Life within a university campus can be disconnected from life in the community that physically surrounds it. “Here at IU,” suggests School of Global and International Studies master’s student Dana Vanderburgh, “there are philanthropic events where students are raising money for good causes, but they’re not really out in the communities; they’re not engaging.” It’s a gulf that people at universities separated by oceans are gathering to address. Vanderburgh is part of a group of students in the Department of International Studies participating in what Assistant Professor Stephen Macekura calls a “transnational community of learning” facilitated through the Harter House Global Commons project, an initiative of the University of Toronto.
The students connected with counterparts around the world from their SGIS classroom via live video streaming on February 1 for the second of three conferences on the topic of “Achieving Peaceful Pluralism in a Globalized World.” Students at the University of Toronto in Canada, University of Cape Town in South Africa, la Universidad de los Andes in Colombia, and IU-Bloomington discussed the relationship between university and community in the context of fostering pluralism. The globe-spanning conversation was moderated by Toronto Star columnist Azeezah Kanji, who noted that even in a city as diverse as hers, there is “a very stark disjuncture between the language and theory of multiculturalism that Canada upholds and the roots of racism that run deep in this country.”
Participating students prepared for the video conference with a set of readings examining the power dynamic between university and community and suggesting opportunities to recalibrate it through community-engaged learning. A conversation between a university-based researcher and a South African farmer set the scene for the discussion of horizontal learning.
In addition to their academic knowledge, students brought their lived experience to bear. The students in Colombia, for example referred to the reintegration of ex-guerillas into society in describing the need to cultivate empathy in the face of diversity. A student at the University of Toronto shared her embarrassment upon realizing that the materials she was distributing in a city park while volunteering the previous weekend did not correspond to the community members’ needs. “We don’t need survival kits,” she was told, “we need housing.”
Interrogating the role that universities play vis-à-vis the communities where they are located is essential, asserted Vanderburgh, when she addressed the conference as the IU group’s delegate. “It’s positive that universities around the world are highlighting community-engaged learning, service, and experiential learning,” said Vanderburgh, who has used dance as a tool for outreach locally and abroad through the non-profit organization Movement Exchange. “But there hasn’t been enough critical reflection on the distinction between one-off, philanthropic events and more transgressive, transformative, community-engaged learning projects that are working to decolonize their institutional spaces.”
Through the video conference, Vanderburgh was able to compare her experience of breaking down barriers through dance with the efforts and observations of an international cohort. “Global Commons provides SGIS students with an opportunity to engage with peers across the world,” Macekura noted. “They draw upon on their scholarly learning and experiences to discuss, listen, and ponder some of the most pressing topics in the world today, from resurgent nationalism to the challenges of nurturing peaceful pluralism.”
SGIS students will be participating in this year’s final Global Commons video conference March 1.