New Article Published in AAC&U's collaborative issue of Diversity & Democracy

Thrilled to share this article (actually, this entire journal issue- it's rad) I wrote with Melissa Crum of the Mosaic Education Network. The full article and the rest of the journal issue can be found here.

Why, Who, and How? Strategies for Preventing Paternalism and Promoting Equal Engagement

By: Melissa Crum and Alexandrina Agloro

On college and university campuses nationwide, engaging with "the community" (organizations and individuals unaffiliated with the sponsoring institution) is a common practice. In these collaborations, it is essential that faculty and students apply a critical lens—evaluating why, between whom, and how the engagement is occurring—in an effort to prevent paternalism, an approach that assumes a socioeconomic or intellectual hierarchy between college and community. To build equal ground for all participants, it is important to develop approaches that privilege reciprocity. In this article, we share lessons learned through our own experiences implementing community-engaged pedagogies.

Why? Identifying Shared Goals

When launching any community-engaged project, establish why you are pursuing the project. Set goals about what you want your students to learn, and examine what those goals mean for community partners. Know your purpose: be honest with yourself about why you are engaging in the project. It is important that you be able to articulate a reason that doesn't create a hierarchy between the university (you and your students) and the community.

Talk to the people whose lived experiences are part of what you want your students to explore, and ask them about their goals for the project. Recognize that the community is not an empty vessel waiting to be filled by your students' knowledge and expertise. Ask community members what resources they need, listen to their desires for the project, and be open to the exchange of ideas. You will probably learn something you didn't know before, and the community may not need what you want to provide.

After considering feedback from the community, build on level ground. Create a project in which everyone has shared responsibility and the opportunity to provide their own unique expertise. Consider the information, resources, and intellect your community partners have that you and your students do not, and mobilize those assets so they are beneficial to the project.

Who? Promoting Self-Reflection

When fostering community engagement, consider the biases that you or your students may hold about the communities you are entering. We all have biases, and we need to know what they are in order to prevent them from negatively affecting our work. Be self-reflexive; ask questions of yourself and your students. (For self-reflective activities, see Crum and Hendrick 2014.)

As instructors, we often witness college students from privileged backgrounds entering marginalized communities and conceptualizing themselves as temporal saviors rather than seeing community members as equals. Based on their brief experiences offering their time and abilities to underresourced individuals, students may feel that they have earned license to speak for the community, and may assert their newly acquired expertise as if it were authentic and accurate experiential knowledge. By providing tools for self-critique and creating spaces for students and community members to come together as equals, we can help prevent students from conceiving of their community engagement experiences as cultural safaris and avoid facilitating university-supported paternalism (see example 1).

Reflection about how you and your students are in the world can be essential to maximizing your students' experiences as well as those of community members. It is important to take into account the way different bodies are (and are not) in various spaces. When working with college students of color, for example, be cognizant of the ways that bodies of color are perceived and often policed in public, and design activities to maximize everyone's safety—e.g., by holding activities like scavenger hunts during the day instead of at night.

How? Identifying Best Tools

Ensure that the tools you are using are appropriate to the context. When incorporating digital media, be sure to ask, "Will this technology enhance the experience?" (See example 2.)

A techno-fetishist will adopt the most advanced technology, regardless of whether it is appropriate to the context, while a thoughtful educator will adopt whatever combination of media is culturally appropriate (Watson 2012). When evaluating cultural appropriateness, consider the technological tools and practices that are already in use. If project participants already communicate using Facebook, for example, asking them to use an alternate website or platform is likely to reduce the project's success. If your students like to take selfies and upload the pictures to Instagram with hashtags, embrace these practices in an educational context. Meeting participants where they are will put them at ease and result in greater success.


Community-engaged projects must allow all participants to serve each other and learn together. By applying a critical lens, we can support people's ability to operate at their full capacity while respecting the knowledge of those we are attempting to serve.