Community-Engaged Learning

Striving to (Re)Adjust: A Story of Community-Engaged Realities

Written by Grace Ribeiro

We are not machines geared for cranking out project deliverables but humans… Recognition of this humanness is essential to community work, as it fosters empathy and understanding for ourselves and others. – Grace Ribeiro

In the summer of 2021, I enrolled in Dr. Bruce Ravelli’s community-engaged learning course, SOCI 439 A + B: Community-Engaged Sociology. I first heard about community-engaged learning (CEL) in an introductory sociology lecture in 2019, when Bruce invited his upper-level students to talk about their class projects and share what it meant to do sociology in practice. The prospect of working in community, building reciprocal relationships, and engaging in mutually-beneficial learning opportunities was intriguing to me; I knew that this course would not only help me gain a deeper understanding of the concepts and theories I was learning in the classroom but could also give me firsthand experience of what it means to be a sociologist in practice.  

Before the course started, Dr. Ravelli asked each student to look through a list of community partners and consider if and how we would like to engage with them and what sort of projects could be created between our expertise and their guidance. I eagerly sent Dr. Ravelli my top choices for community partners, carefully considering the values, goals and communities they serve to find the best match. I was ecstatic when paired with my first choice – a grassroots organization that prioritized harm reduction, social justice and non-judgment. With everything in place, I was keen and ready to do the work that would positively impact my local community. 

After the first week of classes in the fall of 2021, my peachy, eager feelings began to dissipate. While most of the other students in my class had already connected with their community partners and planned meetings to discuss project possibilities, I was getting radio silence from my partner organization. Multiple calls and emails went unacknowledged, even when my professor stepped in. This left me feeling deflated and anxious, and I began to personalize their lack of response as an indicator that I was too pushy or a burden rather than an asset to their work. Without any clear communication from my community partner, I was unable to move forward with my work and instead became frustrated and stressed about falling behind. After a month of this silence, Bruce recommended that I step away and instead connect with another partner. 

Sadly, my second attempt at a project yielded similar results: the community partner was another grassroots organization, primarily run by volunteers, leaving limited time and resources for anyone to coordinate with me on a project. After exchanging initial emails with the partner’s executives, communication faded into silence as personal circumstances took precedence over project planning, leaving me in the same spot I was in only a few weeks earlier. What became apparent is that, despite agreeing to host a CEL student a few months prior, neither organization had the capacity or resources to supervise what could be an intensive project. This is a reality for many non-profits and community organizations, which rely on limited staff and funding to support their work and the populations they serve. Folks working in these areas often have very full plates or do this work off the corners of their desks in addition to their full-time jobs, leaving limited time, energy and space to facilitate mentoring or student projects. Further, those in non-profits often work within or against dysfunctional systems, leaving them prone to burnout as they mediate between how they desire to serve community and what they can reasonably achieve within, for example, funding constraints and models. This was something I didn’t fully understand while carrying out my community project; this would come to be a hard lesson I had to learn when I was tasked with managing limited resources and time within a non-profit myself. 

After two failed attempts at connecting with community partners, I redirected my efforts to support an organization I had already been volunteering with, using my hours to help coordinate multiple anti-racism workshops and events for local international development and non-profit workers. It was important work that built off the relationships and rapport I already had with the team, creating an opportunity to deepen my understanding of organizational operations while working to bridge gaps in their work. Following the completion of my CEL course, I was asked to take on a volunteer co-chair position at the organization, continuing to facilitate their Anti-Racism Community of Practice and assist in other organizational needs, such as using my previous experience to mentor future CEL students. In the spring of 2022, the post-event glow had me confident we could offer rich and fulfilling experiences for students while also continuing to create engaging and community-based events. 

Sadly, the summer brought a downturn in that momentum. With one co-chair taking on a cross-continent move, and two other co-chairs stepping away from their roles due to personal circumstances, the small existing team realized we needed more time, resources and support for a CEL student than we had initially planned for. Not only that but we were worried that there wasn’t enough work or momentum to offer a student a meaningful and rewarding project. In September 2022, after scrambling to try to pull something together, we shared with heavy hearts that we would be unable to take on a CEL student as planned and that the organization would be going on hiatus until we had the time and capacity to build it back up. In only a year, I had gone from the disappointed student and stepped into the maxed community partner’s shoes, unable to follow through with the commitments made only months earlier. This gave me an interesting insight into the struggles that students and community partners face when navigating changing capacities and managing the many ‘hats’ we wear. 

At the core of this experience is the humanness of it all. We, as students, workers, and community members, can only operate within the contexts of our own lives, and sometimes we must lean into checking in with ourselves and being honest rather than pushing forward with projects that are beyond our capacity. This experience also helped depersonalize the feelings of rejection that came with having a community partner unable to support my project, reminding me that we are all only people doing our best with the resources and time we have. It was not personal but instead a reality of working in community and within non-profit structures- a reality we must make room for. We are not machines geared for cranking out project deliverables but humans navigating an increasingly demanding and challenging realm amid rapidly changing social and environmental landscapes. Recognition of this humanness is essential to community work, as it fosters empathy and understanding for ourselves and others. Further, taking space to step back encourages others to do the same in their work, fostering a culture of fluidity and adaptability that preserves our wellness and prevents burnout in a sector that can often be emotionally and mentally demanding. 

These lessons of understanding ours and other’s humanness, perseverance and adaptability are essential in community-engaged learning outcomes and are just as important as the work objectives we meet. They show us that things are often not as clear-cut as due dates in our syllabi and that being able to adjust is crucial to working with others in a good way. By making space for backup plans (and sometimes backup-backup plans), we can create dynamics that foster well-being, understanding, and compassion for our humanness in a world that sometimes demands us to be anything but human. However simple it may sound, this lesson is central to what it means to be in community with others. 

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