Toolkit Resources


Emory & Henry College: Civic Innovation

Travis Proffitt
Associate Director and Instructor, Appalachian Center for Civic Life

Talmage A. Stanley
Department Chair, Civic Innovation
Director of the Appalachian Center for Civic Life and Instructor, Appalachian Center for Civic Life


Emory & Henry College is located in the upper reaches of the Holston Valley in Southwest Virginia, in southern Appalachia.  Named for John Emory, a Methodist bishop, and Patrick Henry, a patriot at the time of the War for Independence, Emory & Henry was founded in 1836 to educate and equip a vital citizenry for the then-new American republic.  Since 1991, Emory & Henry has had an active and expansive Bonner Scholars Program.  Currently, the student body is about 1,100 students, many of whom are first-generation college students.  These students are engaged in a range of interrelated academic programs, most of which have some civic component.  In an effort to build on its historic mission and to be intention about pedagogical work of joining learning with civic virtue, the Interdisciplinary Program in Civic Innovation was established in 2015. 

Civic Innovation provides students with the skills, knowledge, and attributes to be innovative problem-solvers realizing tangible human gain in the public sector, in private enterprise, and in post-graduate study.  Civic Innovation graduates take seriously the dynamics of their places and in their civic work are grounded in the twin values that all persons have the potential to make creative contributions to the common good, and that all places have the potential to be safe and healthy places for all their people.

Civic Innovation provides an understanding of the interdisciplinary nature of public life and issues, including the dynamic interplay of the natural environment, the built environment, and human culture and history in places as well as the role of that interplay in developing innovative solutions to civic issues and problems.  As a central part of the curriculum in Civic Innovation, students are actively solving community-identified problems and achieving outcomes with and for people and places.  Graduates understand the innovation process, have the skills, knowledge, and attributes to be innovative problem solvers, to organize, lead, and coordinate civic initiatives, and to help forge creative alliances of persons and organizations to meet community needs and achieve outcomes that serve the common good.  In collaboration with their advisor, students chart a course of study that provides skills that they can apply in the public and private sectors or in post-graduate study.  Throughout the curriculum, students build and maintain a results portfolio, presenting this at points in their study, culminating in the senior capstone presentation.

Scaffolded Levels of Student Learning
The Civic Innovation degree program is a developmental framework that puts the student and the student’s civic development as well as engagement with civic partners as the central foci of the program, and not an arbitrary list of disciplinary expectations.  A traditional entry into the Civic Innovation curriculum is Introduction to Civic Innovation (CVIN 100), which provides a broad survey of the core values and concepts as place, hegemony, social capital, and citizenship as relational process.  Students can also begin by enrolling in a sequence of one-credit “skill seminars,” sequential mini-courses in project design, public presentations, and interviewing skills. 

Although the foundational courses ask students to broaden both their theoretical understanding and civic skills, students often first take a mid-range course, find or learn something that peaks their interests or speaks to their sense of calling, and go back to pick up the earlier courses.  Because prerequisites are kept at a minimum, and although structured developmentally, students can also enter at most any point in the curriculum.  As an interdisciplinary program, courses taken in other majors often can satisfy graduation requirements in Civic Innovation.  This encourages students who determine that their first choices of courses and majors may not have been their best choices, as well as those students who transfer to Emory & Henry from community colleges.  Regardless of when and where students enter the Civic Innovation curriculum, their work culminates in a major senior project and thesis.   

Throughout, from entry-level through the senior capstone, the concept of place is foundational and definitional, interrogating and invigorating all aspects of the curriculum.  Some courses explore concepts of place (i.e. CVIN 100, Introduction to Civic Innovation; CVIN 250: Appalachia; CVIN 255, Place, the Built Environment, and Civic Innovation in New York), and the theories and processes of social movements and community organizing (i.e. CVIN 200: Public Movements, and CVIN 205: Alliances for Innovation/Community Organizing).  Other courses ask students to define and refine a process of exploration of a particular social or policy issue of interest.  The Research Methods course (CVIN 240) explores both quantitative and qualitative research techniques to carry out community-based research. 

