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Democracy in action at Essex

What if work-based learning included working to support the local community? Rebecca Warren and Jason Glynos introduce an innovative approach based in community organising.
This article is more than 1 year old

Rebecca Warren’s research and teaching is focused on critical and social accounting, community organising and local community-based organisations at the Essex Business School, University in Essex.

Jason Glynos teaches political theory at the Department of Government, University of Essex

Right now, students in higher education are facing many interrelated challenges shared by many beyond the university.

These include the cost-of-living squeeze, increasing debt obligations, a mental health epidemic, the ongoing effects and after-effects of the Covid-19 pandemic and decades of austerity, increasingly regular economic crises, dramatically increasing wealth disparities, limited job market opportunities, as well as general employment precarity, not to mention the huge rise in anxiety in the face of an undisputed climate emergency.

Transformative action

The prospect of leaving university can feel rather ominous as a result and many students – and the academic staff who teach them – are no longer as reluctant to express frustration and anger about how these challenges have been allowed to emerge so starkly. Yet, both students and academics alike feel disempowered and unsure about how best to turn frustration and anger into transformative action.

The University of Essex’s Democracy in Action is a practice-based module, offered in collaboration with Citizens UK, that offers one way to put that frustration and anger into transformative action. It challenges the traditional approach to teaching in a higher education setting, by teaching students about community organising, by enabling them to articulate these emotions, and then encouraging them to put this learning and energy into practice by engaging with live social issues that matter to them and the local community. This is an intensive and often intense experience as students work on important issues in an environment where emotions – usually dismissed from a class-room environment – are treated with respect and as a source of inspiration.

Organising as work-based learning

As a solution to the employability challenges that students are facing, work-based learning is continuously being developed, explored, and promoted within universities, with an increasing focus on student employment outcomes. Work-based learning does hold some transformative potential, but often the role of communities, the third sector and students’ citizenship are not emphasised enough in the way that these approaches are being developed within the higher education sector.

Through Democracy in Action we wanted to push the boundaries of work-based learning beyond traditional conceptions of employability, shifting them into the realm of community-based and citizenship-based learning so as to enhance students’ transformative learning experience. For us this meant not only teaching community organising in the classroom setting, but also taking that learning outside the classroom and into the community, so that students can work together to have an impact on the community and themselves as organisers and future leaders. The course has had important impacts on everyone involved: students, lecturers, the university community and the external community alike. This is how one student put it, having been involved in the module:

The whole practical aspect of it… the whole idea of working as part of a group towards a goal and actually working towards making an impact on the local community and society as a whole, it really gave me a sense of purpose (Student 1)

University and community

From a wider perspective the role of the university in the local, national and international community is being called into question because of the way it tends to focus on impact metrics and marginalise local community concerns. However, there are also indications that things are evolving. Through Democracy in Action we have brought together students and the local community to forge relationships and initiate conversations that would not have taken place otherwise, unlocking student understanding, building ‘relational power’ (a key feature and aim of community organising), and developing the university’s role in the wider community ecosystem:

By having conversations with people seemingly different to us we have realised that we have many things in common and that we have to work together to make Colchester and Essex County as better and safer places to live (Student 2).

This engagement with community organising both inside and outside the classroom, not only teaches students how to undertake action on important issues, but also helps develop key skills, such as professional, team working and leadership skills:

It interactively teaches students… how to do community organising, and then… students must use that in practice to reach our goals for our campaigns. Along the way we learn… how we can improve ourselves and the way we do things (Student 3).

By encouraging students to reconceive their role in the community and recognize the power that they hold, they are empowered to speak to important decision makers, and make change possible:

It enables students to understand their power as individuals and as a collective to make real change (Student 4).

The experience of running the module has also had a profound impact on us as educators. Adopting a dialogic approach to teaching has allowed us to learn with and from the students too, creating a space for mutual trust, listening and understanding, and to develop our own community organising skills:

Although the teaching is professional the gap between students and teachers seems like less than other modules in the way that it feels like the teachers are working with you and respect and value what you have to say more (Student 5).

Live issues, real experiences

The key features of the community organising approach developed by Citizens UK open the space to create a rich learning environment at the University of Essex, both in and outside the classroom. For example, participants in Democracy in Action worked on a range of ‘live’ issues, including living wage, affordable housing, violence against women and girls, and community cohesion. Through this process all participants consolidated and built upon existing relationships within the Essex alliance, relying on them to hold key power holders to account.

The whole experience has also affected the way we teach, not only in Democracy in Action, but also beyond this module, applying lessons learned in other teaching environments. It has prompted discussions about how to reconceive our relationships with power-holders and how to further extend the role the university and the wider higher education sector can play in the wider community.

We have learnt a lot from the first year running this module and look forward to continuing to work with Citizens UK and Citizens Essex to expand the scope of the module’s impact in the coming years.

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