October 18, 2019 | Bringing It #25: An Update on the PLACE Collaboratory

Dear friends,

Readers of Bringing It may remember that BTtoP was fortunate to receive a grant from The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation to support a two-year project called the PLACE Collaboratory.  PLACE (Partnerships for Listening and Action by Communities and Educators) brings together educators, students, and community partners from four cities—Newark, Baltimore, Greensboro, and Los Angeles—and eleven academic institutions.  The goal of the project is twofold.  On the one hand, we aim to foster local partnerships that use humanities and cultural practices to take on significant community issues as defined by community voice.  On the other, we seek to create a national network that can disseminate model practices for authentic academic-community partnerships and the role of the public humanities in fostering them.  (Here’s a more detailed description of the collaboratory and The Mellon Foundation grant.)

PLACE brings together partnerships from four quite different cities.  It includes colleges and universities with diverse missions, from diverse sectors, working on diverse issues with a wide range of partners.  Building a real community of practice across these differences, guided with shared goals and values, is crucial.  On October 1-4, some forty participants in the PLACE network—including undergraduate and graduate students, community activists and organizers, academic staff and faculty—convened in Greensboro to do just that.  The results were inspiring.

The launch convening was hosted by five academic institutions (Guilford College, Greensboro College, North Carolina A&T, UNC-Greensboro, and Elon University) and several community partners (including the Beloved Community Center and the Greensboro Historical Museum) which are part of the PLACE network.  It was a joy to get to know their community; our conversations were enriched by taking place on the home turf of their community partners.  (Thanks to all our Greensboro colleagues for hosting us so generously.)

The convening proved successful beyond our hopes.  PLACE is a complex project, involving community projects, the public humanities, the role of undergraduates, and collaboration among multiple cities and campuses.  There’s a lot to do in two short years.  So the launch convening had multiple goals to accomplish:

  • building community and leadership among community partners, educators, and students;
  • developing shared values, goals, and ways of working together;
  • introducing all participants to all the local partnerships;

  • sharing expertise about community partnerships, public humanities, and student roles;

  • learning about community issues and academic engagement in Greensboro;

  • naming key next steps for the larger collaboratory.

Over the course of several days, we truly advanced all of them.  There were rich discussions of collective goals and values.  Our featured presenter, urban planner Ken Reardon, described his two-decade partnership with grass-roots organizers in East Saint Louis.  There were “fishbowl” conversations about the use of story-telling and active listening in community partnerships and about the capacity of students to lead and build partnerships (a discussion largely shaped by our student colleagues).  We heard brief presentations about the eight emerging local projects on such themes as gentrification, community development, housing affordability, immigrants’ rights, and climate change.  This led to a two-hour “unconference” where small groups self-organized to brainstorm projects, discuss best practices, and problem-solve.  We had walking and museum tours of Greensboro and listened to inspiring stories about the local history of social justice organizing.  We ate often and well.

But most striking was the spirit that wove through all this doing, talking, and listening.  People leaned into listening and learning from each other, across differences of geography, generation, and ‘status.’  It seemed to us to model the kind of shared leadership, voice, and agenda-setting that PLACE aims to advance as a whole.  This was partly due to powerful moments, especially at the start of each day, of reflection, movement, story-telling, and acknowledgment of painful histories, led variously by students, community activists, and academics.  One of the general goals that the group discussed for PLACE is to become a community of practice that invites—and needs—participants to bring their whole selves, their full humanity, to the work of partnership and community-building.  For us, at least, the convening modeled that.

The Greensboro convening was only a start.  We left with a host of next steps for the local partnerships and the BTtoP office to accomplish.  But the spirit of the gathering already points toward an important conclusion.  PLACE reflects BTtoP’s strategic priority of building a national community of practice for educational change and community betterment.  It grows out of our belief that ‘big change’ doesn’t happen campus by campus, community by community; it requires networked collaboration and movement-building.  In a way, this is deeply unfair: it asks even more energy from educators, activists, and students who are too often already stretched thin.  But the Greensboro convening reinforced our belief that community-building gives back more energy than it takes.  It may be true ‘big change’ demands big collaboration.  But such collaboration unleashes hope and creativity as well.

With thanks to all of you for the work you do,

David, Caitlin, Kate, and Mercedes