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Hope and Higher Education -- The Powers of Public Narratives

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What happens when colleges become "part of" communities, not simply "partners with" communities, overcoming the culture of detachment that took hold in higher education after World War II, described by Thomas Ehrlich, a pioneer of civic engagement?

Such a shift means colleges and universities act as anchoring institutions, part of the "barn raising" which Nancy Cantor recently called for. In barn raising, colleges help communities to address challenges ranging from economic development to school reform.

In some cases re-integration of colleges, their staff and students into places can lead to even more expansive change. When colleges and universities and their members take on the role of "agents and architects of democracy," envisioned in The Wingspread Declaration in 1999, the process can generate new public narratives through which communities are able to re-imagine their futures.

There is a rich if largely unknown history which shows the potential. And there are examples today, like a consortium of colleges and universities in upstate New York, working with towns to spark a renaissance of the region, using the rubric "Rust to Green."

In years of researching effective citizen action, I have often been struck by the powers of public narratives. In Brooklyn in the 1980s, East Brooklyn Churches, an African American community organization, launched the nation's most ambitious low-income housing effort. The key was a new public narrative.

Community residents, using the story of the Old Testament leader who led the people in rebuilding Jerusalem's walls, named their effort Nehemiah Homes. "The story connected our work to something real, not something bogus," explains Mike Gecan, the local organizer. "It got it out of the 'housing' field and the idea that you have to have 35 consultants to do anything. It made it more than housing."

The heart of such narratives is a shift in collective identity from victim to agent of change. Such narratives also require skilled organizing to make them come alive -- citizen politics attentive to power, diverse interests, and relationship building. Local people need to own the stories, rooted in collective life. Such stories bring together previously divided groups. They counter the idea that making money, hyper-competition, and celebrity status are the ultimate goals, with the vision of a different future animiated by democratic, egalitarian, cooperative and inclusive values.

Such stories also challenge trends in higher education. On the one hand, colleges and universities tout their role in providing expertise to those seen as in need of answers. Historian Scott Peters has called this the "heroic meta-narrative" of higher education's role.

On the other hand, social theorists in recent decades have developed what Peters calls the "tragic counter-narrative," in which higher education is the oppressor. As the anthropologist James Scott put it about land grant colleges, "The unspoken logic... of agricultural modernization was one of consolidating the power of central institutions and diminishing the autonomy of cultivators and their communities."

Peters has unearthed an alternative to both, what he calls the "prophetic counter-narrative," in which land grant college faculty and students work as part of communities. In this story, faculty and students as well as other citizens combine practical problem solving with narrative imagination.

Thus, land grant colleges once helped to organize a "Little Country Theater Movement," local theaters across the Midwest designed to help communities tell their own stories. Alfred Arvold, on the faculty at North Dakota Agricultural College, began the movement in 1914 convinced that "there are literally millions of people in country communities today whose abilities have been hidden, simply because they have never had an opportunity to give expression to their talents." The theater projects fed later populist movements.

Peters has been part of the Rust to Green consortium in upstate New York that revives this approach. The consortium, including Cornell, Colgate, Utica College, Hamilton College, and Mohawk Valley Community College, is working in Utica and the Mohawk Valley, with plans to expand to other cities.

Rust to Green holds that stories of community decline in the "Rust Belt," a stretch of communities which have experienced loss of manufacturing jobs, declining populations, growing poverty and other ills, can be reversed by multidimensional work to build sustainable and resilient communities and economies. The rubric is the brainchild of Paula Horrigan, associate professor of landscape architecture at Cornell who identifies with the land grant public work tradition.

Horrigan has long been skeptical of colleges "serving communities" from on high, or simply "researching" their problems. She believes that higher education work should always be in a process of "decentering," and measures success by the degree to which the work is able to move energy away from academic experts and towards communities. She uses the metaphor of a growing tree in which the center dies out and outer layers grow and thicken, transporting nutrients and becoming increasingly life-filled and generative. She sees herself as "part of" the region and its communities, not "partners with."

A Brookings Institute study in 2007 identified area towns as having hidden assets and "high potential for renewed prosperity." Building on this message, Rust to Green began in 2009 with a three year federal grant. Then mayor David Roefaro was enthusiastic. "I want to make Utica one of the greenest cities in upstate New York and our affiliation with Cornell is going to do that," he said.

The metaphor is highly catalytic. The Mohawk Valley Food Action Network, using the Rust to Green logo, includes dozens of partners -- schools, local producers, farmers' markets, cooperative extension, local governments. It aims to strengthen local farmers and businesses, building on local knowledge and creating a healthy, sustainable food system.

One World Garden in Utica, also part of Rust to Green, is organized by a coalition including immigrants, the Mohawk Valley Center for Refugees, artists and others. It combines local food production, a park space, and art, highlighting the contributions of refugees and immigrants, seeking to counter the idea of "threat" with possibility.

Public officials have also broadened their views. "We're now looking at municipal projects in a new way," explains Bob Sullivan, former Urban Renewal Agency director and member of the Rust to Green Core. "We're looking at storm water mitigation, permeable pavement and all sorts of things that could be considered green."

Rust to Green is only two years old, but the metaphor has shown strong appeal. As one faculty member active in the consortium told Horrigan, "People don't know much about our campus center, but everyone knows something is afoot in Rust to Green."

Perhaps most important for democracy in New York and elsewhere is the revival of the "democracy's college" narrative of democracy, different than either the unbridled market or government-centered action.

As Peters put it, democracy's colleges aimed not only at "material well-being for all." They also promoted a "democratic ideal (and practice) of self-rule, through which the common people, functioning as citizens, work as cooperative producers not only of the commonwealth, but also of the culture and politics of their own neighborhoods and communities.

This is the story of democracy as a journey, not a destination. It is needed once again.

Harry C. Boyte is National Coordinator of the American Commonwealth Partnership, director of the Center for Democracy and Citizenship at Augsburg College, and a Senior Fellow at the Humphrey School of Public Affairs.