Faculty Spotlight: Kate DeConinck

Faculty Spotlight: Kate DeConinck

Written by Dr. Kate DeConinck, Assistant Professor of Theology - November 30th, 2020

What interested you to get involved with community-engaged Learning?

I have been doing different forms of community-engaged learning since I first started teaching at USD in 2015. My world religions classes often visit local houses of worship and meet leaders or practitioners who bring the traditions that we are studying to life. I always like to see how these visits unsettle some of my students' assumptions and how they can lead to longer-lasting engagement or relationships with the community. Overall, I think that some of the best learning happens when courses are grounded in the world that extends beyond the boundaries of our campus. Students may not remember the specifics of every lecture or discussion in my classes, but the bonds they forge with community members are much more likely to stay with them. I am also trained as an anthropologist of religion and, as such, have always been invested in the ways in which our academic work and theories intersect with complicated realities in the world

Which community partner are you working with currently and how did that partnership start?

I work with a number of partners from the local community; however, my relationship with PATH (People Assisting the Homeless) has been one of my longest-standing and most meaningful. This partnership began approximately a year and a half ago when I stepped into my role as the co-director of the Urgent Challenges Collective, an initiative at USD that promotes research, teaching, and community engagement/advocacy surrounding homelessness in San Diego. As our team began to imagine new projects and programs, we wanted our work to be informed by the realities and needs of local community partners and unsheltered individuals themselves. Sigrid Struben ’18 (MA), who is the Kitchen and Volunteer Coordinator at PATH, was one of the very first persons with whom I met. First over coffee and then during visits to PATH’s location in downtown San Diego, we interacted with some of the clients who PATH serves, discussed past and present successes and challenges for their organization, and brainstormed ways in which our teams might work together. These early conversations have resulted in the co-creation of numerous projects and programs intended to benefit both USD and PATH.

How have you integrated community-engaged learning into your courses?

This fall, I co-taught a new advanced integration course, INST 352: Understanding the Homelessness Crisis, with Dr. Mike Williams (Political Science). Inspired by recent literature in the field of transformative pedagogy, I wanted to give our students the opportunity to engage with local community members in a way that would be more sustained than just an occasional guest speaker or field trip. After consulting with the Mulvaney Center and our contacts at PATH, we ended up designing and piloting a new Community Fellows Program. This program provided the opportunity for community members with personal or professional experience related to homelessness to apply to be members of our class: they would do the weekly readings, attend our class sessions to engage with students, and also reflect on how the materials spoke to their own experiences. Dozens of individuals applied to be part of the program and, after careful review of the applications, four individuals from PATH (as well as two individuals from other organizations) were selected for the pilot program this fall. They brought insights to our discussions based on their work as housing specialists, legal advocates, mental health clinicians, and more. Fellows received a small stipend at the end of the term as well as tailored support to help them advance in their own careers. What was most powerful about this program was that it effectively broke down the academic bubble that our university is often confined within and de-centered traditional forms of authority in the classroom by broadening existing perceptions of "expertise." 

What challenges has the COVID-19 pandemic presented with doing community engagement and how have you navigated those challenges?

It is certainly strange to teach a course on homelessness from the comfort of your own home. The remote format, however, provided the opportunity for our class to reflect on the weather, news, and other issues playing out wherever learners were located across the country and to think about how these realities might be affecting our unsheltered neighbors. I had also originally planned some experiential activities for our students and Fellows that did not prove to be possible. For example, students would have been asked to take public transportation to get downtown for a class meeting hosted at PATH, increasing their understanding of how long and frustrating this commute can be for those who do not have cars. (Downtown is where many of the homeless services are centralized in San Diego.) While I had to let go of these plans and others in order to ensure a safe and accessible learning environment for everyone, Zoom learning also had its perks. Most especially, it was much easier for our Community Fellows to attend all of the class sessions given that they did not have to drive to campus every Tuesday and Thursday. In fact, we were able to accept additional Fellows -- two more than we'd initially planned -- because we were not limited by the seat maximums in a physical classroom! 

For faculty looking to integrate community-engaged learning into their courses, where do you recommend they start?

My main piece of advice would be to build relationships with your community partner(s) before starting to design a new course or project. In order for community-engaged learning to be meaningful and relevant for everyone who is involved, there needs to be a pre-existing sense of trust and reciprocity. A thirty minute coffee date -- even a Zoom coffee date! -- to get to know one another can go a long way in establishing the sort of rapport that will be crucial for effective collaboration. More generally, I would encourage faculty to prioritize openness, creativity, and flexibility when integrating community-engaged learning into their classes. It's important to leave space for your partner(s) to co-create plans and projects with you. And, lastly, it's important to consider where your relationship might go once the semester has ended. Most people outside of academia don't live their lives on a semester-based schedule, so setting appropriate expectations about availability and/or next steps after the end of the term is an important part of your relationship. In our case, we asked the Community Fellows how (or if) they would like to work with us moving forward. Many of them had specific research questions that they were interested in pursuing, so we set up our Spring 2021 research program in such a way that we will be able to collaborate with each of them on an actionable research project about homelessness in San Diego. 

What is one memorable experience that inspires you to continue this work?

To be honest, the most memorable aspect of this class was the fact that so many of the Fellows and students would often stick around after class had ended to chat. Sometimes people had questions about course materials or assignments but, equally often, they just wanted more time together. It was a joy to see the sense of connection that emerged in this way and other ways. However, there was also one particular day in class that still stands out to me. In addition to joining our class discussions every week, we invited each of our Fellows to give a slightly more extended talk (15 minutes or so) at some point in the semester if they wished to do so. The idea was that they would have the floor to share anything about their life or career that they wanted students to know or think about. One of our Fellows, a man who was previously incarcerated and now works as a clinical case manager, took to the "Zoom stage" in October. After sharing some of the details of his life and what he's seen as trends among his clients, he concluded by disclosing that that exact day was his 20 year anniversary of being substance free. He teared up while speaking -- as did many of the rest of us in the Zoom room. Numerous students contributed words of affirmation in the chat; students also wrote in their end-of-semester surveys that this session had stayed with them in the weeks that followed. This authentic, vulnerable exchange never would have been possible if not for the baseline of trust and reciprocity that we had created prior to that point.

Headshot of Dr. Kate DeConinck

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