So many times when people talk about “community engagement,” we mean that community – the one off campus. The one made up of the children we tutor, the neighbors whose homes we repair, the citizens whose voices we listen to in city council meetings. So it can be easy to fall into thinking that our role as staff and students in the Office of Community Engagement is to go from campus, out to the community, and back again.
But for the past eighteen months, due to the publicizing of racism and injustice in our country and on campus, I have been thinking about community engagement differently. Community is found anywhere you share space, goals, or common interests with other people. Community is right here on campus, as much as (and perhaps more intimately than) it is in those places we volunteer and advocate. The family you talk with every week as you drop off meals, the grandmother waiting in line behind you at the Food Lion, and the person down the dorm hallway from you with whom you only exchange pleasantries: all these people are part of our community.
That means that for me, and for our office, we should focus on building active citizenship and a just society here on campus as much as in Williamsburg and globally. When we plan projects with community members, we begin by building relationships, and by learning about people’s stories, deep desires, and plans to reach their goals. We learn about the issues they’re facing by asking, and by doing our own homework through reading, watching, and listening. We gain needed skills, whether it’s how to drive a nail or the basics of community organizing. We ask how things are going and what we can be doing differently. And we maintain those relationships like we do with any friend – little check-ins and continuing to get together over time.
The fundamentals of this work are no different when it’s happening on campus. But on campus, many of us – most often, those of us in the majority or dominant culture – presume that we already are a community. That there are no divides to be bridged through listening, learning, and skill-building, because we already are “One Tribe, One Family.”
What so many on this campus know and live, however, is that we do experience division. We may share some ideals as One Tribe, but the experiences of students, staff and faculty of color, people who do not identify as male, those who are part of the LGBTQ community, and many more people – those experiences illuminate divides of privilege, prejudice, stereotype, and threat.
Since I took on the role of Director of the OCE last semester, I’ve been listening and learning to our community carefully for ways we can make our office and the campus environment more welcoming to everyone.
One thing I’ve learned: I’ve been assuming that everyone on campus knows that the OCE is a place for all. It’s an easy assumption for me, because my privilege means that I experience most places as welcoming. But I know that many of you actually don’t find open arms and big smiles everywhere you go.
And so I say this plainly, without assumptions: please know that we want to offer you solidarity and welcome here in the OCE. That goes for me, and for all of our staff. However you identify and wherever your path has taken you and is headed, we want to know what you need from us to be in true solidarity with you. We want to learn more about what you are up to, and to help you find partners in the work for justice, on campus and off. There is safe and expansive space here for you. In fact, we can’t build community, catalyze active citizenship, and create more opportunity for all without you.
We continue to expand our broad outreach through projects and programs that address issues of division and injustice on campus and off. But just as important, we want to know you and stand by you. To have coffee dates (just ask! firstname.lastname@example.org), conversations after service that get below the surface to issues that are brewing in our own lives, and ways to help you connect your experience in community – no matter where that community is – to what you’re learning and what you’d like to do next.