Friday, 14 June 2013

Can the project of Community Engagement be used as an emancipatory tool?

Fezokuhle Mthonti

Post-apartheid  South Africa,  saw a number of  legislative decisions come into play, which sought to create a more inclusive socio political environment in which South Africans could start to reconcile themselves with the numerous  institutional and political divisions that had polarized  them for so long. Part of this legislative process was the release of the Education White Paper- A programme for Higher Education Transformation. This paper was drafted by the National Commission on Higher Education (NHCE) in 1997 and sought to integrate the theoretical practice of community engagement into the fabric of South African Higher Education. In a paper entitled Embedding Community Engagement in South African Education Mabel Erasmus argues that the White Paper “called on higher education institutions to ‘demonstrate social responsibility and commitment to the common good by making available, expertise and infrastructure for community service programmes’.” (Erasmus:2008,57) Further to that, Erasmus argues that “one of the goals of higher education, is ‘to promote and develop social responsibility and awareness among students and to increase the role of higher education in social and economic development through community service programmes’.” (Erasmus:2008,57)

In a sense, one could argue that the prescriptions of The White Paper in this legislative process, was a means in which the community engagement project could be used as an emancipatory tool in the South African context. However, after sixteen years of implementation, one needs to question if the  theoretical praxis on which the community engagement project bases itself on, insofar as notions of political and social inclusion as well as an inherent need for  social responsibility, has met the prescriptions of the White Paper or if the outcomes of the community engagement project have continued to institute levels of hierarchy and inequality between those who form part of the Higher Education volunteer programme and those that form part of the community that is to be ‘engaged with’. Effectively, the question that this essay seeks to answer is: does the project of community engagement seek to emancipate its subjects from what French philosopher Jacques Rancière refers to as a ‘situation of minority.’ For the purposes of this essay I will define ‘a situation of minority’ as the ‘logic of Enlightenment in which the cultivated elites have to guide the ignorant and superstitious lower classes in the path of progress. (Rancière,2010:167) In trying to frame this question and in trying to frame my critique of the community engagement project I will reflect on my experience in a community engagement initiative with the student run Music , Art and Drama education Society (MADE) last year and in so doing unpack Jacques Rancière’s paper entitled Communists without Communism, wherein he proposes two ideas on equality and collective intelligence which I think are relevant to this paper. In using Rancière’s idea of equality as a starting point, I will show how community engagement projects often fail to reconcile humanizing philosophical work with their practical engagement with poorer disenfranchised communities outside of the Higher Education Institution. Further to that, I will also use Brazilian theorist, Paulo Freire’s work in the Pedagogy of the Oppressed to critique the pedagogical approaches often assumed by volunteers in in their attempt to ‘help’ their subjects. 

Before I can deal with my subsequent analysis on the merits or the demerits of the community engagement project in South African Higher Education, or speak to the nature of the community engagement project in the Rhodes University context specifically,  I think that it is very important to define it. Mabel Erasmus defines community engagement “in its fullest sense, as the combination and integration of service with teaching and research related and applied to identified community development priorities.” (Erasmus,2008:61) Further to that, Erasmus would contend that “since the release of the White Paper (1997), the debate on community engagement in South African higher education has sharpened its focus, defining community engagement not only as one of the three silos of higher education along with teaching and research, but as an integral part of teaching and research – as a mechanism to infuse and enrich teaching and research with a deeper sense of context, locality and application.”(Erasmus,2008:60)  However, given the strong legislative implications placed on the release of The White Paper and the need for community engagement therein, one should question if these institutions have immersed themselves wholly into the social developmental programs of their respective communities (where they have established these  community engagement projects to be legitimate learning experiences) , or if these institutions have assumed themselves to be a kind of serious of charity driven projects which seek to ‘help’ or ‘resuscitate’ their respective communities through the work of their community engagement? I will contend that these projects have predominantly shown characteristics of the latter and in so doing have completely misunderstood the overarching intentions of The White Paper and the possibility of using the project of community engagement as tool with which to reconcile the many differences and disparities within this country.

