Academic Exchange Quarterly      Fall 2010    ISSN 1096-1453    Volume  14, Issue  3

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Toward Multicultural Community Engagement


Tabitha Grier-Reed, University of Minnesota

Dan Detzner, University of Minnesota

Robert K. Poch, University of Minnesota

Susan Staats, University of Minnesota


Grier-Reed is Assistant Professor of Psychology, Detzner is Professor of Social Sciences, Poch is Senior Fellow of History and Staats is Associate Professor of Math, all of the Department of Postsecondary Teaching and Learning, College of Education and Human Development.

An integrative approach to undergraduate curriculum development that we call multicultural community engagement can prepare students to participate in a diverse democracy and the more complex world of tomorrow. Courses, programs, and undergraduate majors can be strengthened through curricula that develop multicultural competency and that position students to work in full collaboration with diverse communities. Curricular examples suggest ways to incorporate multicultural community engagement into a variety of courses and disciplines.

Many words have been written about the role of universities, colleges, and faculty within the context of their larger communities since Ernest Boyer, the Kellogg Commission and others renewed emphasis on the importance of the engaged university (Boyer, 1990; Boyer, 1996; Kellogg Commission, 1999). Numerous definitions, variations, and models of engagement have been suggested and many centers developed to facilitate students who seek direct experiences in one-time casual field observations, regular service learning activities, or longer term active involvement with communities (Butin, 2006; Corey, 2010; Joseph, Stone, Grantham, Harmancioglu & Ibrahim, 2007; Mobley, 2007; Wade & Saxe, 1996).

A concurrent national discussion has emphasized the demographic realities of vastly
increased social, economic, and cultural diversity within schools, universities, and communities.
The nation is moving away from the black-white civil rights discourse that has dominated public
policy and educational debates for more than five decades into a more complex conversation
about the nature of ethnicity, identity, and learning in multicultural communities (Chavez, 2005; Johnson, 2004; Meador, 2005). With half of all U.S. children born to non-whites, several major cities having majorities composed of persons of color, and a future population that will be even more diverse, it is time to recognize that the Obama generation is not a passing trend but rather the face of the future.


Universities have a role in contributing to their local, regional, national, and international communities, and share responsibility for advancing social progress. We propose multicultural community engagement which situates multicultural competence or skill development at the center of civic engagement as one avenue for advancing social progress. Disparities in educational outcomes represent a breach of the social contract in a democracy where all men and women are created equal and there is equal opportunity. Universities share in the responsibility for realizing the democratic ideal of equality. By making diversity and social justice central to the civic mission of universities and colleges through engaged scholarship and curricula that address these issues directly, it is possible to renew a democratic society and prepare students for the complexities they will face in the future (Mayhew & DeLuca Fernández, 2007).


Although community engagement and education for democracy have a long history (Nelson, 2001), education by, about, and with multicultural communities has not been fully developed in higher education. Most major research universities can recount stories of the difficult creation of African American, Asian American, and Chicano/Latino curricula and departments. But higher education has not created a curriculum or undergraduate major that extends its focus beyond single ethnic groups to the nature of multicultural communities themselves, perhaps because there are few faculty trained this broadly. There is little incentive to cooperate across siloed departments and, in times of budget shrinkage, no money for new programs. However, a unit within a course, an entire course, a sequence of courses in a minor or certificate, or a fully developed multicultural community engagement major can combine the best of what we know about respectful engagement with diverse communities, learning outside the classroom, and different ways of knowing.


An integrative approach to curriculum development, experiential learning, and community engagement can stimulate a dialogue about the new kind of undergraduate education that will be needed to prepare students for the complexities of the future in a multicultural democracy and global context. Hence, we have coined the term “multicultural community engagement” to describe this movement focused on integrating civic engagement and multicultural education. Through a discussion of several types of community engagement, we illustrate strategies for engaging multicultural communities and creating curricula that prepare students to become well informed citizens with the knowledge and skills needed to work with and across cultural difference.