Students gain skills in discerning and articulating the interplay and influence of politics and policy on community issues, taking courses in sustainable community development (CVIN 345: Innovative Capacity and Community Development) and politics and public policy (CVIN 312).  Another sequence of one-credit skill seminars focus on project leadership, fund-raising/grant-writing, and program assessment.  In the autumn of their final year in the program, students undertake a major project in partnership with a local place.  Students may either work individually on these projects or design them as collaborative efforts with other students working as a team.  In the spring, students undertake to write or to present a synthesizing thesis that addresses a major public question or issue and articulates their understanding of citizenship and how they intend to take responsibility in the civic life of a place. 

Civic Innovation students typically double or triple major, and are encouraged to do so, often with our environmental studies, religion, psychology, and sociology programs.  Students’ developmental needs, academic goals, and professional interests are supported by relationships and intentional academic advising between faculty in both the Civic Innovation degree program and that of their second major.   

Exemplary Courses
The following courses demonstrate the developmental nature of the Civic Innovation curriculum, the ways in which civic themes are woven throughout, and how students engage in community-based projects throughout their time in the program.

CVIN 100 – Introduction to Civic Innovation: Students understand the distinguishing characteristics of innovation and innovative practice in a place and work with peers building effective collaborations that address a community need.  Students gain working knowledge of key concepts such as hegemony, justice, social capital, and citizenship.  Students identify and analyze the root causes of the need they are addressing, propose creative outcomes, and outline the innovative practices to achieve those outcomes.

CVIN 125 – Skills Seminar in Public Presentations: Students make public presentations, engage in public debate on current civic issues and questions, and facilitate collaborative planning processes focused on bringing innovative solutions to a local problem.  Students develop a personal results e-portfolio to be utilized in project-based work across the Emory & Henry curriculum.

CVIN 205: Alliances for Innovation/Community Organizing: As part of an ongoing major project, student teams effectively organize and mobilize citizens to take on collaborative work that innovatively addresses community needs to achieve tangible results.  Teams develop result leaders, recruit participants, negotiate instances of conflict, and identify and learn from mistakes.

CVIN 300 – Innovative Leadership for Projects: Students are entrepreneurial leaders in a major ongoing project.  As project leaders, students utilize concepts of innovation, social entrepreneurship, results planning, and the identification of citizen leaders.

CVIN 400 – Senior Project: While engaged in a significant leadership on a major collaborative project, drawing on the work already accomplished in the CVIN program, students deploy entrepreneurial leadership skills, developing innovative solutions to identified problems and opportunities, to achieve tangible outcomes on the project.  This serves as one part of the two-part capstone experience.  Senior Status and Permission of the Instructor Required.

Exemplary Project Description
In 2016, the Appalachian Center for Civic Life and the degree program in Civic Innovation completed a major four-year project in partnership with the Wilderness Road Regional Museum in Newbern, Virginia.  This came to be called, “The Newbern Project.” The Newbern Project engaged eighty-five students, from across the College, from a range of majors in each of the College’s five academic divisions, in addition to part-time and full-time staff.  Under the direction of Civic Innovation Professor, Dr. Tal Stanley, these students catalogued, indexed, and archived more than 100,000 original documents dating from the middle years of the eighteenth century to the 1990s.  This archive contains store account books from the 1820s through the 1970s, court records, farm and family records, collections of letters and diaries, lists of the contents of estate sales dating back to the 1780s, in addition to more than 5,000 photographs.

