Diversity and Democracy

Full Participation and the Arts, Culture, and Humanities

At a time of growing inequality and shrinking confidence in our country’s ability to address the complex problems facing our communities, higher education institutions are key to building societal capacity for meeting these challenges. Their stated missions emphasize the goals of increasing mobility and diversity, building knowledge to improve society, and cultivating leadership to put that knowledge into practice. As place-based institutions, colleges and universities can leverage significant social, economic, and cultural capital to improve access and success for underresourced groups. They can also build diverse multigenerational, multidisciplinary, and multisector learning communities whose combined research, teaching, and engagement cultivates the knowledge and leadership necessary to address difficult problems (Sturm and Cantor 2011).

Syracuse University
Syracuse University (Photo by Chuck Wainright)

For decades, higher education institutions have pursued a variety of programs intended to realize these transformational aims. Yet many institutions are not yet meeting their stated commitments. Most colleges and universities have worked to increase diversity and participation among students, faculty, and staff, and many have implemented community engagement and service-learning initiatives to inculcate citizenship values and connect with communities. Still, diversity, access, and civic engagement programs are often pursued piecemeal and peripherally, without being conceptualized or coordinated across systems in the integrated way necessary for broad impact. Too often, an institution’s attempts to “diversify” are insufficiently linked in concept and practice with its public mission of leveraging intellectual capital to address underserved communities’ most pressing problems (Sturm et al. 2011).

What would it take for higher education to successfully meet these complex challenges? A critical step would be developing concepts that bring people and projects together to pursue shared and interdependent visions and goals (Kania and Kramer 2011). A group of scholars and activists has embraced the overarching idea of “full participation,” developed in my earlier work (2006), as a framework for integrating these interdependent projects for collective impact (Sturm et al. 2011). This article introduces full participation, describes how it is being enacted within a national organization and a specific university–community setting, and explores the particular roles of arts, culture, and humanities as vehicles for advancing it.

Full Participation Framework

Full participation is an affirmative value focused on creating settings that enable people —whatever their identities, backgrounds, or institutional positions—to thrive, realize their capabilities, engage meaningfully in institutional life, and enable others to do the same. This concept offers a holistic framework for (1) connecting diverse people and projects around a shared vision for increasing people’s capacities to succeed and thrive, and (2) mobilizing change at multiple levels and leverage points so that this vision can be implemented, sustained, and continually renewed. It emerges through a process that links projects, people, resources, practices, and networks, and then undertakes to build these values and practices into the hardwiring of institutions (Ganz 2010; Kania and Kramer 2011). It covers the continuum of decisions and practices affecting who joins institutions, whether they feel respected and valued, how their work is conducted and supported, and what kinds of activities count as important (Sturm et al. 2011).

Full participation emphasizes that institutional settings profoundly shape people’s ability to succeed and thrive. Although articulated in affirmative terms, full participation evokes inquiry about who is—and is not—included in the prevailing definitions and practices of the academy and its community partners. Because full participation is constrained by “cultural dynamics that reproduce patterns of under-participation and exclusion,” it cannot be achieved “without examinig...multi-level decisions, cultural norms, and underlying structures” (256-57). The full participation framework articulates the processes involved in this examination and suggests focusing initiatives on groups and communities that are not flourishing within existing institutional arrangements (Sturm 2006).

Building the infrastructure for full participation will require institutions to integrate publicly engaged scholarship, diversity programs, and student success initiatives with each other and with their core values and priorities. This kind of transformation will require institutions and their partners to co-create spaces, relationships, and practices that support sustained progress. To achieve integration and innovation, they will need to develop an understanding of how individual practices and programs relate to a larger system (Sturm et al. 2011; Saltmarsh and Hartley 2011). They will need to engage a wide range of stakeholders in designing institutions that enable people of different backgrounds to enter, thrive, and contribute to advancing similar goals in local and global communities.

Operationalizing Full Participation

Syracuse University (SU) is currently undertaking a set of partnerships and initiatives that exemplifies full participation in action. Through its collaboration with Columbia Law School’s Center for Institutional and Social Change and Imagining America: Artists and Scholars in Public Life, SU is identifying what it means to exercise “institutional citizenship”: to build higher education institutions that enable people from all communities, backgrounds, and identities to participate fully and to build collective knowledge and capacity for solving sticky public problems (Sturm 2006). This action research project uses collaborative inquiry to advance three linked goals: (1) increasing access, success, and full participation in higher education for underserved groups and communities; (2) building higher education’s capacity to address urgent challenges facing these communities; and (3) prompting the institutional reimagination needed to achieve these goals.

SU has embraced this ambitious vision under the umbrella of “Scholarship in Action.” SU has embarked on a series of long-term projects to co-create knowledge and action in partnership with communities in and around the city, and thus to build collective capacity for addressing pressing public problems —local, regional, and global. At the heart of this activity is a strategy of creating new leadership roles that span disciplines and institutions and combine diverse knowledge, stakeholders, resources, and capabilities (Sturm 2010). SU equips “organizational catalysts”—including faculty, students, community members, and administrators—to connect and mobilize the resources and activities of many different systems (Sturm 2006). For example, faculty members receive institutional support for taking on collaborative leadership roles in long-term university–community partnerships to transform schools and neighborhoods, and for linking this leadership to their teaching and scholarship. In addition, new hybrid roles enable people with deep roots in their communities to connect and mobilize knowledge and action both inside and outside the university.