Despite the fact that I think The White Paper was a valuable contribution to the legislature within this country post the apartheid regime, I would like to point out some problems with the way in which the document was  presented in the first place.  I would like to problematise the manner in which community engagement is defined in this document. There are some interesting subtleties within these definitions of community engagement, which  prescribe how these projects effectively work in practice. For example, there is an implicit divide between those that act as  volunteers or the  researchers of community engagement projects and those that are the recipients of this ‘engagement’. Crudely put, there is a sense that the White Paper encouraged the ‘haves’ to engage with the ‘havenot’s’ in establishing a wholly integrated society. Having said that however, this interaction or engagement plays out largely on the terms of those that ‘have’. They (the have’s) essentially mark the parameters for engagement. There is no definitive attempt to call this a collective effort, rather it is one privileged group with all the resources and power ‘helping’ out another group with their problems. Professor Martin Hall argues that  within the definition of community engagement it is important to “ problematise the adjectival use of the term community.” (Hall,2010:62) The reason why Hall would problematise the  adjectival term of community is because it  “ implies a generalised intention of doing good – of bringing benefits from those in the university who have privileges to those outside who do not – it has the consequence of confirming that the relationship is unequal and therefore that the partnership – the engagement – is also unequal. This may have the consequence of justifying and perpetuating the imbalance of power.” (Hall,2010:62)

Moreover, Professor Martin Hall argues that there is an epistemological disjuncture between the philosophical and theoretical work of the academy and the experience-based practices produced in the disparate localities which community engagement volunteers and researchers seek to rehabilitate and transform. He attributes this to the nature of knowledge production in the University space which he contends is a “clusters of formal disciplines that offer curricula leading to qualifications and organisational research enterprise” (Hall,2010:7) He not only argues that knowledge production in university is an  organisational type but he also argues that this type of knowledge dissemination is incompatible with community engagement attempts. In light of this, I would argue that at some level, the epistemological disjuncture that Hall speaks of is attributed to the fact that “the sacred domain of structured and systematised understanding”(Hall,2010:7)  that is insisted upon in the University space is incompatible with the real and interactive forms of knowledge creation that is found within these communities. The two dialects have two different approaches to knowledge production and knowledge dissemination: and because institutions of Higher Education are often assumed to be superior in the way that they create meaning and understanding, the knowledge assumed by the members of the communities ‘that need to be engaged with’ is often assumed and constructed as inferior thus rendering the idea of engagement as superfluous. The reason why I would call it superfluous is because in order for one to really engage with another individual, meaningfully and critically, there needs  to be a concession from both parties that they both share an  equal capacity to be creators and distributors of knowledge. Without that concession, neither of the two parties can claim to have legitimately learnt from anything substantial from each other. Moreover,  I would argue that because of this failure in equal recognition and appreciation,  the subjects  of community engagement projects are often constructed as objects of investigation, or one dimensional studies which are not only ‘locked in a web of particularity’ but are also objects that assume what Jacques Ranciere refers to as a ‘situation of minority’.(Ranciere,2010:167) In fact, Harri Englund articulates the attitude assumed by community engagement workers  best, in saying  that ‘here, as in civic education on human rights, the providers of assistance feel they have something that the others lack.” (Englund,2006:71) This is similar to Jacques Ranciere’s analysis on a ‘pedagogical presupposition’, which asserts that  there are two sorts of intelligence that exist in Plato’s Republic. Effectively this ‘pedagogical presupposition’ would assert that “artisans have to do their own job and nothing else; firstly, because work does not wait and secondly because the divinity has given them the aptitude for doing this job, which means the inaptitude  for doing anything else.” (Ranciere,2010:168) Because some people have the greater capacity to teach (researchers and members of Higher Education Institution) they are inherently obliged to ‘engage’ with those that cannot (this would include members of the community which are inadvertently in a situation of minority).   

Whilst I do not think that the individuals that choose to get involved in community engagement projects intend to impose a situation of minority onto their ‘subjects’, I will argue that some of their pedagogical approaches inadvertently do so, despite their intentions to do otherwise. Hall’s critique of the adjectival use of community becomes pertinent here again. Hall suggests that the nature of engagement is inherently unequal because of the explicit divisions between the two groups. Instead of using community engagement as a tool for emancipation, Hall argues that “this may have the consequence of justifying and perpetuating the imbalance of power.” (Hall,2010:62) Having said that,   I would now like to draw from my own personal experiences with the Music, Arts, Dance and Drama Society (MADE)  last year as a means with which to critique and substantiate my  previous and subsequent claims on the nature of community engagement projects in Higher Education institutions.

