Part 1. A Manifesto from the Middle Ground of Campus-Community Partnerships
Do you . . .
. . . administer a center, a program, or initiative with a mission for cross-sectoral engagement?
. . . undertake "faculty development" from a "staff" position?
. . . facilitate campus-community partnerships and collaborations from a non-faculty or "para-academic" position?
. . . accept or resist the perception of your work as "academic support or service"?
. . . lay claim to (and worry over) labels like "scholar-practitioner," "pracademic," "alternative academic," or "educator-administrator" to represent yourself?
. . . find yourself representing the university while you feel more commonality with the community organizations with which you partner?
This manifesto emerges from a series of workshops, seminars, and roundtables held at the 2012 and 2013 Imagining America conferences, organized around the work of university staff committed to public engagement and operating in the middle ground of campus-community partnerships.1 It calls out to "hybrid-hyphenateds"—those working in or aspiring to para-academic, intermediary, coordinating, and administering positions at the interface of campus-community partnership development and in the interspaces of the university. These positions may or may not demand terminal degrees. Like faculty, intermediary staff may teach, advise, and engage in curricular and cocurricular development. But most saliently, these positions are distinguished by the emphasis they place on intensive administrative labor in and among multiple organizations and organizational cultures, inside and outside the university. This labor involves the identification, mobilization, orchestration, and coordination of a vast array of human capital—the knowledge resources and commitments of people working in diverse disciplines, fields, sectors, and positions throughout our various communities. And while this work is sometimes invisible [→] and subordinate within the prevailing academic hierarchies, the perspectives and capacities it gives rise to are essential to deepening higher education's capacity for democratic engagement and generative collaboration.2
We network, we organize, we cultivate, we manage, we create, we lead, and we sweat the details that create webs of connection and channels of access. We work along a huge and varied continuum within the university. Our units located within and often bridging academic and student affairs, range from service-learning centers, campus-community partnership offices, and humanities centers to diversity offices, pipeline and access initiatives, and university extension programs. Marked by our status as professional staff in an academic culture that privileges tenure, [→] our positions vary significantly in terms of power and privilege, and our roles are often variously racialized and gendered. Moreover, institutional size, mission, and many other factors condition the relative contingency or permanence of our positions, as well as their dependency and autonomy, influence and marginalization.
Part of the challenge we face and the story we want to tell is that we are not yet a unified WE. There is no single job title that represents our diverse collectivity. We labor within different institutional models and cultures and are rooted in different community identifications and networks. This does not trouble us: our work disposes us to productive alliances across differences. We share common experiences in campus-community partnerships and common commitments to bridge work. We recognize common good in making that work more generally visible and valued, where so much of it is obscured by academic hierarchies [→]. We name the work of middle spaces in solidarity with those who labor there, and translate its value for those who do not.
The administrative roles we name here as intermediary, hybrid, and engaged are critical to movements for equitable partnerships, inclusive and accountable institutions, and transformative student learning and scholarship.3 As neither (wholly) administrator, faculty, nor community partner, those of us in these positions traffic heavily in contradictions, tensions, and skilled negotiation among multiple agendas, cultures, and conventions. We also confound established hierarchies—and we often do so intentionally. For it is an outmoded vision of higher education [→] that views hybridity as a neither/nor proposition, instead of recognizing that potent possibilities for effecting change are catalyzed by the both/and nature of the middle ground.
As engaged administrators committed to the public purposes of higher education, we mediate between the values of the academy (which validate intellectual labor) and the values of community organizing (which uphold relationship building and social change). Among our central commitments are collaboration, inclusion, civic responsibility, and open access to transformational community-based learning opportunities in higher education. We claim the essential and integral role of these intermediary middle positions in creating "third spaces"—the meeting grounds for potential and sustained collaborations among campus and community partners; among faculty, students, and staff; among centers and agencies inside and outside the university. The values by which we work toward these goals are simultaneously pragmatic, relational, political, and intellectual—because our bridge-building necessarily moves across various sectors in order to further the work of social justice and social change.
Our manifesto responds to frequent misapprehensions of our work within the university and in other professional realms. It seeks possibilities for proactive coalition building that leverage the strength of our work and our roles. It is also a call to action. We present here the insights, dilemmas, and strategies of those working in these positions in order to 1. elaborate our critical agency in transformative change work, 2. specify our perspectival knowledges and skill sets, and 3. inaugurate more inclusive narratives about collaborative work and knowledge production.
Below, we identify several of what we call "core capacities of the middle ground" and amplify those capacities with tangible examples that reveal this work through action. This is a partial and emergent list: we intentionally offer expansive definitions to invite identification and elaboration. To contribute to this project, follow the instructions in the call to action below.
