Democracy in Practice

Beverly Bickel is a clinical associate professor of language, literacy and culture at UMBC.

Beverly BickelLast week I had the privilege of joining David Hoffman for two days of meetings at the Kettering Foundation to talk about publicly engaged scholarship and teaching and hear about civic engagement projects at universities around the country.  We talked about the great work UMBC folks are doing in and around BreakingGround, and now we have people in other places who want to collaborate with us on how all of this civic activity is contributing to democratic practices on campuses and beyond.

Mapping Baybrook 1The afternoon after we returned, I headed down to Curtis Bay to see what the students and faculty of Visual Arts and American Studies along with Brooklyn-Curtis Bay community members and organizers had been up to this semester.  They were gathered in the Polish Home Hall, a community center that is being renovated as a welcoming community gathering space which on this Saturday was overflowing with people enjoying an afternoon of pulled pork and cole slaw, art exhibits by Benjamin Franklin HS and UMBC students, the Mapping Baybrook exhibit of oral history and geotagging of people and places in the community, and music by several local musicians including the Curtis Bay Seniors band and their most recent addition of Professor Steve Bradley playing the tenor sax he just picked up 6 months ago.  I spent five dollars to get an arm’s length of raffle tickets that benefited the building renovation fund, enjoyed young (and older) painted faces with dragons, princesses and ants (Prof. Bradley again), and talked with several UMBC Mapping Baybrook 2students about being in the courses led by their visionary instructors and the afternoon’s lively MCs, Nicole King and Steve Bradley.

Having talked with a member of Living Classrooms, one of the afternoon’s co-sponsors, my friend and I decided to drive over to see the newly inaugurated green building on the 11 acre waterfront park that now houses the Masonville Cove Environmental Education Center.  The lovely center, built on land just recently cleaned up from its previous role as an industrial “midnight dumping ground,” faces across the water overlooking the city and is reportedly quite inaccessible to community members who cannot easily walk there across the multiple train tracks, highways and industrial centers that separate it from the community. A next project for urban planners and civic engineers?

So my thoughts go to questions of ethics and the centrality of place and space in what we intend to be the democratic practices of our daily lives, our classrooms, and our research.  How do people from UMBC assure that we are joining community members in what David Harvey calls a “speculative spirit” that might open up “new spaces for human thought and action in all manner of ways”? How do we from the university respect the particular experiences and hopes of people in communities?  In what ways can we learn about the embodied experience of those who work and live in places we visit or return to? What fears, assumptions or stereotypes worry us?  Who decides what to study or what to create?

I’d love to have your thoughts about these questions and other ethical considerations for the BreakingGround work.

Contact the author, Beverly Bickel, at


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