MADE was a non-profit student organisation that operated under the Rhodes University Community Engagement Department (RUCE) for the duration of last year.  As a newly established student society, MADE  aimed to create a student volunteering program in the fields of Music, Art, Drama and Dance to Sakhuluntu Cultural Group which was founded in 1998 by cultural activist Vuyo Booi in the Joza Township. Booi often suggested that the role of Sakhuluntu Cultural Group (which is often referred to as just Sakhuluntu) in Joza was two- fold. It not only acted as a  non-profit organisation which sought to help young individuals from the ages of 3 to 18 to develop their creative potential through some engagement with the arts, but it also acted as an alternative to the high levels of crime, drugs and alcohol that the youth within Joza were subject to after school. In a sense, Sakhuluntu is the equivalent to an ‘after-care’ program which is basically a place where children  can spend their afternoons  after school before they go home or before their parents fetch them.

 When the MADE committee was first introduced to Sakhuluntu, Booi had over 200 young people under his supervision. The MADE committee was also introduced to a number of obstacles that Booi and Sakhulutuntu had been facing over the past few months. Sakhuluntu had been struggling to secure volunteers which would help Booi provide and facilitate arts activities for his students. This was largely due to the fact that Sakhuluntu had no direct funding afforded to them and this made paying volunteers and buying materials and equipment to teach the students with, very difficult. Having met with Booi, the MADE committee decided to establish a partnership with Sakhuluntu in which the society members could “develop a firm mentor-mentee relationship between the members of MADE and the children in Sakhuluntu.” (MADE Concept Document:2011,1) The idea was that “MADE was going to establish an outcomes based curriculum  to teach the children of Sakhuluntu and these outcomes were going to be based on the various interests and specialities of the MADE volunteers with regards to music, art, dance and drama” (MADE Concept Document:2011,1) Furthermore, “MADE was also going to serve as an umbrella society which would raise funds and monitor the financial aspect of Sakhuluntu in order for Sakhuluntu to register as a Public Benefit Organisation (PBO) with the South African Revenue Service. (SARS)” (MADE Concept Document:2011,1)

Having being a part of the society last year as well as being part of the committee, as the secretary, I was not necessarily sceptical of MADE’s intentions. I thought that this was an incredible initiative to be part of and I was fairly optimistic about the successes of our project. However having said that, there were some glaringly problematic assumptions that the MADE committee made in terms of the approach to their work. I think that these assumptions are  quite consistent with a number of  community engagement projects that do not think critically about the philosophical implications of their intervention within their respective communities. In fact, I would argue that a number of individuals who do this sort of work take the fact that they are ‘helping’ for granted and do not think reflexively about the nature of their ‘charity.’

Whilst MADE intended to work collaboratively with Sakhuluntu Cultural Group, there were a number of instances in which MADE ‘set the agenda.’ For example, when MADE started working with Sakhuluntu they were rather prescriptive about which activities the children of Sakhuluntu could partake in. The MADE committee designed a number of lesson plans for the various workshops that were going to be held at Sakhuluntu. The games were designed by MADE members and were also facilitated by members of the committee. There was often very little room for the participants to negotiate which games they preferred playing or which musical or dance lessons best suited them on which day. This was largely because there were different mentors within the MADE committee that specialised and facilitated the different workshops, whether it be drama , art or music on whichever day that suited them. Whilst this seemed to be the most viable way of doing things for the MADE members, this approach to the work was inherently problematic in that it did not give the children of Sakhuluntu any sense of continuity. Further to that,  there was no real negotiation of what to do when. Rather it was one group of people telling another group what they should do without any sense of reciprocity. Paulo Freire would contend that “every prescription represents the imposition of one individual's choice upon another, transforming the consciousness of the person prescribed to into one that conforms with the pre­ servers consciousness. Thus, the behaviour of the oppressed is a prescribed behaviour, following as it does the guidelines of the oppressor.” (Freire,2005:48) Moreover, this approach to work completes disregards the fact that both Booi and the children of Sakhuluntu had come up with a program that may have best translated to them what the value of music, arts, dance and drama were. The role of MADE was to simply supplement those ideas not to replace them.

