CCE director works to foster new ‘civic engagement’ mindset
'It goes beyond volunteering and service. ... It's about building relationships in the community'
Kelli Huth is committed to creating a culture of engagement between Binghamton University and the community.
“Binghamton University is not in a bubble separate from the rest of the area,” she said. “We’re an integral part of the community and there is fantastic, collaborative work being done. Still, there is potential to grow and deepen partnerships in a way that has impact for everyone involved.”
Huth has spent her first six months as director of the Center for Civic Engagement (CCE) taking beginning steps toward expanding those partnerships. For Huth, that starts with listening to the needs of community members, faculty, staff and students.
While there is already a lot of important work taking place between the groups, Huth said community partners are eager to have more connections and collaborations with the University.
“The community partners I’ve met want students to get involved in conversations and problem-solving,” she said. “They know there is more room for students to realize their place as individual community members. There’s no lack of interest when it comes to partnerships.”
But creating a culture of engagement requires a change of mindset when it comes to defining “civic engagement.”
“Engagement is something you do with the community rather than for the community,” she said. “It goes beyond volunteer and service. It’s not just about going out and doing things you think are right and feeling good. It’s about building relationships in the community and valuing the expertise of the people who are facing challenges every day.”
Huth arrived at Binghamton University in February after 10 years at Ball State University in Muncie, Ind. At Ball State, she served as director of immersive learning.
“When I started the job at Ball State, engagement was becoming a central part of the university mission, so I was responsible for building an office of support for faculty, student and community partners interested in getting involved in engagement projects,” she said.
“It’s a critical part of higher education for students to not only learn the skills of their discipline, but to figure out how those skills can be applied to solving the problems of the world. They should be empowered to shape the future of the places in which they live.”
At Ball State, Huth provided new faculty members with an overview of Muncie’s community history and answered questions such as “How did Muncie start and how has the community changed over time?” and “Why are people now struggling in a post-industrial era?”
“That was a great eye-opener for (faculty) who were new and didn’t have roots there,” she said. “It gave them an appreciation of the people living there and the challenges they were facing.”
Muncie’s economic history played a vital role when Huth applied for the CCE job.
“The position profile perfectly aligned with my skills, experience and interest,” she said. “I came here for my interview and immediately fell in love with the community. … The (Muncie) area I came from experienced many of the same issues that Binghamton has been facing for years: loss of population, loss of manufacturing. Those challenges and issues aren’t new to me.
“When I met people in the Binghamton community and on campus, I felt at home,” added Huth, who visited historical societies and the Roberson Museum and Science Center before starting. “It was wonderful to have such a welcoming atmosphere.”
Through the University Downtown Center in Binghamton and the Health Sciences Campus in Johnson City, Huth realized that a strong foundation for engagement was already in place.
“The fact that President Stenger is the co-chair of the Southern Tier Regional Economic Council showed me that the University is serious about being in the community and having an impact,” she said. “That attracted to me to this position.”
While Huth continues her listening tours, she also is emphasizing the importance of community-engaged courses and is hoping to increase their number by showing positive examples to faculty members.
“It doesn’t have to be big, complicated or glamorous,” Huth said. “But if faculty members think about the courses they are teaching and the learning objectives they have, there may be opportunities for student learning to be enhanced through community engagement. Can you examine a community challenge through the lens of your discipline? There might be more obvious connections between what is being done in the classroom and research and what’s happening at the local, regional or global level.”
The CCE has also added a faculty engagement associate this summer to help facilitate and support projects. Barrett Brenton, a former anthropology professor and faculty coordinator for academic service-learning and community-based research at St. John’s University, will do everything from introducing community leaders to faculty members to assisting with syllabi to running professional-development workshops.
“He’ll be a huge asset to our team,” Huth said. “He’s been doing this work for a long time, so he will be a great resource for faculty members who are interested in community-engaged teaching and research.”
Brenton’s position is one of four that has been filled since Huth started at the CCE. Several positions were restructured due to changing campus partnerships. The center also features nearly two dozen student assistants and interns.
“I’m amazed at the students’ level of responsibility and how well they step up to the plate to accomplish big tasks,” Huth said. “Everyone is so engaged and professional. Their hearts are in the work.”
Telling stories about what is happening in the culture of engagement – particularly with students – is important for the upcoming academic year, Huth said.
“Students don’t necessarily come to Binghamton University thinking about the role they can play in the Binghamton community,” she said. “They don’t think of it as a place they can call home. Some students think of it as a place they will be for a few years and then leave. If we can get people involved in service-learning and other engagement activities early, it can be incredibly transformative for them.
“Community engagement is critical to higher education because we’re not here just to train employees and further our disciplines, but to cultivate active, engaged citizens.”