Why, Who, and How? Strategies for Preventing Paternalism and Promoting Equal Engagement

On college and university campuses nationwide, engaging with "the community" (organizations and individuals unaffiliated with the sponsoring institution) is a common practice. In these collaborations, it is essential that faculty and students apply a critical lens—evaluating why, between whom, and how the engagement is occurring—in an effort to prevent paternalism, an approach that assumes a socioeconomic or intellectual hierarchy between college and community. To build equal ground for all participants, it is important to develop approaches that privilege reciprocity. In this article, we share lessons learned through our own experiences implementing community-engaged pedagogies.

Why? Identifying Shared Goals

When launching any community-engaged project, establish why you are pursuing the project. Set goals about what you want your students to learn, and examine what those goals mean for community partners. Know your purpose: be honest with yourself about why you are engaging in the project. It is important that you be able to articulate a reason that doesn't create a hierarchy between the university (you and your students) and the community.

Talk to the people whose lived experiences are part of what you want your students to explore, and ask them about their goals for the project. Recognize that the community is not an empty vessel waiting to be filled by your students' knowledge and expertise. Ask community members what resources they need, listen to their desires for the project, and be open to the exchange of ideas. You will probably learn something you didn't know before, and the community may not need what you want to provide.

After considering feedback from the community, build on level ground. Create a project in which everyone has shared responsibility and the opportunity to provide their own unique expertise. Consider the information, resources, and intellect your community partners have that you and your students do not, and mobilize those assets so they are beneficial to the project.

Who? Promoting Self-Reflection

When fostering community engagement, consider the biases that you or your students may hold about the communities you are entering. We all have biases, and we need to know what they are in order to prevent them from negatively affecting our work. Be self-reflexive; ask questions of yourself and your students. (For self-reflective activities, see Crum and Hendrick 2014.)

As instructors, we often witness college students from privileged backgrounds entering marginalized communities and conceptualizing themselves as temporal saviors rather than seeing community members as equals. Based on their brief experiences offering their time and abilities to underresourced individuals, students may feel that they have earned license to speak for the community, and may assert their newly acquired expertise as if it were authentic and accurate experiential knowledge. By providing tools for self-critique and creating spaces for students and community members to come together as equals, we can help prevent students from conceiving of their community engagement experiences as cultural safaris and avoid facilitating university-supported paternalism (see example 1).

Reflection about how you and your students are in the world can be essential to maximizing your students' experiences as well as those of community members. It is important to take into account the way different bodies are (and are not) in various spaces. When working with college students of color, for example, be cognizant of the ways that bodies of color are perceived and often policed in public, and design activities to maximize everyone's safety—e.g., by holding activities like scavenger hunts during the day instead of at night.

How? Identifying Best Tools

Ensure that the tools you are using are appropriate to the context. When incorporating digital media, be sure to ask, "Will this technology enhance the experience?" (See example 2.)

A techno-fetishist will adopt the most advanced technology, regardless of whether it is appropriate to the context, while a thoughtful educator will adopt whatever combination of media is culturally appropriate (Watson 2012). When evaluating cultural appropriateness, consider the technological tools and practices that are already in use. If project participants already communicate using Facebook, for example, asking them to use an alternate website or platform is likely to reduce the project's success. If your students like to take selfies and upload the pictures to Instagram with hashtags, embrace these practices in an educational context. Meeting participants where they are will put them at ease and result in greater success.


Community-engaged projects must allow all participants to serve each other and learn together. By applying a critical lens, we can support people's ability to operate at their full capacity while respecting the knowledge of those we are attempting to serve.

Example 1: Neighborhood Documentary Project

As an educational consultant, I worked with thirteen eighth graders on a project that involved collaborating with undergraduate students to develop a community resource map. The undergraduates were enrolled in a cartography service-learning class, and they had volunteered to help my students develop a website as one of several possible service projects. This website was to list the location and contact information of local businesses and organizations as a resource for neighborhood residents.

The undergraduates were expected to begin working with the eighth graders immediately after joining the project, but I explained to their professor that it was important that I meet with these students prior to their visit with the middle schoolers. The community where the young students' school was located was low-income and majority African American, with all the stereotypical elements of an impoverished space: urban blight, low graduation rates, high infant mortality, high crime rates. I knew I needed to prepare the cartography students, who were all white and might not have ever traveled to that side of town.

Rather than explaining the socioeconomic status of my middle school students, I told the undergraduates that they had a lot of information that would be greatly beneficial to this project—and  similarly, so did my eighth graders. My eighth-grade students knew their neighborhood. They knew what places should and should not be included on the map. They knew where their peers went and where they did not. With the college students acknowledging and respecting the wealth of information my students had, both groups were able to come to the table as worthy and knowledgeable human beings who needed each other to execute the project.

Melissa Crum

Example 2: Social Movement History Game

As part of my dissertation research, I worked with a network for college-age students of color to research, design, and play a transmedia, narrative-based game about the history of social movements in Providence, Rhode Island. The Resisters used an online interface and several social media platforms (Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter) to guide game players through real-world scavenger hunts across locations where social justice activism had occurred. The student co-designers and I worked with several community organizations to conduct research in local archives, map out the game's narrative, and build a website that would serve as the main hub for communication.

The project involved constantly navigating and evaluating the appropriate technological tools, and the need to avoid the trap of techno-fetishism was a key pedagogical lesson. I had originally planned to use a mobile-based GPS interface to lead players through a scavenger hunt, but a student co-designer resisted this idea for two reasons: (1) if players were absorbed in their cell phones, they would be removed from the physical experience of being in the communities; and (2) if the players' primary interaction were with a mobile phone, the team-building aspect would be diminished.

While the GPS mobile interface was the most advanced technological solution available, it was not the one most appropriate to the project. Instead of developing a phone-based program, we created paper packets that the players needed to pick up at the game office. While we still used Instagram to document students' visits to the sites, the paper handouts enhanced the experience of being in real-world locations during the scavenger hunts. Remember, technology is the tool, not the lesson; it should enhance the exercise, not become the exercise.

Alexandrina Agloro


Crum, Melissa, and Keonna Hendrick. 2014. "Multicultural Critical Reflective Practice and Contemporary Art." In Multiculturalism in Art Museums Today, edited by Joni Boyd Acuff and Laura Evans, 271­­–98. Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield.

Watson, Jeff. 2012. "Reality Ends Here: Environmental Game Design and Participatory Spectacle." PhD diss., University of Southern California. http://remotedevice.net/docs/Watson_Dissertation_2012.pdf.

Melissa Crum is the founder of Mosaic Education Network and doctor of arts administration, education, and policy; Alexandrina Agloro is a doctoral candidate at the Annenberg School of Communication and Journalism at the University of Southern California.

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