When the Firestorm Transforms: Becoming the Community Partner

Continuums of Service, A symposium Held at CSU San Diego, March 6-8, 2019
June 3, 2019
CCE attendants at COS 2019.

CCE attendants at COS 2019. From left to right: Damien Wilson, Caroline Bañuelos, Emily Acosta Lewis, Susan Campbell, Missy Garvin, and Merith Weisman

Damien Wilson
Damien Wilson

Heading to my first-ever Campus Compact Continuums of Service conference, I admit to being both nervous and enthusiastic about the experience. I've recently been appointed as the School of Business & Economics' Community Engagement Faculty Fellow. Technically, I should append 'elect' at the end of that title, as I don't take on this role until the 2019-20 academic year.

I was joined on this enterprising adventure by my erstwhile colleagues, Drs. Emily Acosta-Lewis, Missy Garvin, and Susan Campbell. We were all attracted to this event, along with our intrepid leader, and Director for the Center of Community Engagement, Merith Weisman, who enticed Caroline Bañuelos, to all talk about their experiences in community engagement, after the 2017 and 2018 fires. My role on this visit was to watch, listen, engage and learn. They all had to present on the common topic 'When the Firestorm Transforms: Becoming the Community Partner'.  

Related: Strengthening Community Relationships Through a Focus on Place

This session was the main attraction from the outset for me. As a relatively new arrival to the core value of community engagement, I was enthusiastic at the prospect of witnessing my colleagues recount the relationship development between Sonoma State University (SSU) and those offering support from the local community.

Merith opened with a brief recount of the challenges faced at SSU and with our community partners during the fires of October 2017 and subsequent 2019 flooding. Emily, Missy, Susan and Caroline all shared their personal experiences as well. Emily then discussed lessons learned about communication during and immediately after the crisis. Missy talked about what we learned about addressing trauma in the classroom. Susan discussed the special challenges P-12 schools faced as several local schools were damaged or destroyed and many children and teachers lost their homes and left the area permanently. Caroline, who was working for a community partner in 2017, discussed how her organization and many others dropped their missions and focused on providing direct relief. Merith then spoke about the special challenges and responsibilities university community engagement offices have in times of crisis.

The first lesson to me was in respecting the sensitivity of our CSU colleagues from Chico, whose emotional wounds were fresh from California's largest-ever wild-fire catastrophe during October 2018. As Merith recounted the support we received from those around us, and from as far away as Tulane University, and the subsequent guidance that SSU provided to our colleagues in Santa Barbara, Riverside, and Chico, I recognized that the emotional side of our professional relationships was just as vital a feature of our community engaged interactions than our capacity to invite transfer students, convey research findings and collaborate in the best interests of our partners' professional operations.

This insight helped provide me with a framework for working together with the community in a way that I hadn't previously considered. The entire Continuums of Service conference was an eye-opening experience for me. Having a strong background in wine business meant that my observer’s lens was firmly based on the perspective of the ‘for profit’ enterprise. To have experienced both the value of, and influence on, the capacity to generate a mutually beneficial relationship between an organization and a community through a flotilla of ex-financial considerations was a foundational outcome from this experience. In my role as SBE Community Engagement Faculty Fellow, I intend to reflect on this experience through integration with Business teaching.