The Near Westside Initiative (NWSI) offers one powerful illustration. SU joined with foundations, businesses, not-for-profits, state and city governments, and residents in creating the NWSI, a nonprofit organization focused on transforming a neighborhood that represents the ninth poorest census tract in the country. This deeply democratic partnership gains momentum for community-wide change through multidisciplinary projects that focus on environmental sustainability, use the arts and culture to revitalize social spaces, and build community capacity for social entrepreneurship. The NWSI has become a space where students and faculty collaborate closely with practitioners and community members, engaging in reciprocal teaching and learning to address concrete concerns. For example, sculptor Marion Wilson (who is also director of community initiatives in the visual arts in SU’s School of Education) teaches a series of classes through which art, design, and architecture students have collaborated with communities to transform a crack house into “a multi-purpose community incubator for the arts” (Cantor, Englot, and Higgins, forthcoming). That space has emerged as a new hub for ongoing community–university collaboration.

Participants in these initiatives are working with the Center for Institutional and Social Change to identify key strategies for building an architecture of inclusion. These strategies include

  • a shared vision for institutional citizenship at SU, articulated centrally and infused and elaborated in a diverse range of collaborative projects across the SU ecosystem;
  • the development of multiple and linked physical spaces that bring community members together with SU innovators to engage in collective problem solving and community revitalization;
  • the multiplication of strategically placed hub organizations that combine SU and community resources to serve as “incubators for innovation”—ongoing initiatives bringing together diverse stakeholders in projects aimed at solving community problems and building community capacity (such as the NWSI);
  • the cultivation of coalitions of multifaceted transformative leaders poised to connect their efforts (such as the NWSI board of directors, Say Yes to Education, Partnership for a Better Education, and the Campus–Community Entrepreneurship Initiative);
  • an emerging set of incentives, strategies, tools, and curricula for combining the efforts of students, faculty, community members, and change leaders to produce concrete impact in schools and communities while generating significant learning and research that can be applied broadly.

Arts, Culture, and Humanities as Drivers

Projects in the arts, culture, and humanities can play a significant role in advancing full participation if they enable all stakeholders to thrive, succeed, and realize their capabilities. These fields can be powerful vehicles for connecting, educating, inspiring, and sustaining students, faculty, and community members so they have the capacity and commitment to continue their difficult and important work. They are also essential parts of multipronged strategies for advancing goals defined by and with communities. When infused with full participation principles, architectural redesign, photography, sculpture, and theater projects place students and faculty in direct and coequal collaborations with diverse community members, and place community narratives at the center of learning and knowledge development.

One strategy SU is using to create broader impact in and through these fields involves collaborating with a national intermediary. Imagining America: Artists and Scholars in Public Life (IA), a national consortium of over eighty colleges and universities committed to public scholarship and practice in the arts, humanities, and design (for which SU is currently the host institution), shares SU’s vision of full participation. Through projects, research, publications, and conferences on the value of public scholarship and practice, IA is building a movement focused on the institutional and structural change needed to put its vision into practice (www.imaginingamerica.org).

IA has recently undertaken a national project aimed at “Sustaining and Scaling Full Participation at the Intersection of Public Engagement and Diversity.” This collaborative research-in-action project, facilitated by the Center for Institutional and Social Change (www.changecenter.org), is developing strategies and tools to build the architecture for integrating diversity initiatives and public scholarship. It is also working to influence institutional and public policy and practice by developing indicators of these efforts’ collective impact.

Arts, culture, and humanities projects embody the integration of knowing (developing new ideas, strategies, tools, capacities, and understandings to tackle tough problems), doing (designing, building, creating, researching, and collaborating to bring these ideas to life), and being (redefining roles to make this kind of work visible, central, and core to stakeholders’ identities). These projects exemplify how the full participation framework can both require and inspire the integration of diversity and public engagement. When made integral to institutions’ hardwiring, full participation will allow higher education to fulfill its public mission while building the knowledge and leadership needed to revitalize communities and democratic institutions.

Editor’s note: To learn more about the full participation framework for diversity and community engagement, visit www.fullparticipation.net.


Cantor, Nancy, Peter Englot, and Marilyn Higgins. Forthcoming. “Making the Work of Anchor Institutions Stick: Building Coalitions and Collective Expertise.” Journal of Higher Education Outreach and Engagement.

Ganz, Marshall. 2010. “Leading Change: Leadership, Organization, and Social Movements.” In Handbook of Leadership Theory and Practice, edited by Nitin Nohria and Rakesh Khurana, 527–61. Boston: Harvard Business Press.

Kania, John, and Mark Kramer. 2011. “Collective Impact.” Stanford Social Innovation Review, Winter.

Saltmarsh, John, and Matthew Hartley, editors.2011. “To Serve a Larger Purpose”: Engagement for Democracy and the Transformation of Higher Education. Philadelphia: Temple University Press.

Sturm, Susan. 2006. “The Architecture of Inclusion: Advancing Workplace Equity in Higher Education.” Harvard Journal of Law and Gender 29 (2): 247–344.

———. 2010. Linking Full Participation with Higher Education’s Public Mission. New York: Center for Institutional and Social Change.

Sturm, Susan, Timothy Eatman, John Saltmarsh, and Adam Bush. 2011. Full Participation: Building the Architecture for Diversity and Community Engagement on Campus.New York: Center for Institutional and Social Change, NERCHE, and Imagining America.

Sturm, Susan, and Nancy Cantor. 2011. “Transformative Leadership for a More Just Society: Revitalizing Higher Education’s Role.” Ford Foundation White Paper.

Susan Sturm is George M. Jaffin professor of law and social responsibility and director of the Center for Institutional and Social Change at Columbia University.


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