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OPINION: Higher Ed Civic Engagement In The Post-Ferguson Era Means We Get Uncomfortable

Over the last few years the events in Ferguson, Baltimore and Charleston have elevated the need for fresh discussion in the higher education civic engagement space on how to thoughtfully frame the tensions that emerge in our theory and inform our practice [1].  Much of the field’s discourse around the philosophical foundations of engagement have rested on the thoughts of John Dewey; and in particular, his thinking on how to transform society – through an educated citizenry – into a collaborative democracy [2].   It is time we begin to expand beyond Dewey and model our practice in the ways of W.E.B. Du Bois to gain better perspective on how to make sense of voices and realities that may be unfamiliar to our own.

Dewey’s insistence on an approach to education informed by the context of “real life” proves inconsistent with his decision to not acknowledge the role race and racism play in a “lived experience” [3].  This gap in his philosophical leaning is instructive, and illustrative, as it really points starkly to our field’s most significant pain points: the lack of full participation from practitioners and scholars from diverse backgrounds and minority-servicing institutions [4], the predominance of complacency in our work to address and impact social justice issues [5], and the lack of a robust debate about the core ethical, technical and emotional competencies needed to work in this field.


W.E.B. Du Bois (left), John Dewey (right)

Like Dewey, Dubois’s pedagogical framework is instructive and can serve as a guide within the higher civic engagement space–shedding insights on how to cast our eyes to different sources and voices.  In the Post-Ferguson Era, we must be much more intentional and deliberate about respectfully honoring the work that is going on in our local communities before our institutions get involved. This comes with a re-calibrated commitment to understanding changes to the democracy that is being both conceptualized and lived in by the change-makers who inhabit those communities; the very partners who sit across from us at our university-community partnership building meetings.

Whether recognized by the masses or not, higher education civic engagement is now operating in the Post-Ferguson Era. It means that we are staring at an unfiltered and uncomfortable truth; that racial oppression and inequity are dominant threads of change-initiative conversations in our country’s urban core neighborhood communities.  Today, working in the higher education civic engagement space means that more than ever, we are squarely faced with these historically rich themes.

However inconvenient to our routine or unfamiliar to our cognitive selves, we must begin to challenge ourselves to revisit the theoretical underpinnings of our field that rest on Dewian philosophy.


Dr. Holly E. Harriel is an independent consultant working on university-community partnerships, anchor institutions, civic engagement competencies and urban community transformation. Prior to her consultancy work, Harriel was the director of education outreach at Brown University. She received her Ed.D. in higher education management from the University of Pennsylvania, holds a masters degree in city planning from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and is an alumnus of Auburn and Tuskegee Universities.   Holly’s work is greatly informed by 20 years of experience working with a wide range of stakeholder groups; as a senior leader at two community development corporations, a cross-sector collaborative neighborhood development non-profit, and a national community economic development funding agency.   Holly’s passion for social justice has been the driving force in her career as an urban planner and educator. She can be reached at


[1] “higher education civic engagement” – a catch-all phrase for colleges and universities who work in their local communities.  It includes town-gown relations, civic teaching & learning, community focused faculty research, service-learning, volunteer & charity programs, and large scale community and economic development initiatives – also known as anchor institution projects.

[2] Since the late 1990s, leading voices promoting the Dewian theoretical foundations of higher ed civic engagement have been scholars out of the University of Pennsylvania – Ira Harkavy, Lee Benson, and John Puckett.  The authors lay out their thinking in their book, Dewey’s Dream: Universities and Democracies in an Age of Education Reform: Civil Society, Public schools, and Democratic Citizenship (Philadelphia, Temple University Press 2007).  One very good challenge to Harkavy, Benson, and Puckett has been made by Henry Louis Taylor and Linda McGlynn in Solving the Dewey Problem: Where Do We Go From Here? (2008).

[3] In her work, “(Re)construction Zone: Beware of Falling Statues, philosophy scholar Shannon Sullivan writes a compelling argument on reasons to be caution of our devotion of Dewey on matters of race as he wrote so little on the subject. Her writing is included in the book In Dewey’s Wake (2003).

[4] To explore the “lack of full participation” discussion see the 2011 catalyst paper, Full Participation: Building the Architecture for Diversity and Public Engagement in Higher Education, which highlights the field’s lack of representation of people of diverse cultural backgrounds and presents opportunities to move toward higher levels of diversity and inclusion. See “The Arc of the Academic Career Bends Toward Publicly Engaged Scholarship”, “Building Bridges, Not Fences”: A History of Civic Engagement at Private Black Colleges and Universities, 1944–1965″ and “African Americans and Community Engagement in Higher Education”, to explore the discussion around the omission of the work of minority-serving institutions in the broader higher ed civic engagement conversation and their legacy of working with their local communities as tied to their missions.

[5] In her 2014 post, How Neoliberal Ideology Fuels Complacency in Civic Engagement on blog,, T. Mitchell brilliantly discusses higher ed civic engagement’s complacency to impact social justice issues. Throughout the history of his work which spans 30+ years, professor H. Taylor has also made a similar argument.


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