Core Capacities of the Middle Ground in Action
ConnectingWhile we often have our own home fields and disciplines, our freedom from departmental obligation, our stance as administrators who see across the university, and our identification as liaisons outside the institution strengthen our connective capacity. We convene people, ideas, and organizations [→] as the need and opportunity for connection arises and in the service of enlarging opportunities for deep learning and institutional and/or social change.
Intermediary staff of a center for civic engagement observed the absence of higher education and some community partners in a region-wide dialogue about the city's watershed. Using the retirement of a beloved park manager as the occasion, the staff convened faculty and community organizations with a shared interest in and mission to protect, preserve, and promote the river. Participants shared their areas of expertise and identified key areas of need along with possible collaborative next steps. One outcome: a university geography professor partnered with a coalition of organizations to involve students in creating interactive digital content about the watershed.
Even as we seek to make the work of the middle ground more visible, we recognize that strategic invisibility and creative flexibility are often key to our agency and efficacy. As administrative intermediaries, we care deeply about enlarging the civic capacities of students, institutions, and local communities—and we are comfortable with the knowledge that fostering full participation requires us to step back from the limelight and acknowledge the wealth of expertise around us, both inside and outside institutions of higher education. The middle ground is a space for quiet change makers, underground revolutionaries, strategic visionaries. We don't cultivate this space in order to get widespread credit for our labor; in the middle ground, ideas are generated collectively [→] and their impact matters more than whose idea it was. Our intellectual, emotional, and practical investment in catalyzing inclusivity cuts against the grain of higher education's hierarchies—but our labor is rooted in a shared belief in the possibilities and promise of both institutional and social change.
Energized by a framework for linking diversity and engagement, the directors of a diversity office and a center for civic engagement used their collective social capital to convene a half-day workshop about full participation, intentionally inviting faculty, staff, and community leaders who were invested in various change projects related to inclusion, access, diversity, and social justice. The workshop brought together more than thirty people, some of whom had never met. By fostering dialogue around shared interests and a shared conceptual framework, it catalyzed new alliances.
Within the traditional tenure and promotion reward system, investments in "admin work" are equivalent to writing on water [→]. The administrative labor of putting ideas into action may have ripple effects on the institution and our larger communities, but the labor itself disappears virtually immediately—without a mark on the laborer's professional vita. As every assistant professor who has been warned away from this kind of service knows well, the absence of the mark devalues and makes suspect the investment in the work itself. In contrast, citizens of the middle ground are by necessity process-driven and project-oriented. We are invested in the full arc of an idea [→], and know that stewarding it from concept, through design, to realization may well mean navigating "bureaucratic logistics." We work persistently and iteratively on implementation, attending to the minutiae of a project even when those minutiae are not recognizably scholarly—because these details are often critical to change work. We know the division between creative work (proposing ideas) and managerial work (implementing those ideas) is often a false one—for problems, ideas, and knowledge emerge from the very effort to put ideas into action and to implement them, in the middle ground, among partners and stakeholders.
Called to advance a university-wide effort to connect with the city, the directors of a center for community engagement faced the challenge of linking a suburban campus with urban community organizations. In response, the center administrators wrote a grant, purchased a van, and began to address this issue directly by providing transportation services. After years of running the shuttles out of the center and advocating for the continued need for more connection, the university responded by forming a transportation working group with center representation, and put resources towards a central Transportation Office, significantly expanding transportation options for students, faculty, and staff.
One primary role and privilege of the middle ground is to speak, work, and agitate across extremely diverse communities. Many of us are highly adept at what sociolinguists and street theorists refer to as "code-switching," and communicate with multiple audiences or translate between stakeholders whose vocabularies, inflections, and expectations are often quite different from one another. We resist identification as "university PR representatives" [→] because our communication work is generative. More than disseminating "the university's brand or message" we aim to translate the university's goals and mission in ways that invite broader participation. In formal and informal ways, we often strive to be advocates, advisors, and ambassadors on behalf of communities that have been systematically marginalized within and outside of the institution. We value substantive communication and negotiation across diverse communities, not as the precondition of "real scholarship," but as the basis of mutual understanding and transformative knowledge. In this way, we are on the forefront of expanding and promoting scholarship that is creative, innovative, and reciprocal.
An educational nonprofit and long-time partner of community engagement courses at the local university approached the service-learning center with a question: How could they proactively address challenges that might stem from the organization's decision to require fingerprint background checks, not only for staff and long-term volunteers, but also for short-term service-learning students? In particular, the organization hoped this safety measure would not pose an undue financial burden for students or discourage undocumented undergraduates from participating in programs designed to build a college-going culture in the largely immigrant communities served by the nonprofit. The university's service-learning coordinator could not answer these questions alone. She began convening meetings with upper-level administrators in order to request funding to cover student costs, and connected the nonprofit's administrators with the campus resource center for undocumented students and with another community partner, a nonprofit that provides legal advice to the undocumented community. Conversations are ongoing and may result in tangible products ranging from informational handouts for faculty, students, and partners to reports or other scholarship authored collectively by stakeholders.
