Intersubjectivity and Third Spaces: Institutional Identities, Affiliations and Relationships

By Imagining America | September 10, 2013

Elyse GordonBy Elyse Gordon, Ph.D. student in Geography at the University of Washington, Seattle, and 2013–2014 Publicly Active Graduate Education (PAGE) Fellow. This PAGE Blog Salon explores the idea of third spaces of engagement between communities and campuses, a topic of the upcoming Imagining America national conference, Oct. 4–6, in Syracuse, NY. This post’s focus: Questioning Power and Privilege, As Students and Community Members.

I am intrigued by this notion of “bridges” and “brokers” in establishing third spaces. My training as a critical geographer raises doubts about “free and open space;” spaces are never free from social inequalities, cultural norms, historical silences, erasures and privileged forms of knowledge. Rather than allow this knowledge to halt our progress or collaborations, I suggest greater self-reflexivity and attention to our own power and positionality that we bring into such spaces. Through recent conversations, conferences and seminars, intersubjectivity has come to signify new meaning to me; it provides a helpful framework to understand how multiple relationships come to bear on third spaces.

This broadened intersubjectivity moves beyond race, class, gender and sexuality, and acknowledges our positions and/or power within institutions and organizations as key to our identities. As graduate students, for instance, we traffic through the spaces of the university—each of which carry their own institutional histories. When we move beyond the walls of the university, as A Call to Action inspires and requires, we bring these histories into spaces of collaboration. This expanded understanding of intersubjectivity addresses our affiliations and the roles we play in/between campus spaces and community partnerships. 
This framework of intersubjectivity sheds light on my dynamic roles as bridge and broker in multiple collaborative spaces. From teaching to learning, from mentorship to community organizing, from advisee to advisor, I hold different levels of power and privilege, depending on my position and institutional affiliation. In each of these spaces, the assumptions about me shift, my level of knowledge and expertise are fluid, my toolkit and language adjust. 
Specifically, when I move off campus, I am an ambiguous representative of the University—a university with a history of privileged research and fraught campus-community partnerships. Thus, I have worked very hard to build bridges with organizations in which I am known as a community member foremost, and a student second. The youth I mentor know I come from the University, but my position within the University is less important than which university I come from: an elite institution that many of them will never attend. Finally, in my community organizing work, my institutional affiliation becomes a question of resources: Can I rent out a projector? Make copies? Borrow a laptop?

As bridges from universities to communities, we must recognize that our institutions carry their own identities, which are historicized, raced and classed. Regardless of our own self-reflexivity, we cannot divorce ourselves from these institutions. This intersubjective framework acknowledges that individual brokers carry institutional and organizational affiliations that shape their interactions/collaborations in third spaces. We can leverage these affiliations to be strategic and thoughtful, aware and reflexive about how our shifting roles and involvements constitute third space(s). Our idealism-driven goals of democratic engagement, creativity to solve social issues, and critical analysis, must acknowledge the intersubjective positions we carry with and through our institutions, organizations and affiliations. The third spaces we seek to create may never be “free”, but they can still be transformative.