Process for Adoption
Responding both to the regular institutional accreditation-mandated internal audits and external reviews, and a deepening understand that significant restructuring was required, in 2013 Emory & Henry undertook a reevaluation of the Appalachian Center for Community Service and the degree program in Public Policy and Community Service.  Stephen L. Fisher had established both the Center and the degree program in 1996 with financial support from the Jessie Ball duPont Foundation.  A 1999 Carnegie Endowment National Professor of the Year, Dr. Fisher was an ardent practitioner of social-justice activism and teaching in and for Appalachia.  After thirty-four years of teaching at Emory & Henry, Dr. Fisher retired in 2006.  While the Appalachian Center for Community Service and the PPCS program were both groundbreaking when established, the study revealed an increasing lack of relevance for contemporary students and the civic needs of this place.  While the Center and the degree had garnered considerable national recognition, including the Carnegie Civic Classification, seven years after the retirement of the founder of these programs, the institution also understood that more was needed.

Consultations, conversations, and idea gathering were undertaken with faculty, students, staff, and beyond the college in the place the college was founded to serve.  Drawing inspiration from the white paper Democratic Engagement (Saltmarsh, Hartley, and Clayton 2009), and with support of the Rensselaerville Institute, in 2014 Emory & Henry commissioned the Appalachian Center for Civic Life with a broader purpose than community service.  The curriculum in Civic Innovation, influenced by the conceptual shift in the Center, was developed and presented to the Emory & Henry College faculty for a vote in the spring of 2015.  The vote of the faculty to adopt the new curriculum was unanimous.

Internal and External Influences
In recognition of its historic commitment to making college education accessible to first-generation students and to service to the Appalachian region, in 1992, the Corella and Bertram Bonner Foundation asked Emory & Henry to be among the first schools to implement this program designed to provide access to education and to join that with service to the community.  Over the years, the Bonner Scholars program has become a defining force at Emory & Henry.  With eighty Bonner Scholars, the Bonner Program is the flagship scholarship opportunity at Emory & Henry; it has brought strength and vitality to the College’s efforts to diversify its student body.  The Bonner Foundation encouraged the development of the Appalachian Center, and the Bonner program was one of the resources identified when applying to the Jessie Ball duPont Fund in 1996.  The Bonner Foundation endowed the Emory & Henry program in 1993 in recognition of its successful retention and graduation rates, and the institution’s commitment to civic service, among faculty, staff, current students, and among graduates.  Funds from the Bonner Endowment have been instrumental in program development, faculty development for civic engagement, the expansion and support of staff and faculty positions, underwriting major civic projects, and the development of the Holston-to-Liffey Program.  Although Bonner Scholars are free to take whatever course of study they elect, there have been considerable numbers of Bonners majoring both in Civic Innovation and in its predecessor, the Public Policy and Community Service Program.  Since 1992, in every aspect of the life and culture of this place, Bonner Scholars have had significant leadership responsibilities, helping to shape and to give expression to the College’s commitment to this place.  Since the founding of the Appalachian Center in 1996, the Bonner Program has been housed in the Center.  Continuity also is a factor in the positive influence the Bonner Scholars Program exerts on the campus; the current director of the Bonner Scholars Program has been in that position since 1996 and serves as well as the director of the degree program in Civic Innovation and the Appalachian Center.  It is an integrated and holistic approach, bearing good fruit in many ways.

Civic Innovation is an educational and civic enterprise for which there were few, if any, models. The only thing we had was the place, and the learning and wisdom of others.  From the beginning of the process, place as the ongoing, vibrant interaction of the natural environment, the built environment, and human culture and history, as well as a social process riven by conflict of every kind, continued to be the lodestar.  In formulating an academic program that built skills , knowledge, and attributes for the practice of a citizenship that takes seriously the whole way of life of any place, the ideas of David Harvey, Raymond Williams, Wendell Berry, Lauret Savoy, John McPhee, and Marilynne Robinson were formative.  In designing a pedagogical model where learning is a social, place-based dynamic, rich with stories, Paulo Freire, Myles Horton, Helen Lewis, Paul Theobald, Jesmyn Ward, Mary Oliver, and Seamus Heaney were all crucial influences.  In forcing an honest grappling with institutional complicity in the very systems that we are equipping students to change, Ta-Nehisi Coates, Toni Morrison, Bryan Stevenson, were and are our teachers. 