Integrating Multicultural Education and Civic Engagement
Civic engagement is a core value of most American research universities (Checkoway, 2001). “Civic engagement means working to make a difference in the civic life of our communities and developing the combination of knowledge, skills, values and motivation to make that difference” (Connor, September/October 2006, p. 52). In increasingly diverse 21st century communities, skills for promoting quality of life include the ability to communicate, collaborate, and engage in critical thinking and conflict resolution across race, culture, and ethnicity. This includes the social awareness, complex thinking skills, and ability to communicate across systems needed to address injustice (Hurtado, 2007). As Checkoway (2001) asserts, in order to participate in a multicultural democracy students must understand their own cultural identities as well as the identities of those who belong to different cultural groups, and students must develop the skills to engage with others across difference.


Interestingly, as Sylvia Hurtado (2007) has pointed out, although multicultural education and civic engagement have much in common, these two fields have developed on parallel tracks as two different ways to develop students’ awareness of complex social issues. We emphasize the pedagogical connections between multicultural education and civic engagement which include dialogue, discussion, experiential learning, reflection, social critique, and commitment to change. We call this integration multicultural community engagement, and view it as a vehicle for producing future leaders and citizens who have the social awareness and critical thinking skills to address issues of inequality, marginalization, and the social complexities that arise from diversity in a multicultural democracy.


Community engagement can be defined as the collaboration between higher education institutions and their larger communities for the mutually beneficial exchange of knowledge and resources in a context of partnership and reciprocity (Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching). However, there are multiple levels of engagement. The most basic and perhaps common level is engagement focused on doing “for” communities, where those from outside of the community identify and solve community problems. For example, students may identify a problem like high levels of Type II diabetes in communities of low socioeconomic status and then decide to create a brochure to educate communities about this issue. From the outside, students identify the problem and develop solutions for the community.

Engagement at the level of working “in” communities is common to service learning models but may be particularly characteristic of the missionary model, where students go into communities from the primary vantage point of helper and healer rather than learner and partner. At this level of engagement, students may again identify problems and develop solutions from outside of the community; however, in order to implement solutions, they enter the community. For example, rather than create a brochure for the community, students might put together a health fair in the community.

The Carnegie Foundation definition of community engagement describes the highest level as working “with” communities. At this level of engagement, the community is involved at every level of problem-solving—from identifying issues to developing and implementing solutions. This level also requires the most complex skill sets including communication, collaboration, conflict resolution, and critical thinking. Students are considered learners and partners involved in scholarship that is applied, cross-disciplinary, problem-centered, and situated within social and economic contexts as opposed to scholarship that is pure, disciplinary, hierarchical, and expert-led (Gibbons et al., 1994).


When we introduce the term multicultural community engagement, we view the levels of engagement identified by the Carnegie Foundation as a developmental sequence in which students can gain multicultural awareness, knowledge, and skills by working for, in, and with diverse communities. In attempting to operationalize basic multicultural competencies, Arrendondo and colleagues (1996) delineate awareness as an awareness of the attitudes and beliefs associated with one’s own cultural identity as well as those associated with other cultural groups; knowledge as based in specific information (such as the ability to name specific aspects of one’s own cultural heritage) and conceptual understanding including understanding the relationship between culture and power and/or the institutional barriers experienced by various cultural groups; and, skills as based in the ability to communicate, collaborate, and problem-solve across cultural difference, including the ability to recognize the limitations of one’s own worldview. Others have proposed similar ideas. For example, King and Magolda’s (2005) developmental model of intercultural maturity is based in cognitive, intrapersonal, and interpersonal development (Quaye & Magolda, 2007).


