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Pursuing Social Justice through Place-Based Community Engagement Cultivating Applied Creativity, Transdisciplinarity, and Reciprocity in Catholic Higher Education

Brian LaDuca, Charlie Carroll,

Adrienne Ausdenmoore, and Justin Keen

Faith-based universities are uniquely positioned to forge reciprocal partnerships that address local problems in pursuit of social justice. As religious institutions, their underlying missions provide a natural impetus for engagement with the surrounding community. Place-based community engagement (Yamamura & Koth, 2018) provides a model through which institutions can harness their inherent creativity, capacity for transdisciplinarity, and focus on iterative progress to collaboratively address local community problems. This chapter documents the use of an applied creativity approach to place-based community engagement that shifts perspectives on innovation beyond the traditional tech-based applications to develop communities and structures that advance the common good. In so doing, the article provides an example of how the traditions and values that have long underpinned the work of Christian education arc of particular relevance to how Christian institutions might partner with communities to address critical 21st-century challenges in groundbreaking ways.

Community Engagement in the Marianist Tradition: University of Dayton

The University of Dayton is a Catholic and Marianist University in Dayton, Ohio, founded by the Society of Mary in 1850. Over 8,000 mostly residential and traditionally aged undergraduate students and more than 2,000 graduate students encounter an education rooted in the Catholic and Marianist charism that focuses on educating the whole person by connecting experiences within the classroom to experiences beyond it. It is a doctoral-granting institution with high research activity, a robust general education program that extends into more advanced study in areas related to its Catholic and Marianist mission and identity, and holding the Carnegie Community Engagement Classification.

The University of Dayton’s community engagement efforts are strategically tied to the City of Dayton, Ohio and the Dayton region. Dayton, a midsized city of 140,000 residents, is known for its cultural assets and history of innovation (University of Dayton, 2018a). It faces many of the challenges endemic to the region termed the “rust belt” of the United States, including a retreat of manufacturing influencing a 37.2% poverty rate, struggles to provide equitable educational attainment including a 17.7% bachelor’s degree attainment rate among persons aged 25+, and high levels of neighborhood and school segregation (Watras, 2010) among its 55% White and 39% Black or African American residents (U.S. Census Bureau, 2019).

The University of Dayton is one of three Marianist universities in the United States. Accordingly, five essential aspects of Marianist Universities inform how the University of Dayton approaches community engagement (Chaminade University, St. Mary’s University, & University of Dayton, 1999). The first characteristic places faith at the center of the university’s mission by committing to formation in faith and posing that “Intellectual rigor coupled with respectful humility provide a more profound preparation for both career and life” (p. 15). In particular, social awareness expressed through service is critical to this faith development. This focus aligns with Collins and Clanton’s (2018) description of the three distinctive functions of Christian higher education in advancing the common good: providing an education informed by Christian faith, using faith to ground deliberate positions and approaches (rather than neutrality), and being transparent in these approaches. Spina (2017) led his presidential installation address with a statement that stressed these functions: “the University of Dayton has quietly, yet dramatically, transformed itself by turning big dreams into bold moves—always with the common good at the center” (p. 1).

The second characteristic of Marianist universities focuses on providing an excellent education of the whole person. This characteristic is exemplified by the University’s learning goals focused on community, diversity, practical wisdom, vocation, and critical evaluation of the current times. Each of these learning goals aligns well to the many documented benefits of service-learning and student participation in community engagement (Astin, Vogclgesang, Ikeda, & Yee, 2000; Eylcr & Giles, 1999). Calls for increased assessment of community engagement have emphasized direct assessment of student learning alongside impact on other constituents and groups including faculty, the community, and institutions (Gclmon, Holland, & Spring, 2018). Strong learning goals that span the curriculum and co-curriculum are an important foundation for institutionalizing the development and assessment of community engagement experiences.

The third characteristic, educate in the family spirit, grounds everything that the university does within an overall ethos of creating accepting and collaborative learning communities. Valuing community as the locale of learning and, in particular, the faith-informed vision of community in the family spirit, is a strong fit for what the Kellogg Commission (2001) called respect for partners that focuses on mutually defining problems and solutions. As evidence of this value, Fogle et al. (2017) found that students engaged in community engagement with the University of Dayton’s Fitz Center for Leadership in Community appreciated the opportunity to move beyond superficial relationships and work toward consensus; in other words, “it was about doing with, not doing for” (p. 144). This family spirit resonates with Toms’s (2018) description of homcmaking as emphasizing hospitality and local stewardship in ways that drive connection to and care for community as an increasingly meaningful function of Christian higher education in postmodern culture.

The fourth characteristic of Marianist universities commits the universities to educate for service, justice, and peace. This commitment includes integrating this work into the curriculum and “finding innovative ways for students to connect the classroom with the wider world” (Chaminade University, St. Mary’s University, & University of Dayton, 1999, p. 26).

Collopy, Bowman, and Taylor (2012) describe this connection by stating that “Catholic and Marianist conceptions of social justice in particular call people to work with others in their spheres of life to transform institutions in order to further human rights while promoting the common good” (p. 1). These authors describe The Dayton Early College Academy as an exemplary practice founded by the University of Dayton to prepare first-generation college students that serves as an important preparation site for University of Dayton teacher education candidates. The intersections of innovation and justice represented in this fourth characteristic of Marianist Univerisities situate the unique opportunity and promise of the project discussed here, which applies innovative techniques and an approach to community engagement grounded in interdisciplinarity.

The final characteristic focuses on educating for adaptation and change. This aspect includes living authentically in a pluralistic society and applying critical thinking within the context of community to reach across traditional barriers, including disciplinary ones, to redefine one’s understanding and journey. This characteristic is congruent with Fitzgerald, Bruns, Sonka, Furco, and Swanson’s (2016) contention that community engagement should be central to 21st-century higher education in order to apply existing and future knowledge to create solutions to the world’s most pressing problems.

With these characteristics as the foundation, the University of Dayton has exhibited decades of commitment to community engagement. This philosophy and continuous practice arc perhaps best illustrated by the Fitz Center for Leadership in Community, the university’s primary vehicle for

Pursuing Social Justice 73 community engagement. Founded in 2002, it has numerous programs that emphasize practices including community building based on community assets, social capital, constructive public conversations, and a widely-shared vision. However, the university’s Catholic and Marianist mission and identity calls for community engagement throughout the university and student experience, which gives rise to numerous other efforts across campus. Here we discuss one such effort: a collaborative project that arose out of a space called the GEMnasium, an innovative initiative that provided a new location for place-based community engagement (Yamamura & Koth, 2018) and foregrounded applied creativity and transdisciplinarity as valuable ingredients in fostering reciprocal partnerships in pursuit of social justice.

Community Engagement through Innovation:

 
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