Practicing Community-engaged Scholarship during COVID-19

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Community-engaged scholarship is challenging at the best of times, but it is uniquely difficult in this current pandemic and with the social distancing efforts required to stop the spread of COVID-19. Moreover, many scholars are working with communities already made vulnerable by long-festering social inequities, and who now face compounding oppressions due to an inadequate public health response and continued racialized violence. The Davis Humanities Institute honors the UC Davis scholars who are committed to public scholarship in these unprecedented times; here we share some of the challenges and responses of our community-engaged researchers. 

How do scholars build community when they cannot physically be with their communities? How do they carry out thoughtful research while prioritizing the physical safety of others? And how do scholars care for their communities when their own lives have been upturned by this new global reality? These and many other questions loom large in the minds of researchers and the university program staff who support them. At a recent gathering of the Engaged Scholars Engaged Learning Collaborative at UC Davis, members discussed ways to move through the challenges that have us all feeling uncertain about the next right thing to do. Their suggestions included: 

  1. Maintaining perspective in order to ease the feeling of constant urgency. Let both practicality and a vision for the future inform your thoughts and actions. 
  2. Creating new priorities for this new reality. Let go of goals and outcomes that no longer serve you or your communities. 
  3. Becoming habituated to new styles of collaboration and communication. 
  4. Documenting the present as a historical moment. 

At the Davis Humanities Institute, graduate scholars in the Mellon Public Scholars Program and our Public Engagement Faculty Fellows are putting these thoughts into action through their diverse projects. Because the 2020 Mellon Public Scholars were selected for their proposed projects in January, all scholars have had to maintain perspective as they create new priorities for this summer. Complications around travel, unequal access to technology, and the health vulnerabilities of sensitive groups like elders and youth in incarceration facilities make many of the originally-proposed projects impossible. However, over the course of the spring seminar, the 2020 Mellon Public Scholars have thought creatively and extensively about how to adapt their work and continue to support their collaborators. 

Scholars who had originally planned to organize events, performances, and other in-person activities have had to embrace new forms of collaboration and communication: recording conversations over the phone, digitizing archival materials, working with new tools and technologies to share stories. Projects are being scaled down and re-organized to reach an equitable balance of scarce time and energy from both scholars and their collaborators. Partner organizations have also responded thoughtfully -- a project with Capital Public Radio on community-engaged journalism had to scrap a plan for rural mobile storytelling and in-person community events. Instead, CapRadio is adapting to virtual organizing activities and shifting priorities to focus on the most pressing community concerns. A pre-established project with the Sacramento Gender Health Center (GHC) originally planned a digital storytelling campaign about mental health support among transgender people. The project has now shifted to document the current coronavirus pandemic and how the GHC trans community is being impacted by shelter-in-place orders, racialized health inequalities, and other challenges; but also, how the community is responding with care for one another. 

It seems that the entire structure of higher education is shifting in response to COVID-19. Perhaps this moment -- while we are creating new priorities, documenting the present, holding visions for the future, and habituating new forms of collaboration and communication -- is the right time to center the work of community-engaged scholars in the arts, humanities, and humanistic social sciences. In their efforts to practice truly equitable relationships among folks within and beyond the university, the Mellon Public Scholars are grappling with questions of power, knowledge, and history that shape the norms of higher education. If, as Arundhati Roy writes, the pandemic is a portal to another – better – world, then we might ask community-engaged scholars to guide the university through it, and closer to the communities it serves. 

 -- written by Stephanie Maroney, Mellon Public Scholars Program Manager

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