Briefly describe your sense of the culture of engagement on your campus currently.
Vanderbilt University Divinity School is an interdenominational, ecumenical institution in which community life is organized around a series of commitments written by committees of students and faculty members. These Common Commitments include: eradication of racism and ethnocentrism, sexism, and homophobia; openness to religious pluralism; cultivation of a close relationship between Judaism and Christianity; and a commitment to sustainability. Because of these commitments and the school’s history of contest and change, Vanderbilt Divinity is well-situated to foster a community deeply engaged with justice-oriented work and educational models. Students are able to engage the community through student organizations, field education, and other experiential learning opportunities. Student organizations offer student-led engagement with community organizations, with as much faculty & staff support as they wish. The field education office emphasizes highly individualized and supportive vocational discernment and works with each student to fulfill required and elective course credit through placements in community organizations and/or congregations. Experiential learning opportunities for course credit come out of the field education office or other faculty-led coursework. Occasionally, a student or group of students can propose special projects in field education and obtain support from faculty and staff. Optional certificate programs allow students to focus their electives so the Common Commitments of the school can be deepened through academic work. These certificates include the Kelly Miller Smith Institute on Black Church Studies; the certificate in Jewish Studies; the certificate in Latin American Studies; the certificate in Religion in the Arts and Contemporary Culture; and the Carpenter certificate in Religion, Gender, and Sexuality.
What are the community/social issues that students get involved in?
The community/social issues in which students are involved include worker justice, LGBTQI work, women’s empowerment, anti-racism, ecology / environmentalism, prisoners’ issues, homelessness work, interfaith concerns, and anti-poverty programs. Students can be involved in one or many of these issues. Student fees support all student-led organizations, which means that all students are technically members of all student organizations. At this point, there is no clear data on areas where a majority of students concentrate their engagement through curricular or extracurricular opportunities.
What are programs that promote and support community engagement, and what are their “best practices”?
The field education model at VUDS emphasizes individualized vocational discernment with a broad interpretation of what “ministry” can look like. Although all students are encouraged to fulfill their field education requirement with at least one semester of congregational placement, it is not a firm requirement. In fact, many students complete their field education requirement in a community organization. The field education faculty support a wide range of placements and work to match theologically trained “conversation partners” with students as a way of fostering mentorship and reflective practice. The Cal Turner programs (for Methodist ministry and for moral & ethical leadership in the professions) reflect a VUDS commitment to funding community engagement work, and immersion experiences, team projects with community organizations, and leadership trainings occur throughout the year. Student organizations function autonomously and enrich the Divinity school’s cultural life with experts in various fields of ministry, community engagement opportunities, and campus-based activism. Despite these best practices, what remains true about community engagement at VUDS is that it is mainly student-centered (at the individual level) and lacks institutional coordination.
Name some of the community partners where students get involved in deep, meaningful, and ongoing ways. What do students do with these groups?
The field education office, student-led organizations, and individual students have nurtured fruitful relationships with community partners which have benefited the school as a whole. These include: Organized and United for Respect at Vanderbilt (OUR Vanderbilt), Laborers International Union of North America (LiUNA!), Scarritt-Bennett Center, Curb Center at Vanderbilt, Neighborhood Resource Center, Interdenominational Ministers Fellowship, Occupy Nashville, Tennessee Immigrant & Refugee Rights Coalition (TIRRC), the Nashville Food Project, Tennesseans for Alternatives to the Death Penalty, Interfaith Alliance Middle Tennessee, ACLU, Planned Parenthood, YWCA, Alive Hospice, The Contributor, Belmont University, and others. Frequently at organizations that are not religiously-oriented, Divinity students are integral in forming strategic relationships with religious communities (ACLU, Planned Parenthood, Occupy Nashville, etc). Likewise, in ecclesial spaces, Divinity students can implement programs that draw the congregation’s awareness to justice issues (Belmont UMC, Edgehill UMC, Crievewood UMC). In both spaces, these relationships and issues can slip through the cracks because they seem peripheral to the main thrust of the organization; the presence of Divinity students, however, helps ensure that this doesn’t happen. Participation ranges: students work part- or full-time jobs, engage in field education, intern, or volunteer at the above-mentioned sites. Other community partners include intentional communities that students live in and visit including: Nashville Greenlands, Edgehill, Belle H. Bennett House, Magdalene House, Castanea House, Amos House, and Disciples Divinity House.
