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Local Community: Place-Based Pragmatist and Feminist Education
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[O]ur increasing democracy impels us to make a new demand upon the educator. … [A] code of social ethics is now insisting that (the individual) shall be a conscious member of society.

[Black women] understood intellectually and intuitively the meaning of homeplace in the midst of an oppressive and dominating social reality, of homeplace as site of resistance and liberation struggle.

this essay considers the role of city/community as homespace in an attempt to bring a particular place, the community of Muskegon, Michigan, into the classroom as a learning partner in a place-based educational project. Place-based education is commonly used to describe sustainability/environmental learning (Powers), but it also can describe a pedagogy that incorporates the local historical power struggles, the cultural conflicts and strengths, and recent economic upheavals in the education process (Gruenewald). In this approach, the community in all of its situatedness provides the context for the learning experience, and community members come into the classroom as partners in the learning. This essay demonstrates that the underlying commitments to particularities of location/place in pragmatist feminist educational theory and practice, illustrated in the work of Jane Addams, John Dewey, and contemporary feminist and pragmatist thinkers, is a helpful foundation for place-based education and can lead to larger engagement with social issues.

In the spring of 2010, I joined a small team of Continuing Education leaders at Grand Valley State University to discuss a new program for nontraditional students in Muskegon, Michigan. Muskegon is located on the shores of Lake Michigan, with beautiful beaches and a shipping port. In the late 1800s, Muskegon was known as the “Lumber Queen of the Mid-West” and at one time had forty-seven sawmills. It suffered an economic depression when Michigan forests were substantially depleted, but the economy was revived when large industries such as Shaw-Walker, Brunswick, Campbell, Continental Motors, and the Central Paper Mill moved into the area in the early twentieth century. Industry had brought many Southern Europeans to the area in the 1880s, and the migration of industrial workers from the South in World War II included large numbers of southern African Americans (Yakes). The loss of manufacturing jobs in Michigan in the 1990s and early 2000s hit Muskegon hard, and it has been struggling economically. Sappi Paper Mill, one of the area’s largest employers, closed in 2009, adding to the unemployment problems in Muskegon. In 2010, Muskegon had 17.6% unemployment. In 2000, over 11% of the population of the county lived in poverty; however, given economic downturns in Michigan since 2000, that number might be higher now.

In Muskegon County in 2010, only 16.5% of adults over the age of 25 had a bachelor’s degree, compared with 28% nationally in 2010. There are no public four-year universities there, although the thriving community college houses a university center where three state universities have small offices. The Muskegon Grand Valley State University (GVSU) office is about forty-five minutes from the main campus. It has had a presence there since 1995, but the enrollment has faltered partially because of changes in the job market. The program we piloted in Muskegon was a newly designed Liberal Studies Leadership program. The decision to offer this program was based in community research, including interviews with prospective students and community leaders; it was created to “find new directions for Muskegon” and to create pathways for businesses and for community support (Watson).

This new program in Muskegon was specifically targeted toward nontraditional students who are typically working adults interested in night classes. Many of our students had full-time jobs and families, others were looking for positions—some students were unemployed when starting the program but took on full-time jobs while taking classes. Some of our prospective students were receiving federal educational funding through the “No Worker Left Behind” program. Because of their multiple commitments, working adult students typically find it difficult to participate in extracurricular and/or service learning types of activities. The program was particular to Muskegon—designed for the community with community input. No effort was made to recruit any students out...

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