As a scholar of civic and community engagement, I have watched over the last five years as the mission of higher education has been challenged, and it has come at the same time that our communities have been challenged. From Ferguson to New York, Cleveland to Baltimore, we have been asked as institutions and as individuals to act toward a more just and equitable society. At Washington University, we recognize these challenges, acting on this moment to renew the charge of the newly constituted Gephardt Institute for Civic and Community Engagement.
Washington University has a rich legacy of community engagement, due in large part to the initiative and leadership of individual faculty, staff, students and alumni. The institute, originally founded as the Gephardt Institute for Public Service a decade ago, initially focused on developing the next generation of civic leaders. Today, we will still do this; however, the manner in which we do our work has shifted.
Across higher education, colleges and universities refer to a tripartite mission of teaching, research and service. The service mission has historically emphasized a charitable orientation, a focus on service. The shift occurring in higher education and at Washington University is toward a “civic mission” that embraces a problem-solving, partnership-based approach. A civic mission seeks to understand and benefit societal conditions by leveraging expertise and capacity across the university and does so in partnership with the community.
The renewed Gephardt Institute signals that civic and community engagement is valued across the entire institution — not just at the institute proper. We have been charged to sponsor a range of initiatives that catalyze connections between the community and the entire campus. All will have a mission of cultivating informed and actively engaged citizens.
Our initiatives will include:
• Connecting community groups with Washington University students, staff and faculty who, through dialogue, can help expand capacity and solve problems.
• Emphasizing education and critical analysis before action through the new “Meet St. Louis,” student group advising and support to staff working with students across campus.
• Growing resources and technical assistance for faculty who want to connect their classroom content to the community to promote students’ real-world learning.
• Assessing the impacts of Washington University’s community engagement through research efforts involving both faculty and community partners.
The renewed institute underscores the larger difference in approach — across a continuum from charity to change, from “for” to “with,” from quantity of engagements to quality, from short-term to long-term. This work is not easy, but it is work well worth doing. It will require us all. We believe that by partnering with community, the civic involvement of Washington University students, faculty, staff and alumni can evolve stronger communities. As a member of the Washington University community, consider how you can become involved.