Diversity and Democracy

Cultivating Civic Ecotones for Community Partnerships

In the middle of a crowd of over two hundred people seated around tables covered with scribbled sketches and diagrams, a student stood waving a notecard, the words diversity is a mosaic printed on it in bold black magic marker. Her voice confident, she argued that Ohio needs more diverse coalitions of men and women working together across social and economic boundaries to generate new approaches to decades-old problems facing women and girls, from the glass ceiling to teen bullying. This student was participating in a forum that was part of a regional community summit hosted by Otterbein University. At that day’s gathering, faculty, students, and staff from thirty-six different postsecondary institutions joined over one hundred community participants to exchange ideas about innovative civic strategies to address inequities and create new pathways for women. For those present, it was impossible not to notice the heightened energy, productivity, interaction, and innovation that emerged as people from very different communities came together with a shared purpose, within a common landscape.

In 2010–12, Otterbein examined varied landscapes like this one—natural and artificial environments that promote civic learning. With funding from the Bringing Theory to Practice project, groups of student affairs staff, faculty, and students met monthly to design curricular and cocurricular experiences that would engage students in addressing significant civic challenges. Each community of practice focused on one community priority: poverty, community arts, women and gender inequity, health, the environment, and immigration. As participants designed collaborative projects to immerse students in high-impact practices like community engagement and undergraduate research, the variable of place emerged as a significant influence on students’ civic engagement. Participants were intrigued by the necessity of intentionally creating new community spaces, often on the borderlands of their projects, for diverse civic partners to identify and act on their common struggles.

In the field of ecology, when two different communities abut—where the forest literally meets the sea—the transitional area between the two terrains is called an ecotone. The word originates in the Greek root tonos, meaning tension. In an ecotone, two dissimilar ecosystems coexist in one space, promoting a biologically rich, adaptive, diverse, and unusually healthy new community. The summit at Otterbein was its own kind of civic ecotone—an intermediary place where participants dismantle the boundaries between community and campus to create a highly interactive environment for civic engagement and a renewed sense of collective responsibility. Similar to George Kuh’s (1996, 136) “seamless learning environments” that help students bridge the gap between the academic and social domains of college, a civic ecotone is a seamless environment where communities and campuses flourish together (Gilbert, Weispfenning, and Kengla 2007). In this article, I describe six forms of civic ecotones at Otterbein: summits (described above), networks, landscapes, advisory councils, simulations, and webs. Each represents an adaptable, diverse, and meaningful space with key benefits for the university’s civic mission, and each is grounded in rich collaboration between student affairs, academic affairs, and community partners.

Networks: The Women’s Leadership Network

In order to address large-scale community issues, it is necessary to create structures that engage stakeholders from all factions of the community. The more these structures are mosaic in nature, functioning as shared-power networks (Block 2008), the more potential they hold for civic change. The Women’s Leadership Network at Otterbein is an example of a structure that is rich in mosaicity, including over 150 women, students, and girls from local schools, businesses, nonprofits, and government organizations. This intergenerational network addresses issues facing women and girls, who constitute nearly 60 percent of individuals living in poverty in central Ohio, where they experience higher rates of food insecurity than any other demographic group. Across Ohio, women earn only 77 cents to every dollar earned by men, and in the state capital of Columbus, a modern glass ceiling exists, with women representing only 17.8 percent of six-figure earners (The Institute on Women 2012).

With significant leadership from Otterbein’s president, the network has pooled member resources to address these inequities, developing mentoring programs for teens and college students, hosting community summits and leadership conferences, and engaging university students in direct action for social change. These programs build on existing intra-agency alliances between partners who are addressing similar community needs, including Women for Economic and Leadership Development (WELD), the National Association of Women Business Owners (NAWBO), the Institute on Women, the local YWCA, the Office of New Americans, the Girl Scouts, and university representatives from academic affairs and student affairs. Network members used the geography of existing agency clusters to map areas where their work overlaps, where community needs intersect, where their vision is shared, where gaps exist, and where collaborative possibilities could emerge.

Landscapes: The Community Garden and Wetlands

Hunger is another of the most pressing issues facing Otterbein’s local community, with nearly 71 percent of students in neighborhood schools eligible for free or reduced lunches (Ohio Department of Education 2012). In 2010, the university decided to address this food insecurity by reclaiming a three-quarter-acre plot of land and cultivating an intentional civic landscape in the form of a community garden. Otterbein opened the garden to any community group willing to donate at least 50 percent of its produce to the local food pantry. A small group of civic leaders, faculty, student affairs staff, and students from the university’s Plan-it Earth organization crafted the garden’s civic mission: to enrich the community by providing (1) a unique give-back garden for hunger relief; (2) an innovative learning site focusing research efforts on sustainable gardening and food security; (3) a service site for youth to develop a commitment to volunteerism; (4) a living landscape to bring together a diverse and intergenerational community; and (5) an environmental gateway to sustainable practices.

Consisting of 20’-by-20’ plots interlaced with walking paths and benches for reflection, the garden encircles a large grassy outdoor classroom. Partners have adapted this space to serve as a site for service-learning projects, environmental organization meetings, youth science and literacy camps, community meetings, wetland conservation programs, harvest festivals, and cooking demonstrations for pantry clients. The space has evolved as the hunger project has grown from a small network of schools, a food pantry, and university participants to an extensive cooperative that includes neighborhood associations from underresourced communities, environmental and sustainability organizations, advocacy groups for people living with disabilities, and civic organizations.

