Creating an Institute for Community Engagement and Civic Leadership

by Dr. Sharon Thompson, Dr. David E. Thomas and Dr. Judith Gay

In this turbulent and dynamic century, our nation’s diverse democracy and interdependent global community require a more informed, engaged, and socially responsible citizenry. Both educators and employers agree that personal and social responsibility should be core elements of a 21st century education if our world is to thrive.
—Association of American Colleges and Universities, 2015

Community College of Philadelphia has a mission-based commitment aligned with the principles articulated by the Association of American Colleges and Universities. We strive to help students become “informed and concerned citizens,” aware and appreciative of “a diverse world,” with “active interest in intellectual questions and social issues,” and experiencing “self-fulfillment based on service to others.” If community engagement and civic leadership can be defined as addressing topics or issues of public concern, Community College of Philadelphia students working with faculty and staff have demonstrated this commitment through a variety of initiatives over many years. Examples have included the Nursing Department’s 19130 ZIP code project, started in 1996, that engages nursing students in providing preventative health services in one of Philadelphia’s poorest neighborhoods; the Snitching Project, started in 2007, that engaged students in community research to understand and inform others about witness intimidation; and the Fox Rothschild Center for Law and Society’s Wills for Heroes project, started in 2010, that engages students in working with legal professionals to create free basic estate documents for first responders. Faculty across the disciplines have incorporated service learning into their courses and some College programs, such as Gateway to College, require student service experiences through volunteer hours.

Representatives of the College participate in forums, panels, workshops, and meetings with representatives of various organizations, and partner with them to have a collective impact on communities. Examples include our participation on committees related to the Promise Zone, improving early childhood education, addressing the issues of high school dropout prevention and re-engagement through Project U-Turn, understanding and meeting the unique needs of foster care youth in higher education, and supporting people in recovery, to name a few. Likewise, we invite representatives of organizations to join us at the College to further our understanding of issues. Examples include multiple events sponsored by our Center for International Understanding: our Diversity Week events, our International Festival and the Women’s Leadership Conference. These conversations and activities represent a broader commitment to community engagement, defined by the Carnegie Foundation as “the collaboration between institutions of higher education and their larger communities (local, regional/state, national, global) for the mutually beneficial exchange of knowledge and resources in a context of partnership and reciprocity.”

Despite the many ways that the College’s students, faculty and staff have shown evidence of a commitment to civic and community engagement, the College’s approach has been somewhat idiosyncratic to the point that our work is viewed as individual or program specific and not illustrative of a College ethos. This approach poses some barriers to the College’s ability to maximize our potential impact on the public good and/or our impact on the education of our students. Institutional Research studies and general education assessment of “responsible citizenship” suggest that many students do not recognize the College’s commitment to community engagement.

The College has the capacity and initiatives currently in place to expand our reach and help our students develop skills as civic leaders. In an effort to build internal and external awareness for our work, demonstrate significant outcomes for students and communities, and strengthen collaborative relationships, we gave Dr. Donald Guy Generals, the College’s president, a concept for an Institute for Community Engagement and Civic Leadership. With his enthusiastic support, we set out to refine our initial ideas. Before officially launching the Institute, we sought feedback from potential stakeholders. The Institute was the focus of a brainstorming session for faculty and staff, a call for ideas from students, a conversation during our International Festival about what it means to be a global citizen, and a community brainstorming session for external stakeholders and potential partners.

The first brainstorming session was open to the entire College community. More than 50 faculty and staff attended the session. The second session was for invited external stakeholders, potential community partners and city leaders.

The response to the Institute concept at both sessions was overwhelmingly positive. Suggestions for refining the draft mission statement and goals centered around creating a clear infrastructure, highlighting the role of service learning, emphasizing and being explicit about the role of students, and clarifying the role of partners and collective collaborative action. Our community partners were enthusiastic about the College taking advantage of this unique opportunity to play a leadership role as convener to help build a unified vision for community engagement and to help build society’s future civic leaders.

Inviting reactions from communities interested in collaboration was invaluable. Their input helped refine our language, caused us to rethink and value our role as an educational institution, and pointed us in directions we had not originally conceived or fully articulated. Feedback from these rich conversations has informed the mission, vision and goals for the Institute as a true testament of collaboration and active stakeholder engagement on this most critical topic.

As the mission, vision and goals continue to be refined to authentically reflect the collective input of those we engaged during the initial design phase, the work of the Institute and its potential impact upon local, regional, national and global communities becomes more vivid. The College’s current community engagement and civic leadership work will gain greater prominence and visibility through the Institute. The opportunity to expand current initiatives and explore new and unchartered areas with the ultimate goal of making a positive and lasting impact on the lives of those we serve and encounter each day will take on an even greater priority. We are in the beginning stages of transformative work and realize that with each new step we take, the effort to genuinely engage our communities and foster the new generation of civic leaders never ends. The College’s Institute for Community Engagement and Civic Leadership will have an official launch in fall 2016, and we look forward to working with many partners toward common community and civic goals.