Diversity and Democracy

Interdisciplinary Public Scholarship, Economic Empowerment, and Community Development

In the Economic Empowerment and Global Learning Project (EEGLP) at Lafayette College (eeglp.lafayette.edu), interdisciplinary public scholarship (IPS) serves as a pillar for the work of students and faculty as they engage in dynamic and diverse community partnerships. As important forums for teaching, learning, scholarship, and citizenship, these partnerships allow institutions to enact their missions related both to advancing students' academic, intellectual, and citizenship development, and to contributing to the public good (Cantor 2003). The EEGLP focuses on strengthening community members' capacity to achieve dignity, agency, and empowerment by collaboratively mapping and awakening the market and social value of their latent assets.   

Principles and Frameworks

Interdisciplinary Public Scholarship (IPS) is a way of creating new knowledge through collaborative co‑learning about, with, and for diverse publics and communities (Ellison and Eatman 2008). Through IPS, faculty, students, and community members combine their knowledge and human capital while addressing pressing concerns related to economic development and civil society. Students and faculty working on IPS projects gain an appreciation for how interfacing "learned literature" with experiential knowledge can yield new scholarship on these matters. Meanwhile, community residents strengthen their capacity as agents of their own well-being and of their communities' economic development. 

By connecting community voice to economic entrepreneurship and inclusive and socially just development, IPS safeguards against approaches where the welfare of individuals and communities depends on the "generous and wise imagining" of well-meaning and better resourced "others" (paraphrasing Scarry 2002, 99). Instead of playing a mere feedback role, community stakeholders involved in IPS act as key drivers of their own aspirations and pursuits for development and renewal (Hutchinson, Clayton, and Miller 2014). By locating ownership of and agency over collective ideals within an inclusive exchange process, IPS minimizes the risk that projects will commoditize community life at the expense of its social value. Through IPS, stakeholders establish the market value of their capacities and assets while exercising the basic liberty of engaging in socially valuable exchange (Sen 1999).

Building on the principles of IPS, the EEGLP framework consists of three overlapping dimensions:

  1. an emphasis on economic development as expanding peoples' capacity to live with dignity and freedom;
  2. a search for a paradigm where individual and community agency and capacity for problem solving provide the foundation for socially just, inclusive, and sustainable development;
  3. an interest in a pedagogy that offers useful learning and knowledge-making opportunities to students.

The EEGLP takes a broadly global orientation across these dimensions, following philosopher Martha Nussbaum's view of liberal education as promoting the ability to "recognize the worth of human life wherever it occurs and [to] see [oneself] as bound by common human abilities and problems to people who lie at great distance from us" (Nussbaum 1997, 9).

EEGLP Projects

Since its founding in 2007, the EEGLP has helped incentivize civically focused business entrepreneurship in several different communities. Three EEGLP projects are summarized below.

Whitesburg, Kentucky. Since spring 2014, the EEGLP has worked with the arts and cultural organization Appalshop to enhance its capacity to sustainably meet the emergent demands of its mission of promoting, celebrating, and preserving the culture of the Appalachian region as a platform for community and regional economic development. Working with local stakeholders, students and faculty have mapped not only Appalshop's tangible assets (which include a theater company, a media institute, and a radio station), but also its underlying foundational assets (such as humanness, authentic voice, and the capacity for cultural preservation), which contribute to the design of products such as a computer game that teaches antibullying skills. The team has also analyzed Appalshop's ability to stimulate inclusive and sustainable economic development for the city of Whitesburg and the Appalachian region.

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Economic Empowerment and Global Learning Project citrus garden, New Orleans (Photo courtesy of Lafayette College)

New Orleans, Louisiana. From 2008 to 2011, the EEGLP worked with residents affected by Hurricane Katrina to collaboratively reimagine and rebuild environmentally sustainable communities. After Katrina exposed the significant extent to which residents in New Orleans's Lower Ninth Ward (L9W) were voiceless and systemically disadvantaged, the EEGLP focused on facilitating democratic renewal and improving agency among the working class. EEGLP projects, conducted in collaboration with residents, focused on designing an art, culture, and civic engagement center, and conducting a related social and economic impact study; designing a green grocery and lifestyle center; designing a carbon calculator for L9W communities; developing community gardens; and converting a corner grocery store into a self-sufficient urban farm school.

