Community-Based Learning for the Common Good

The Office of Civic Engagement supports faculty who provide students with opportunities to engage in the community through their course work. This type of learning requires students to apply classroom concepts to real-world situations, and to work on projects of value to the broader community.

The Office of Civic Engagement fosters sustainable relationships with community partners. These relationships and the emphasis on community involvement, service, and intercultural learning have been important aspects of St. Thomas life since the school was founded in 1885.

In 2006, the Carnegie Foundation selected the University of St. Thomas to receive a Community Engagement Classification. This classification was renewed in 2015. It is awarded to colleges and universities with “substantial commitments in curricular engagement and outreach and partnerships.”

Our mission complements the University's mission.

Our Mission Complements the University's Mission

Inspired by Catholic Social Teaching, the Office of Civic Engagement accompanies global and local partner organizations by supporting the design, implementation, and evaluation of discipline-specific and multi-discplinary curricular components and courses that use collaborative strategies of engagement to advance the common good.

Explore more about what we mean by various phrases in the statement.

According to the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, Catholic Social Teaching “is a central and essential element of [Catholic] faith. Its roots are in the Hebrew prophets who announced God's special love for the poor and called God's people to a covenant of love and justice. . . . The Church's social teaching is a rich treasure of wisdom about building a just society and living lives of holiness amidst the challenges of modern society.” The Catholic Charities Office for Social Justice has identified ten principles at the heart of the Catholic social tradition, all of which guide our engagement in the community.

  1. Human Dignity
  2. Community and the Common Good
  3. Rights and Responsibilities
  4. Option for the Poor and Vulnerable
  5. Participation
  6. Dignity of Work and Rights of Workers
  7. Stewardship of Creation
  8. Solidarity
  9. Role of Government and Subsidiarity
  10. Promotion of Peace

Accompaniment is a theoretical model practiced by many humanitarian organizations throughout the world. It was developed within biblical and legal frameworks. Often grounded in the story of Jesus’ post-resurrection appearance to Cleopas and another disciple on the road to Emmaus, accompaniment emphasizes the relationship that is developed when people walk together. When Jesus appeared to his disciples, they did not immediately recognize him. Only after they shared companionship with one another together on the road did they really begin to see him and to recognize him. So likewise do we not really see or understand one another until we enter into real relationship with one another. This is true in our everyday encounters, as in our relations with one another through practices of engagement, where traditional boundaries or borders are crossed, and people who are otherwise segregated from one another encounter one another and work together toward a common goal.

In her book The Deepest Wound, Linda Crockett defines accompaniment in this way:

Accompaniment goes beyond solidarity in that anyone who enters into it risks suffering the pain of those we would accompany. Accompaniment may include all of these actions [protest marches, pressing for changes in law, civil disobedience] but it does not necessarily share the assumption that we can fix, save, or change a situation or person by what we do. It calls for us to walk with those we accompany, forming relationships and sharing risks, joys, and lives. We enter into the world of the one who suffers with no assurance that we can change or fix anything. . . . Accompaniment is based on hope despite evidence that there is little reason for optimism.

The model of accompaniment encourages engagement that is intentional about overcoming the power dynamics too often at play between a University or college campus and a community partner. Rather than conceiving its work as providing a “service to” or “helping” the partner, the University and the global or local community partner enter into a mutually beneficial, reciprocal relationship in order for students to contribute to something meaningful for the partnering organization even as the partnering organization agrees to assist the University and its professors in the task of education.

Walking together, then, in a way that recognizes interdependence and mutuality, the University and the partnering organizations work together to advance the common good.

The University’s work in engagement is global and local in nature. Its work encompasses different sectors of the wider community:

  • non-profit and non-governmental organizations (including religious and environmentally minded organizations),
  • governmental organizations (CityLabs, public schools, lobbying and advocacy groups, etc.), and
  • (for-profit) businesses or corporations.

Global and Local Engagement at St. Thomas prioritizes efforts around the millennium development goals of the United Nations, as well as the sustainable development goals that update the UN’s previous work. The “sustainable development goals” include:

  • ending poverty and hunger,
  • improving health and education,
  • making cities more sustainable,
  • combating climate change, and
  • protecting oceans and forests.

