Whether you’re working with a partner, conducting a site visit, doing research, or getting to know folks in a community, it helps to think through the before, during, and after to create a comfortable, safe, and reciprocal experience.
Interested in a workshop on this topic? Contact the Office for Socially Engaged Practice to schedule a workshop, or consider using the faculty-led workshop materials:
One-page workshop cheat sheet (PDF)
Workshop presentation (Powerpoint)
Before you go, recognize the assumptions and preconceptions you have about the place, people, history, and context.
- What did you already learn about where you’re going? How do you know this information?
- What expectations do you have about where you’re going, the place or the people? How might your own biases influence these expectations?
- Why are you going to this place? What is it that you hope to get out of your visit? What will the place get from your visit?
- Why are you talking to specific people? What do you hope to learn from them? What will they gain from talking with you?
- What do you assume you’ll be able to accomplish? What do others assume you’ll be able to accomplish? What do you think has already been established by someone else?
Remember: One visit or conversation can’t tell you everything you need to know about a community. Question your own assumptions and keep an inquisitive and open mindset.
Acknowledge your Limitations
As someone visiting an individual, community, or organization, you have limitations in your commitment, understanding, and time. Be conscious of these limitations before you go.
- In one semester, or even in one year, you can’t fully understand the history, context, or lived experience of individuals or a community. Bring your curiosity and work hard to learn more about the variety of experiences and perspectives.
- Experiences you have with people and places should be combined with other research and background information. Taken independently, you can miss nuances in experience, culture, and context.
- Consider options that might allow you to overcome some portion of your limitations. If you are only visiting for a week, can you read local media to get a sense of what people talk about? Could you interview former or current residents?
- What would it feel like to a community to be visited by a group of students?It may feel intrusive to have a large group of strangers arrive. What are the limitations or strengths of how you enter the place?
Whenever you enter a community or organization, it’s important to be clear about expectations–what you hope to gain from your project and what the community expects from you. Be aware of your limitations, and don’t overpromise!
Access: What will you be creating? How will people be able to access what you’ve made? What will they be able to do with it? Does it serve their needs or yours?
Information Needed: What kind of information do you need from people? What will you do with this information? When do you need to have access to it? What kind of information do people/communities/organizations need from you?
Stakeholders: Who cares about this effort? Who needs to be involved? How should they be involved?
Time Commitment: What kind of time commitment do you need from people with whom you interact? How often do you want to interact with them? For how long?
Feedback: What kind of feedback or buy-in do you need? What kind of buy-in do people you’re interacting with need, and from whom?
Timeline: What is your timeline? How does this timeline align with the availability and interest of the people with whom you’re working? What are their needs?
Interact with People
When you’re working in a community, talking with folks may be an intentional part of your plan, or conversations may happen incidentally. It’s important to think through how you will interact with people while you are there.
Plan Your Interactions
Do you plan to have formal interactions (meetings, workshops, interviews) or informal interactions (conversations, chats, visits)? Where will these take place? What is the purpose of these interactions?
- Make it easy on your guests: be prepared!
- When bringing guests to campus, consider their mobility, transportation, and safety while here.
Have a Spiel
Decide as a group how you will talk about who you are, what you’re doing, and what will happen as a result of your work. Be consistent in identifying yourselves and setting expectations.
Practice Listening and Humility
You are learning from people’s lived experiences.
- Ask questions and don’t make assumptions.
- Make eye contact and actively listen.
Remember: Negative encounters are not representative of a whole community; people have different approaches and perspectives, and patience is essential.
Get Off Campus
When working with partners and in community, it is incredibly valuable to visit their space — not just so you can experience it, but to help build trust and relationship. Review the Site Visits: In the Field guide for more details about logistics, safety, and interacting with people.
Were You Invited?
Just because you’ve arrived in a community does not mean the community wants you there. When possible, develop relationships that lead to invitations to visit, and never assume you deserve to be welcomed into a community.
Look for Other Opportunities to Engage
Go beyond your site visit when working with partners or communities. Ask your partner for suggestions on how you can connect more deeply. Consider:
- Attend a community event.
- Eat at a local restaurant or coffee shop.
- Visit local businesses.
- Volunteer at a local organization.
- Return to the community regularly.
Remember: A “site” is someone’s home, history, and place. Be conscious and respectful of how much a place means to people. Even if there doesn’t seem to be anyone around, think about your visit as going to someone’s home.
While you may return to the community, it’s helpful to plan to formally close to an engagement or a project.
- Always say thank you! Depending on what kind of interaction you had, this may be a verbal thank you, or it could be a written follow-up that explains your project in greater detail. You may want to enlist others (such as administrators or students) to say thank you as well.
- Make access to your work clear. If you plan to have an exhibition, share the information with the people you want to invite with sufficient advance notice. If you produce a document, identify how you will share the final product. Talk with your partners about their needs, and think about materials that serve their needs.
- Stay in touch! Partners and individuals would love to see you again. Attend their events, come to visit, and give them updates if you continue with related work.
- Don’t make promises to continue engaging with a partner unless you truly intend to do so.
- Continue to authentically represent the community when you talk about the project in your portfolio and reflections. Share the complexity of what you learned, and the relationships you developed with people and organizations.
These resources can provide additional information about entering and exiting communities.
The Gephardt Institute and the Office for Socially Engaged Practice provide in-class trainings and advice on these topics. For more information:
Office for Socially Engaged Practice: contact the Office for Socially Engaged Practice (email@example.com) for more information.
Other Blue Pages
Representing People: Photography & Visuals. Representation of people and places is powerful. The use of photography, drawings, and words communicates experiences, opinions, perspectives, and judgments about the people and places depicted. Consider the guidelines in this Blue Page for ethical representation.
Site Visits: In the Field. Going out in the world to see the site and location (or being “in the field”) where you want to work is an essential part of understanding a project for a course. Use this guide to help consider the ethics, risks, and opportunities of heading off-campus for class.