Liberal Education

Of Mutual Benefit: Democratic Engagement between Universities and Communities

We have taken democracy for granted. . . . We have forgotten that it has to be enacted anew in every generation, in every year and day, in the living relations of person to person in all social forms and institutions.—John Dewey

We have . . . come to this hallowed spot to remind America of the fierce urgency of now. . . . Now is the time to make real the promises of democracy.—Martin Luther King Jr.

As I contemplate the power of civic engagement in higher education and our related responsibility to prepare students for civic action now and throughout their lives, I find motivation in the words of John Dewey and Martin Luther King Jr., quoted in the epigraphs above. Their observations are cast in a new light by resurgent expressions of what some have called our worst instincts as a nation, on view in and beyond the August 2017 white supremacist demonstrations in Charlottesville, Virginia. As Earl Lewis and I noted in an opinion piece shortly after those events, “It is our choice how we craft the narrative after Charlottesville. Are we prepared to become the architects of the future we imagine, one that leverages a diverse, democratic society?”1 And, I would add, are we prepared to do this (re)imagining with an eye toward cultivating empathetic citizenship—an attitude and skill set in short supply today?

New unity against zero-sum thinking

Our work in higher education—specifically, our efforts to cultivate the voice, talent, and active public participation of the next generation of local citizens in a global world—occurs against the backdrop of the long arm of history. Today’s divisive and divided social landscape, often characterized more by turmoil than by thoughtful engagement, feels like a throwback to times past whose echoes now call us to consider our shared history before charting any course forward.

Indeed, current events eerily, often shockingly, recall the Ku Klux Klan marches of the Jim Crow era; the construction of Confederate monuments, peaking in the 1910s and 1920s; and the violent responses to nonviolent protests during the 1950s and 1960s civil rights movement, from the burning of the first Freedom Riders bus to Bull Connor’s fire hoses turned on children in Birmingham, Alabama. In light of recent events, we remember how the fist of bigotry met the brave marchers crossing the Edmund Pettus Bridge from Selma to Montgomery, as well as so many other horrific moments when white supremacy asserted itself with violent force.

Of course, white supremacy has historical precedents in our collective American sins, beginning with the first assaults on Native Americans, extending through the forced journeys of Africans on the slave ships of the Middle Passage, and including the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II. Our contemporary geography reflects this supremacist hierarchy from Ferguson to Baltimore to Staten Island as young black lives are lost at the hands of those sworn to protect all of the public and as threats of deportation haunt immigrant families. The hierarchy appears in the legal insecurity of DREAMers across the country and in debates about the freedom to determine one’s own gender and sexuality.2 It is reflected in the architecture of segregation and the community trauma of mass incarceration, felt so acutely in my city of Newark more than fifty years after the 1967 Newark rebellion for justice.

Recent events in Charlottesville and elsewhere illustrate what my fellow social psychologist Rupert Nacoste calls the persistent legacy of fierce “hibernating bigotry,” honed in the United States and around the world for centuries.3 These events reveal that such bigotry is no longer hibernating, but rather is on agonizing display once again. Such bigotry is evident in the specter of terrorism used to justify racializing exclusion. It appears as our nation built on the backs of newcomers from diasporas all over the globe selectively turns its back on refugees, migrants, and immigrants from homelands that have been labeled as “other.” It is evident in public discourse that calls Muslims terrorists but refuses to identify as such those who have actually committed acts of terrorism—such as Dylann Roof, who murdered nine black parishioners in the name of white supremacy in the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina.

In all this vicious “othering,” we see the specter of zero-sum thinking—the idea that what you have is what I deserve, and that you took it from me. This zero-sum approach is evoked when the very real plight of largely white Christian rural America—the narrative of Hillbilly Elegy—is pitted against ethnically, racially, and religiously diverse urban America, communities that sadly share many of the same economic and educational woes.4 It is behind the political chants emerging in recent election cycles that mourn the loss of white-majority status to the multiethnic generations now populating many cities and towns. And, most forcefully, it is behind the threats leveled against immigrants, including students who came to the United States as children and grew up with siblings born here but who now face restrictions on their futures, including possible deportation.

Against this backdrop of social division, we all must push to find a new unity. Yes, today’s injustices hark back to those of the past, underscoring how shockingly real such injustices are in the present. But, as so often before, they also constitute a loud call to reckoning, one that can mobilize us to realize our best instincts if we work together to cultivate a new generation of changemakers—one that has lived with divisiveness and yet also embraces a dynamic, intersectional, and empathetic social identity landscape.

