Reflections on Forming Communities in Public Scholarship

By Imagining America | September 15, 2016

leah-marion-robertsBy Leah Marion Roberts, a Doctoral student in Community Research & Action at Vanderbilt University and a 2016–2017 Publicly Active Graduate Education (PAGE) Fellow. This PAGE Blog Salon explores themes of intersectionality and public scholarship, important topics of the upcoming Imagining America national conference, Oct. 6-8, 2016, in Milwaukee, WI.

I believe that research has the potential to uncover structural inequity and to illuminate potential paths toward the realization of social justice. Yet research approaches that do not include public participation often perpetuate hierarchical power structures. In my career as a public scholar, I want to contribute to research and practice that destabilize structural, institutional and symbolic violence through my methodological and pedagogical approaches. Collaboration across multiple communities, networks, fields, mediums or approaches pose unique challenges and opportunities for organization and leadership as skills and priorities may clash. Nonetheless, what I find the most transformative about these collaborative relationships is the ability to work through shared visions and collective processes for change.

To this end, the intellectual, creative, and activist communities I am apart of are brought together based on shared commitments, vision and values. For example, I collaborate with others who seek to understand the interplay of power, privilege and control on societal and community structures and to leverage this insight to make applied programmatic and policy changes in the pursuit of social change. I’m also connected to others based on shared identities and passions. For me that means people who are sex educators, dancers, community organizers, youth development workers, scholars, and those who demand an anti-racist queer and sexual liberation agenda. Although these communities are made up of different individuals, they intersect through shared commitments to themes such as body-positivity, embodiment, social justice, youth empowerment, radical self-acceptance, social and material democratic transformation, and personal and community accountability.

As I navigate my various roles as a researcher, educator, and activist, within these communities, I see public engagement and public scholarship as tools for social transformation. However, the ways in which these commitments inform my practice differ based on my role and context. For example, as a scholar, I want to make my research politically relevant with input and participation from communities I work with and/or belong to. As a sex educator, I want to make space for questions, bodies, pleasures and fears to be acceptable and normalized in research and practice. As a dancer, I am committed to being fiercely and unapologetically myself in order to foster expression, exploration, creativity and self-love in others. Underlying these commitments is the belief that one’s vision is always enriched through community collaborations and civic engagement.

Ultimately, for me, the power of collaboration and public engagement lies in the bridges that are made across difference by shared, underlying commitments and values. The intersection of multiple approaches in community-engaged work provides rich creative potential to draw from, while staying grounded in a mutually constituted vision for a more socially just world for all.