A Place at the Table: Dialogues Around Community Partnerships

Chris Partridge, Coordinator, Student Engagement, University of Nevada, Reno

April 12, 2017

Many organizations in the community provide an outstanding opportunity to witness the ideals of Ehrlich’s (2000) definition of civic engagement. These are organizations and individuals working on a daily basis to develop knowledge and they do so in a variety of contexts from activism to service to philanthropy. While these community-based groups are carrying out their mission, they may not be consuming and contributing to the latest academic research in their field. That’s where institutions of higher education come in. If we are serious about graduating individuals who are informed and responsible citizens, we need to do much more than bear witness from the sidelines.

However, this does not mean that community organizations need academics to come to the rescue. Saltmarsh and Hartley (2011) posit that some of the more traditional notions of civic engagement should be replaced by democratic civic engagement practices. For example, instead of viewing the community based on its deficits, educators, and students should see the community as a rich pool of knowledge and assets from which we can learn a great deal. Knowledge can and should be co-created and mutually exchanged. When we work together as partners, both learning from community expertise and offering some of our own, we build human capacity with agency to solve the pressing issues facing our communities. In the new civic engagement, a paradigmatic shift must occur. The rhetoric of “giving back to the community” and “helping those who are less fortunate” should receive less emphasis than ideas like joining with the community to improve the quality of life and learning from others who have valuable and diverse experiences.

This allows us to conscientiously focus on the injustice, poverty, human rights, environmental ills and a long list of other societal issues that exist. Civic learning and democratic engagement offer valuable lessons on equity and inclusion, poverty, social justice and much more. It also offers a new arena in which students can build their critical thinking, examine their own personal values, communicate with others of very different backgrounds and build capacity for empathy. So educators should frame civic engagement work in this light.

To do this requires a better understanding of community partners and their objectives. Educators should work to develop this understanding through dialogue that ensures mutual understanding and establishes shared missions. This way, institutions of higher education can maximize the learning opportunities for students, community organizations can maximize their success in short- and long-term objectives and both partners can work together toward improving communities. It begins with establishing a shared language. Sponsler and Hartley (2013) recommended establishing a definition of civic engagement that can be widely recognized on campus. Discussing definitions with community partners off campus can also be helpful.

The Center for Student Engagement at the University of Nevada, Reno continues to examine the foundations and processes that build meaningful and successful partnerships. Our colleagues at East Carolina University’s Center for Leadership and Civic Engagement recently submitted an excellent article to the Lead Initiative Blog that outlines some helpful resources and components of the intake and assessment process. We add another idea to this discussion of building community partnerships – setting up opportunities for dialogue. Earlier this semester, we worked with our Office of Service-Learning & Civic Engagement and our Career Studio to host for the first time an informational networking event where community organizations were invited to learn more about different opportunities for working with the university and the objectives of each context. The event also featured an informal networking time afterward where the organizations could speak to any of our offices to share their work or learn more about ours.

Additionally, our 2nd annual Civic Engagement Recognition Breakfast will take place next month, where we invite a collection of people together to celebrate collaborations. Invitees include all of the community organizations with whom we’ve worked, students who have contributed exemplary work in civic engagement, and many other students and colleagues from on campus who have been valuable supporters. In addition to recognizing partners and students, this event will also include a discussion with community partners about how they can deepen their collaboration with the University of Nevada, Reno through service-learning partnerships. Finally, we will update our partners on some new initiatives in which they can participate in the next year, such as new service days, advisory committees and events. So while this breakfast functions as a culmination of a year of activities, it also will focus on adding layers to existing partnerships and bridging to next year’s objectives. One final note: In both of these events, we also considered the importance of location. Rather than always inviting our community to come to campus where they have to navigate parking policies and find the right building, we found a venue that is a university building off campus, downtown, which has a free parking lot. Offering both formal and informal settings outside of the service experiences provides meaningful opportunities for dialogue that build on the important reciprocal relationships.

What other practices have Lead Initiative members found to be beneficial in building deep, sustainable partnerships?



  • Ehrlich, T. (2000). Civic responsibility and higher education. Westport, CT: American Council on Education and Oryx Press.
  • Saltmarsh, J., & Hartley, M. (Eds.). (2011). To serve a larger purpose: Engagement for democracy and the transformation of higher education. Philadelphia, PA: Temple University Press.
  • Sponsler, L., & Hartley, M. (2013). Five things student affairs professionals can do to institutionalize civic engagement. NASPA Research and Policy Institute Brief, 1–12.


  • Chris Partridge, Coordinator, Student Engagement, University of Nevada, Reno
  • Amy Koeckes, Associate Director, Student Engagement, University of Nevada, Reno
  • Sandra Rodriguez, Director, ASUN/Center for Student Engagement, University of Nevada, Reno

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