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Collaborative Disruption

Dr. Sylvia Gale, Director, Bonner Center for Civic Engagement

Something critical happens when we place the knowledge production we often associate with academic contexts in relationship to a larger ecosystem, a larger sense of community. This isn’t only about who’s talking and who’s listening. The knowledge we create itself changes when exposed to the pressures, disruptions, and insights brought on by community knowledge.

A few years ago, I witnessed the best kind of disruption during the final presentations for a geography class here at UR. The city had recently commissioned a master bike plan, and students in the class were exploring ways to loop UR into a network of trails and bike lanes. I watched as one invited visitor—then superintendent of Richmond’s park system—leaned in to examine a map that imagined an extension of the city’s trails along the south side of the city. After studying the map, the superintendent turned to the students. "Did you actually ride this route?," he asked. They acknowledged they had not, but had driven it many times. He pointed to one key intersection. "This looks fine from a car," he said. "It's very different from a bike. If you ride this, your map will change."

It isn’t that doing things outside of class is necessarily better than doing things inside class. A bike ride doesn’t stand in for the hours these students had spent learning GIS mapping, for example, or studying the leading edge of urban planning and design. But without the bike ride, without getting out of the car, the accumulation of academic knowledge fell flat. And it took an "outsider" or really a person steeped in a very specific and intersecting body of community knowledge to point that out. Imagine: What if that exchange had happened mid-semester? What if the students had ridden their proposed route? What if they’d invited the park superintendent to come along? How would their final map have been different? Who else, in a city then actively reimagining its bicycle access, might have found it useful?

If you ride this, your map will change. I have been remembering this phrase recently as our campus begins to live into our new strategic plan and related initiatives. Our institution’s robust civic engagement infrastructure is part of our University’s strength and future, and I hope that we will all embrace the ways that rooted community experiences and equitable exchange with community interlocutors are fundamental to a vibrant intellectual community and the production of high-quality and meaningful scholarship. This will involve being wary of familiar and comfortable frameworks that cast community and community knowledge as either other and separate—the object of analysis—or as deficient, a target audience in need of something we have.

Too often, "community" is a stand-in for everything "not University," or used to signal diversity in a way that suggests "not us," other. Marta Moreno Vega, founder of the NYC-based Caribbean Cultural Center African Diaspora Institute, once explained that when higher education functions within a community but apart from it, then community becomes an abstract concept. People think of themselves as going to something, not as a part of something. As we live into the University’s future, we must invest in creating linkages and creative exchange between the knowledge "in here" and the knowledge "out there."