The cognitive aspect of intercultural maturity is focused on understanding the complexity of cultural differences (King & Magolda, 2005) and is akin to the knowledge component of multicultural competence proposed by Arrendondo and colleagues (1996). The intrapersonal aspect is focused on the ability to accept rather than feel threatened by cultural differences (King & Magolda, 2005) and is akin to the awareness component of the Arrendondo et al. (1996) model. The interpersonal aspect of intercultural maturity is focused on the ability to interact interdependently with culturally diverse others (King & Magolda, 2005) and is akin to the skills component of the Arrendondo et al. (1996) model.


The definition of multicultural competence proposed by Arrendondo et al. (1996) clarifies how pedagogical tools such as reflection and dialogue can increase multicultural awareness and knowledge when working for diverse communities. Moreover, using experiential activities that require students to work at higher levels of engagement in and with diverse communities can extend learning to the development of multicultural skills. Such a scaffolded approach to multicultural education, moving from low-risk to higher risk multicultural contexts, can also build students’ readiness for multicultural community engagement. By integrating students into diverse communities in steps and stages, they can develop in natural ways according to the place where they are when they arrive in the course.

The focus on experiential activities in multicultural community settings requires an engaged approach to learning. According to Nagda, Gurin, and Lopez (2003) engaged learning integrates content knowledge and active learning to expand the bounds of the learning environment from inside of the classroom to students’ outside-the-classroom experiences. Through coursework focused on multicultural community engagement, we believe that it is possible to integrate civic/community engagement with engaged learning in the context of multiculturalism. Currently, the practice of engaged scholarship can be summarized via five approaches, and we argue that in the 21st century context this engagement must involve multicultural communities.


One approach to engaged scholarship is public scholarship focused on complex social problems that require deliberation such as race relations. A second approach to engaged scholarship is participatory research focused on the inclusion of different groups in democratic decision-making. A third approach, public information networks, addresses problems of networking and communication within complex communities. A fourth approach to engaged scholarship is based in community partnerships focused on addressing social change and societal transformation. And, the fifth approach can be described as civic literacy focused on enhancing public and civil discourse. (Barker, 2004)

By embedding a multicultural perspective within engaged learning, the approaches to engaged scholarship can provide a range of tools that assist teachers in developing citizens for a multicultural democracy. Moreover, the integrative approach underlying multicultural community engagement can advance the level of coherence in undergraduate education in the 21st century. Whether it is a full undergraduate major, a minor, or an individual course that has been taught for years, multicultural community engagement is a way to extend the classroom, integrate new and more diverse community partners, and move beyond the limited expertise of the faculty. In the case examples that follow we present specific considerations for individual faculty interested in moving toward multicultural community engagement in individual courses.

Teaching Multicultural Community Engagement in the Social Sciences
The days of the quick fix, take and run, working for instead of with communities are over. It takes time and considerable effort to develop trust, understanding, and complementary goals. Community-university engagements need continuous evaluation and nurturing to remain vital and mutually satisfying. It’s a lot easier to assign a term paper or a final exam. Our experiences working with students from high-school to graduate school in a variety of social science courses illustrate specific examples and levels of multicultural community engagement.

Not all linkages within communities need to be full engagements. Often, students need to learn gradually, in steps and stages, with sufficient scaffolding and enough time to develop cognitive, intra- and interpersonal skills (King & Magolda, 2005). As they become more competent and confident, they become increasingly sophisticated in how to enter and contribute to communities different than their own. For example, an introductory course on the social sciences required elementary education teachers to visit a multicultural organization, business, community center, or school program ‘outside their comfort zone.’ They researched websites, made an appointment to interview a key informant at a site, recorded observations, and asked about potential internship or engagement possibilities. This kind of ‘get your toe wet’ engagement takes inexperienced, sometimes rural, and often shy students into new places in the city and guides them in meaningful engagement with individuals whose life experiences are different than their own. By meeting and talking with individuals from different cultural backgrounds and then reflecting on those experiences in terms of their own comfort level and lessons learned, students’ can develop awareness as well as multicultural knowledge. Moreover, the assignment does not assume that the student is White visiting the multicultural “other”. For example, one Somali student dressed in traditional hajib visited a Swedish institute that she had walked past for years on her way home from classes. A Hmong student taking the class visited the local office of the African-American congressman (also the first Muslim congressman) who represents the district where the university is located. Using dialogue, discussion, reflection, and an experiential exercise this activity extends the learning environment outside of the classroom into multicultural contexts.

