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Examining the Land-Grant Engagement Mission through the Lens of Community Cultural Development

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Reflections

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As a land-grant university, Virginia Tech has a mandate to support the Commonwealth’s changing communities and their economies through education, research and engagement, in addition to offering access to higher education rooted in liberal arts and democratic ideals (National Research Council 1995; Stanley 2013). This mission is both practical (workforce development) and democratic (encouraging an informed citizenry) in character, and it includes not only educating students, but also engaging the broader population. My ongoing research for my Ph.D. dissertation concerns Appalshop, a community cultural development organization in southeast Kentucky. Talking with staff there has led me to wonder: What lessons can a land-grant university learn from an organization that strongly embraces its democratic mission and emphasizes its embeddedness in its community and region?

Broadly speaking, community cultural development organizations in the United States employ the arts in efforts to foster agential possibilities and potential for social democratic change. They perceive art as a manifestation of cultures and cultural practices, meaning that the aesthetics of an art form are mediated by the culture from which it emanates (Korza et al. 2017). Although American museums, theaters, symphonies and architecture typically present a European aesthetic, community cultural development organizations argue that art is not limited to the principles that underlie those forms. Indeed, the cultural diversity of the United States is so great as to suggest the potential for a wide variety of aesthetics, reflecting a diverse array of voices and perspectives. To embrace this view is to adopt a democratic understanding of art and culture. This orientation implies, among other things, that cultural development organizations may serve to 1) facilitate the exploration and expression of different communities’ and/or cultures’ history and identity and 2) reveal embedded narratives and power structures that dominate social thought within them (Becker 1994; Goldbard 2013; Marcuse 1978; Stephenson and Tate 2015).

Appalshop is somewhat unique in the field of community cultural development. Like its peers, it ascribes to democratic ideals and emphasizes the importance of narrative in encouraging voice and exposing hegemony (economic, social and political) in communities. However, while many of its contemporaries did  not survive funding reductions in federal programs that occurred primarily in the 1980s and 1990s, Appalshop has sustained itself and has continued to evolve during its fifty-year history. In so doing, the organization’s experience has mirrored that of land-grant universities during the same period. Both were founded on democratic principles to spur agential possibility among individuals, enabling them to engage in their communities and societies. Like land-grants, too, Appalshop is comprised of divisions whose staffs reflect different disciplines, each with its own goals and operating structure, but all of which seek to pursue the broader mission of the organization. Given these historical and structural similarities, several aspects of the art institution’s operations have struck me as appropriate for land-grants to contemplate more thoroughly as they pursue community and economic engagement activities.

Engagement is fraught with complexity. One Appalshop staff member, for example, thoughtfully challenged my use of the term “engagement” in conversation, arguing that the word automatically places its user as separate from those they would address. In any case, Appalshop’s staff perceive themselves as an integral part of their community and the larger Appalachian region. They consistently describe how they “work with the broader community,” rather than “engage” with it. Each Appalshop employee, whether hailing originally from the region or not, sees them self as serving the interests and values of Appalachia’s communities. That dedication to place provides the organization a strong sense of identity and empowers its staff to do work not just in the region, but also nationally and internationally, all while maintaining a clear sense of the foundations of those efforts. Although there are certainly some citizens and groups that do not work with Appalshop, for its part, the organization’s staff is willing to work with anyone open to its social and cultural mission.            

For faculty and staff at land-grants such as Virginia Tech, the notion of embeddedness in a community or region may imply different things to different people, if the idea has even crossed their minds. What would a land-grant look like if its collective consciousness had a stronger rootedness in place? Moreover, as my Appalshop interviewee observed, the terminology used in most land-grant universities creates space for “us and them” and “othering” of the populations with which staff and faculty might work. This othering may be exacerbated by the power relations inherent in today’s higher education system. While many scholars work to counter narratives that place faculty in the role of expert and highlight one dominant point-of-view (that which they offer), the cultures of many academic disciplines reinforce this orientation. In fact, many young scholars and professionals adopt what Schon has described as a dominant technical rationality lens when they work with citizens in communities (Schon, 2013). This orientation is driven by a neoliberal instrumentality in which they perceive themselves as the experts who will provide the answer to solve the problem of the day (Schon 2013). Even without this epistemic arrogance, the perceptions of university “assistance” among many community stakeholders may have been tainted by previous encounters. In other instances, the obvious financial and political power of major higher education institutions may be off-putting. Given this context, even the most sensitive faculty and students may have challenges inserting themselves and their work successfully in the communities they wish to serve.

