Hello and welcome!
We’re glad you found this book. We wanted to make sure this volume provided more than just stellar examples of partnerships with academic institutions. We also wanted to make sure it was useful to you. Unlike the rest of this book, this is the only time we’re going to speak directly to you as a potential community partner. These are the nuts and bolts of how to approach a partnership with academics and how to navigate this book.
We identified a few key questions that you might like answered before diving in:
What is this book?
This book is a collection of nine case studies about successful partnerships between community partners and academic institutions—but with a twist. Each of the partnerships also includes significant digital components both inside and outside of university and college classrooms. We think that together the examples demonstrate a cohesive practice of digital community engagement, or what we fondly refer to as DiCE.
We didn’t just ask scholars to write about their projects; we asked them to include the voices and perspectives of their community partners. As a result, the majority of our chapters are co-authored, and in a variety of different ways. We hope that part is particularly useful.
While we think the examples and advice from each of the contributors transcend all aspects of community engagement, the advice for the digital components is particularly strong. We asked our authors to “lift the hood” to make the projects as easy to understand as possible. We live in a digital age but it’s not always clear what choices go into tool or platform selection, nor is it always clear how those choices will impact the community partners. The clarity with which our contributors write about their technology choices should better prepare you for when you enter into your own partnerships.
Community partnerships typically form in three ways:
1. the community approaches the scholars,
2. the scholars approach the community, or
3. the partnership grows out of a prior involvement.
In all cases, however, the community should be a co-creator in shaping and defining the project. Here are some examples (in order):
1. SNCC: Veterans of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), frustrated at the inaccurate representation of SNCC in academic texts, approached Duke University to create a digital project that centered veteran voices.
2. : After police shot and killed Tamir Rice, a group of archivists from the national conference (which was meeting in Cleveland) approached local community groups to see if their skills could be used for social change.
3. : Scholars at Macalester College reconstituted an old partnership with a local community organization, Rondo Avenue, Inc., to tell the history of African Americans and highway construction in St. Paul, Minnesota.
It might seem daunting to approach a college or university and ask for help with your project. But at our core, most of us have come to this with a passion for local history and a desire to make a difference. We recommend starting by researching the institution as a whole and then narrowing down with whom you want to work through the following steps:
Step 1: Research the college or university online. Look at the institution’s mission statement to see if they have a focus on community or civic engagement. If they do, use that to your advantage by stating how your organization or project idea fits with the institution’s mission. Even if they do not have an explicit statement, the chances are high that there are still plenty of faculty and staff willing to work with you.
Step 2: Search online to see if the institution has a center for civic or community engagement, or a dedicated staff member who responds to requests and ideas like yours. Not all institutions do, but they are great places to start because they’re trained in connecting you with the right people or partners and have a responsibility for supporting equitable, long-term, and mutually beneficial partnerships.
Step 3: You can also reach out directly to an academic department or office, based on your initial ideas, topic themes, or desired outcomes. Do you need a map? Email or call the Geography Department. Would you like to create an archive? Email or call an archivist in the library. Even if the people you contact cannot help you, they likely know who can.
What general advice do you have about working with academics?
We have four main pieces of advice. The first is about trust. We understand that you’re risking a lot bringing your project to an academic institution, particularly if you are from a group historically marginalized by or within the academy. Academics are trying to feel out the partnership as much as you are. Have a conversation about what a mutually beneficial relationship might look like; this is a key component of building trust. Start small and build on the relationship from that first (we hope successful) project knowing that you can withdraw from the partnership at any time. Starting small also means that you won’t lose too much time or investment in case the partnership doesn’t work out.
Second, establish a clear understanding of roles and responsibilities and a schedule of communication with your academic partner(s) early on. The conversations between community members and the scholar(s) are full of creativity and generativity, and they will make your project better. More than that, a communication schedule keeps you accountable to each other as you work together to establish and meet deadlines.
Third, have a conversation about digital sustainability before you start building the project. Ask questions such as: is this a small, finite project, or part of a larger vision? For the latter, you may need to choose different technologies. Ask about control over the data and the project once the partnership is complete. What is your maintenance agreement? This section of our introduction is particularly helpful for thinking through these and other questions.
Last, higher education runs on different schedules from the real world. We generally define time by semesters or quarters and if your partner is a professor, they might not be available in the summer. Some community engagement projects are tailor-made for the classroom, but some of our teaching schedules are determined up to two years in advance. Ask us up front about our timelines so we can think through how to best integrate your project and you can determine what works best for you.
Let the projects in this book inspire you! Partnerships in this book have formed in classrooms, stemmed from research agendas, and developed in response to institutional missions. There are some great ideas in this book, but they certainly aren’t the only options.
We recommend skipping the first half of the introduction and getting straight to the good stuff: the summaries of all the projects in this collection. Then you can pick and choose which ones seem most interesting to you.
Since this volume is committed to the voice of our community partners, we encourage you to add yours as well. If you’re reading this online, you can join the conversation in the book by selecting sentences and passages, providing commentary, or asking questions. If you’re reading this in print and really like a particular chapter, we suggest you go to the online version and read the conversations happening there too.
We hope this book helps shape your future partnerships. Please let us know if you have any questions or concerns!
Rebecca S. Wingo
Jason A. Heppler