Councils: School and Wellness Partnerships

The university has developed advisory councils to support campus–school partnerships like the one it maintains with the Columbus City Schools (CCS). CCS is the nation’s fifteenth largest urban district and has a graduation rate of 75.8 percent (Ohio Department of Education 2012). A service-learning faculty member at Otterbein serves as a liaison to each participating K–12 school, taking responsibility for (1) developing student-led community service programs; (2) connecting faculty to teach service-learning courses or conduct community-based research at the site; (3) communicating the needs of both school and university constituencies to Otterbein’s Center for Community Engagement; and (4) coordinating an appropriate advisory body (which often includes teachers, guidance counselors, social workers, faculty, students, youth, and the principal). To create trust and parity between partners, the advisory councils articulate formal or informal partnership agreements that include goals, strategies, learning outcomes, roles and responsibilities, financial and liability issues, communication plans, and assessment criteria. The advisory councils maximize each school’s capacity to educate its students while ensuring that the university’s students are engaged in productive, meaningful experiences.

Otterbein recently applied this model in the realm of public health, creating a Wellness Advisory Council to address sexual abuse, reproductive coercion, self-harm, suicide, bullying, relationship violence, and alcohol and drug abuse. Partners include Ohio Health, Drug-Free Action Alliance, and Nationwide Children’s Hospital’s Center for Family Safety and Healing (CFSH), as well as university representatives from student affairs. In its first year, the council organized a program on healthy relationships delivered by students to a local Girl Scout troop, as well as a Take Back the Night event for the campus and local community. Caitlin Tully, training coordinator at the CFSH, noted that the partnership’s programming “allows students to consider their interactions with each other as well as the broader community while also encouraging them to reimagine their role in relationship to violence prevention.” In both the school and wellness models, the advisory councils build capacity for the open exchange of ideas, innovation, and increased productivity.

Simulations: The Immigration Simulation

In recent years, Otterbein’s civic landscapes have grown to include simulated terrains, such as that of the Immigration Simulation. Students and faculty members worked with partners and clients of the Columbus Refugee and Immigration Services to design this simulation, which allows users to have an embodied experience of coming to the city of Columbus as a new refugee. During a simulation, partners, faculty, and staff who speak a language other than English play the roles of landlords, bankers, police officers, government officials, and other stakeholders in a room set up with community stations and clusters of chairs representing different family living situations. Students role-play the lives of new Americans as they try to negotiate employment, citizenship, and daily life during one month of challenges condensed into ninety minutes. The simulation, offered each year in an anthropology course and facilitated repeatedly by students at local schools, has resulted in attitudinal, cognitive, and behavioral learning outcomes very similar to those achieved in community-based settings. One student’s comment reflects the consensus: “I saw members of campus being interested and involved for the first time in issues of poverty … aware of life beyond themselves.”

Simulations allow students, staff, and partners to enter spaces and take on roles that compromise their own situatedness in the world. By entering a simulated environment together and engaging in facilitated reflective practices, participants experience unique opportunities for authentic dialogue about the realities and complexities of civic work as well as their own democratic commitments.

Webs: Costa Rica and the Bribri

Partnerships for international civic engagement also require strong collaborative environments for planning and implementing projects. These international civic ecotones often depend on an informal web of translators, community stewards, and other partners. One example comes from Otterbein’s work in Costa Rica with a research center, bird sanctuary, and the Bribri, an indigenous tribe living near the city of Yorkin. This partnership involved a web of relationships between entities whose lives were intricately connected.

Several collaborators—including a member of the Bribri tribe, student affairs staff members, a biologist, a Spanish professor, and an economist—co-constructed a research and service project to develop a local ecotourism business addressing recent economic tension resulting from job losses in the cocoa industry. At the same time, the Bribri wanted to share any resources coming from the United States with their neighbors. The Bribri proposed that in exchange for their hosting Otterbein students, the university might offer a neighboring tribe construction materials and assistance in painting both a secondary school and a canoe. The canoe was itself a strand in a web of relationships, as the neighboring tribe offered it freely to community teachers, doctors, and people seeking medical attention. As careful stewards of their community, the Bribri insisted that the web of partners continue to expand so that the work of a handful of college students might have a greater impact on life along the river.

The Edge Effect

To create sustainable, effective civic partnerships, colleges and universities must expand their borders, creating new infrastructures on the edges of campuses and communities. The civic ecotones described here offer innovative pathways into an important and much-needed conversation about the role of intentional spaces in authentic civic collaboration. As educational practitioners, we must begin to define community in more encompassing ways and recognize that structural complexity, connectedness, and diversity are essential elements to a healthy, sustainable civic agenda.


Block, Peter. 2008. Community: The Structure of Belonging. San Francisco, CA: Berrett-Koehler Publishers.

Gilbert, Melissa K., John T. Weispfenning, and John Kengla. 2007. “A Geography of Collaborative K–16 Partnerships for the Common Good.” In Leading for the Common Good: Programs, Strategies, and Structures to Support Student Success, edited by S. Van Kollenburg, 70–74. Chicago: The Higher Learning Commission.

Kuh, George D. 1996. “Guiding Principles for Creating Seamless Learning Environments for Undergraduates.” Journal of College Student Development 37 (2): 135–48.

Ohio Department of Education. 2012. “District Reports.” http://ilrc.ode.state.oh.us/districts/.

The Institute on Women. 2012. “Economic Status of Women in Ohio: Poverty Rates in Ohio.” http://instituteonwomen.org/economics.

Melissa Kesler Gilbert is associate dean of experiential learning and community engagement at Otterbein University.

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