Lagunitas, Honduras. In the village of Lagunitas in rural Honduras, a Lafayette College engineering team had collaborated with residents prior to 2007 to build a gravity-based system to deliver potable water to all households and alleviate tension caused by unequal access to water. But the system lacked an economic base for its maintenance. From 2007 to 2012, the EEGLP thus worked with villagers to design a water-based economy that led, in turn, to the construction of a 30,000-plant coffee plantation, a fish farm, a poultry farm, a children's citrus garden, and a community center. The project focused on developing villagers' entrepreneurial skills, securing their property rights, and achieving balanced and sustainable stewardship of the built and natural environments.

The logistics of these EEGLP projects vary, but participating student and faculty teams typically spend eight weeks during the summer, two weeks during winter break, and the entirety of spring break researching projects and collaborating with communities and stakeholders. Students and faculty spend up to four weeks per year at the project site. Working under faculty guidance, students generally spend the semester following their on-site engagement participating in directed study or writing honors theses, giving presentations on campus and at academic conferences, and selecting and training a new student cohort. With complex problems that require interdisciplinary approaches, EEGLP projects have drawn faculty and students from architecture, art, computer science, economics, engineering, English, geology, international affairs, policy studies, psychology, and sociology.

Shared Benefits

EEGLP projects demonstrate how interdisciplinary teaching and scholarship can meaningfully contribute to strengthening and safeguarding inclusive and socially just economic opportunities and development for communities and civil society, while also benefitting higher education institutions and students. Students' unique learning experiences reflect these projects' value. As one student noted in a report on the Honduras project, the team of students had come

to appreciate that economic development is not the end, but merely the means to helping a community achieve self-agency…. I felt gratified by how irrelevant we had become in their [community members'] lives. Now that we had collaborated with them … they did not need us in their lives precisely because now they were "rich": they had undergone a transformation in confidence in self-agency, and they were determined to remain empowered long after we left.

Thus EEGLP projects enhance the community's dignity and social value, reduce its sense of polarization, and build its capacity for resilience in the face of vulnerability, shocks, and dynamic change. Higher education's participation in the EEGLP extends the practice of intellectual citizenship and civic-minded scholarship and provides an avenue for students and faculty to contribute meaningfully to the public good.

The EEGLP has received funding from the Robert Hunsicker Entrepreneurship Studies Fund at Lafayette College, the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, the Clinton Foundation, the Walmart Foundation, the William T. Morris Foundation, the Davis Projects for Peace, and the US Environmental Protection Agency.

References

Cantor, Nancy. 2003. Transforming America: The University as Public Good (Paper 29). Syracuse, NY: Imagining America. http://surface.syr.edu/ia/29.

Ellison, Julie, and Timothy K. Eatman. 2008. Scholarship in Public: Knowledge Creation and Tenure Policy in the Engaged University. Syracuse, NY: Imagining America.

Hutchinson, Gladstone, Charles Clayton, and Carmen Miller. 2014. Public Scholarship and the Strengthening of Civil Society: Lessons from Jamaica. InterAmerican Development Bank Discussion Paper 328, February.

Nussbaum, Martha. 1997. Cultivating Humanity. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Scarry, Elaine. 2002. "The Difficulty of Imagining OtherPeople." In For Love of Country?, edited by Martha Nussbaum, 98–110. Boston: Beacon Press. 

Sen, Amartya. 1999. Development as Freedom. New York: Alfred Knopf. 


Gladstone "Fluney" Hutchinson is associate professor of economics and founder of the Economic Empowerment and Global Learning Project at Lafayette College.

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