The physical spaces that universities use to work with community members may be another challenge. Spaces within universities are often de-facto private in character with little public parking and mazes of buildings that are opaque to citizens who do not often frequent them. One could certainly argue that land-grants are designed principally to serve their student populations; thus, opening their facilities to the broader public entails practical challenges. However, with an underlying democratic and engagement mission, to what extent should the staff and faculties of land-grants create or actively work within other public spaces? Considering these examples and others, the structure and culture of the land-grant—despite its mission—too often may require scholars to work independently from their institutions to embed themselves within communities.  

Another interesting aspect of Appalshop’s mode of operating is how those representing its different disciplines work with citizens and, in some cases, build on each other’s strengths to do so. While not nearly as large or diverse as a land-grant university, Appalshop’s divisions include film, radio, music production, theater and occasionally photography and the visual arts. Most staff members at the arts nonprofit confess that these departments do not always work together seamlessly, nor should they in some cases. The long-term decline in the availability of public and private funds for community cultural development work has created tensions among the various parts of the organization, particularly with respect to their varying degrees of success in obtaining grant money. However, when they consider the value of each discipline’s work and the unique approaches each takes to achieving Appalshop’s broader mission, occasions often arise that permit staffers from different departments and perspectives to collaborate and leverage each other’s strengths.

Land-grants are also similar to Appalshop in that the individuals in these institutions are educated in different scholarly disciplines and thus approach their community change responsibilities differently. These approaches may take the guise, for instance, of workforce and industry collaborations, examining and developing strategies to address regional socioeconomic challenges and underlying societal structures, building local collaborative capacity across different groups, providing technical assistance, community cultural development and storytelling, or engaging through student work. Land-grant academic disciplines also face funding challenges similar to those confronted by Appalshop. All are facing declining public financial support and changing demands from funders, but some areas of study have access to more resources than others. Yet, taken together, each can and does complement others. Like Appalshop, they may struggle to collaborate due to one or more underlying challenges, including the competition implicit in gaining social, political and economic support and pursuing their individual missions. However, my on-going concern as I have reflected on these issues is how their different strengths might be leveraged to address the challenges to university engagement described above and better achieve the broader democratic mission of the land-grant university.   

References         

Becker, C. (1994). The subversive imagination: artists, society and social responsibility. New York: Routledge.

Goldbard, A. (2013). Culture of possibility: Art, artists & the future. S.I.: Waterlight Press.

Marcuse, H. (1978). The Aesthetic Dimension: Toward a Critique of Marxist Aesthetics. Boston: Beacon Press.

National Research Council (1995). Colleges of Agriculture at the Land Grant University. Washington D.C.: National Academies Press. Retrieved from: https://www.nap.edu/read/4980/chapter/1.

Staley, D.J. (2013). “Democratizing American Higher Education: The Legacy of the Morrill Land Grant Act.” Origins: Current Events in Historical Perspective 6(4). Columbus, OH: History Departments at The Ohio State University and Miami University. Retrieved from: http://origins.osu.edu/article/democratizing-american-higher-education-legacy-morrill-land-grant-act.

Stephenson, M and A.S. Tate (2015). Arts and community change: exploring cultural development policies, practices, and dilemmas. New York, NY: Routledge.        

Sarah Lyon-Hill

Sarah Lyon-Hill is a doctoral candidate in the School of Public and International Affairs Planning, Governance and Globalization program at Virginia Tech. Her research explores the changing state of the community cultural development field over time vis-a-vis broader political, social and economic trends. She is interested broadly in the role of the arts in community development and the tension/reflexivity found between individual agency and hegemony. As a senior economic development specialist at the Virginia Tech Office of Economic Development, Sarah develops and conducts community and economic development projects with partners across Virginia. Her applied research has included impact analyses, strategic planning processes and studies related to industry and workforce change.  

Publication Date

February 21, 2019