These are being developed in conversation with the UN’s initial millennium development goals:

  • To eradicate extreme poverty and hunger;
  • To achieve universal primary education;
  • To promote gender equality and empower women;
  • To reduce child mortality;
  • To improve maternal health;
  • To combat HIV/AIDS, malaria, and other diseases
  • To ensure environmental sustainability;
  • To develop a global partnership for development.

By drawing on and contributing to the expertise of partners in the community, GALE develops issue-based initiatives and supports faculty-driven efforts to prompt our students to advocate for justice, peace, and non-violence. Using the language of accompaniment, GALE advances the University’s mission to advance the common good by prioritizing seven initiatives aligned with the millennium development goals. Through the University’s engagement efforts, the St. Thomas community aspires to become:

  • Companions for Economic Justice. Initiatives in this area will focus on alleviating poverty, identifying food deserts, reducing hunger, etc. Some of our local partners have included Feed My Starving Children and Bread for the World, for example.
  • Companions for Educational Access. Initiatives in this area will focus on closing the achievement gap, improving literacy rates in disadvantaged neighborhoods and schools, etc. Some of our local partners have included College Prep Academy, Cristo Rey High School, and Hmong Academy, for example. Companions for Environmental Sustainability
  • Companions for Environmental Sustainability. Initiatives in this area will focus on finding sustainable solutions to climate change globally as well as its local and national impacts. Some of our local projects have included Brightside and CityLabs, for example.
  • Companions for Gender Equality. Initiatives in this area will focus on addressing systemic causes of gender-based violence, educational access for single mothers, and income generation for women living in poverty, etc. Some of our local partners have included Women’s Advocates, the Jeremiah Program, and The Family Partnership, for example.
  • Companions for Human Rights. Initiatives in this area will focus on bearing witness to human rights violations and appropriate advocacy and response to violations when they are occurring. Some of our local partners have included The Center for Survivors of Torture and Violence and Amnesty International, for example.
  • Companions for Public Health. Initiatives in this area will focus on learning about disparities in health care and social determinants of health. Some of our local partners have included Open Arms of Minnesota, Clare Housing, and Minnesota AIDS Project, for example.
  • Companions for Civil Rights. Initiatives in this area will focus on civil rights and causes of their erosion. Some of our local partners have included the NAACP and the Community Justice Project (and Brotherhood Brew), for example.

The offices affiliated with GALE (currently the Office of Study Abroad, the Office of Civic Engagement, the Office of Sustainability, and the efforts surrounding Ashoka) support the design, implementation, and evaluation of engaged components and courses that serve the wider curriculum of the graduate, undergraduate, and senior-citizen programs of the University. By offering programmatic opportunities for seminars, conferences, and faculty development workshops on designing engaged courses in the areas of study abroad, service-learning, sustainability, and social entrepreneurship, and by supporting faculty research in these areas, GALE will sustain and/or improve the academic quality of courses while increasing the significance of the University’s impact on social change to advance the common good. By overseeing the course designation process in implementing engagement, and by developing a strategy of continual improvement for evaluating and assessing the University’s efforts, GALE will advance St. Thomas to become a national and global leader in an ethically informed pedagogy of engagement that insists upon the principle “do no harm.”

There are several strategies of engagement that GALE will oversee, maintaining programs that are already doing good work and developing still others. GALE wants to grow these programs and to continue to increase high-quality opportunities for students to engage with off-campus partner organizations.

  • International Engagement (through the Office of Study Abroad)
  • Changemaker Engagement (ASHOKA initiatives in social innovation and social entrepreneurship)
  • Sustainability Engagement (through the sustainability initiatives including Sustainable Communities Partnership, Brightside, and so on)
  • Civic Engagement (through the Office of Civic Engagement)

Engagement strategies extend beyond traditional categories like direct service to include: capacity building, economic development, public policy advocacy, participatory action research, grassroots organizing, confrontational strategies, and education. Sometimes engagement is characterized as either reproducing the status quo through charity, or changing it through work for social justice. Collaborative strategies of engagement transcend this dichotomy. By collaborating across university units, and coordinating strategies of engagement with partner organizations, GALE will provide a broad engagement framework to address social needs without undermining critical analyses of power and injustice. In this context, meeting direct needs to sustain social goods, and changing or challenging systems in pursuit of social justice, are complementary strategies. GALE works to connect and promote ethical and effective collaborative strategies of engagement at the University of St. Thomas to advance the common good.