Many of us live and work in communities where there is a strong town and gown divide. Building trust, engaging authentically, and developing deep understanding through intergroup dialogue takes time, patience and the right structure. In this episode, Dr. Khuram Hussain, an Associate Professor of Education and Interim Dean at Hobart College, joins us to explore a model of engaged scholarship that challenges the academy to engage in dialogue with and work alongside the community to address pressing local issues.
- King, R., Hussain, K. & Wattles, J., (2015) Claiming the Right to the City Through Intergroup Dialogue: The Tools for Social Change Initiative in Geneva, NY., The SOJO Journal. 1(2)
- Hayes-Conrad, Jessica (2016). Big Talk in the Little City: Findings and Analysis
- Hussain, K. (2015). A Dream for service. In Tinkler, A., Tinkler, B., Strait, J. R., & Jagla, V. M. (Eds.), Advances in Service-Learning Research Series.
- Walker, Kelly. (2017) “Let’s Talk Economic Opportunity with Tools for Social Change. WEOS Public Radio, July 24.
- Shaw, David (2015) PAYING ATTENTION: At Tools for Social Change meeting, group zeroes in on city issues they want addressed. Finger Lakes Times. October 21.
- The National Intergroup Dialogue Institute
- Hussain, Khuram and Wattles, Jeremy. (2017) Can Intergroup Dialogue Combined with SLCE Answer Today’s Call to Action? The SLCE Future Directions Project.
John:Many of us live and work in communities where there is a strong town and gown divide. Building trust, engaging authentically, and developing deep understanding through intergroup dialogue takes time, patience and the right structure. In this episode, we’ll explore a model of engaged scholarship that challenges the academy to engage in dialogue with and work alongside the community to address pressing local issues.
John:Thanks for joining us for Tea for Teaching, an informal discussion of innovative and effective practices in teaching and learning.
Rebecca: This podcast series is hosted by John Kane, an economist…
John:…and Rebecca Mushtare, a graphic designer.
Rebecca: Together we run the Center for Excellence in Learning and Teaching at the State University of New York at Oswego.
Rebecca: Our guest today is Dr. Khuram Hussain, an Associate Professor of Education and Interim Dean at Hobart College. Welcome, Khuram.
Khuram: Thank you for having me.
John:Our teas today are:
Khuram: I’m actually drinking coffee. I hope that’s ok.
Rebecca: You and most other people. [LAUGHTER] We’ll let it go.
Khuram: I will end the day with tea.
Rebecca: Ok, perfect. I think we had a recent guest who also ended the day with tea. Today I have chai.
John:And I have pineapple ginger green tea.
Rebecca: Well, that sounds good. You always are far more adventurous than me.
Khuram: If it’s any consolation, I have a little cardamom in my coffee, which I typically put in my tea, but I really like it in coffee as well.
Rebecca: That sounds good. I should try that.
Khuram: I highly recommend it.
Rebecca: Do you have an advice about how much?
Khuram: One. One is good.
Rebecca: One is good. [LAUGHTER].
Khuram: If you want it a little stronger you can crack it and then let it sit and it’ll be even more cardamom(y). [LAUGHTER]
Rebecca: Perfect. [LAUGHTER]
John:We see you’ve done some work with engaged scholarship and service learning. Could you tell us a little bit about what is meant by engaged scholarship for those who aren’t familiar with it?
Khuram: Engaged scholarship is essentially the integration of community needs with learning and it involves addressing community needs along with whatever respective disciplines and skills a scholar may apply to a particular condition. It could be anything from developing a literacy program that is also being useful and utilized in a community, but drawing from that community in order to make sense of what questions you want to answer. So, you’re not drawing it just from a review of literature or from a body of scholarship that emerges from conferences or a community of scholars, but in fact from a variety of voices within the community itself. It’s a much more community relevant approach to even designing research before you actually do it, and it spills out into community engaged teaching as well.
Rebecca: What got you involved in engaged scholarship?
