“Community-engaged learning” is a mouthful. Often abbreviated to CEL, it quickly becomes part of the alphabet soup in academic jargon. And yet, it’s a transformative approach to education. Instead of being a one-way street where students are the recipients of knowledge, it’s multi-directional: students learn in and with communities to address real-life challenges together.
As someone who has been a part of this journey over the last decade, listening to each of the speakers at last week’s event was…thrilling.
I found myself reflecting on my own community-engaged learning experience, and was immediately transported back to 20 years ago. I remember myself and my classmates awkwardly climbing into the beat-up pick-up truck of our TA (teaching assistant). I unfortunately landed in one of two middle spots with four of us squeezed into the back seat. Cornell sits up on a hill; I didn’t have a car (or cell phone), and this was one of my first times making the trek down the hill to downtown Ithaca.
We were headed to the Northside Triangle, a neighborhood, we were told, that was one of the least affluent in town. Historically, it was the neighborhood that welcomed immigrants and refugees. Many blocks were filled with multi-family housing units — both public and private — vastly different from the single-family homes in the adjacent neighborhoods we drove through to get there.
I came to Cornell as an urban and regional studies major in the department of city planning. And I was used to spending a lot of my time at the top of a hill. In high school, our mascot was the “Hilltoppers”, a name used to describe the student body, and I had similar experiences going down the hill to the less affluent neighborhoods just a stone’s throw from the elite institutions I was fortunate to attend. Why was it every time my family drove down the hill, at the halfway point of our descent my dad would lean his elbow on the latch to lock the car doors? Why were there some streets that I was told I could drive home on at night, and others I was told to avoid? My high school experiences off the hill led me to want to become a city planner, to better understand the visible and invisible barriers separating people and places. I wondered: why is it this way? And, how might we do better?
My sophomore year of college, I took a Neighborhood Planning Workshop, a community-engaged learning course in which we worked with residents of the Northside neighborhood to facilitate a neighborhood-based plan. Our purpose was to help the City of Ithaca gain input from hundreds of Northside residents to create a collective vision for the neighborhood.
So there we were, piled into the pick-up and driving down to the Northside. Our TA dropped us off in an empty parking lot of a recently closed grocery store. Out of the back of the truck, each of us was handed a sandwich board and a handful of fliers. Our charge? Walk the neighborhood. Talk to residents. Let them know we’re interested in hearing from them about their aspirations and needs in the neighborhood. Invite them to a community meeting with city officials to document those needs and develop a neighborhood plan.
I remember feeling incredibly awkward — placards on my front and back, holding a handful of fluorescent fliers as if I was selling something or “buying gold.” I had never been to this neighborhood before. Both economically and racially, it seemed like the opposite of what I was used to. My eyes were drawn to the vacant storefronts and boarded up houses which gave me the impression of blight and neglect. But we were there to learn about the things people loved about their neighborhood, as well as what they were seeking to change.
From my sheltered perspective, everything looked so different, but this experience pushed me to ask: what wasn’t I seeing? What didn’t I know about the lives of the people who lived there? And what would I—an outsider from the top of the hill—need to do so that people would trust me enough to tell me?
We were put in pairs, and my partner and I looked at each other, exchanging glances that made me feel we were in this together. Then, we hit the pavement.
My memory of this experience no doubt strings multiple days together, but I’ll always remember a conversation I had with one resident, who shared with me the pain of the grocery store closing. She didn’t have a car. Without the store, there wasn’t a place she could buy food for her family. She felt no one cared. She was angry.
“Do you see over there?” She pointed over to Route 13, the main thoroughfare, six lanes deep, cutting through the Northside. “That’s where we need to go, but we can’t safely cross!” It was clear—through her testimony and many others I had the opportunity to listen to—that the community suffered from an increasing decline in access to basic resources.
I returned to class the following week feeling overwrought and incensed. At 18, I hadn’t yet learned the term “food desert,” or understood its rising prevalence in cities across America. My first instinct was, “This is wrong! And, it’s my job to solve it!”
But reflection and expert teaching from a remarkable professor alongside extraordinary graduate student TAs—who created the space to let us express all of the emotions we were feeling, and also to unpack their implications—helped me understand it wasn’t a problem I could fix. They helped reposition my role in the world to understand that those affected by a challenge must have the agency—and the support—to address it themselves. What we could do was help make sure their voices were heard.
Each visit to the Northside was coupled with reflective conversations both in our car rides back and inside our classroom on campus. Through this process, I came to see that there wasn’t something a single individual could do to remedy the situation. I also came to appreciate that the objective wasn’t for us to find a quick fix to the community’s problems, but to learn alongside those directly affected by them.
Over the course of the semester, we participated in and at times co-facilitated several community conversations, some of which took place inside the closed grocery store. The community devised a set of recommendations to the city to improve their neighborhood. The city council ultimately adopted the neighborhood plan, including a new cross-walk across the six-lane highway so residents could more easily access Ithaca’s iconic weekend farmers’ market and a nearby grocery store.
Urban and Regional Studies at Cornell was among the first departments to embrace the benefits of community-engaged learning experiences. Yet, in the decades that followed, many more departments and courses would recognize and integrate the benefits of engaged learning into their courses and curricula. Today, nearly 50 percent of Cornell students enroll in such a course during their time on campus.
As David Einhorn reflected in his remarks at the dedication ceremony last week, the benefits are manifold: students gain memorable and sometimes life-changing exposure to real-world problems which give them a chance to exercise their nascent knowledge while also gaining hands-on experience. Community organizations gain access to talent they can leverage towards specific needs. And, hopefully both parties emerge with a deeper sense of connection made possible by mutual understanding and joint action.
This year, Einhorn Collaborative provided a foundational endowment for this new Center to ensure such opportunities are available to all Cornell students in perpetuity, with a goal that every student at Cornell will participate in at least one high-quality community-engaged learning experience before they graduate.
Deeper self-awareness is a critical first step in helping young people uncover their fullest potential as leaders, community members, and even friends. My Northside neighborhood experience was the first of several such courses I took during my time at Cornell, and the skills I learned would be ones I would use in every human interaction I have had over the course of my career. I learned from experience not to rush to a solution, and instead make time for deep listening and reflection. I experienced first-hand how powerful it can be when everyone has an opportunity to feel heard. I came to understand the effects of economic inequality on local communities. And I became profoundly aware of the ways my life had been shaped by privilege.
I’m excited that community-engaged learning is expanding to all facets of student and campus life at Cornell, and thrilled to see it also take root and blossom beyond Cornell on other campuses. Just this month, the Einhorn Center hosted Professor Saltmarsh from UMass Boston to share his research about similar efforts at other colleges. Our Bridging Strategy Lead, Itai Dinour, reflects below on the ways this exciting approach to education is making its mark in higher education.
With many more people having the opportunity to experience community-engaged learning, I’m positive that we will become more deeply connected to ourselves, our communities, and each other.