Opening Doors of Dialogue

With support from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, the Great Lakes Colleges Association has launched the Opening Doors of Dialogue initiative in conjunction with GLCA member colleges and the communities they inhabit.  The purpose is to develop strategies that address areas of need that both a campus and community experience.

To a degree never imagined in the eras of their founding, these Midwestern colleges and their host communities realize that continued vitality depends on their ability to work and thrive together.  Both have found that the external environment that once supported their well-being has changed, and that the need to strengthen and extend partnerships has become more acute.  Enduring partnerships can yield reciprocal benefits, encouraging members of a community and extended region to feel stronger bonds of common purpose with a liberal arts college in their midst.  Just as important, healthy collaborations can engage students, faculty, and staff more deliberately with community members in programs that address commonly identified needs.

Through this planning grant, we seek to build a program that will allow us:

  • to learn what is already happening between the communities and colleges of the GLCA and share that knowledge broadly across our institutions and communities;
  • to facilitate conversations between leaders of Midwestern communities and their resident campuses on critical issues, challenges, and opportunities to these communities;
  • to have deep conversations about what a more deliberately focused, integrated program of community-campus engagement might look like; and
  • to explore forward-looking projects of importance to our communities and the region that could potentially be developed either at the individual campus/town level or more broadly at a consortial level with colleges/communities that share similar challenges and goals.

The project’s main work will be done through a series of place-based facilitated dialogues (roundtable discussions) that bring together members of a local community with faculty and administrators of a nearby GLCA college to discuss challenges the community faces and ways to address them. Since August of 2021, we have completed seven campus-community roundtables.  Each consisted of approximately 20 participants, half of whom are representatives of the college, and half of the community.   

The Opening Doors of Dialogue program includes a provision that allows a participating campus-community setting to apply for funding from this GLCA grant to extend the thinking that has come from a roundtable discussion, for example, to seek GLCA funding to continue dialogues on key topics led by campus and community leaders.

Closely related to extending the roundtable dialogue is the possibility of applying funding to develop a test of concept for a collaborative project that yields mutual benefit to a community and campus.  It could be an exploratory project to develop a new idea that has presented itself in light of the roundtable discussion, or it could seek to build on a collaborative initiative that is already in place and yet offers enhanced avenues to build on previous achievements. 

The concluding actions of our program will consist of a capstone meeting in mid-May of the program’s Mellon Engagement Fellows (key partners of a given campus and community who work with the GLCA to plan and implement programing).  Other participants in this final meeting will be roundtable participants and others with strong interest in the program’s goals.  The essential question we will explore is: “What do we think are some of the most promising avenues for strengthening the social, economic, and cultural bonds between a college and surrounding community through collaborative actions?”

In addition to the GLCA’s final report to the Mellon Foundation, our hope is that these dialogues can position one or more of these settings to collaborate in writing a grant proposal to a major funder – ideally seeking financial support to implement a plan for substantial enhancement to the quality of life and engagement between a community and a college. 

It could be that two different campus/college locales decide to conjoin their efforts in proposing a shared project to address a common challenge.  It is also conceivable that the GLCA could coordinate a grant-funded project on behalf of two or more settings to address core challenges they each face as Midwestern campus/communities.

In the course of this planning grant, GLCA can provide a network of interaction and communication among key actors within the extended communities of several Midwestern locales.  Faculty and staff members and community leaders of different municipalities will learn the stories of other college/community settings and share their own.  Each party will gain a greater understanding of the successes and challenges that others have experienced.  Ultimately the GLCA will gather a body of knowledge and experience that allows it to tell stories of renewal and strength of community.  Our actions will help open doors of dialogue and understanding across GLCA colleges and their host communities in four Midwestern states.

Send questions to Greg Wegner, Director of Program Development