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Going to the Balcony: Centering Institutional Work around Community Goals

Civic Engagement LEAD Initiative
March 27, 2017 Becca Berkey, Ph.D.

Picture a busy dancefloor. Now think about what it looks and feels like to be on it, having a great time. What can you see? Hear? It’s likely that what you picture is engaging with the people right around you, and maybe dancing with others when that universal song comes on that everyone knows the words or moves to (Electric Slide, anyone?). Because of a number of factors including rapid growth driven by our Institutional Master Plan (IMP), the division of City and Community Affairs at Northeastern University in Boston, Massachusetts found itself engaged in a dance where each of its individual units and programs were dancing like champs, but that song that brings everyone together hadn’t yet been played by the DJ. Through a division-wide coordinated effort, we made the decision not only to request such a song but also to go to the balcony above the dance floor so we could get a better sense of how our units fit together and perhaps most importantly, how our community partners and members were being integrated into and/or influenced by the dance. Toward that end, we worked to create our Community Advisory Board which launched in summer 2016.

Like many institutions, the work of community engagement at Northeastern University has expanded rapidly in recent years, and the formation of this board was motivated by the desire to have this growth be as responsive as possible to the communities within which we live, study, and work. City and Community Affairs (which encompasses the Center of Community Service, Northeastern Crossing, and the Youth Development Initiative Project) facilitates the co-creation of reciprocal partnerships and relationships between the on-campus community of students, faculty, and staff, and the off-campus community of neighborhood organizations and area residents. Our collaborative engagements are intentionally developed to be mutually respectful, socially and ethically responsive, strategic, and purposeful. Together our work serves to create a just, equitable, and sustainable future for our interconnected local, regional, and global societies.

While we had these stated commitments, we had not yet incorporated a structured, systematic way to bring community members and partners into our work and decision-making. Therefore, we envisioned and enacted an advisory board that consists of three subgroups, each with distinct, but overlapping roles:

  • Community Partners & Programs Advisory Group: Provides feedback on how Northeastern students, staff, and faculty interact through initiatives run by the Center of Community Service.
  • Neighborhood Advisory Group: Provides feedback on how Northeastern Crossing engages and fosters new connections between individuals and the University.
  • Institutional Master Plan Advisory Group: Engages in dialogue to share updates and address issues and concerns regarding the University’s Institutional Master Plan (IMP).

We currently have around thirty advisory board members, whose responsibilities are:

  • Attend the CAB meetings and be a member of at least one subgroup;
  • Strengthen and grow the network of community engagement programs & initiatives as fostered by the division of City & Community Affairs;
  • Serve as advocates for our work in their various community roles as appropriate (e.g. if a member hears about an initiative that is pertinent to his/her connections in the community, he/she will relay that information to the appropriate party);
  • Provide ongoing feedback to City & Community Affairs staff on the work and initiatives of the division.

In addition to realizing and working toward the goals and vision of City & Community Affairs, we also considered the complex political landscape within the City of Boston and the university’s relationship to those dynamics. As such, managing and co-developing expectations with advisory board members this first year has been crucial. While we are still working on the choreography of this new dance so all of the requisite stakeholders involved in it know the steps, the creation of the Community Advisory Board has allowed us to view the dancefloor of City & Community Affairs at Northeastern from multiple perspectives- most importantly, from the balcony. We look forward to continuing to learn with our community members and partners and also drawing from the wisdom within the NASPA LEAD initiative network to continue this dance.

Becca Berkey, Ph.D.
Director of Service-Learning
Co-Director, Center of Community Service

Hilary Sullivan
Director of Co-Curricular Service Programs
Co-Director, Center of Community Service