of their own scholarship of engagement. For others, it is a basic component of their approach to teaching and learning. RCAH faculty are recruited with the importance of community engagement in mind, and the criteria used to evaluate their performance reflects this priority.

There is no one-size-fits-all model of community engagement for RCAH faculty, but in one way or another, all faculty have found ways to contribute to community engagement and the College has dedicated four academic specialist positions in the continuing system to community engagement in one form or another.

Finally, RCAH has shared this model of community engagement with other units on campus, and many of them have joined RCAH in creating lasting reciprocal partnerships with community organizations.