Collaboration is a tired word. But at its root, collaboration is cocreation. In context, it requires all that has been named here and more. It requires the will to organize: the motivation and the skill to coordinate inquiry and activity, to mediate and negotiate, to engage personal and organizational differences, and to sustain tensions around them. It requires the will to understand, to question, to make things work, and to change. It requires the flexible, creative ability to take on and let go of a myriad of functional roles. [→] For these reasons, the work of the middle ground is not simply to implement specific knowledge in particular situations. It is to develop and transform situations and stakeholders through the purposeful identification of collective assets, orchestration of activities, reflection on goals and outcomes. This work yields new insights, new relationships, and new and actionable knowledge.
Six autonomous identity-based diversity centers shared concerns about being marginalized and misperceived on their campus, so they engaged in a process to build collective capital. Through a planning and visioning process, the directors gathered administrative support and chose a collective name, the Centers for Cultural Understanding and Social Change. The Centers released a statement affirming their shared commitments, grounded in principles of inclusion, access, and equity, and highlighting their expertise in providing relevant support to specific populations along with opportunities for intercultural engagement. By repositioning themselves in this way, the directors invited new partnerships and innovative approaches to intersectional identities in the classroom and in programs on and off campus. For the directors themselves, the collective is alternately a sounding board, a set of engaged partners, and a buoyant life raft. The directors and staff have begun organizing around shared issues including health disparities, immigration, veterans, and sustainability.
A Call to Action
Our labor in the middle spaces of campus-community partnerships is grounded in a twofold conviction: first, that institutions of higher education have a responsibility to serve and support the greater ecosystems in which they are situated; and second, that institutions of higher education have untapped resources in human, cultural, and even financial capital that can be marshaled to make good on that public responsibility.
Those of us fortunate enough to collaborate with other bridge builders, within and across institutions, have witnessed the catalytic impact of collaboration and the amplification of our middle-ground change projects. We have also benefited from mutual understanding and support. What more might we do together? What can we learn from one another? How can we support new "hybrid-hyphenateds" within and across institutions? How can we sustain hybrid-hyphenateds across their career trajectories?
|To give this movement voice, we call on "hybrid-hyphenateds" to tell the stories of their positions and pathways, in all their various struggles, dilemmas, and achievements. Formal instructions for contributing can be found here.|
|To give this movement visibility, we call on Imagining America to help map and network stakeholders, beginning with interactive digital spaces like this one.|
|To enlarge our collective capacity, we call on allies to push against the ingrained hierarchies of our institutions and to engage with middle-ground "hybrid-hyphenateds" as partners and change makers:
1 Imagining America conference sessions that contributed to this work include: "Expanding Engagement: University Staff as Agents of Social Change" (2012), "This Bridge Called My Job: Translating, Re-Valuing, and Leveraging Intermediary Administrative Work" (2012 and 2013), and "This Bridge Called My Job: Intermediary Staff as Agents of Change" (2013). For more information and lists of conference participants see the Imagining America conference archive. The authors would like to thank all participants for their contributions to the conversations that have helped shape this manifesto.
2 Our manifesto allies with and is informed by three important movements and mobilizations. First, our title invokes This Bridge Called My Back (Moraga and Anzaldúa 1981), a landmark in women of color feminism that used polyvocal essays, poetry, stories, and testimony to advance positionality and intersectionality as central to knowledge production and alliance building across activist-based coalitions and academic (inter)disciplines. Our manifesto builds on this tradition methodologically and in its recognition that prevailing academic hierarchies often marginalize intermediary staff along axes inflected by gender, race, and class. Second, our manifesto is embedded in the movement to renew higher education's civic purpose, instantiated by such organizations and initiatives as Imagining America: Artists and Scholars in Public Life, Campus Compact, The Democracy Commitment, the American Democracy Project, and the Association of American Colleges and Universities' Civic Learning and Democratic Engagement taskforce. See the reports A Crucible Moment: College Learning and Democracy's Future (NTFCLDE 2012) and "Full Participation: Building the Architecture for Diversity and Community Engagement in Higher Education" (Sturm et al. 2011) as seminal texts. Lastly, we draw on the example of the "Alternative Academy," as documented on the #alt-academy website, which has created a collective voice and discourse around hybrid academic positions.
3 Our use of the term "intermediary" to name these hybrid roles has been guided by Sturm (2010).