The diverse and intersectional mosaic of the next generation offers hope that the bonds of empathetic citizenship are emerging and strengthening, despite the countervailing forces of the politics of resentment and the rhetoric of extremist fearmongering. Much as we might want those already in power to lead institutional and community transformation within and beyond the academy, I would put my aspirations for an inclusive democracy instead on the next generation of changemakers and the work they are willing to do to support each other and to build a nuanced unity within our diverse demography.

Empathetic citizenship

How can higher education institutions foster empathetic citizenship in spaces that engage our scholars and students and seamlessly create the public square of democratic exchange? While there are many places to start, the arts and public humanities are a key place for democratic engagement where diverse talent has a voice. Thus when a historic building in downtown Newark that had been empty for thirty years was renovated recently, Rutgers University–Newark claimed fifty thousand square feet for a university–community arts collaboratory, Express Newark. This space is now the site of constant and vibrant exchange, creative production, intergenerational education, and community activism.

Express Newark houses small, local arts organizations like the Newark Print Shop, which welcomes all comers to learn printing; educational pathway programs hosted by Rutgers–Newark in collaboration with the Newark Public Schools; studios for 3-D design; the multimedia documentary collaborative Newest Americans; and Shine Portrait Studio, dedicated to training the next generation of portrait artists in the tradition of James Van der Zee, the great Harlem Renaissance portrait artist who had his first apprenticeship in the same building. There is intergenerational activity and artistic activism here all day, every day. It has become a “third space,” as we say, between university and community, a platform for building connections and common ground.

As we create social connection in this third space, we need to deliberately face our history and find opportunities to leverage our diversity, tell our different narratives, and build a unity that doesn’t require assimilation and that celebrates rather than threatens our pluralistic identities. We need to glance back at the long arm of history and forward to our newest generation of changemakers, learning together to unpack what it would mean to “bridge the two Americas,” as Martin Luther King Jr. called on our country to do more than fifty years ago. In Newark, this means understanding the economic, social, and racial divides that fed the Newark rebellion in 1967 and that continue today, with only 18 percent of the city’s jobs held by its residents.5 It means connecting the stories of our students to those who migrated and immigrated here in past generations via their overlapping struggles for opportunity.

Here, as elsewhere in the country, we need a concentrated moment of transformative change around issues of racial justice. The activities of Rutgers–Newark’s new Truth, Racial Healing & Transformation (TRHT) Campus Center—supported by the Association of American Colleges and Universities with funding from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation and Newman’s Own Foundation—will allow such a moment to occur. Those activities, held in partnership with the New Jersey Institute for Social Justice, the Newark Public Library, and Newark’s Mayor Ras Baraka, will engage our next generation of changemakers in addressing the question, “What does racial healing look like to you?”

Through programming organized by the TRHT Campus Center, Newark’s citizens and students will participate in facilitated healing circles and discussions in the city’s many neighborhood library branches and in bus tours exploring Newark’s complex migrant and immigrant histories, seeking common ground via histories of movement and displacement among both the city’s native-born communities of color and the immigrant communities established here after the 1965 Immigration and Nationality Act. Based on what emerges in these early activities, the center’s partners will mount a series of intimate, intergenerational, city-wide story circles and intergroup dialogue minicourses, as well as public art installations at Express Newark and a reading as part of Mayor Baraka’s book club. All this work will require deliberate training in the art of civic dialogue across the boundaries of race, class, and position. Thus our P3 Collaboratory—which supports pedagogy, professional development, and publicly engaged scholarship—will team up with the TRHT Campus Center’s partners and Rutgers–Newark’s communications professionals to produce media training sessions for faculty, staff, and students on these issues.

We will come together as different generations looking back and looking forward—as those who have been there, so to speak, and as those who will move us ahead, such as the next-generation changemakers in our new Honors Living-Learning Community, dedicated to local citizenship in a global world. Together, we hope to develop a stronger sense of empathetic citizenship and interdependent responsibility than has been on display in our world as of late.

Anchors of research and action

As we engage in collective narrative-sharing across generations and divides, we hope to build the beginnings of a new kind of democratic social unity—a “community of communities,” as Danielle Allen has called it.6 Such unity does not require us to become an assimilated melting pot, but rather asks that we celebrate with and for each other the advantages of our diversity. We need to walk in each other’s shoes, as four of our Rutgers–Newark students invited visitors to the New York Times website to do in Hijabi World, their video documentary of what it feels like to wear a hijab in the Trump era. We need to develop literacies about identity, just as Syracuse University’s interdisciplinary scholarly project Democratizing Knowledge does in its summer institutes held at Syracuse, Rutgers–Newark, and Spelman College with new scholars, graduate students, and community activists. Perhaps most significantly, we need to structure our intergroup dialogues to explicitly create the bridges across race, faith, sexuality, geography, and class that are missing in today’s America and beyond. If we do this bridging work, then perhaps we—faculty, students, and community partners—will be better prepared to effect the change we want to see.

