A Reflection on the Role of Community Engagement Professionals in Justice Work

A Reflection on the Role of Community Engagement Professionals in Justice Work

Marianne Magjuka (Wake Forest University, USA)
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-7998-7152-1.ch012
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Abstract

Institutions of higher education have the opportunity to address pressing social problems by harnessing the resources of the academy for the public good. Public work takes many forms, including direct service, research, service-learning, and civic engagement. When developing community-based programs and courses, faculty and community engagement professionals (CEP) must consider how to account for power differentials, grapple with root causes, and challenge dominant narratives so as to avoid reinforcing harmful stereotypes. This critical approach to community engagement may result in a justice-orientation to community work. In this chapter, the author explores various modes of community engagement, discusses the central considerations in designing opportunities for students, and describes justice-oriented engagement. In addition, the author reflects on her own experiences and describes the competencies required of a justice-oriented CEP. Finally, the author highlights new directions in community engagement work as a vehicle for transformative change.
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“Every moment is an organizing opportunity, every person a potential activist, every minute a chance to change the world.” - Dolores Huerta

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Introduction

My career as a community engagement professional began on the Mississippi Gulf Coast. In the summer of 2005, I packed my belongings and moved to a small, coastal town outside of Biloxi to begin a term of national service. I was assigned to teach social studies at a local high school, despite little training and no experience as a teacher. As a young, college-educated, White woman from the Midwest, I had never seriously considered how these aspects of my identity shaped my worldview or influenced my assumptions.

I moved to Mississippi three weeks before Hurricane Katrina hit the Coast, claiming more than 1,800 lives and causing over $100 billion in damage (Knabb, Rhome, & Brown, 2011). Suddenly, as a new member of the community, I witnessed gut-wrenching, intimate moments. I heard from students who lost their homes, every possession destroyed in the surge. I saw communities already struggling to access nutritious food and stable housing ensnared in a never-ending web of bureaucratic red tape. At the same time, generations of Mississippians, determined to rebuild, welcomed neighbors to their FEMA trailers or yards for potluck dinners and lent a hand wherever they could. I saw the ways in which race and socioeconomic status influenced access to resources and opportunity. I began to grapple with systemic inequities in a nuanced way; for the first time, in many cases, I saw the impact of these overlapping, intersecting systems of oppression.

Following the storm, I returned to find my cinderblock classroom covered in black mold, infested with insects and snakes displaced by the flooding, and all my textbooks and supplies destroyed. In the aftermath, nonprofits and charitable organizations mobilized food, clothing, first aid supplies, and direct outreach. Many residents had an acute need for these items and were grateful for the assistance. At the same time, I could not help but notice the surface nature of some interventions, and the lack of infrastructure for sustainable healing. Well-intentioned faith communities delivered boxes of second-hand clothing on semi-trucks, only to be left in parking lots uncovered in the relentless sun. Youth groups and college students traveled to our town for spring break service trips, engaging with families and children for a few days before returning to their regular lives. I did not yet have the language for “toxic charity” (Lupton, 2011), but I sensed the gaps in this approach.

I stayed for two years, working with nonprofits, civic and faith-based organizations, service agencies, and city government. I got to know community leaders, listened to stories from residents, and supported school leaders to apply for grants and identify resources for our school. In the classroom, I worked with students to conduct oral history interviews with members of the community. This exercise helped students to frame and begin to make sense of what they had experienced as individuals and members of a larger community. Britt and Alexander (2019) note that the “stories communities tell about their past experiences create a coherent account of how they understand public issues, and how they approach the challenges of public life” (p. 2). It is important that official accounts incorporate multiple perspectives and consider whose stories are told and whose voices might be missing. Narratives “may construct the same events differently and interpret the actions of the selected actors from different points of view” (Søderberg, 2006, p. 399). I learned that sensemaking is a multi-layered, iterative process, which requires diversity of voice and perspective, and constant self-reflection.

In Mississippi, I witnessed firsthand the complex interplay between institutions, the ways in which systemic inequities persist, and the power of community voice and leadership. I saw firsthand the political nature of community-based work and began to explore the inherent complexities of working with diverse stakeholders to achieve collective goals. This experience has guided me throughout my career and influenced my personal commitment to equity and social justice. The lessons learned—and, more importantly, the questions this experience raised for me—have shaped my career. As a community engagement professional, I am committed to educating students to become more informed, engaged members of their communities; to developing reciprocal partnerships for social change; and to centering community voices in decision-making.

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