Dr. Mary Sweatman talks community development with the Maple League Teaching & Learning Committee

by Jessica Riddell

On November 1st, the Maple League Teaching and Learning Committee (the MLTLC) gathered for a presentation given by Acadia University’s Dr. Mary Sweatman of the Community Development Department. The discussion covered strategies to deepen community engagement and initiatives for learning through reciprocal processes and public purposes.

Maple League Student Fellow Maia Herriot from Mount Allison caught up with Dr. Sweatman after her fantastic presentation to talk more about service-learning and creating a culture of ‘community first’ engagement.


What does ‘community first’ engagement mean to you?   

MS: I think with the language ‘community first’ it’s important to say that we are all part of the community and we look to the community for direction when working through an institution. For example, with an institutional hat on, it shouldn’t be me as a faculty member directing the initiative or the project or effecting change for a social problem; it should be the community who is directing that, in ways that empower through enabling the community partner. I think what’s an important piece of that, and Carleton University does a great job of articulating it as well, is that it’s also important for faculty and students to see themselves as part of the community. So when we say “community first,” it’s this bigger picture of “we are making decisions for our community together.”

What does a healthy community look like to you?

MS: A healthy community is diverse, honours and celebrates diversity, is aware of equity first, and holds inclusion as a fundamental value. It’s accessible — physically, socially, emotionally, structurally, politically. There is space for everyone, and I also see a healthy community from an ecological perspective, so that we’re not just aware of fellow species but that we are also aware of our whole community which means the ecological world as well.

How do you think the importance of community involvement figures into the future of the academy?

MS: I think it’s imperative if universities don’t work to situate themselves with communities then we will become irrelevant. I really feel that it is our responsibility to initiate that new mindset — that we need to work together to solve the massive issues of the 21st century that are complex and require many ways of knowing and need systems thinking and dynamic leadership from inside and outside of the institution. I think it’s imperative for the future of our university structures, I think the Maple League can be innovative in this way, and I’m excited about what we could do as the Maple League in this area of community engagement or community involvement because I think we do it really well as small liberal arts universities, with engaged faculty and passionate students. We could be on the cutting edge of this stuff. That’s not to say that this hasn’t been going on for a long time; universities when they started, that was one of their missions — how do we educate students to be citizens, not workers, not career-minded people. How we can be full, whole humans and take care of each other? Vocation really came later.

What kind of community-to-university partnerships do you form in your work at Acadia?

MS: Some important ones in my area of work are a partnership with Kentville Parks and Recreation. We partner through many different programs, but we tend to focus on recreation as an avenue for social change and for equity. One of the groups that we’re involved in together is a group called “Moms in Motion”. It’s for moms in our area who have been marginalized for lots of different reasons but economics is certainly one of them, or having lack of transportation or a disability, or being in abusive relationships and not being able to leave. So that’s an important partnership. I think Acadia has a place at that table even though it’s a community group. I think universities, through faculty and through students, can bring lots of different resources from the university.

What I think is really important is that faculty members have a lot of autonomy to pick and choose what projects we get involved in so we can become involved with things that mean a lot to us, that we’re passionate about. Because we’re passionate about it that means we’ll be more connected to it. I’m really passionate about families and poverty in rural Nova Scotia, which in our area, Annapolis Valley, is quite high. It means a lot to me as a mom, too.

Another initiative that I talked about in the presentation is the Farmer’s Market, and this is an interdisciplinary, intersectoral relationship with five units on campus, with the town of Wolfville and the Wolfville Farmer’s Market, with university administration and students also quite involved. It’s looking at ways to bring together areas of interest around food, using food as a mechanism for experience education for students, for linking and connecting people to the land, and for environmental education.

How can professors from all disciplines bring more community-first strategies into their teaching?

MS: As a kind of qualifier, I don’t think that every faculty member has to engage in community engagement or do service learning or experiential education. I think the ultimate goal is to have a university that supports that pedagogy and service to the community and that we all take on different roles and have different passions and expertise. So part of it is just creating an environment where it’s celebrated and there are resources for it and we have these opportunities for students, but not everyone has to do it. I think there are lots of really great ways to teach and create transformative learning opportunities. I think one of the main things is to have liberal arts education as a disruptor and open up hearts and minds, to have interdependency and work better together in a broad definition of community.

But to answer your question, one of the main [ways to bring community-first strategies into the classroom] is to start with the development of a relationship, by seeking out relationships and partnerships first as opposed to defining the initiative first or the community engagement or service-learning piece first. Being invested in that relationship piece and being open to a process where the initiative will be developed. That takes a lot of time, open communication, understanding the values and commitment that both the faculty member has and the community partner have, being aware of resources, making sure there are enough resources to even have a partnership. So I would advise professors [of that] first before you jump into defining the student piece: work on the relationship piece first.

What is your favourite student response to your teachings?

MS: I really enjoy when students are able to connect something from their experiences or what they already know and then build on that. [For example] if a student says “this really speaks to me” or “this really helped me understand this concept, I feel like I have language now to describe this experience I have had or this way of knowing that I have intuitively thought about.” I think it’s always exciting when we’re not just handing over knowledge, but knowledge is being shared in the classroom. It’s that student response of acknowledging that they are both learner and teacher and that by engaging in the community they can move forward [not only] in their learning but also in their role as a partner in the process of learning.

To make it more concise: when students acknowledge their role in the experiential learning process, that by doing, they are learning and so am I; the evening of our traditional roles as teacher and student — then I feel like I’m doing my job, if I’m disrupting the traditional perspective on teacher and student, then they feel like they are part of this journey and that we are on this learning journey together.


About Dr. Sweatman

Dr. Mary Sweatman is an Assistant Professor of Community Engagement at Acadia University. Dr. Sweatman was given the Outstanding Teacher of the Year award by the Acadia Student Union based on her first year of teaching, and again in 2018. Her scholarly interests and areas of expertise are community-university partnerships that support student engagement and community wellbeing. In November 2019 she presented on the theme of “Deepening Community Engagement” at the Maple League Teaching and Learning Committee’s regular Brown Bag discussion series, shared across the four campuses via telepresence technology.

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