A large reason as to why the MADE members got to impose their ideas onto Sakhuluntu without any real sense of engagement was because of the linguistic barrier between the two groups. The workshops were often in English despite the fact that most of the members of the Sakhuluntu group were Xhosa first language speakers who spoke very little English.  This was primarily because most of the volunteers could not speak Xhosa, however that being said, the MADE volunteers  did not necessarily make an effort to learn Xhosa. It was obvious that communication was a problem, however with that said this linguistic barrier often made the MADE volunteers feel like their participants simply did not understand what the objectives of the games or the lessons were and that was why they may have been reluctant to engage with the workshop material. MADE volunteers did not really consider the fact that there may have been alternate ways to approach similar projects that may have been closer to the frame of reference of the Sakhuluntu participants through the use of their own language. 
I would argue that the monopoly of English as the language of instruction in the use of community engagement, especially in this instance, was inherently problematic in that it excluded those without a firm grasp of the language from the ability to effectively articulate their thoughts and ideas effectively  within the group. Moreover, I would contend that one’s world is created and experienced through their language and it is through the use of language that we can start to attach meaning to different signifiers. Language also allows us a platform with which we can  start to experience the world in which we live critically and reflexively. Cultural Theorist Stuart Hall, argues  that the nature of language is that it is inherently a signifying practice that codifies meaning and knowledge. He argues that by “fixing the relationship between our conceptual systems and our linguistic systems, codes make it possible for us to speak and to hear intelligibly as well as establish the translatability between our concepts and our languages which then enables meaning to pass from speaker to hearer and be effectively communicated within a culture”. (Hall,1997:22) I would argue that when the MADE volunteers chose to speak in English rather than Xhosa, there was a missed opportunity there where the linguistic differences prevented either of the two parties from effectively communicating with one another. Instead of trying to reconcile these differences, I would argue that MADE further entrenched a distinction between themselves and those that they had proposed to help through this false sense of charity. Harri Englund defines charity as “that which differs from structural change, whether by legislation or evolution, in that it presupposes a categorical distinction between the advantaged and the disadvantaged. The former help the latter to sustain themselves whilst the distinction itself remains virtually intact.” (Englund,2006:71)  

Having said that, one then needs to question if community engagement can in fact be used as an emancipatory tool in a country like ours? Given the numerous problems that I have recounted with the community engagement project presently, I would like to argue for a fundamental shift in the way that work is conceptualised. In trying to do this I would like to touch on the work of Jacques Rancière who brings to the fore, a very useful way of conceiving of equality and intelligence.
In his essay entitled Communists without Communism, Rancière refers to an egalitarian maxim which I think is important in this discussion and is useful to more constructive pedagogical practices in the community engagement project. Rancière argues that there are two [interrelated] principles to the egalitarian maxim, the first being the notion of equality and the second idea being that of a collective intelligence. Rancière would argue that equality is not an aspirational goal that exists outside of man, rather, he would contend that equality is and should be a starting point. He articulates this point in saying that, “equality is not a goal: it is a starting point, an opinion or a presupposition which opens the field of possible verification.”(Ranciere,2005:168)   Secondly, Rancière would contend that notion of a collective intelligence is both viable and possible, he would argue that “intelligence does not fit any specific position in a social order but belongs to anybody as the intelligence of anybody. Emancipation then means: the appropriation of this intelligence which is one, and the verification of the potential of the equality of intelligence.” (Rancière, 2005:168)

These two ideas are crucial to the ways in which one could start to subvert current approaches to community engagement work. In order for the community engagement project to be one that is emancipatory, both the volunteers and the members of these communities should see equality as a starting point.  Community engagement should not be seen as a tool with which students from  Higher Education institutions can try to ‘fix’ the problems of these communities through their very particular lens of knowledge and access to resources from the institution. This is particularly important because “the epistemological positions associated with practices of social engagement  [presently] hinge on two issues – how forms of knowledge are structured, and role and location of the authority that serves to validate the structure and content of knowledge. It is these questions of the structure of knowledge and the location of authority, that are the key to understanding the continuing marginalisation of social engagement in the academy. (Hall,2010:10)  Instead of advocating for one authority over another, community engagement efforts should start to take Rancière’s assertion about a ‘collective intelligence’ more seriously and start to re-inscribe that idea into the work that they do.