Khuram: I first had the opportunity to do engaged scholarship as a professor of education at Hobart William Smith. I was teaching a course on the civil rights movement and a colleague approached me about volunteering to serve as a professor at a maximum-security prison, and the program there was run by a Bard Prison Initiative where long term inmates were given the opportunity to enroll in an undergraduate program. And so I taught the exact same course that I was teaching on campus within the educational space that they had created for prisoners (maximum security prison) and that was my first chance to think about the ways in which the needs and realities of communities outside of campus and inform the work in learning on campus and could also inform my notions of scholarship.
John:Your work is a form of service learning in terms of the student involvement in it. How does your approach differ from the more traditional service learning approaches?
Khuram: I think that a lot of what I have seen in traditional or conventional service-learning approaches is that there’s a great focus on the ways in which our students will learn by “doing for” communities. So how can we help children learn how to read? How can we provide food to food-scarce areas? And that becomes such a central narrative and the assumptions that young people have about what service-learning is is that we’re gonna learn through service for, and what I think is unique and special about the kind of work that many folks are doing today and I hope to be a part of that (and I hope I have been a part of that) is to do service with. To move from that model means we are required to collaborate and to take a much more team-based approach to service work and the learning then moves both ways. The service then moves both ways, and that I think is the fundamental difference between what we’ve been trying to do the last few years and what we’ve often seen provided to students.
Rebecca: How does your engaged scholarship relate to the service-learning projects and things that you do with students?
Khuram: In part, the ways in which engaged scholarship works is by providing students and faculty and community members an opportunity to create knowledge out of the questions and concerns that emerge in community related work. So for instance, we started an initiative known as “Tools for Social Change” some years ago, and before we looked at any kind of service project we looked at the ways in which the community saw itself. How did long-term residents see college campus residents? How did college campus residents in the same city see long-term residents of the city? And put them into intentional dialogue, first through interpersonal relationship building and then talking about social and structural issues that have informed their understanding of themselves within the city. And within larger structures of identity, race and class particularly. After they developed that understanding we asked, “Ok, what does this community mean to you? Where do you feel empowered? Where do you feel isolated?” Based on the answers to that, we were able to map out a different kind of geography. Even though we had developed a sense of connection and collectivity as members of a community that had been dialoguing all semester, we were operating within a city that was deeply segregated and divided, and so it was from there that we looked at scholarship. We looked at research that we could pursue, and one of the first things that became really important for us to consider was the way in which the economics of the city and the capacity of some to gain access to jobs opportunity was very different than it was for others. And so we ended up taking that initial group and developing wider groups that would go out into the city and inquire… essentially do a self-study of the city about the economics and economic opportunities that were available. And so essentially it was these two stages: first of engaging in dialogue; coming to an understanding of what shared community work could be and then going out into the city with the same participants and essentially conducting appreciative inquiry and having students and faculty and community members (long-term community members) interviewing members of the community, and we were out at the Salvation Army, we were in barbershops, we were in laundromat, we were in every corner of the city and particularly in corners of the city that didn’t often have a strong voice or were not well represented, I should say, in conversations about economic development. We were able to take those, transcribe them and give them to members of the working group that are trained qualitative researchers. They synthesized that, summarized it, and we were able to present it to the city. So, here we’ve created knowledge and we’ve created it through a certain kind of process, right? You might want to call it bottom-up, but I like to see it as horizontal; it’s relational knowledge, and that, I think, is one of the most powerful things about service-learning with as well as engaged scholarship with.
John:That group that was doing the analysis of the data… Were they faculty? Were they students? Was it some mix?
Khuram: It was some mix, but here you do have kind of a hierarchy of knowledge and skill, I should say, in terms of how to do this, and so students and community members were trained by ethnographers and researchers on how to hold a tape recorder, what kinds of questions, and how to ask questions, the ethics of confidentiality, and then they went out and they conducted (after receiving a few weeks of training) these interviews in the community and it was the researchers, mostly faculty, that then booked and analyzed that data and ultimately synthesized that data, but every turn there was some part of this that was democratic and collaborative. Even the questions themselves were questions that the participants generated in concert with other community members. What is it that we want to know about ourselves? And so those were the questions that were ultimately used when we did the broader interviews.