As with any interdisciplinary undertaking, the influence of one thinker and writer cannot be divided from the others, but all have contributed to the whole.  Bringing them all together, allowing ideas to cross and re-cross, this place, Southwest Virginia, the Holston River Valley, Appalachia, and the people who abide here, have been the most enduring and defining influences.  What works, what needs to change, how to involve more folks, how to build a better future, what are the implications of the deep memory of this place, how to make learning applicable and accessible to others in this place—these are the questions that daily influence and shape.

The Interdisciplinary Program in Civic Innovation was a formative influence in the development of the College’s Quality Enhancement Plan to integrate project-based learning throughout the curriculum and to provide means by which students were able to apply their learning to the building of the common good.  Currently 38 percent of all courses in the Emory & Henry curriculum have some civic engagement component, coordinated through the Appalachian Center for Civic Life.  Faculty development grants, faculty seminars, and community forums are all a part of the programming shared between Civic Innovation and the Appalachian Center for Civic Life.  The faculty is beginning to understand the importance of integrating civic work and civic engagement teaching into the rewards and tenure process, recognizing it as a key element of what it means to be a teacher at this liberal arts college in this rural place.  Both the degree program and the center are often cited as one reason young faculty are attracted to working at Emory & Henry over institutions that are much larger, wealthier, more urban, and more well known.  Citizens from local places routinely approach the Civic Innovation teaching faculty for the possibility of the development of long-term projects that can help meet crying needs in our places. 

Today, with more than forty majors, the Interdisciplinary Program in Civic Innovation counts more student majors than at any time since 1996.  Increasing numbers of persons interested in attending Emory & Henry express a primary interest in the Civic Innovation Program.  In 2018, the graduating class of Civic Innovation majors numbers eleven.  Of these eleven, ten are either double or triple majors.  Since 2015, there have been nineteen Civic Innovation graduates.  The success of the Newbern Project was a singular achievement, unmatched in this region by the very large public universities.  That project, and others of similar scope, is helping the Appalachian Center and the Civic Innovation Program to move all civic engagement work to long-term, interdisciplinary projects, focused on achieving place-identified outcomes.  No longer will the numbers of students or the number of hours invested be a measure of success.  Described elsewhere as “changing the count,” this effort marks the latest effort of Emory & Henry College to equip and educate an active and engaged citizenry. 

Words of Advice

  • An institution must be honest about its failures and mistakes and the ways that it has reinforced the class and racial divides between the educational institution and the communities surrounding it.  By this means, a more honest collaboration can be envisioned and built.  In this work, the words and history of the place, given voice by persons who may have had no prior relationship with the institution, or who have been denied entrance by that institution, are the teachers.  Institutions fail; institutions make mistakes; institutions are means of power that often exclude and silence; academics benefit from those institutions; civic work must begin by acknowledging that and taking responsibility for it.
  • Learn to love the place in its totality.  Learn to listen to the place. Always listen more than speak.  Laugh at yourself.  Keep a thoughtful journal.
  • Learn to prototype.  The most important and vital civic projects cannot be planned completely.  They must evolve over time, adapting from mistakes, and evaluated with an expansive vision.  Do not wait for experts and do not wait for permission.  Start.  Find a collaborator and build from there.  Start. Do something. Do not talk it to death.  Communities want, need, and deserve results.  Start.
  • The academic calendar is irrelevant.  Maintaining continuity of engagement is important.  Civic engagement must be so structured and staffed so that the stop-start and short duration of the semester does not cripple the work.
  • Approach the design of courses and civic engagement of students with the same creativity and energy we expect and like to see in students.  Bring to the work an energetic entrepreneurial vision: “what would the world, what would this place, look like if….”  (civic imagination), and, “what would it take to get there…”  (civic innovation).

Looking for more information on the projects? Please return to the top of the page and click on the “Exemplary Project Details” button found under the campus logo.