Inaugural graduate institute considers community-engaged scholarship in South Bend, Chicago

October 29, 2022

“Unleash your imagination.” That challenge from visiting keynote speaker Dr. Timothy Eatman framed the 2022 Graduate Institute for Engaged Teaching and Research. From October 17-19, Eatman and a group of community leaders and faculty from South Bend and Chicago joined a diverse group of 14 Notre Dame graduate students to explore models of effective community-university partnerships. During the Institute, participants learned about projects in a range of disciplines including the arts, chemistry, housing, sociology, and others, each grounded in efforts to advance justice. Thanks to the range of presenters and projects, each student was able to explore community-engaged work within their own area of expertise and many said that the experience changed their personal perspective and professional plans. Sponsored by the Center for Social Concerns, the Institute is part of a larger commitment by the center to support graduate student work in areas of justice and community engagement.

Eatman launched the Institute by challenging the students to take a more expansive view of their scholarship. A sociologist at Rutgers University whose work on education policy in the United States is widely published and respected, Eatman noted recent challenges to higher education, including the broad decline of tenure-track positions nationally. He argued that current conditions call on scholars to focus on projects that bring energy and meaning to all involved by advancing issues of justice. Academia can and should be a source of life-giving learning, research, and relationships for all members of a society, he contended, especially in times of polarization and conflict. Eatman leaned heavily on his time as president of Imagining America, a national consortium of more than 75 universities and colleges. The consortium advocates for policies in higher education that bring people together in “critical yet hopeful spaces to imagine better ways of living, learning, and working together.” Eatman shared books, journal articles, and conference proceedings sponsored by the consortium around issues of racial equity and improved access to education. Throughout the Institute, students were given space to consider new possibilities for their work grounded in “love and strategy” with community members and organizations. Bringing the combination of academic expertise and lived experience to bear on pressing challenges in the world is a special, powerful opportunity for scholars to advance what matters most.

South Bend community leaders and Notre Dame faculty echoes the themes Eatman introduced. Each panel explored a different way in which students and faculty could equitably collaborate with community leaders. Professor Marya Lieberman, for example, noted the University’s work to reduce the presence of lead in local homes while Professor Margie Pfeil joined local leaders Sheila McCarthy and Pastor Carl Hetler to discuss partnerships addressing the housing crisis in South Bend. The Center for Social Concerns has been an active supporter of each of these projects, providing funding and research support. Each presenter reminded the students that the work of justice is ongoing and encouraged each to consistently work to find ways to incorporate it into their scholarship. Several noted that they had not planned on engaging with the community in the ways they have. Instead, faculty members and local leaders alike shared their experience responding to the signs of the times. Presenters also noted the ways in which the lives experience of local residents required that they stay more nimble and able to respond to inequities when and where they encounter them, building relationships, knowledge, and projects over time.

Participants were also able to engage with a diverse group of community-engaged scholars and practitioners in Chicago. Students spent a day in the city exploring the history of community-university projects there and the ways the area has changed over time. Scholars from the University of Chicago reminded the students to “think about the ground under [their] feet” and the ways in which institutions of higher education have affected their neighbors. Many universities and colleges have complicated histories with the communities around them, the implications of which are often still being explored and unpacked. As future leaders of both universities and communities, students at the Institute were eager to learn more about how they could positively shape future relationships. 

This inaugural Institute is part of the center’s growing portfolio responding to graduate and professional student interest in questions of justice. Learn more about graduate initiatives at the center at

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