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Keeping our “Eyes on the Prize” with Engagement in Higher Education

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Amongst the songs of the civil rights movement in the United States in the 20th Century was one that encouraged us to keep our eyes on the prize. What that meant was to keep our focus on the goal of racial equality and social justice in the midst of diverse movement activities, distractions from the opposition or misleading responses from the media.

In early December, I had the privilege of participating in Engage 2014, the annual conference of the National Coordinating Council for Public Engagement in Higher Education (NCCPE) in Bristol, England.  It was an enchanting conference filled with more creative approaches to engagement than I have seen in the total of any other 10 conferences on community university engagement stacked one on top of the other.  We had story tellers, poets, opera directors, theatre folks, dancers, snowmakers, magicians and more.  One person whom I know very well said that this was the best conference that she had ever attended.  So I am thinking that we need to have a deeper conversation about what engagement means to each of us.

Engagement appears to be a concept that is relatively devoid of any precise meaning.  Aside from the relationship to the marital process, arguably the most precise meaning, engagement as a group noun is up for grabs.  It can mean anything whatsoever.  We can engage with the enemy, engage with the political world, engage with the market, engage with social movements. This quality of flexible, open, contradictory, or vague meaning lends our word engagement wonderfully to a world of organisational discourse where keeping all sides happy or all options open counts far more than clarity towards a given social purpose.

But when people ask me what my work is about, I often say it is about community-university engagement.  This stops most people cold, so I don’t need to get more precise.  But if we are going to continue to meet together in conferences or in offices that use these terms, we need to talk about what we mean…at least amongst each other…a bit more.  The place to start for me begins even before we figure out what we mean by engagement.  The first question for me is ‘engagement for what?’ The reason that I am involved in working on bringing community assets and higher education assets together is because our communities, our nations and our globe are in serious trouble.  Inequality within and between countries continues to grow unabated.  800 million people including many in places like Canada and England have not had a chance to learn to read.  1500 men and women in my home town of Victoria, Canada do not have an assured place to sleep at night. Indigenous Peoples  in Canada are still overcoming decades of genocidal government policies and reconciliation. Older people live lonely isolated lives and older men are at a high risk of suicide. At the global level we are living in a destructive era where the very fabric of life is at risk as the earth warms.  Water and its governance and use are at the heart of many regional conflicts.  And the list goes on.  Greed is celebrated as multimillionaires are now some kind of celebrities.  The global market utopia continues unabated even while creating the seeds of its own destruction perhaps.
Well, you see how awkward I can become when not constrained! 

I have chosen to work in this knowledge and action space between institutions of higher education and community sectors…including social movement, social economy and local governments with the hope that we might collectively find new and innovative ways for people to work together to take action on the deep issues that confront us all. I believe that a democratic process of co-creation of knowledge for social change is an important contribution to the deep transformations that have to happen. 

What does it mean to keep our eyes on the prize of social justice? First of all for me engagement is the process of building respectful relationships.  It is a way to contribute to social capital. Engagement means being clear on issues of power, control, race, ethnicity, gender, ability and the like.  Engagement for me is about learning to listen.  Engagement for me as someone located within a university is about having a sense of humility of the limits of what we know. It is about believing profoundly that knowledge to change the world is located in special ways with those who are at the coal face of action.  My work engaging with people involves working with policy makers and the leadership of higher education bodies, with academics like myself, with intellectuals in our community groups and movements.  In my particular case as a person of Settler heritage in Canada, it is also with developing new relationships with Indigenous scholars and traditional community leaders.  The most challenging persons in my experience to engage  with are my fellow member of the academic community.  The centuries of tradition, the sheer power of our institutions, the way that we make truth claims and the very nature often of the political economy of the way we earn our livings or advance our careers mean that we have so very much to unlearn.  When one adds social locational issues of race, gender, ability, types of institutions we work in and so forth, one can see how challenging it is for us to change.

Thank you for the courtesy of reading this far in my blog.  I would love to hear from you before, during and after the conference in December.

1. What does engagement mean in your work?
2. How do you keep the social change agenda up front in your work?
3. What is the prize that your community needs to keep its eyes on?

 

Budd L Hall

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