Strengths and Challenges
Where are the roadblocks for engagement?
Although the VUDS Common Commitments set an institutional standard for establishing social justice as a discourse, there is no clear indicator as to what students understand upon entering VUDS or what they understand upon leaving. Similarly, many students choose to work in community organizations, but there is no intentional strategy for ensuring consistency between one student’s work and the next student’s. As such, VUDS’ culture of community engagement is highly individualized and vocationally fulfilling (to the benefit of the individual student), yet there is no clear way to account for VUDS’ community impact. For example, a student or student group may choose to develop a student-led effort to fight for a campus living wage increase, but the lessons learned and relationships built amongst that one student group does not necessarily carry on to future efforts. The result is that initiatives start anew depending on the interests of individual students. So, two major roadblocks include a lack of institutional memory and consistency and lack of practice-based (as opposed to discourse-based) opportunities for community engagement.
What are concrete ways to get through, around, and / or over these roadblocks?
Conversations with faculty and staff who recognize this roadblock have resulted in three initial goals:
Assess and then work to expand the student community’s understanding of what it means to do justice-based ministry.
Provide trainings to build students’ capacities for cultivating relationships with the constituencies that their site placements serve.
Build the institutional infrastructure to recruit, train, and communicate with students who wish to pursue social justice ministry as their vocation. Of primary importance are:
a staff person who works to facilitate the relationship between students and community organizations
an overhaul of the Field Education website, social media tools, and on-line curriculum materials
the development of a certificate program in Ministry & Movement Building (Social Justice and Community Development Ministry)
How does the school integrate engagement with the academic program?
Numerous integrations occur, although there is no clear intentionality for how this occurs or for tracking the impact of the integration. Some classes include required components of civic engagement, but this is not the norm. The Common Commitments define the ethical contours of academic inquiry by insisting on an awareness of the practical implications of theory. Thus students are provided with an intellectual base from which to act, but little avenue for doing so. A key exception is the field education component. Some of the optional certificates also require a project to be presented to the community at large. The presentation is an opportunity for students to demonstrate how their academic work intersects with practice.
Campus Wide Culture of Engagement
How does the school create a culture of engagement that reaches out to everyone?
The M.Div. degree requires three semesters of field education. This requirement encourages all students to engage their “ministries” in a hands-on and reflective way. During orientation, first year students undergo a thorough review of the school’s Common Commitments, and student organizations have opportunities to promote their work to new students. One of the ways that the school encourages students to live out or embody the Common Commitments is through involvement in student organizations. Weekly community worship strives to foster a justice-driven liturgy by inviting student organizations to bring their interests to bear on the creation of a service; however, attendance lags. Weekly forums are used to address a variety of VUDS-wide special concerns including specific presentations on the intersections of topics like racism and homophobia. Information about particular campaigns and opportunities for engagement are also provided when we gather for announcements and fellowship at Friday Coffee Hour. It remains uncertain how the M.T.S. degree has any institutional guidance or support, unless the M.T.S. student intends to pursue a Ph.D. Our effort will need to be attentive to how it incorporates incoming students, many of whom enter for the M.T.S. but switch to the M.Div.
What type of infrastructure needs to be built to create and sustain this culture?
VUDS needs a staffed office whose primary responsibility is to develop and carry out a visionary strategy for defining and organizing the school’s culture of community engagement. The Common Commitments serve as guidelines for what students, faculty, and staff value; the school needs a person familiar with Nashville who can point students toward opportunities for how to “live the commitments.” Additionally, a certificate program would provide structure for those students interested in community engagement and give administrators and faculty a clear way to understand student need for active engagement.