What Does It Take for a Community to Work? An Educator’s Personal Reflection

By MARLENE K. REBORI

Marlene K. Rebori, Ph.D. is an Associate Professor at University of Nevada, Reno (UNR) and the Community Development Specialist with Cooperative Extension. Marlene is the Founding Director of the Office of Service-Learning and Civic Engagement (OSLCE) at the University of Nevada, Reno Campus.

Civic engagement is one of my life’s passions. It’s a passion that drives me to work harder, do more, and feel as though I am an active member of my community and a player in our democracy. It’s a passion that I like igniting in students and community members. Yes, it’s addicting, but so is any worthwhile endeavor. When I hear students make comments such as, “I never felt a part of the community until this project”, or “I never realized I could have such an impact”, then I know civic engagement is not a quixotic effort.

Are we as educators asking our students to examine the deeper questions that shape their character? Are we providing skills through our civic experiences that enable students to listen to different opinions–to hear the other side? Are we creating connections in the communities where students live and study?

In the aftermath of the 2016 Presidential Election results, I‘ve listened to and read countless news analysts discuss how Rural America felt abandoned in the economic recovery, how Rural America felt isolated from Urban America, and how President-Elect Donald Trump was able to tap into this “unheard voice” to win the election. Regardless of one’s political views and stepping aside from candidate baggage, I have been doing a lot of reflecting of late. For me, I keep coming back to the question, “As a Community Development professional, did I fail rural America?” I’ve worked as a Community Development Specialist with University of Nevada Extension for 20 years. I work in both rural (i.e., frontier communities, rural, tribal nations) as well as urban communities (i.e., Las Vegas, Reno).As an educator, teacher and practitioner, I’ve had my share of exhilarating successes as well as sobering–often grueling–programmatic defeats over the years. I enjoy working in both rural and urban stretches of Nevada because, when you get right down to it, people across Nevada (and the world), share many of the same basic values. We all want good schools for our children, clean water to drink, opportunities for our youth, good paying jobs to provide for our families, accessible and affordable healthcare for ourselves and the people we love, etc. These values unite both urban and rural communities. The challenge is in finding a path to reach our shared values.

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Marlene recently served as visiting professor in Spain, teaching a summer class “The Civic Community that included members of the local Rotary Club.

As an educator, teacher and practitioner, I’ve had my share of exhilarating successes as well as sobering–often grueling–programmatic defeats over the years. I enjoy working in both rural and urban stretches of Nevada because, when you get right down to it, people across Nevada (and the world), share many of the same basic values. We all want good schools for our children, clean water to drink, opportunities for our youth, good paying jobs to provide for our families, accessible and affordable healthcare for ourselves and the people we love, etc. These values unite both urban and rural communities. The challenge is in finding a path to reach our shared values.

My job as an educator and practitioner is to “build community capacity”, regardless of the community. In essence, my task of building community capacity centers on facilitating the empowerment and engagement of local communities to collectively drive change within their community. This is no easy task by any means. As I ponder if I failed Rural America, I also question if we are doing the best we can for our students in our service-learning work?

We understand the difference between “good” service-learning, and “bad” service-learning. “Good” service-learning works to benefit the community or the issue group and in return builds civic capacity among the students. “Bad” service-learning often reinforces stereotypes and leads to disengagement. How can we expand civic capacity among our students and where are we headed for the future of civic engagement?

Much of the work we do as educators, especially in applying the pedagogy of service-learning, is rooted in the practice and profession of Community Development. Through service-learning, we work to foster active, informed and responsible students who are knowledgeable, skilled and motivated to engage in their community. In essence, we are building the capacity for our students to be civically engaged both now and into the future. Civic engagement implies more than simply giving service and volunteering in a community. While these initiating acts are critical to getting students on the path of engagement, as educators we cannot simply stop at the service juncture. Instead we need to deepen our student’s capacity for civic learning.

A thought that keeps cycling in my mind is the need for deep civic learning in our communities. The very name of this journal is Community Works Journal. What does it take for a community to work? Communities work when they are sustainable, when communities are inclusive and, most importantly, when communities are able to engage in hard discussions. Residents will not have all the answers and cannot possibly know everything, but communities need to be able to ask the hard questions to become more informed and engaged. Communities function better when residents are informed and engaged, and they need to have civic conversations to get there.

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Marlene’s students in Spain leading a civic forum with fellow students.

Are we as educators asking our students to examine the deeper questions that shape their character? Are we providing skills through our civic experiences that enable students to listen to different opinions–to hear the other side? Are we creating connections in the communities where students live and study? Are we asking students to step outside of their comfort zones (i.e., homogenous bubbles) to interact and engage with people of different mind-sets and life experiences? Beyond service-learning reflections, are we challenging students to take one step further and articulate the type of community they want for the future? These are the questions I feel will bring in a new era of civic engagement.

Reflecting on both the process and outcomes of community development is an important step that will lay the foundation for this deeper examination of civic engagement. Process must lead to desired outcomes. We must work to include processes that strengthen civic relationships and enhance civic conversations across all of America. As educators, we ought to work to empower our communities to be inclusive in regard to opinions supported by facts. The new era of civic engagement requires all of us to re-examine how we work in community. Sustainable and inclusive communities will only come about one conversation at a time.

As educators, I believe we have not failed Rural America, but we must work harder and take on the challenges that lie ahead. I will be embracing the new era of civic engagement, an era that challenges us to have deeper civic conversations. We must work harder to help guide these civic conversations. As educators, we certainly have much work ahead of us in rebuilding bridges that strengthen trust and support civic capacity for sustainable and lasting communities in both rural and urban America.

Together, let’s open the door for a new era in civic engagement. I’m ready to roll-up my sleeves and get back to work. I hope you’ll join me in this contagious passion for civic engagement.

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