Principles of Anti-Oppressive Community Engagement for University Educators and Researchers
A Perpetual Work in Progress as We Learn to Do This Work Better in Community With Others
To learn about the genesis of this project, please click here.
For a PDF of this document, please click here.
As faculty and staff associated with the Social Impact Lab at Northeastern University, we aspire to make a positive contribution in the communities where we live, work, and visit. We are mindful that community-engaged teaching and research (CETR) are not neutral acts; they can both benefit and harm the people they touch on and off campus. We recognize our obligation to optimize the benefits while also anticipating and mitigating the unintended negative consequences that can result from inserting ourselves and our students into other people’s lives and communities with the intention to learn, “do good,” and effect change. This awareness is especially important when we do not share the identities and lived experience of people in the communities we enter.
While honoring the important history and essential role of the Institutional Review Board (IRB) in human subject research protection, we seek to supplement the safeguards it provides by raising awareness that many impacts of community engagement not addressed by IRB are nonetheless harmful to historically oppressed communities. We must learn to do better. We begin by acknowledging that legacies of slavery, genocide, white supremacy, and oppression of individuals based on their social identities have caused harm in many of the communities we engage with in the U.S. and accepting responsibility for learning how we can actively support the survivors and descendants of these phenomena. When engaging with communities outside the U.S., we are equally obligated to understand how the harms of colonialism, imperialism, and other oppressive dynamics manifest in the local context.
We recognize that acknowledging these truths is not enough; we must strive to uphold antiracist and anti-oppressive values as a way of being on and off campus. To that end, we commit to these Principles of Anti-Oppressive Community Engagement for University Educators and Researchers and aspire to develop practices and systems of accountability that allow us to uphold them as we learn and grow as educators and humans.
1. Honor Communities’ Autonomy and Right to Self-Determination
We will acknowledge when we are visitors in other people’s communities and respect their autonomy, agency, and right to make their own decisions about matters affecting their lives and futures; and
Respect that communities have the right to define the challenges and opportunities they face, set the priorities that will allow them to thrive, and define success on their own terms.
2. Respect Communities’ History, Culture, Lived Experience, and Expertise
We will enter communities as listeners and learn as much as possible about the history, culture, lived experience, and assets of the communities we engage with; and
Honor the legitimacy and value of diverse forms of knowledge and expertise without placing the burden of teaching us on community members.
3. Recognize the Limits of Our Lived Experience, Expertise, and Perspectives
We will acknowledge that we are not the first or only people to problem-solve in the communities we engage with;
Educate ourselves about individuals in the community and in other disciplines and fields who already address the challenges and opportunities we are working on; and
Question the frameworks, narratives, and assumptions that have shaped our understanding of the world and the disciplines and fields in which we work.
4. Reflect on Our Social Identities, Positions, and Power
We will cultivate self-awareness and do the work of grappling with our own social identities, biases, motivations for doing community-engaged work, and elements of discomfort we may feel working in and with communities not our own;
Recognize the power and privilege associated with our positions in higher education; and
Question whether our engagement in community settings is welcome and adds value.
5. Build Authentic, Mutually Beneficial Relationships with Patience and Humility
We will center community members’ voices and perspectives in our understanding of our shared endeavor;
Recognize our collaborators as co-educators and practice co-design, co-creation and co-ownership of ideas, data, publications, credit, and profit resulting from our work in community; and
Build open and transparent communication channels and accept feedback with appreciation and a commitment to learn.
6. Manage Resources Equitably
We will recognize that control of resources is a form of power that can perpetuate inequity in our relationships with community partners;
Ensure that our collaborators are recognized and appropriately compensated for their physical, emotional, and intellectual labor and other contributions to our work; and
Be cognizant of limited resources available to many community-based organizations and consider how best to deploy the resources available to us as equitably and effectively as possible.
7. Hold Ourselves Accountable
We will hold ourselves accountable for the impact of our words and actions, regardless of our intentions, with grace, courage, and constructive dialogue about how we can do better; and
Recognize that institutions of higher education play complex roles in the communities they occupy and work internally to promote values and practices that center community interests and well-being.
8. Rethink Our Relationship with Time and Urgency
We will acknowledge that the pace of building trust and relationships cannot be hastened by the academic calendar, grant deadlines, funding opportunities, and other sources of urgency; and
Cultivate patience and value the work of building and stewarding each relationship, which may involve the efforts of many individuals on and off campus.
9. Hold Ourselves Accountable to the Values and Practices of Anti-Oppressive Community Engagement in our Relationships with Students and in Our Classrooms
We will respect the diverse identities and lived experiences of our students and recognize the harm that can occur in classrooms and labs because of unconscious bias and the power imbalance among instructors and students;
Give deference to students’ experience of racial and social injustice and relationships with the issues and communities we are addressing; and
Study and practice antiracist and trauma-informed pedagogy to minimize the risk of such harms.
10. Prioritize Patience, Perspective-Taking, and Joy
We will accept that doing the work of ethical CETR can be emotionally challenging for us while also recognizing that the burdens of social change weigh far more heavily on the people and organizations on the front lines of this work;
Embrace vulnerability and gracious listening to feedback as fundamental elements of this work, knowing we will make mistakes and accept them as lessons we can build on to improve relationships and our collaborative work;
Practice self-care, gratitude, compassion and grace with ourselves, each other, and our community partners; and
Find hope, joy, and meaning in this work and the relationships it allows us to build on and off campus.
These principles were articulated by Rebecca Riccio, Becca Berkey, and Giordana Mecagni but incubated over the course of several years within a diverse network of faculty, staff, students, and community partners who share a commitment to anti-oppressive community engagement. We drew inspiration from practices and values held within the Human Services Program, School of Public Policy and Urban Affairs, Dukakis Center for Urban and Regional Policy, Office of City & Community Engagement, Community-Engaged Teaching & Research, University Library Archives, NULawLab, ADVANCE Office of Faculty Development, Northeastern University Public Evaluation Lab, Center for Advancing Teaching and Learning through Research, Center for Intercultural Engagement, Social Justice Resource Center, Center for Dialogue, Spirituality, and Service, and our Cultural Centers.
We are also indebted to a host of scholars and practitioners of community-engaged teaching and research, service-learning, anti-oppressive pedagogy, social movement building, and social and racial justice who have informed our values, practices, and aspirations over the years.
For a list of resources that informed this work click here.
To learn more about how we’re trying to hold ourselves accountable to these principles, please read about the Transparency Project.