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 History of Educators for Community Engagement 

The story of Educators for Community Engagement begins in 1992 when the organization was called the Invisible College. Seeds for the Invisible College were planted in April of 1992 at a joint Board-Staff retreat of the Campus Outreach Opportunity League (COOL) and Campus Compact. This retreat was held at the Highlander Research and Education Center in Tennessee, a place with its own long and rich history. At the end of the retreat, in Highlander fashion, participants went around the circle saying something about what they were taking from the retreat that they hoped to build on when they got home.

Going around the circle at the end of a workshop and giving each person a chance to say "What I am going to do when I get home" is a deep part of the Highlander spirit. People who face similar challenges in their home communities--a group of 20 or so, small enough so that everyone can have a voice in a circle--have come together in a residential setting for a weekend to learn from, support and challenge each other. When it works, one has reached the end of the workshop with new ideas, renewed energy and hope, and an expanded sense of what can be done. So the question, "... and when you get home?" can elicit a response undreamed of when the workshop began.

In this final circle the idea of a new and unique faculty-based organization arose. This new organization would provide a free space for faculty to explore the difficult issues raised by service learning--issues of pedagogy and of responsible relationships with communities. This organization could create a national faculty voice that could speak alongside COOL's national student voice and Campus Compact's national college and university president voice.

Shortly thereafter a concept paper began circulating amongst COOL and Campus Compact staff and others nationwide. Campus Compact secured three years of funding from an anonymous donor for staff support and for convening faculty. This funding would cover the years 1994-96. It was used to support a small staff at Campus Compact and to pay travel, food and lodging expenses for members of the Invisible College to attend the first few meetings. This funding enabled us to formally start the Invisible College and to try out the idea of small-scale "free spaces" with faculty from around the country. Due to funding constraints, the initial membership was limited, but in the years since membership in the organization has grown dramatically.

A planning meeting of about a dozen people was held at the Wingspread Conference Center in Wisconsin in December 1993. Here it was decided that we would identify an initial group of twenty to be the first group and that we would have a simple governance structure of a chair and steering committee, a governance structure that is still in large part in place. We decided to ask the Highlander Center if we could hold our meetings there--because we wanted to associate ourselves with Highlander's tradition of participatory education for social justice--and that we would call ourselves the Invisible College. The name was borrowed from Kenneth Boulding, who, at the time he was helping to start the International Peace Studies Association, wrote of the need for "the development and encouragement of an invisible college, "of people whose work is meaningful to each other and who need to be in communication."

Over the time of the initial grant the group of Invisible College members came to be a whoís who of the service-learning field. But the group felt that the exclusive nature of hand picked members ran against their core emphasis on democratic classroom and communities. It was not long after that initial grant that the steering committee voted to turn the group into a general membership organization, open to all. Membership became an automatic benefit of attending the organizationís annual meeting, which had by this time come to be called The National Gathering.

Since that time we have grown to a new level of maturity and gained a larger sense of purpose. Our mission and our membership have surpassed the original goal of creating safe spaces for faculty to talk about community based teaching and learning. As the organization developed it became clear that to fulfill the democratic principles that were at the core of the organization we needed to be as inclusive and participatory as possible. What began as an informal trend of involving students, staff and community partners in the National Gatherings grew into a conscious strategy to build conferences that reflected the diverse constituents we worked with on a daily basis. Our conversations benefited greatly by having a strong community, staff, and student presence at our meetings.

In 2001 our National Gathering had grown to more than 200 people and at a summer retreat of the Steering committee, the organization decided to change their name to something that would better describe the organization, and would be more easily identifiable. The decision to change the name to Educators for Community Engagement marked an important shift in the organization. Since 2001 the National Gatherings have continued to be a popular and important event to campus and community members nationwide, appealing to both long time members and people new to the organization. The organization has institutionalized dues structures, scholarships, and other tools to be sure that students and community partners are able to participate. In addition, we have recruited students and community partners to sit on our steering committee. All of these efforts have positioned Educators for Community Engagement as the only higher education organization in the country to involve all members of campus and community who are concerned with educationís role in strengthening democracy and serving communities.

The most recent chapter in the history of Educators for Community Engagement occurred in 2003 when the organization became a federally registered 501c3 non-profit organization. Currently or organization focuses on planning the annual National Gathering, promoting regional learning circles and trainings in learning circle facilitation. As we have moved into this new and exciting stage in the organizationís development, we are constantly aware of the struggles and strengths of a marginal organization slowly moving closer to the mainstream. We are committed to remaining a dynamic organization, as responsive to our roots as we are to our future.

Click here to see a timeline of the Educators for Community Engagement.