In an advanced placement high school course, students learned the limits of public scholarship through engagement with a local community. The word ‘colored’ separated the names of deceased soldiers commemorated on a WWI I plaque in the courtyard of city hall. When students proposed to raise the funds to recast the plaque to integrate the names in a presentation before the city council, both local and national newspapers covered the story. The principal was interviewed. Parents made angry phone calls for and against the student proposal. An editorial in a local newspaper called for the firing of the course teacher. The plaque creators, the local American Legion post, complained loudly that history should not be re-written. The city council voted against changing the plaque. Students learned more than any text or teacher could have taught them about the entrenched nature of racial categorization and latent prejudice by directly engaging with their local community. This included a first-hand lesson regarding the roles of culture and power. By taking on an issue related to how history is portrayed, students developed an awareness of cultural context in the telling of history and the representation of marginalized groups. When the American Legion reacted vigorously against the students and the NAACP reacted favorably, students were also able to see democractic interest groups at work representing different cultural worldviews. Moreover, by participating in the democratic process, students were presented with the opportunity for engaged learning that extends the learning environment to real-world multicultural contexts, and in this assignment, students were also able to self-author the knowledge gained from the experience rather than taking notes on a lecture on Gordon Allport’s (1954) The nature of prejudice that could have been presented in forty-five minutes (Magolda, 2004). According to King and Magolda (2005), self-authorship allows students to be active participants in the construction of knowledge—constructing their own visions, making informed decisions, and acting appropriately—rather than passive recipients of teaching and learning molded simply by external forces. The experiential pedagogies of multicultural community engagement create opportunities for self-authorship.

In an effort to expose students to history through first-hand, active learning processes, Corey (2010) found that experiences in communities help students become informed citizens who understand the interconnected nature of urban and environmental decisions. We found support for this assertion in two other public scholarship examples of multicultural community engagement. Two courses were developed on ‘decision making’ using the Hennepin County Government Center and the building of the HHH Metrodome as case studies of public decision making that affects the larger community. The university is located in the midst of two cities that have become increasingly diverse and international so that any serious long term engagement within the community can be easily linked to issues of race, social class, immigration, and marginalization. Hence, in the first course, students explored one floor of the 12-story government center each week with department heads, judges, and elected commissioners who met students in their offices and chambers to explain what and how decisions were made in the state’s largest county. Students read annual reports, evaluation studies, needs assessments, legal briefs, and other documents used in the decision making process. These issues included social welfare assistance, medical care for those with low incomes, and juvenile justice. In the second course, the building of a new indoor stadium where the university and two pro teams would play football and baseball became the case study of interest. A low income neighborhood was displaced by the stadium. The class met in the Metrodome and other key sites around the city, read the government studies and other key documents, and had major corporate, government, sports, and local leaders explain their roles in the decisions to build the teflon-domed stadium on the edge of campus.


In these cases, students were engaged as learners on issues of major public importance with community and neighborhood activists as well as corporate and government leaders who were the teachers. Students connected to government, business, journalism, and non-profit organizations and gained a better understanding of how important public decisions are made. They wrote papers evaluating the nature and impact of specific decisions. These quarter-long engagement courses were deep enough to get students to see the collaborative nature of decision making in the metropolitan community where the university is located, examine the impact of decisions on the communities themselves, and become comfortable moving around the city. Additionally, with an emphasis on information or cognitive development, students had opportunities to gain knowledge about the complexities of decisions affecting multicultural communities in their local environment.