Colleges and universities can find a model for change in Kurt Lewin’s action research tradition. As Lewin famously noted, “If you want truly to understand something, try to change it.”7 We see this action research model intertwined with social justice advocacy in the role that scholars and community activists have played in addressing the water crisis in Flint, Michigan. It appears, too, when we look back to the great Freedom School tradition of the civil rights era, and as we look ahead to the brave work of Freedom University in Atlanta, Georgia, to educate undocumented students denied access to public higher education. Publicly engaged scholarship combined with socially conscious higher education is what will best prepare our future changemakers.

But moving from publicly engaged scholarship and socially conscious education to a full-blown model of collective impact will require a substantial mind shift for higher education. It will require us to move from an axiom of “father knows best” to one where we respond to the invitation of community partners who say, “Ask us, we lay our heads down here at night.” It will require universities to truly embed themselves as neighbors in the moral rather than just geographic sense, as Newark’s famed Rabbi Joachim Prinz said when he spoke before his friend and comrade Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. at the 1963 March on Washington.8 We need to see ourselves as interdependent partners—as anchor institutions, working in sustained ways not only to effect social change in our communities, but to train the next generation of students and scholars as empathetic local and global citizens. As the Anchor Institutions Task Force has argued, this work is by no means parochial or narrow; it resonates beyond the local and over time.9

Nonetheless, the work of being an anchor institution is decidedly place based, for it requires commitment to community, a nuanced education in local history, and a sustained willingness to be responsible for social change. It involves training for leadership those who live and have lived in that community for generations, and enabling a new generation of effective public scholars and civically engaged students. Perhaps above all else, it requires what my friend Mary Alice Smothers, a neighborhood leader in the ninth-poorest census tract in the United States, located in Syracuse, New York, urged us all to do: to ask our neighbors what we should work on. So as we keep our sights on achieving global impact, we must start locally, as Rutgers–Newark has tried to do in and with our community.

A dream of opportunity in Newark

Like many urban centers in our country and around the globe, Newark, New Jersey, is a place of paradoxes. It is filled with Fortune 500 companies, educational and health-care institutions, large and small cultural organizations, and growing investment in real estate. It stands across the river from New York City and at the center of a major air, rail, and seaport transportation hub. It is home to a diverse population, defined over 350 years and today by generations of migrants within this country and immigrants from diasporas all over the world. Newarkers have stood at the doorstep of opportunity for generations, blocked by the architecture of segregation and the sequelae of poverty, yet organized in every neighborhood to fulfill a dream of opportunity.

As a home for future Newarkers and a major anchor institution, Rutgers–Newark is ideally suited to effect social change by educating our next generation of civic leaders, professionals, and citizens and by establishing sustainable, collaborative infrastructure spanning the university and the community. Over the last four years, we have seen 60 percent growth in the number of Newark residents attending Rutgers–Newark, so city residents now represent more than 12 percent of our undergraduate population. We are fortunate to have many partners in Newark, from city hall to the C-suites, from faith-based and community development networks to the Newark Public Schools, libraries, and performing arts centers, and including a strong alliance of institutions of higher education and hospitals—the “eds and meds” of anchor institution work. What all of these partners share is an understanding that social change is long overdue and a desire for the next generation of changemakers to bring it on. Therefore, as anchor institutions large and small collaborate on citywide initiatives to spur employment, to enhance opportunities for small local businesses to thrive, to support equitable housing, and to create pathways to educational opportunity for Newark residents, we are guided by a strong commitment to cultivating the next generation of civically engaged citizens throughout the city’s neighborhoods. These partnerships offer the ideal infrastructure for university faculty, staff, and students to join in mutually beneficial democratic engagement in our city, with intergenerational collective impact work spanning areas of focus from public health to public safety, from local educational attainment to global citizenship.

As we seek to reduce health disparities among Newark residents, we see the value of designing interventions with the full input of community members, health experts, and local neighborhood leaders, working with our Rutgers–Newark neuroscientists. One example of this work focuses on addressing the high incidence of Alzheimer’s disease and other degenerative brain disorders among African Americans. In the process of testing interventions involving nutrition, exercise, and behavior, the African American Brain Health Initiative has formed inclusive, cross-sector collaborations with local community organizations (e.g., faith-based networks and retired nurses) that will last well beyond any single grant-funded project. These networks now include multiple generations of researchers; college students studying science, technology, engineering, and mathematics; and high school students from the neighborhoods, allowing for the cultivation of the next diverse generation of scientists.

