A shopping mall in a college town seems like an unlikely space for the work of democracy. We don’t typically consider a cell phone kiosk as inspiring creativity, a bus stop as fostering collaboration, or a food court serving as a site for critical analysis. However, when I picture an environment full of rich potential to blend community and academic work, I think of the Old Capitol Mall in the heart of downtown Iowa City, IA.
The scene at the mall plays out like clockwork each day. Groups of predominately Black teenagers congregate after school as they wait for buses to arrive. Security officers stand by to monitor the noise level, enforce posted mall rules, and break up fights. Business owners of the adjacent storefronts post signs warning about the consequences of loitering. White faculty, staff, and college students pass by looking down at the ground as other bus riders wait anxiously for their buses to arrive. These observations, and more, motivated my interest in the mall as a focus for a course project at the University of Iowa.
Leadership and Public Service is a yearlong course designed for undergraduate students with an interest in community-based leadership and future roles as public servants. The fall semester focuses on academic work as students consider how power, privilege, and oppression shapes their understanding of the world and positions as leaders or public servants. Students then apply their learning to a project in the spring emphasizing community work.
Through the project, students examined positive and negative perceptions of various stakeholder groups in the mall. Small groups were charged applying a critical multicultural lens in order to educate themselves and their peers about issues in the mall related to race, social class, ability, and gender. Students considered how their personal identities influenced interactions in the space and perceptions of inclusivity as they conducted observations, researched news stories and policies, and interviewed patrons. The project culminated in presentations to campus and community leaders on recommendations to enhance interactions across difference in the mall.
At multiple points in the process, students poignantly asked, “where’s the service?” in our public service project. This key question was at the heart of my dilemma as a co-instructor designing and implementing the course. Prior to facilitating the mall project, I thought of the essential “work” in courses like this one as the hands-on engagement in community-based settings. However, students were underprepared to engage unless we prioritized our critical consciousness raising and skill development in navigating the complexities of difference. The public service project became the intellectual and emotional preparation necessary for students to engage in collective social action with community partners in the future. Over the course of a semester, students collected data, situated themselves in the process, and practiced social action skills applicable to the work of democracy in contested spaces.
This project also left me thinking about the dilemmas we face as instructors in designing and implementing educational experiences that blend community work with academic work. What is our responsibility to undergo the deep personal work necessary for instructors and students alike to engage across difference through public engagement? My experiences in the Obermann Graduate Institute on Engagement and the Academy prepared me to confidently undertake the course project, while addressing complex questions about reciprocity, student preparation, and facilitator skill development, among others. Making dilemmas like this one explicit with fellow educators in the Graduate Institute and beyond has the potential to enhance our understanding of who we are, what we stand for, and ultimately, what we are called to do as engaged scholars.
~ Kira Pasquesi, 2016
For more information on the project and a discussion of pedagogical implications, see:
Pasquesi, K. (2013). Navigating difference through multicultural service learning. In S. K. Watt & J. L. Linley (Eds.), Creating successful multicultural initiatives in higher education and student affairs (New Directions for Student Services, No. 155, pp. 37-45). San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.