Community partnerships were established with professional colleagues in two other examples illustrating course long engagements between students and multicultural communities that were mutually beneficial and, as asserted by Sandmann (2007) as important to community engagement, focused on community, stewardship, responsibility, and mutual concern. Both courses draw upon the fieldwork and the life history methodology that one of the authors developed in teaching and research (Detzner, 2004). In the first course, students studying the aging process were asked to interview elders within a highly diverse public senior high rise apartment building. Seniors volunteered to have a weekly visitor, to tell their life story, and to allow their story to be shared with the larger community. When the stories were read aloud at a luncheon in the community room, many new connections across cultural and age groups were made by participants and students as common themes of struggle and resilience were told. Here, opportunities to develop interpersonal multicultural competencies focused on empathy, communication, and collaboration were presented, and several of the relationships resulted in friendships with many visitations continuing after the assignment had ended. Moreover, with respect to the mutually beneficial nature of community engagement and the focus on stewardship, the elders were able to have their stories captured or recorded and validated.


In a second course, immigrant students in a specialized learning community used a life history approach to record the stories of family elders as part of a research writing course. Here, students learned the importance of good writing by blending primary and secondary sources, engaging a family member or friend in an important act of story-telling, and with the permission of the interviewee, placing a copy of the life history account in the archives of the Immigration History Research Center in the university library system. Both examples illustrate ways that a course assignment can bring students into contact with diverse members of the community and develop multicultural knowledge that not only adds something of value to them as individuals but also contributes to the recording of community history. Further, although we did not measure the increase in intercultural maturity, our general observations of student learning are in accord with those of Einfield and Collins (2008). These authors conducted a qualitative study to explore outcomes related to social justice, multicultural competence, and civic-engagement for students engaged in a long-term service learning project through AmeriCorps (Einfield & Collins, 2008). Findings indicated that students developed a wide variety of multicultural skills in their volunteer work with diverse communities including empathy, patience, attachment, reciprocity, trust, and respect.

Many faculty who engage students in the community as a regular component of their pedagogy also conduct participatory research within those same communities. This type of engagement is likely to be much more intensive, long-term, and potentially significant to both community and academic partners. Development of the Helping Youth Succeed: Bicultural Parenting for Southeast Asian Families curriculum is a 5-year illustration of the participatory research process (Detzner, Xiong, and Eliason, 2000). Community members approached researchers already working in the Southeast Asian communities and asked them to collaborate on the development of a parent education program for parents of adolescents. More than 100 community members were involved in focus groups, field testing, and video production for a parenting curriculum that now reaches Vietnamese, Cambodian, Lao, and Hmong families in 10 states. More than 20 undergraduate and graduate students from the four cultural groups worked as research assistants and partners on the project. They were involved in community meetings, field testing, curriculum revisions, and implementation learning to work across five cultural groups, languages, and communities through multicultural community engagement. As in the other illustrations, in the participatory research project there were numerous opportunities for developing multicultural awareness, knowledge, and skills.


By infusing a focus on multicultural education into the practices of civic engagement, multicultural community engagement bridges two movements that have existed on separate but parallel tracks. Drawing on pedagogical strategies such as dialogue, discussion, reflection, and social critique, multicultural community engagement also pulls from the pedagogy of engaged learning to extend the learning environment outside of the bounds of the classroom and into multicultural community contexts. Within this paper we have articulated a conceptual basis for multicultural community engagement that guides students in working for, in, and with multicultural communities in order to develop the multicultural awareness, knowledge, and skills related to intercultural maturity. We have also provided practical illustrations to guide instructors in moving toward this idea. Perhaps even more important, we have envisioned the potential of multicultural community engagement to better prepare citizens for a multicultural democracy and the global context in which we live. As previously stated, universities have a role in contributing to their local, regional, national, and even international communities, and these institutions share responsibility for advancing social progress. In moving toward multicultural community engagement, which situates multicultural competence at the center of civic engagement, we assert an additional avenue for colleges and universities to advance social progress, and we hope that this movement takes hold.


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