Equity in Action: Building Ethical Community Partnerships

Confronted with the murder of George Floyd and the harsh, even fatal realities of white supremacy and systemic racism, many Americans echoed the same question: “How can I help?” 

The answer to that question is rooted in community partnership, according to experts from the Center for the Common Good, which leads St. Thomas’ efforts to address civic and community challenges through work in and out of the classroom.  

Founding director Theresa Ricke-Kiely and the center’s team shared, at the inaugural Equity in Action: Cultivating Antiracist Universities conference, what it takes to build ethical and collaborative relationships with community partners through a diversity, equity and inclusion lens.

Theresa Ricke-Kiely, director of the Center for Common Good, volunteers during meal service at Catholic Charities' Dorothy Day Center in St. Paul.

Ethical guiding principles

The Center for the Common Good operates on a set of guiding principles, established to steer how St. Thomas serves and engages with community partners. The principles focus on what the community says it needs, whether that is housing, food or childcare.  

Associate director Kelly Sardon-Garrity, said part of the center’s role at St. Thomas is identifying, fostering and supporting community partnerships. An ongoing part of those partnerships is assessing needs, ensuring that all impacted voices have a seat at the table.  

“We focus on listening and asking clarifying questions before making known any particular opinions or thoughts I might have - is the approach I take - to really make the initial meetings and those thereafter to really be about learning,” Sardon-Garrity said. “We want to make sure that what we're doing has integrity, is respectful, and it's coming from the voices with whom we're in relationship with.” 

We want to make sure that what we're doing has integrity, is respectful, and is coming from the voices with whom we're in relationship with.

Kelly Sardon-Garrity, Center for the Common Good

White savior vs ally

In community engaged work, white supremacy and white saviorism can show up when someone, even with someone coming from a good place, goes into a community assuming they know what’s best or how to make things better, said Jessica Hodge, Center for the Common Good faculty director and associate professor in the department of justice and society studies.  

The term “white savior” was coined by Nigerian American novelist Teju Cole in a 2012 tweet. Hodge explained that Teju’s critique was about oversimplifying complex problems in a way that becomes self-serving.  

Hodge said white saviorism is questioning the tactics, strategy or expertise of community organizations who are already involved in solving complex issues. She cited actress and activist Amanda Seales, who said white saviors are still exerting their privilege in a harmful way. 

Hodge also agrees with Seales that allies should view themselves as part of the landscape, not the entire solution. She said allies use their privilege to empower the Black people who are already there doing the work and also use their privilege to engage with and challenge the white people are an impediment to those Black people. 

St. Thomas students volunteer through the Center for the Common Good at Pillsbury United Communities in south Minneapolis on July 22, 2020. Logan Romero, middle, works in one of Pillsbury United Communities' garden plots in south Minneapolis.
Mark Brown/University of St. Thomas

Partnership over presence

Ethical community engagement, Hodge said, underlines and emphasizes partnership over presence. Without taking time to ensure all participants understand and have reflected on the nuances, challenges and obstacles of the community, she said, real learning and change won’t happen.  

"Students can assume that if they simply show up, that they're helping, that their mere presence will be appreciated or needed by the community. Connection to a partner is often reduced to minimum hours or completing an assignment,” Hodge said. “Neither students nor the communities they interact with acquire an increased capacity to address the causes of problems from which communities suffer.” 

Showing up on site or in the community could potentially burden the community further because of a lack of knowledge or understanding. When engaging with the community, Hodge said, it’s important to recognize the time, effort, and lift partnerships require of organizations already doing the work.  

Shifting to long-term partnerships

“Developing antiracist perspectives and practices is inherently a continuous process, Catholic Charities, one of St. Thomas’ community partners said. “Short term opportunities aren’t always effective at building nuance or counteracting white saviorism.” 

Instead, long-term partnerships help community partners get to know volunteers and learn how to ultimately make the greatest impact to advance the common good, Dustin Killpack, Center for the Common Good associate director said. 

“We’ve turned our focus away from episodic events or one-time events, and instead turned our focus and energy to ongoing and continuous projects because your impact is going to be a lot greater,” Killpack said. "I've seen a tremendous improvement in relationships with community partners because we've made that transition.”  

Staff members from the Center for the Common Good pack Tommie Shelf food bags at Keystone Community Services in St. Paul on May 4, 2020. Pictured Keystone Community Services’ Christine Pulver