Rebecca: Sounds like a really powerful way of breaking down the town-gown divide that happens in a lot of communities where there’s an institution of higher education.
Khuram: I think that it was transformational for all of us. I don’t think anyone could truly have appreciated what was going to happen, and I think part of it is because it was an open conversation and we sustained a certain level of openness, curiosity, and vulnerability to each other as well as what we hope would come out of it, and I mean for me it’s transformed the way I think about everything from teaching to service to even social action and the role of institutions of higher education in really engaging in communities, and so the power of it, I think, was also to reveal what’s possible that we are capable of operating on different terms and the institutions of higher education do not need to be paternalistic in their engagement with communities and they do not need to take a charity-based approach in their supportive communities; they can be collaborative, it just requires us to match strength to strength to define the things that are going to be valuable for college students and faculty and staff to learn from communities and what communities will benefit learning with their work with institutions of higher education.
John:It strikes me too that this type of project could be much more sustainable. Many service-learning projects or one-off projects where the students work and do something in the community or to the community or for the community, but when you get the community itself engaged it swould seem that that could, at least for some types of projects, set the stage for continued collaboration, either with later groups of students working with them or with the community itself. Has there been much success in continuing the efforts once the classes ended?
Khuram: I first off want to say that I absolutely agree that service-learning is conventionally structured as a one semester project-based or hour-based experience, and it’s usually focused on alleviating one particular social issue, and what we have found is that it’s necessary to do year-long initiatives and we’ve been very fortunate to see that this initiative has been able to sustain itself for over three years, but that’s required us to allow it to evolve into what it needed to and one of the biggest parts of that has been that it has been untied from any particular course. It used to just be tied to my classes and so students would do service learning project were tied to classes they were taking with me. Now, students are participating as participants in independent studies, they’re participating in different working groups that sustain themselves a little bit more autonomously, and that is also true for a lot of long-term community residents that have joined smaller working groups. There’s a working group on food insecurity, there’s a working group on political representation, there’s a working group on economic empowerment and economic opportunity, and so any one of these working groups becomes its own kind of autonomous community that intersects with long-term residents and college students and faculty and staff and that, I think, is a sign of progress and health, is when the institution of higher ed that’s tied to these projects doesn’t need to own it, control it, and manage every aspect of it. If it can become a little bit more fluid and have its own purpose outside of a predetermined purpose from the institution, it becomes more organic and more impactful often.
Rebecca: The continuity that set up in a structure like that of “community who doesn’t go away” versus students who drop in and out as they go through four years—they’re a member of the community but then they often leave—seems like it’s a really useful model for not only making the learning better but just making the impact better. Can you talk a little bit about the community’s response to these projects.
Khuram: Yes, drive-by service-learning isn’t the way to transform communities or students; it requires a real, authentic engagement, and I think when you put people in real situations you get real outcomes and that’s across the spectrum. So you’re going to get people that are going to collaborate, develop great friendships, but you’re also going to get friction and struggle and honest expressions of frustration with one another. And so that becomes a part of it too, so our students need to learn or end up learning—whether they need to or not—the ways in which their participation is both important but sometimes limited. They are going to sit and be witnesses to long-standing struggles in a community; for instance, long standing struggles between law enforcement and communities of color, and they’re going to find their own footing in those spaces; they’re going to need to make sense of how to be an ally, how to be an advocate for an inclusive community that they now belong to, so the stakes become a little bit more real. But I would be a little bit disingenuous if I was going to imply that it’s neat and tidy. I’ve received pushback at times. I remember we were holding a dialogue and I had said that we’re really starting to build some really empowering opportunities here and someone coughed and said, you’re from the colleges; you have all the power. It was a great check on my own assumptions about how I was being seen in that space… that participating in a community activity while still being associated in some ways representative of a very wealthy, multi-million dollar institution in a post-industrial Rust Belt City is not going to play out in someone else’s mind the way that it might in mine. Now what I’m proud of in that work is that someone felt that they were in a space where they could call out people’s unseen or unacknowledged privilege, and that I thought was really important for other people to see, and for me to experience, but it also means that tension in real relationships is ongoing. Honestly, we are not dealing with a utopian situation where we’re all playing on equal terms; we’re coming with different levels of capital and different levels of support within that community, so even as we do this work, my students are good to remember, as am I, we cannot be tourists in other people’s lives, that if we have certain privileges this is a place to take responsibility for some of them.
