Discussion: Opportunities and Challenges
This community engagement project presented a number of opportunities. In terms of DePaul’s mission, these experiences and assignments gave DePaul students access and exposure to direct service. Notably, the “service” described here largely took the form of accompaniment (see Goizueta, 2009; Sepúlveda, 2011). Through participant-observation, immersion experiences like the Courtwatch Program and the Interfaith Prayer Vigil required students to be present and observe. Their role was less to “do good” (or to offer charity) and more to witness and learn. Students often reported having had no idea how immigration courts actually worked before their Courtwatch experience. Students entered an unfamiliar and uncomfortable space of having little to no (direct) agency. But it was precisely through being present in court and observing court proceedings that students learned how to accompany those who suffer. Such experiences helped students to grow in empathy and, in many cases, inspired them to act.
In addition to benefiting student learning, this community engaged partnership also presented several opportunities for Chris, Melanie, and ICDI. Trained in the humanities, Chris benefitted immensely from Melanie’s experience as a social scientist trained in field research methodology. She helped to educate him about research approaches and methodologies and was pivotal to the coding process. Melanie benefitted from Chris’s expertise in creating a schedule to move from a general concept to a published article. This partnership also greatly enhanced the learning experience of Chris’s students. Students reported very high levels of engagement with the course, due in large part to the immersion experiences they were introduced to through ICDI. As for the benefits for ICDI, our findings gave ICDI some understanding of how people exposed to ICDI’s work internalize their experience. Such information will help to inform ICDI messaging, fundraising, and volunteer recruiting. As indicated earlier, the impetus for collaboration between DePaul and ICDI emerged with this particular opportunity' in mind. Additionally, a partnership with DePaul afforded ICDI increased exposure. Through student participation and community-facing events such as panel discussions, more people in and around the DePaul community have learned about the work of ICDI. Lastly, we arc considering additional collaborations between DePaul and ICDI which could include DePaul student internships with ICDI and an opportunity' for Melanie to co-teach a course with DePaul faculty.
Through this course, we also encountered three challenges. First, we faced the challenge of managing two entirely different work schedules. As we discovered, the academic calendar has a certain rhythm that does not always match with the stretched capacity of a nonprofit executive director and the demands on an organization like ICDI, especially in these precariously changing political times. Several meetings and deadlines were set, and yet several cancellations and/or postponements from both parties ensued. We learned that a community partnership such as ours requires accountability, flexibility, congeniality, the benefit of the doubt, and even a good sense of humor.
Second, we became aware that as much as we proactively strove to manage and mitigate town-gown power relations (Bruning, McGrew, & Cooper, 2006), certain uncomfortable situations inevitably arose. One such instance occurred when the DePaul Steans Center provided funding for Chris and our undergraduate assistant to attend a conference to discuss our community-based research project. Because the fellowship did not expressly stipulate that there were additional funds for community partners, Chris erroneously assumed that only the student assistant and he would be supported. As he later discovered, however, the Steans Center could have also covered the expenses for Melanie. Although he knew in theory that the Steans Center promoted and supported community partnerships, he assumed that the fellowship funds were only for DePaul faculty and students. In doing so, he inadvertently perpetuated the towngown divide. Moving forward, we know that in order for a community partnership to be successfill, the partnership must be actively lobbied for and vigilantly cultivated (see Dostilio et al., 2012).
Our last challenge worthy of mention is the need to think more intentionally about how to provide differentiated instruction for students and how to design community-based learning in such a way that it does not re-privilege the privileged, rc-traumatize the traumatized, or tokenize the experiences of minority' students. For some students, this course was the first time they' had consciously thought about or looked at the complexities of immigration. Other students, however, had already' been directly impacted by current immigration policies and may' have had detained or undocumented family members. One step that Chris took to bridge this divide was to invite two or three students to read their Heritage Papers aloud for the class. Sometimes papers reflected intimate experiences with undocumented immigration, while other papers reflected very' little direct experience. In both cases, however, papers were selected on the basis of
Faith in Action and Community Engagement 155 their persuasiveness and different points of reference. By reading their papers aloud, students became the experts in the room (productively decentering the role of the instructor), and the classroom was transformed into a cathartic space of mutual sharing and trust. Students directly taught each other about what immigration has or has not meant for them and their families by sharing their personal stories and lived experiences. This exercise was but one step in bridging the divide between different immigration experiences. We realize that we need to be continually mindful of the way that we introduce immersion experiences and have students reflect upon them. We must do so in a way that centers and honors the experiences of those who have been most directly impacted.