Relevant Action Guides
Based on learning outcome goals, create a tentative plan for your community engagement project. Focus on a specific issue or task for which clear assignments can be given, but wait to decide on specifics until you’ve found a community partner (you’ll need to collaborate with them on the details). Be open to creative ideas for making your content connect to community organizations’ needs (e.g. a statistics class working with a criminal justice reform initiative to analyze data).
Checklist for creating a plan:
- What curricular goals will this project meet and how will I measure them?
- What do you want the students to learn?
- Which SLS learning outcomes will the course be designed to teach and how will I measure them?
- How might the process or final product appeal to potential community partners?
- How large is the scope of the community engagement component of this course?
- How can I structure the project to ensure accountability and high-quality student work?
- How hands-on should I be and how much should I leave up to students and partners (this will likely depend on the level of the course)?
- What support can I seek out to help me design the basic framework for this engagement project? For example, how can SLS’ Service Learning and Community Engagement Nuts and Bolts help me?
- Is it possible to plan this course so that my relationship with the partner can extend for more than one semester? (Feedback from community organizations is that semester-long engagements are often too short).
- How might I structure the course so that community partners can develop or co-develop the details of the engagement project?
See Restaino, Jessica, and Laurie Cella. Unsustainable: Re-imagining Community Literacy, Public Writing, Service-learning and the University (Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2013); Stoecker, Randy, Elizabeth A. Tryon, and Amy Hilgendorf, The Unheard Voices: Community Organizations and Service Learning (Philadelphia, PA: Temple University Press, 2009).
Identify and get to know the community members, organizations, and agencies working closely on work relevant to the content of your course and take note of their specific interests and positions in the community. Talk to a broad range of people and ask questions to identify patterns of leadership and community support for specific initiatives or organizations. Consider and get to know a diverse set of stakeholders—especially those who may not be actively engaged or easily reached.
Checklist for identifying stakeholders:
- What impact(s) could the project have on the community at large (both in the short term and long term as well as both positive and negative)?
- How can I effectively partner to maximize impact?
- Are any of my colleagues currently working closely on the same issue/topic? Could they be a partner or support the work in some way? Do they have strong existing relationships with community partners that would make sense to build upon?
- Which stakeholder groups have the capacity to take an active role in the project (see SLS Big Idea: Asset-based Community Development)?
- Could this project partner with multiple groups?
- Is there a respected coalition of organizations already in place?
- Would having multiple partners be feasible based on my course curriculum and time restraints?
- What resources will be required to successfully have desired impact?
- Are there online groups that work with the issue? Does it make sense to include an online engagement component, either with a community-based partner or by working with an online community?
Once you’ve established the broad strokes of your project and identified stakeholders, begin the process of learning more about the specific, and diverse, interests involved. Patterns of leadership and community buy-in are never simple and require some careful attention. Laying the groundwork ahead of time can lead to a stronger long-term relationship with community partners and better results for your collaborative projects and engagements.
Checklist for learning more about possible partners:
- Start your search with the end goals in mind. Most of the time you will want a community partner that represents the broad interests of the community, works to be inclusive to all community members, and is well respected by key stakeholders.
- For your purposes “the community” may be an entire neighborhood or it could be a more specific segment of the neighborhood’s population (e.g. the formerly incarcerated).
- Plan to do background research, listen to and learn from a diverse set of stakeholders, and ask questions about the work currently being done and how it is perceived of by a cross section of residents.
- Learn about organizational history and any history with Georgia Tech, funding streams, and structures.
- Attend community meetings such as a neighborhood association or an NPU meeting or a topic-specific meeting (e.g. on the city’s plans to redevelop a park).
- Ask those with connections for introductions to key contacts.
- Bring different groups together for a meeting or an event to discuss the topic/project and how it might be useful to a broad set of partners.
- Actively work to ensure that you seek out possible partners that will allow you to reach the less accessible stakeholders.
When describing your project to possible partners:
- Keep in mind that community partners will be deciding whether it is in their interests to work with you as well and it is okay for them to say no or not at this time.
- Be transparent about your teaching and research goals, limitations, and students’ skill levels and awareness about the issue/s.
- Emphasize your flexibility and willingness to structure the project so it will benefit partners and so it is not a burden on their time.
- Be prepared to talk about how community organizations and members are often over-researched and under-supported and explain how your work/project aims to change that historical dynamic.
- Explain that once a partnership is established, you will work closely with them to co-create the project design (goals, scope, student expectations, procedures, expectations for final deliverables, and grading student work).
- Keep in mind that strong relationships with the right people/organizations are key for high quality engagements (see guide to Critical Community Engagement).
See also SLS’ “Learning More About Community Organizations” Tool
Carefully select partners based on your background research and planning, as well as anticipated future community engagement goals. If possible, work with an array of partners to ensure representation from diverse interests, needs, and ways of working. Choose partners that have broad community support, but also that you connect with and can imagine working with in the future.
Checklist for establishing strong partnerships:
- Find partners that can work on the project at hand, have a direct interest in the learning goals of the course, but that also share interests that may lend themselves to future collaborations.
- Mutually agree on project scope and purpose, a set of shared values, measurable outcomes, and accountability measures.
- Select partners whose strengths you draw from but also aim to increase one another’s capacities.
- Balance power, and establish transparent and open processes for decision making and feedback.
- Communicate clearly and openly, working to understand one another’s needs and interests and developing communication channels that work for everyone.
- Gauge whether partners can work directly with students to set expectations and identify tasks appropriate to the course and the students’ skills and abilities.
- Ensure that partner organizations and point people are accessible, i.e., offices are close to MARTA and ADA accessible, students will have an identified point of contact who is able to respond in a timely manner, the organization has appropriate liability practices, and procedures in place for crisis management.