The scholarship and practice surrounding community literacy endeavors are rife with discussions of reciprocity, and by and large, the notion that all parties that comprise the communities formed by such literacy endeavors need to gain skills, concepts, and experiences that are valued in other communities in which they reside. 1 Despite this relative consensus on the theory of reciprocity, the act of developing reciprocal relationships isn't as straightforward as accepting the theory thereof. To that end, this keyword essay traces reciprocity's trajectory in our field by beginning with a brief look at the genealogy of the term and the development of its canonical roots.
From there, we move into an overview of case studies and instances where, despite the best intentions of th.organizers, reciprocity was replaced by notions of altruism or of otherizing participants. These problematic cases are then juxtaposed with instances where researchers and community members alike self-consciously harnessed the theories of reciprocity and were able to develop mutually beneficial relationships, both small and large-scale. As this essay will show, achieving truly reciprocal relationships while building community/university relationships is not easy, but it is vital.
The term "reciprocity" is a concern that permeates the boundaries of various disciplines. In 1986, Martin Nystrand brought the term to composition and rhetoric from sociology, explaining that "the reciprocity principle is the foundation of all social acts" (48). For Nystrand, reciprocity is not simply being aware of other knowledge as it is with mutual knowledge (54).
While Nystrand was working with reciprocity in terms of reading and writing in general, the concept has become vital to community literacy, specifically academic engagement with community literacy. In 1999, the Kellogg Commission published a report called Returning to Our Roots: The Engaged Institution in which they defined reciprocity as being central to academic institutions' engagement with other communities: "Embedded in the engagement ideal is a commitment to sharing and reciprocity. By engagement, the Commission envisions partnerships, two-way streets defined by mutual respect among the partners for what each brings to the table" (9). Since then, and through the work of Linda Flower, Ellen Cushman, Thomas Deans, and countless other scholars—both published and unpublished, working with various community literacy and service-learning [End Page 171] partnerships—it has become clear that the canonical thinking regarding the need for reciprocity is ubiquitous: all community literacy scholarship either implicitly or explicitly asserts the vitality of reciprocity. However, each take on reciprocity raises unique challenges and benefits of this vital component of community literacy. An examination of reciprocity as a key concept in community literacy requires that we start with the contributions of Flower and Cushman, whose projects and their subsequent scholarship about those projects have inspired "best practices" for community literacy scholarship and partnerships when it comes to reciprocity. Each scholar works with reciprocity on a balance of give and take between the academic partner and the "community" partner, so that both benefit equally from the partnership. Flower generally considers reciprocity in community literacy practices, and Cushman works primarily in activist research and service learning, and these three sites of reciprocity—community literacy research, community literacy practice, and service-learning—are the three main sites for application of reciprocity in our field's scholarship.
Flower's work with Pittsburgh Community House emphasizes an approach that begins with community needs. Writing with Shirley Brice Heath, Flower notes the centrality of a community/university partnership that "transforms service into a collaboration with communities and learning into a problem-driven practice of mutual inquiry and literate action" (43). And, with Wayne Campbell Peck and Lorraine Higgins, she advocates for "hybrid discourse communities" that account for the literacy and language practices of all participants (213). Flower's work consistently emphasizes the fact that community/university partnerships need to be developed based on mutual articulations of need and suggests that neither party can bring a fixed agenda or objective to the table.
Cushman has also developed these theories of reciprocity and—throughout her scholarship—offers specific practices for what she calls give-and-take between academia and the community. In her germinal article on the role of...