Success Stories: Martin Wolske

What does Public Engagement mean to me?
Public engagement is bringing together the best of the University with the best of community for our mutual benefit, in recognition of our overall interdependence. Community is a complex social ecology comprised of many different interdependent parts, one part being the higher education institution -- beyond reciprocity, we engage because helping others helps us, and as others help us they help themselves. Engagement also respects different knowledges and ways of knowing, working to foster partnerships within a pluralistic society, valuing the rich contributions the University brings to partnerships, while in humility appreciating our knowledge is significantly incomplete without the wealth of knowledge brought to the partnership by the community. For me, given our most intransigent social problems are socially constructed over generations and have become deeply embedded within our social systems, engagement is also about building a more just society by advocating for institutional change as allies. Ultimately, engagement seeks to achieve social change both by addressing immediate community-identified issues and also by contributing to the advancement of community knowledge power.

Ways I've partnered with the community
After first learning about the role of university boundary spanners at the Engagement Scholarship Consortium conference in 2010, I've come to appreciate that description as a core part of what I do within the University of Illinois. I help facilitate community collaborations, shepherd engagement projects, develop innovative technical resources, and advocating system change. Sometimes I help connect a community partner with faculty, staff, or students who can contribute to accomplish a specific task in a larger community change project. Examples include identify a service-learning class or practicum students to help setup a computer network, develop and deliver digital literacy curriculum, or put a service-learning class in touch with an existing public computing center to facilitate a journalism project. Sometimes I collaborate with my community-based boundary spanner counterpart as co-project managers. A past example was an 18-month participatory redesign project of The Urbana Free Library computer lab (http://www.lis.illinois.edu/articles/2012/12/wolske-volunteers-transform-public-computing-lab-urbana-free-library) that included multiple GSLIS classes, surveys, and focus groups. An exciting recent engagement project has grown organically from initial work led by MSTE and Computer Science to bring computational thinking to all learners, and especially those most at risk of academic failure. My work through the Center for Digital Inclusion and funded by the Illinois Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity and also the University of Illinois Public Engagement has been able to reach out to teachers, students, and parents to support critical afterschool programming and adult education to supplement and complement in-school curriculum reform as we take a community-wide approach to digital literacy education (http://dl4all.illinois.edu).

Ways community has benefited from collaborations with campus
At this past year's Engagement Scholarship Consortium meeting, a session again visited evaluation of engagement, but with respect for the emergent nature of our work in which each contributes richly to collaborations. Some highlighted their "but for" approach. By identifying the important value we bring to the table, we can say "but for our contribution", this would not have proceeded. At the same time, we take nothing away from the important value every other contributor, including the community, brings to the table. But for them, the project would also not have succeeded. Within that framing, I believe our work through the Graduate School of Library and Information Science and Center for Digital Inclusion have made significant contributions to the community because of our expertise in information and society, especially at the community level. The discipline of library and information science has much to contribute especially in information seeking and sharing, and knowledge creation in ways that can lead towards transformative action for social change. But for our engagement, various community development efforts would have been less successful in achieving immediate project goals or longer term increased community knowledge power. At the same time, but for the rich expertise of our community partners, the information and knowledge would have been myopic and would have missed the important contextualization to the community context and ways of knowing. And the move from knowledge to action, if it happened at all, would not have led to deeper community power that builds from and deepens community assets and resources within a human development and capability approach framework.