Rebecca: In a situation like this where tensions can be high, differences big sometimes, and you’re trying to dialogue, how do you set up that environment so people feel safe, like the situation that you’ve just described.
Khuram: Always sit in a circle. Always begin with some expectations. What do we need from each other to have respectful and productive and meaningful conversations? Let’s create those standards together and revisit them every time we sit in circle together. Have people that are prepared to facilitate, that have training or are getting training in facilitation; that needs to be, I think, a critical piece of that, because while it is important to hear from everyone, there is a lot of value in having someone who can reflect back some of the bigger messages and patterns that are emerging in the conversation, someone that can point to the standards that we’ve set for ourselves and what we expect as our best way of engaging, and to remind people that there are strategies that we’ve identified when things get really heated where we want to go with that. So, I think being very intentional about creating a dialogical space, and for us, the use of intergroup dialogue and a lot of the pedagogical strategies developed by the University of Michigan Intergroup Dialogue were very important and helpful resources to get started.
Rebecca: I think one of the things that I was hearing here that I want to just note, is if you’re having one of these conversations that you should have a facilitator and that the facilitator is not really participating in the conversation but rather facilitating the conversation. I think that can be challenging if we want to be involved in those conversations, but you need to make sure that you’ve picked that person and that person is staying as a third party.
Khuram: Yes, absolutely. And we typically have two people that will facilitate and that way there’s still some opportunity to give feedback or response or to slightly move out of a facilitator role, at least in terms of being able to share some ideas. But yeah, it does require you to pull back a bit. But having two facilitators… and it isn’t something that can’t be learned; I don’t think that people have to be lifelong professional facilitators. Most teachers are facilitators, and most of us have some experience facilitating or mediating conversations between others. As much as it’s important to start with people that have a background in facilitation, I think ultimately you want to end in a place where many of the participants feel comfortable and can contribute to the facilitation process over time, so we would meet every week. Ideally, we wanted to prepare people for their opportunity to do some facilitating. At this point we’ve seen dozens of participants go on to do much more formal facilitation in other spaces. That’s something that I’m very proud of and I’m very proud of them, I should say, for what they’ve accomplished.
John:You had mentioned some broad categories of tasks and working groups. What were some of the specific projects that were undertaken by people working in these projects in the community?
Khuram: All of these emerged dialogically as members of the campus community and long-term residents of the community talk through ways in which they felt connected and disconnected. We had four big ones, I’d say. We had community police relations, economic opportunity, food justice and food insecurity, and political representation. I’ll touch on each of them a little bit and then if you want to know a little bit more about any one of them I can pause. So, for food justice and insecurity, part of the challenge was an immediate one where it was about galvanizing community members to glean food and to increase access to fresh food, so we had volunteers doing gleaning. In the midst of that they were also looking at the president’s food deserts and dialoging along with community members about their access to nutrition and presenting some of those findings to the City Council and the Mayor. Or police community relations, we had two dedicated members who were part of a standing committee known as the Community Compact that met with different members of law enforcement and city government on a regular basis to talk about police-community relations and to develop programs to engage the community as well as to address certain policies. Then we have political representation, and for that what we saw was a wonderful volunteer energy of members of our entire group that went out and facilitated dialogues between political candidates and community members. Unlike conventional town halls where you’d have people sitting behind a table or behind a podium, we chat in circle with political candidates, and we had facilitators asking questions and facilitating dialogue in a pretty different kind of environment than I think a lot of us have when we engage with people that want to be elected, as well as elected officials. So we ran those, along with giving people an opportunity to register to vote. For economic empowerment, we trained facilitators to go out into the community in pairs and to hold circles in different corners of the community… in laundromats… in a variety of public spaces… to ask them what were the ways in which they were experiencing opportunity and what were the ways in which they were limited from economic opportunity. We also explored with them if they could wake up tomorrow to a different city, what would it look like? What opportunities would exist? And we took all of that and made it a final document called the “Big Talk in a Little City,” which has become an important and integral part of the city’s long-term commitment to economic empowerment, and so, not only are those voices and stories included in an official document, those voices and stories are now helping to shape policy and resource distribution in the city.
