Column by Julie Mowrer: Building sustainability is not just about the environment, it covers community engagement, too

UH Hilo has the ethos of community engagement already, and can bring together those who have made it a part of their scholarship to build engagement into our university identity as well as build the infrastructure needed for it to flourish.

By Julie Mowrer, Acting Director of the Center for Community Engagement, University of Hawai‘i at Hilo.

Julie Mowrer
Julie Mowrer

A friend told me the other day that it takes 60 times of repeating a new behavior for it to begin to stick. “For example,” she said, “if you move where you keep your keys in your house, you will continue to automatically go to the old location about 60 times before your brain and body shift to the new location.”

This is why sustainability is so hard.

Many of us strive to create sustainable changes in much larger realms than just where we keep our keys. Whether we are attempting to create sustainability in our relationships with humans or the environment, sustainability of a culture or language, it takes time and effort. A lot of it.

This year, the Engaged Scholars cohort for the Center for Community Engagement chose to focus on the sustainability of community engagement at UH Hilo. The seven faculty members submitted questions like, “How can we build and sustain community partnerships and projects?” “How can we, as a university, support, recognize, and reward this work?” “What does it look like to integrate community engagement into curriculum on a consistent basis?”

Over the past 20-30 years the emergence of community engagement as a field in higher education has exploded. In part this was due to the changing belief for many that higher education was a private benefit to those who could afford it as opposed to the historic view that it is a public good for all to have an educated citizenry. This shift had an impact on state funding across the nation that was dedicated to higher education.

It also emerged from the critique of research’s increasingly narrow scope that was unintelligible to anyone outside of the field. The greater public began to question what good universities were really bringing to the community. The term “snow globe” was recently used to describe this disconnect between UH Hilo and the community that we call home.

In response, articles such as Ernest Boyer’s 1996 seminal work “The Scholarship of Engagement,” challenged how the purpose of education had evolved. He writes, “…the academy must become a more vigorous partner in the search for answers to our most pressing social, civic, economic, and moral problems, and must reaffirm its historic commitment to what I call the scholarship of engagement.”

Since Boyer’s challenge, universities across the nation began conversations on how these partnerships could develop and be sustained within higher education. In 2005, the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching announced a new classification that would be awarded to campuses who had worked to “institutionalize engagement with community in its identity, culture and commitments.” The application is extensive, similar to a self-study report for accreditation, and shares best practices for institutions of higher education who truly want to sustain community engagement efforts over time rather than simply give lip-service.

I believe, without question, that UH Hilo has the ethos of community engagement already, and can bring together those who have made it a part of their scholarship to build engagement into our university identity as well as build the infrastructure needed for it to flourish. To make these changes sustainable, however, will take time and effort. In a 2008 speech, Barack Obama said, “Change will not come if we wait for some other person or some other time. We are the ones we’ve been waiting for. We are the change that we seek.”

Not only does sustainability take time and effort, it also take a belief in ourselves that change is possible.

 

Julie Mowrer is Acting Director at the Center for Community Engagement, and Director of the English Language Institute at UH Hilo. This column was originally published on the UH Hilo Sustainability website.