Engaged Scholarship: Using Iterative Design and Empirical Methods to Guide Community Work in Baltimore

By Allen Brizee

Since Pope Francis’s address to Congress in 2015, I have re-watched his speech many times. So powerful is the Pope’s message that I use his address in my writing courses at Loyola University Maryland as we begin community-focused projects in Baltimore. One statement from the Pope’s address stands out as central to his message: “We must move forward together, as one, in a renewed spirit of fraternity and solidarity, cooperating generously for the common good.” This call to action connects strongly with the theme of Conversations #53—the commitment of Jesuit colleges and universities to collaborate with local communities. But specifically, how do we “cooperate generously for the common good”? And what do we do when we fail along the way?

As a scholar-activist at Loyola, I work with our Center for Community Service and Justice to implement a participatory model in civic engagement. The model, known as engaged scholarship, was first pioneered by Ernest L. Boyer in 1996 when he suggested combining teaching, research, and service to collaborate with local communities. To implement engaged scholarship, my students and I follow an iterative and empirical approach. Collaborating with our partners, we develop IRB-approved community-based research projects, use data-driven models to evaluate and adjust our work, and apply findings to foster measurable change.

For the past seven years, we have collaborated with a yellow-lined neighborhood near campus, Richnor Springs (in Govans, Baltimore), and a large non-profit organization, GEDCO/CARES. Using engaged scholarship, we have furthered the common good of these community organizations and have experienced the transformational effects that emerge from cooperating generously.

Our project, the York Road Literacy and Employment Initiative, began as service-learning projects like neighborhood clean-ups. This outreach evolved into more collaborative work, such as assisting with community meetings. The culmination of our work with Richnor Springs was an attempt to build a playground in their adopted lot. Before we submitted our grant proposals, however, Baltimore City informed us that we could not build permanent structures in the lot. The reason? The alleys connecting the lot to neighborhood streets are not wide enough to fit the city’s ambulances. If someone were injured in the playground, ambulances could not reach the lot quickly enough. We were stunned and disappointed. Rather than allowing this failure to stop us, however, we used our iterative and empirical model to begin work with GEDCO/CARES.

" Richnor Springs Residents and Loyola University Maryland Students Collaborate to Clean up a Community Adopted Lot" is courtesy of Allen Brizee. 

"Richnor Springs Residents and Loyola University Maryland Students Collaborate to Clean up a Community Adopted Lot" is courtesy of Allen Brizee. 

To address the ongoing literacy and employment challenges in Baltimore, we worked with Richnor Springs to draft resources that we later used in community workshops to assist GEDCO/CARES clients. Workshop attendees learned about surfing the web, using Microsoft Word, writing cover letters and résumés, and interviewing for jobs.

To measure the impact of our project, we distributed student surveys, interviewed students and community members, and collected feedback from workshops attendees. Our findings indicate that service-learning students had more transformational experiences than did non-service-learning students, and that all students enrolled in the service-learning classes fulfilled learning outcomes. Moreover, the students, community members, and workshop attendees interviewed responded positively. The best outcome, however, was that 16 of 34 workshop attendees found jobs. Following an iterative and empirical model helped us pivot after the playground failure, listen to our community’s needs, and move forward in a positive way.

So, how do we “cooperate generously for the common good”? We anticipate failures, but we adapt and overcome these challenges through an iterative and empirical approach to engaged scholarship.

Allen Brizee, PhD, is an associate professor of writing at Loyola University Maryland where he teaches first-year writing, professional writing, and writing for the web. His research interests include engaged scholarship, human-computer interaction, and rhetorical theory. You may read more about Allen’s community-based research in Partners in Literacy: A Writing Center Model for Civic Engagement (Rowman and Littlefield, 2016).