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Strengthening Campus-Community Connections

Carol Geary Schneider, Executive Editor, Diversity Digest, and Executive Vice President, AAC&U

A reporter from a major newspaper called recently seeking background on ways campuses are preparing students for civic engagement and participatory democracy. Asking about AAC&U's initiative on "democracy," he was surprised to learn that the project in question -- our American Commitments initiative -- focuses not on democracy alone but on the connections between diversity and democratic aspirations.

What interested the reporter is that so many people describe diversity and multiculturalism as threats to the underlying unity of Western democracies. But the American Commitments focus, he commented, seems to be exploring new ways of connecting across our differences.

The reporter is right. Societal diversity, as colleges and universities are addressing it, is a means, not an end. The goals are the dignity of full recognition for all peoples and more just connections among us. In exploring American pluralism, we are both seeking and creating ways to live together productively in communities that value difference. Toleration, once considered a signal social virtue, is insufficient. The goal is to build together more just, responsive, and inclusive forms of what Dewey calls "associated living."

Citizenship as Public Work

In this context, dynamic connections between a campus and its neighboring communities have become an important new frontier for diversity learning. In order to envision richer forms of community, students need to discover and learn to value communities and groups they may long have avoided--or never known were there. And they need to learn a long list of practical skills -- listening, empathy, fairness, dialogue, conflict resolution, collaborative problem solving--in the face of disagreement.

Higher education is responding to the challenge. Many colleges and universities are expanding opportunities for community involvement and course-based service learning. Students are working in shelters, assisting in troubled schools, and reclaiming community parks and centers. They are learning directly about the challenges American communities face.

Much as Jane Adams or John Dewey once urged, students are also taking research questions into the community. In communities from New York City to Los Angeles to Jacksonville, students are engaged in collaborative research projects. They are refining their questions and findings through candid exchanges with community members who form an integral part of research teams. Veterans of these community projects are emerging, as the student forum in this issue suggests, with a new understanding and respect for neighbors they may once have avoided--or feared.

New Dialogues

While communities are becoming important new sites for student learning, campus-community dialogues are emerging as powerful sources of new learning and dialogue about American dilemmas. Ethnic and women's studies scholars like Johnnella Butler and Elizabeth Minnich remind us that we cannot achieve peace, justice, or even comfortable acquaintance with other Americans by insistently glossing over America's difficult history with cruelly stigmatized differences. This history is with us still-and stigmatization remains very real for many American minorities, gays and lesbians, and other marginalized groups.

Americans must face up to the legacies of inequality, tension, and blighted communities that emerge from that history. The goal is to find ways to be both proud of distinctive cultural traditions and ready to tackle festering social issues as members of a larger polity.

When Sheldon Hackney became chair of the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) in 1993, he launched a National Conversation on American Pluralism and Identity. Scholar-advisors framed a series of questions to guide hundreds of local dialogues about belonging and connection in contemporary America. "How do we speak to each other?" they asked. "Where do we belong?" "How equal are Americans?" "What do we share as Americans?" The NEH gave grants to help organize the conversations and developed resources and readings to frame hundreds of community dialogues.

Congressional and conservative opponents bristled, labeling the questions pointless and the initiative's modest budget a waste of public resources. Even while denouncing the dangers of assertive multiculturalism, they saw no need to support dialogue about American identities. When Congress cut the NEH annual budget by nearly 40 percent, funds for continuing the National Conversation were eliminated.

Yet the idea of a national conversation has caught on. Many of the state humanities councils are continuing to foster campus-community dialogues about American pluralism. The Study Circles Resource Center, a Connecticut organization that provides materials and technical assistance to help citizens move from discussion to action, is following up on the National Conversation. AAC&U provided small challenge grants to launch American Commitments community seminars. From Hawaii to Lowell, Massachusetts, community seminars are creating new forums for dialogue.

In short, diversity is prompting dialogue -- and the dialogues are producing deepened understanding, not only about difference, but about the issues we need to address as neighbors and citizens. We still have a long way to go in solving national problems of ignorance, apathy, and mistrust. But through new connections between campus and community, American students are becoming both prepared and inspired to take on the challenge.

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