Paulo Freire would suggest that in order to do this a  pedagogy of the oppressed must be developed. He would argue that “a pedagogy which must be forged with, not for, the oppressed (whether individuals or peoples) in the incessant struggle to regain their humanity. This pedagogy makes oppression and its causes objects of reflection by the oppressed, and from that reflection will come their necessary engagement in the struggle for their liberation. And in the struggle this pedagogy will be made and remade.” (Freire,2005:48)

In a book entitled Scholarship Reconsidered, American Educator Ernest Boyer interrogates the intrinsic link between the theoretical work of academia and the practical engagement of researchers through a series of articles which he refers to as the ‘scholarship of engagement.’ (Erasmus,2008:61) Erasmus argues that Boyer sets up four ‘necessary and interrelated forms of scholarship’ which should inform ones pedagogical approach when dealing with a community outside of a Higher Education institution and outside of a community with wealth and privilege.  The ideas that Boyer brings to the fore are a) a ‘scholarship of discovery’, b) a ‘scholarship of integration’, c) a ‘scholarship of application’ and d) a ‘scholarship of teaching’. (Erasmus,2008:61) For the purposes of this essay, I will be looking specifically at the ‘scholarship of application’ as new pedagogical approach that can be instituted into the practice of community engagement. I will also be looking into how these practices can better compliment educational practices in Higher Education Institutions as mandated by the White Paper (1997)

In his definition of the ‘scholarship of application’ Boyer argues that it is a pedagogical approach that  acknowledges that “knowledge is not produced in a linear fashion. The arrow of causality can, and frequently does, point in both directions; that is, theory leads to practice and practice leads to theory. Community engagement, viewed and practised as a scholarly activity, provides the context for a dialogue between theory and practice through reflection. (Erasmus,2008: 61) This theoretical and reflective process should be afforded to both parties in a community engagement initiative. Further to that, knowledge should not just be seen as a commodity which one party can offer to another, it should be a process of dual engagement .  In conjunction to this approach , I would argue that there should be a serious consideration to equal out the playing field through acknowledging Rancière’s ideas on a collective intelligence.  Rancière argues that “it entails the possibility of breaking links of ‘’necessity’ tying an occupation to a form of intelligence. Emancipation means the communism of intelligence, enacted in the demonstration of the capacity of the ‘incapable’: the capacity of the ignorant to learn by themselves.” (Rancière, 2005:168) Moreover, I would contend that in order to make this possible it is very important to reconcile the differences instituted by Higher education Institutions already, by unlearning their very prescriptive models of knowledge creation and knowledge dissemination as the only way to engage with community based projects. The role of language in these interactions, for example can start to transform the engagement of these two parties into something that is more than superfluous and start to transition the project of community engagement as an emancipatory tool for not only those ‘that are to be engaged with’ but for those to ‘seek to engage’ as well.

In closing, I would contend that community engagement can be used as tool for emancipation in this country, however , the project itself is still in need of some serious and reflexive thought on  how to achieve this. I think that individuals who continue to involve themselves in these initiatives should consider how their engagement can be read as divisive and problematic and in so doing try to reconcile their work with humanizing practises which afford their ‘subject’ the equality and the respect that they deserve.

References Used:

P. Freire. 2005. The Pedagogy of the Oppressed. The Continuum  International Publishing Group. New York
H. Englund. 2006.The Hidden Lessons of Civic Education’ in Prisoners of Freedom: Human Rights & the African Poor. University of California Press: Los Angeles
S. Hall. 1997. Representation: Cultural Representation and Signifying Practices. Sage Publications Limited. London
J. Lazarus and M. Erasmus. 2008.  Embedding Community Engagement in South African Education. Sage Publications
J.Ranciere.2010. Communists without Communism. Verso: London


M. Hall.. 2010. Community Engagement in South African Higher Education. Kagisano Number 6: (1-47) Jacana Media(Pty): Pretoria