John:How have students reacted to this? Have any of them considered careers as working with communities and such things?
Khuram: For some of our graduates this has been life-changing. I think that one of the most fundamental things that we did well was simply to put people that would otherwise never have encountered each other in the same room and to ask them to share their stories and to talk about themselves. Developing those personal relationships between people that would otherwise pass each other on the street without a glance. People that had age differences, 40, 50, 60 years, people that had racial and socio-economic differences and geographic differences were suddenly having dinner at each other’s table, knew the names of family members, and knew the smallest things about one another were coming to their respective graduations and ceremonies and really becoming participants in each other’s lives. So, for a lot of our undergraduate students, having an opportunity like that is so deeply transformative because now policy is not just a matter of abstract equity and justice; it’s a matter of empathy and equity. You feel differently for someone who feels like a friend or family when they are in need and that informs your approach to policy and your approach to work in a community differently. So, we’ve had students that have gone on to do some really powerful work in law clinics, AmeriCorps and have stayed in the community to do some of that work because it was so transformational and they committed so much of their learning to this kind of engagement that they want to continue it. We do have a few folks that took a gap year between graduate school and stayed on, or decided to pursue a different kind of professional path because of the work they did.
Rebecca: It’s really exciting.
Khuram: I wouldn’t believe it if I hadn’t seen it.
John:Could you give us some idea of the scale of this—how many students are involved and how has it grown?
Khuram: We started with a relatively small group of about 20 students and 20 long-term community members, and in terms of active participants, it never really went much bigger than that, but it sustained itself over time and it also engaged a lot of other students and long-term community members for months at a time. What I mean by that, for instance, is a lot of our sustained participants would engage their friends, their roommates, their neighbors to come to our weekly sessions. So, we would oftentimes have topical session that were open to the public and those open sessions we could have up to 60, 70, 100, 200 people at those sessions, and so we had an active presence for quite a long time in the community when the courses were running, and now that we have the working groups there’s smaller numbers, but again, their impact, I think, in some ways is deeper because they’ve sustained some really deep work. One of the most incredible things that I saw the students do was they developed a course that would involve high school and college students learning together; so they essentially wanted to do what we were doing through these community dialogues in the high school. They wrote a course proposal, they submitted the course proposal, and after a few revisions and edits it was approved by both the college and the high school and we had a small group of about a half-dozen college students and a half-dozen high school students that took a course together at the high school. And that’s not a lot of people—but that doesn’t—what an incredible experience that they’re participating in something they helped codesign in order to address an issue that they perceive to be real across these age differences and community differences; that these teenagers and these college students together identified this town-gown divide and saw high school and college as a way to build bridges and constructed a course to do that and then participated in that course together. To me, that’s a kind of deep, transformative, impact that doesn’t quite reflect big numbers, but big experiences.
John:It’s certainly a testament to the impact that it had on those students that they were willing to do this and interested and motivated to do this.
John:How have your colleagues responded?
