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Faculty Resources

Best Practices for Community-Based Work

We rely on community partners’ knowledge and understanding of local issues to determine the best methods for addressing community needs, striving to build relationships with partners where power and resources are shared, and developing projects that reciprocally benefit community partners and Middlebury students and faculty.

The ultimate goal of community engagement is to work alongside our community to foster the public good, embracing our responsibility as a place-based institution, all the while building the capacity of our students as we cultivate their academic and civic knowledge and skills.

Tips for Project Design

A community-engaged project should be designed around a shared purpose, with good attention to process and relationship building.


  • Develop students’ capacity for active engagement in civic life and their drive to work toward positive social change while deepening their understanding of academic content
  • Focus on the co-creation of knowledge as we work alongside community members and organizations to deepen public problem solving in pursuit of the public good

In terms of process, key elements to consider here include these:

  • Rely on community and student voices to develop the learning and engagement opportunities
  • Develop practices that foster student learning about social justice issues, tools for positive social change, and deepen intercultural competencies
  • Help students make meaning of the intersections between academic content and community experiences through ongoing and critical reflection
  • Assess student learning and community outcomes to improve current and future collaborations

At their heart, community-engaged courses are relationship-driven.  We are always striving towards fostering reciprocal and authentic relationships that do the following:

  • Honor community partners as coeducators
  • Focus on community-identified needs
  • Acknowledge and addresses power and inequalities
  • Demonstrate a deep understanding of community cultural wealth and knowledge
Some framing questions as you begin to design a community-based project include the following:
  • Why are you integrating a community-based project into your course and how is it essential to achieving student outcomes?
  • Why is engaging with the community a core part of the topic of study?
  • Why do you do this work? Why is it important and to whom?
  • What feels feasible and reasonable within our semester timeframe, your desired unit of study, and the course level?
  • What skills are needed?
  • What will you need from community partners to facilitate success?
  • How will you structure the project to ensure beneficial outcomes for students and partners?
  • How will you maintain communication with your community partner throughout the project?
  • How will you integrate meaningful reflection?
  • How do your values as a scholar align with your plans for engaged teaching and learning?
  • Where are you flexible?
  • What are the “non-negotiables”?

As part of your course development, consider the areas of focus that your community-engaged course might include based on the desired functions defined by you, your community partner, and your learning goals. Here are some examples:

  • Civic Focus: Students participate in service and/or civic engagement for the purpose of  growing their capacity as civic actors
  • Disciplinary Focus: Students participate in a community experience as a “text” to help them learn course content
  • Project Focus: Students collaborate to address community-identified challenges and priorities
  • Competency Focus: Students develop and enhance academic and professional knowledge and skills, and deploy them for community benefit
  • Research Focus: Students contribute to research with, by, and for community for the purpose of capacity building and empowerment
  • Solidarity Focus: Students engage with community primarily through observation, dialogue, and social/cultural activities

Successful partnerships have clearly articulated academic and community goals. Below are a series of questions to consider as you articulate your learning goals.

What are your academic objectives, e.g., the explicit concepts and skills from the discipline you want your students to understand and apply?

What “hidden curriculum” skills do you want students to gain, e.g., effective written and oral communication, problem solving, time management, and teamwork?

Are there particular skills, methodologies, or tools you want students to employ ?

What civic or cultural aspects would you like your students to understand?

Designing and implementing an effective community-engaged course has an additional layer of complexity in that the objectives and goals of the community partner are also incorporated.  This is referred to as “objectives-squared,” where course design includes the objectives and goals of the community partner in addition to your teaching and learning goals.

There are a range of project models you can consider:
  • Students in small groups all working on different aspects of a larger project for one partner
  • Groups of students working on the same project for the same partner (allows partners to have multiple versions of “products”)
  • Small groups working on different projects for different partners
  • Students working individually with partners

The “correct” model will be determined based on your learning goals (e.g., teamwork is a skill you want to help foster), the needs and interests of your partner(s), and what feels feasible for you in terms of project management.

Here are some prompts as you contemplate potential community partners:

  • What type of community agency or organization might serve as a coeducator and partner?
  • Are there specific organizations you know of or have already worked with? If so, what are they?
  • What might be some potential community partner goals and how do they align with your teaching and research objectives?

Best practices for maintaining partnerships include the following:

  • Strong, consistent, and open communication
  • Clear articulation of expectations (i.e., roles, responsibilities, time commitments) 
  • Be open to partner’s goals and aspirations
  • Prioritizing sustained relationships


Example Community Partners

The array of potential partner organizations that faculty work with spans state, local, and regional agencies; arts, culture, and heritage organizations; social services organizations; environmental organizations; organizations dedicated to justice and equity work; policy makers; food system organizations; and educational organizations.  Below is just a small sampling of state and local partners.

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