Transformation Is Mutual in Campus-Community Partnerships

GW’s Phyllis Mentzell Ryder and Life Pieces To Masterpieces’ Mary Brown discussed forging “mutually generative” relationships between academia and community organizations.

December 1, 2023

Wendy Wagner, Mary Brown and Phyllis Mentzell Ryder discussed mutually empowering partnerships between people from academic and community institutions. (William Atkins/GW Today)

Wendy Wagner, Mary Brown and Phyllis Mentzell Ryder discussed mutually empowering partnerships between people from academic and community institutions. (William Atkins/GW Today)

Mary Brown has spent decades fighting, but she doesn’t generally choose to focus on what she’s fighting against. What Brown calls “the ‘anti,’” the mode of activism that focuses on overcoming an opponent or obstacle, doesn’t compel her as strongly as what she’s working toward.

“What I’m for is our shared humanity,” said Brown, who in 1996 cofounded Life Pieces To Masterpieces (LPTM), a D.C. arts-based youth development nonprofit that helps Black and Brown boys and young men growing up in Wards 7 and 8 to develop character and leadership and unlock their innate potential.

Brown visited the George Washington University Tuesday afternoon to discuss “generative reciprocity” in academic-community partnerships with longtime colleague and collaborator Phyllis Mentzell Ryder, an associate professor of writing and director of the Columbian College of Arts and Sciences’ GW Writing Center. Ryder, a board member at LPTM, has facilitated a years-long partnership through which the organization connects with GW student volunteers and other shared resources. (One of those volunteers, alumnus Dylan Tally, B.A. ’19, is now a fellow board member at LPTM.)

“This is a campus-community partnership that has gotten stronger and stronger as the years go by,” said Wendy Wagner, director of community-engaged scholarship at the Honey W. Nashman Center for Civic Engagement and Public Service, who moderated the discussion.

Reciprocity in community relations can take a number of forms, Ryder said. It may look like “exchange,” in which each partner receives a desired outcome but those outcomes may differ between partners. It may be “influence,” in which partners present their cases and the shared outcome may change based on one party’s ability to persuade another. Or it may be generative reciprocity, through which “In the process of working together, we both grow and change.”

This last option is the subject of Brown and Ryder’s co-authored paper, “Black Leadership and Shared Humanity: A Profile of Generative Reciprocity for Racial Equity.” Published in “Reflections: A Journal of Community-Engaged Writing and Rhetoric” and the recipient of the Conference on Community Writing’s “Outstanding Article Award,” the article examines LPTM’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic and the murder of George Floyd in 2020. By centering Black experiences and Black leadership, and by building on its long-established relationships and earned trust, LPTM was able to effectively care for the young Black men in its community—a demographic that, as the paper points out, was “at the nexus of two pandemics,” being both disproportionately affected by COVID-19 and targeted by anti-Black racism. With those experiences centered, Brown and Ryder said, the Black boys and men in LPTM had platforms to raise their voices and know their capacity to speak to the power of shared humanity.

Academic partners are key collaborators in LPTM’s mission, Brown said. But these relationships must be built on mutual respect, a conscious dismantling of hierarchical privilege, and a determination to stay present through discomfort. That means not reaching for academic “solutions” in place of listening to the affected community, Brown cautioned, even when the impulse to do so springs from a place of care and concern.

“The challenge is that oftentimes those solutions are being developed separate and apart from those of us who are experiencing the pain,” Brown said. “How do we bring these languages together? How do we connect the conversations that academia is having [with] the Black and Brown pain that we’re feeling?”

In addressing those questions, Brown returned more than once to “shared humanity,” to a mutual willingness to show up, be curious, do the work and listen to one another without judgment or hierarchical role-playing.

“A lot of us perform,” she said. “But it takes hard work—it takes courage—to be.”