Home » ACM’s Equitable Civic Engagement Institute Offers Applicable Lessons

ACM’s Equitable Civic Engagement Institute Offers Applicable Lessons

ACM’s Equitable Civic Engagement Institute Offers Applicable Lessons November 17, 2023

Above: Over 30 ACM faculty and staff attended “Empathetic Design for Equitable Civic Engagement.” The two-day workshop at Lake Forest College was part of ACM’s Equitable Civic Engagement initiative, funded by the Spencer Foundation.

Creating more welcoming spaces, improving education access, and reducing achievement gaps for students of color were among the actionable takeaways for ACM faculty and staff at “Empathetic Design for Equitable Civic Engagement,” a workshop hosted at Lake Forest College earlier this month.

The two-day event was the culmination of ACM’s Equitable Civic Engagement initiative, established through a grant from the Spencer Foundation.

Through the initiative, ACM member institutions aimed to better understand how civic, business, and other dimensions of the communities in which colleges reside affect students’ sense of belonging and well-being, persistence toward graduation, and other issues contributing to academic success. The workshop featured case studies of faculty and staff projects funded through ACM, allowing attendees to discuss actual community-based initiatives and how they demonstrate equitable principles and outcomes.

One session, “Mapping Diversity: Understanding What Makes Spaces Welcoming or Unwelcoming,” focused on an ACM-funded collaboration between Grinnell, Lake Forest, and Luther Colleges through which researchers explored how students experience the physical spaces on those campuses. Presenters shared how they executed the research, the common patterns they discovered across campuses, and how to use data to rethink creating spaces of belonging.

Sinda Nichols said she would immediately bring ideas from the presentation back to Carleton College, where she is director of the Center for Community and Civic Engagement.

“I think it can help us understand what it is about our own center on campus that leads to students of specific identities and experiences feeling like they do or do not belong and where we might be able to intentionally shape a space more conducive to belonging,” Nichols said. “I appreciate the framework’s insistence that belonging is different for every student, and what feels familiar and positive to one will feel the opposite to another. I’d also like to take it a step further to consider student experiences at our community partner sites beyond campus.”

The learning went both ways, with presenters also receiving valuable feedback from attendees.

Gina Hausknecht, John William King Professor of Literature and Creative Writing at Coe College, presented on the Prison Learning Initiative, which aims to provide educational experiences for incarcerated learners and experiential learning opportunities for campus-based students across all areas of the liberal arts. “This was our first time presenting about our project to an academic, professional audience with a shared knowledge base and it was enormously useful to hear workshop colleagues’ responses, takeaways, and questions,” Hausknecht said. “It helped me see some places where we can expand our work and clarify our message, and it also affirmed the value of the work we’ve done to date and the way we have been shaping it.”

In the Institute’s keynote opening, “Collaborative Community Partnership Research as an Avenue for Civic Engagement,” Mesmin Destin, associate professor in the Department of Psychology at Northwestern University, shared a wide range of data – from lab experiments at Northwestern to partnerships with local schools around Chicago – to highlight the importance of building effective learning environments for all students.

One evidence-based outcome consistent across all student groups was the power of reinforcing academic environments built around students’ potential. Destin presented findings highlighting that student-of-color achievement gaps are linked, in part, to teachers’ reduced expectations for student-of-color academic outcomes. Student-of-color academic success and retention would improve by rejecting deficit-based environments and embracing equitable and aspirational guidance.

For Lewis Kanyiba, associate professor of kinesiology at Cornell College, the implications of this work were clear: “The big takeaway here is for recruiters to shift from deficit-based interventions to ability-to-achieve,” he said. “As a faculty engaged in the admissions committee and actively engaged in recruiting, these findings were critical to what I do.”

With over 30 attendees representing 12 ACM campuses, the event comprised a diverse, robust, and engaged group dedicated to learning and implementing new ideas.

“I appreciated the concentrated attention to the most pressing current issues for our campuses around civic engagement, with a mixed group of stakeholders bringing a range of expertise and experience: staff from different areas with different responsibilities, faculty at various career stages, and administrators,” said Hausknecht. “It felt like a brain trust: among us, much collective wisdom and in every case a high degree of commitment and intentionality about community-based learning.”

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