Khuram: I think that my colleagues have been excited, and I think that for many of them it created a new opportunity for them to engage. So, we’ve had faculty that have come in as participants, we’ve had them lead certain workshops and activities. They’ve come in with their expertise within their respective disciplines and fields. So, we’ve had a really great showing of faculty support. And part of it is we did not host this work on campus. We were very intentional about finding a place and space that was both a place that could be shared as well as a place that was easily accessible for long-term community residents, and so we found ourselves at the oldest black church in the city and a place that many of my colleagues had never been… that many people in the community had never been, and it was in the part of the city that is still segregated across a number of lines of race and class, and yet it was one of the most racially and socioeconomically diverse spaces that you could sit in in the city and here it was in a historically or at least currently segregated space… and so I think the opportunity for faculty and for staff to engage with a community that they’re really caring about in a context that seemed more inclusive was really exciting and affirmed a lot of their values. I think this is something that people really want, it’s just a matter of creating the opportunity so that they can engage in it. I don’t think that most faculty or staff want to engage in these kind of vertical relationships with communities. It’s just how we’ve been doing things for so long.
Rebecca: Seems like your background in teaching about equity and teaching about intersectionality and doing some research in the classroom about these topics set you up really well to do this work. Are there tips or other things that could provide faculty who don’t have that same background that you could share to give us a doorway in?
Khuram: I think that in some ways having a background as a scholar in any kind of social justice or equity field can be a barrier, and here’s why. That work is always in your head and it is disembodied in the institution, and the institution is, by its very nature, disembodied from the communities that it surrounds. And so you can very easily be a deft and prolific scholar of social inequity and convey and facilitate inequity in your actual life. So really it’s not a guarantee of anything. I think the measure of your capacity is in the doing, and I think it’s really about addressing questions. Who am I inviting to the table? Where is the table? Who is not here? What do I need to ask now to get who’s not here, here? Those are the more important questions, and I think if we don’t presume that there’s a certain kind of institutional privilege that comes even with being able to wax philosophical about questions of equity, then we’ve already lost the plot. We’ve got to honestly think about the spaces and places in which we’re doing our work and the kinds of privileges that we need to interrogate about ourselves before we can do any of this work in equitable and meaningful ways, and so I would say this work is for everybody, and this work is for anybody who is willing to really work with community members and to find shared purpose with community members. It’s willing to listen and learn from… and is not just interested in providing to.
Rebecca: Those are such great reminders… and empowering to make sure that we can all find a way to help and work with the communities that we live in.
Khuram: Yeah, and sometimes it does mean maybe rethinking a service-learning project that’s a semester long and seeing if you can map it out over a year. Would you spend a semester just creating relationships between students, yourself and long-term residents of a community just in that exploratory project? and then say, “Ok, out of this what have we identified collectively as a community need that we can address as a class?” …so that you get, of course, that buy-in, which is so important, but there’s a truly transformative possibility that is emerged that simply wasn’t there until you took the time to really connect and build that relationship, so I’m also in practical terms a really big proponent of year-long service-learning initiatives and moving away from the pressures of a semester-long initiative, unless you’re willing to do half a semester of really just relationship building and collective meaning-making and then cut the service piece a little shorter.
John:We usually wrap up the podcast with a question: “What are you going to do next?”
Khuram: What I would like to do next is to start preparing and supporting students to be the initiators of this work. I am currently working with a couple student groups that are creating their own curriculum and their own activities to engage people in the community with. Right now it’s a youth-to-youth, college student and high school student initiative, and the aim there is to just be a guide on the side, to really maximize whatever space and context I can help create for students to develop their own initiatives for engagement. Again, along these principles of working with, but to see our students become the guides that they need that our students can be the leaders that they’re looking for and that they can help develop leadership in their communities, and so for me right now what that involves is again having college students and high school students connect and collaborate and learn from each other with really very little use of faculty and take from us what you need and build what you must.
Rebecca: Sounds really exciting. Thank you so much for all that you shared today; I think it gives us all a lot to think about. Not just think about it; we need to take action too. [LAUGHTER]
John:If you’ve enjoyed this podcast, please subscribe and leave a review on iTunes or your favorite podcast service. To continue the conversation, join us on our Tea for Teaching Facebook page.
Rebecca: You can find show notes, transcripts, and other materials on teaforteaching.com. Theme music by Michael Gary Brewer.