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Chapter Six Community Practitioners The touchstones of the new practice are new professional skills, new professional norms, new power relations, and a new mind-set about what it means to be a professional. —Lisbeth Schorr, Common Purpose As the case of the Neighborhood Learning Community (NLC) clearly indicates, education today needs to be accompanied by new democratic skills, knowledge, values, and practices to support democratic renewal. As I explored the landscape of civic education, I discovered many “community practitioners” who embody these traits and are putting them into practice in communities around the United States. These are the people able to connect colleges and universities, schools, and communities in a way that develops the different kind of politics—a politics centered on citizens—described in the cases of Hull House, Highlander, and the NLC. Think about the democratic habits and tools it took to imagine and organize a festival on the West Side of St. Paul that celebrates the contribution of immigrants, or a youth apprenticeship project that enables youth to get to know their communities through public work, or a school that allows immigrants to learn English through reciprocal learning with college students. In many respects, these are not new habits or tools—they are similar to what it took to institute a “labor museum” for adult immigrants at the turn of the twentieth century in Chicago or the skills required for developing a new method of teaching adult African Americans to read in the Jim Crow South. And while they are not the dominant approach learned by many in our now more specialized society that often teaches people to “go by the 117 book” rather than trust instincts or be creative, these are the habits and skills that must be learned by today’s community practitioners if we are to use the community as a place to effectively educate for democracy. Community practitioners are sometimes described as new practitioners , community builders, public workers, or community connectors.1 While community practitioners are often professionals staffed within institutions —such as schools, colleges, community centers, health centers, professional offices—they are able to see the public dimensions of their positions and are not stifled by the narrow professional “expert-driven” tendency of many institutional positions, norms, or cultures. In short, community practitioners are reformers who are able to connect education in the community with civic engagement by developing and utilizing new democratic habits and new democratic tools. New Democratic Habits I discovered three primary habits that most distinguish community practitioners who connect education in the community and civic engagement in my interviews and research. First, community practitioners are reflective practitioners who are able to “think-in-action.” In this process, they are forced to master the art of improvisation—they listen, learn, and react to situations on the spot. Second, community practitioners are community connectors who link the diverse worlds of community learning with action for political change. This is done, mostly, by strategically linking people and institutions to build new alliances. Finally, community practitioners utilize multiple fields of education. Specifically, community practitioners find ways to work within the structures of informal as well as formal education. Thinking-in-Action Realizing that the areas of expertise required of today’s professional practitioners lie beyond conventional practices learned in school, Donald Schön is most well known for developing a new epistemology of practice based on how professionals think-in-action. Schön’s “reflective practitioners” are professionals who go beyond theories or techniques ; these practitioners are able to invent ways of knowing and acting that are more artful than scientific. Thus, the actions of practitioners are responsible not only for the application of knowledge, but also for its generation.2 These skills are often difficult to explain. There is, as Schön writes, “no satisfactory way of describing or accounting for the artful compe118 Why Community Matters tence which practitioners sometimes reveal in what they do.”3 To competently deal with cases that fall outside of existing theories and frameworks , a community practitioner must use the power of improvisation: inventing and testing in the situation strategies of their own devising.4 Community practitioners might best be compared with jazz musicians because of these improvisational talents. Like the jazz musician who knows how to improvise in playing a musical composition, so the community practitioner must know how to improvise in building relationships , responding to problems, and organizing for positive change. They must build on people’s unique experiences and seek opportunities for...


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