In the realm of public safety, it is vital to create inclusive collaborative teams to ensure that crime-intervention strategies are tailored to neighborhood needs. For example, the Safer Newark Council, a collaboration committed to reducing homicides and robberies by 20 percent by 2020, draws on analyses of crime “hot spots” compiled by Rutgers–Newark’s criminal justice scholars, as well as on-the-ground interventions by residents familiar with the neighborhoods, including a Newark Community Street Team, as they craft credible, evidence-based interventions. The Safer Newark Council is a sustained, cross-agency, cross-institution network that will remain in place for many years to come. One of its commitments is to engage a Youth Violence Prevention Consortium to train the next generation of informed and committed public safety community advocates.

There is likely no more important intervention that our anchor institution collaborations can effect than increasing postsecondary educational attainment within our communities. Therefore, as part of the Newark City of Learning Collaborative, which aims to increase postsecondary degree holders among Newark residents to 25 percent by 2025, we and our many community-based partners have created pathway programs for middle and high school students and for those “opportunity youth” not currently in school to connect with mentors, to engage with the college curriculum, and more. With more than sixty partners, the collaborative is a permanent infrastructure for long-term collaborations with the Newark Public Schools, like a university-assisted partnership with a traditionally underperforming local high school. It works across the entire city and school district to create a college-going culture in Newark, as well as to ensure that students and their families understand the available opportunities for financial support to enroll and succeed in college.

Democratic engagement beyond borders

As the diverse changemakers of the next generation engage in their own educations and in social change efforts in our communities, it is clear that the issues facing our democracy resonate with those across the borders of the contemporary landscape. Around the globe, communities are facing shared challenges—social, economic, cultural, political—requiring border-spanning networks of engaged university-community partnerships. As we in Newark think about bridging different Americas (of prosperity and poverty; of white, black, and brown; of citizens, immigrants, and DREAMers), we are increasingly reaching beyond our city. The lessons of social change are borderless, and the education of changemakers must be too. Hence, our young jazz artists play in Cape Town, South Africa; our partners at Shabazz High School create solar kits for our Rutgers–Newark students to deliver to Nicaragua; our Express Newark innovators look to arts festivals created in Durham, United Kingdom; and our DREAMers see their lives narrated from afar in the Global Migrant Project, even as its leader comes from Malta to Rutgers–Newark for graduate work in Global Urban Studies.

Surely, this is what Rabbi Prinz had in mind when he urged us to think of “neighbor” as more than a geographic concept. And this is the kind of work and the kind of education that breeds empathetic citizenship—something that is critically lacking today. The work of the engaged university to enact democracy anew within this and future generations is what gives me hope that the “fierce urgency of now” is being reflected in our collective efforts to create the diverse, democratic society we imagine.


1. Earl Lewis and Nancy Cantor, “After Charlottesville,” Huffington Post, August 21, 2017,

2. The DREAMers take their name from the proposed Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors (DREAM) Act, unpassed by the US Congress at the time of this writing.

3. Rupert W. Nacoste, Taking on Diversity: How We Can Move from Anxiety to Respect (Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books, 2015), 163.

4. J. D. Vance, Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and a Culture in Crisis (New York: HarperCollins, 2016).

5. New Jersey Institute for Social Justice, Bridging the Two Americas: Employment and Economic Opportunity in Newark and Beyond (Newark, NJ: New Jersey Institute for Social Justice, 2017), 1–2.

6. Danielle Allen, “Toward a Connected Society,” in Our Compelling Interests: The Value of Diversity for Democracy and a Prosperous Society, ed. Nancy Cantor and Earl Lewis (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2016), 90.

7. For more on Kurt Lewin’s theory of action research, see William F. Whyte, “Advancing Scientific Knowledge through Participatory Action Research,” Sociological Forum 4, no. 3 (September 1989): 367–85; and Lee Benson, Ira Harkavy, John Puckett, Matthew Hartley, Rita A. Hodges, Francis E. Johnston, and Joann Weeks, Knowledge for Social Change: Bacon, Dewey, and the Revolutionary Transformation of Research Universities in the Twenty-First Century (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2017); Lewin’s words are quoted in Vincent van Vliet, “Kurt Lewin,” retrieved October 31, 2017, from ToolsHero,

8. Joachim Prinz, transcript of speech at the August 28, 1963, March on Washington,

9. See the Anchor Institutions Task Force website at; the Journal on Anchor Institutions and Communities 1 (2016), and Sjur Bergan, Tony Gallagher, and Ira Harkavy, eds., Higher Education for Democratic Innovation, Council of Europe Higher Education Series, no. 21 (Strasbourg, France: Council of Europe, 2016).

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NANCY CANTOR is chancellor of Rutgers University–Newark. This article was adapted from the author’s address at “The Power of Civic Engagement—Across Campus, Within Communities, Beyond Borders,” the premeeting symposium at the 2018 annual meeting of the Association of American Colleges and Universities.

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