Two students sitting on the ground making designs using pieces of colored tape

Contributors:Harold McNaron, Megan McFarland

Place-Based Engagement: Featuring KSMoCA

At PSU, we “let knowledge serve the city”, but how? To what end? Who benefits? What does it mean to center community interests at PSU? The place-based engagement strategies utilized as part of PSU College of the Arts’ (COTA) partnership with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Elementary (Dr. MLK, Jr.) School provides a helpful example.


PSU College of the Arts (COTA)


Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Elementary (Dr. MLK, Jr.) School

According to the Place-Based Justice Network, place-based engagement is “a long-term university-wide commitment to partner with local residents, organizations, and other leaders to focus equally on on-campus and community impact within a clearly defined geographic area.” But how does that relate to pedagogical techniques and classroom activities? It starts with community.

Forming a Community Partnership

In 2014, administrators at Dr. MLK, Jr. School reached out to neighborhood residents and COTA faculty members Harrell Fletcher and Lisa Jarrett to explore a potential partnership. Specifically, the administrators and the PSU faculty members were mutually interested in increasing art access for the young students of Dr. MLK, Jr. School. Out of this collaboration, the King School Museum of Contemporary Art (KSMoCA) was born. Since its founding, KSMoCA has hosted collaboratively-designed gallery exhibits, artist talks, a student-produced podcast, publications, an artist-in-residence program, and more.

"PSU students benefit from off-campus, authentic art practice experiences in a public school setting."

Through the KSMoCA partnership, Dr. MLK, Jr. School students gain access to local artists, PSU faculty members, and PSU students for shared learning experiences, art-making, mentorship, and generative exploration. In turn, participating PSU students benefit from off-campus, authentic art practice experiences in a public school setting. PSU students also enjoy connections to Dr. MLK, Jr. students, school administrators and professional artists—local, national and international.

a group of students standing in a hallway looking toward an adult who is speaking
Photo Courtesy of KSMoCA

What roles do PSU students play?

Currently several graduate students in the Art and Social Practice program serve in leadership roles for art projects within COTA’s interdisciplinary course “Museum in a Public School”, involving everything from a visiting artist to even student safety patrols. The undergraduates taking this course come from a variety of areas of study and, as part of their participation in the course, mentor Dr. MLK, Jr. students one-on-one and support them in creating their own art projects.

“This is a key element of impactful place-based community engagement: challenging traditional and current disparities of power and privilege via more equitable, mutual and generative strategies.”

Rather than centering the partnership on any one product or outcome, KSMoCA’s success is attributed, in large part, to the relationship between and mutual commitment of the Dr. MLK, Jr. School community and PSU. Professors Fletcher and Jarrett, along with KSMoCA’s Program Director and current MFA student, Laura Glazer, use an iterative process to frequently query and return back to the interests and needs of Dr. MLK, Jr. students, their teachers and their families in program-planning efforts. This is a key element of impactful place-based community engagement: challenging traditional and current disparities of power and privilege via more equitable, mutual and generative strategies. Based on community input, KSMoCA organizers develop themes, program ideas, and student engagement plans as mechanisms of progress towards shared interests and goals. While specific projects and funders may vary, it is this common bond–authentic relationships between neighbors–that sustains the community-based learning efforts at KSMoCA.

Activate Your Teaching

To engage with current community partners:

    • Start course-based, annual or other planning efforts by querying and centering the interests and energies of area residents, activists and partner organization staff
    • Explore new ways of connecting PSU’s assets with community partner interests and vice versa (e.g. providing HRAC report data to support a grant they are writing or sharing a previous webinar recording aligned with community partner professional development interests)
    • Consider if one or more of PSU’s current community partner organizations seems to align with your goals. Your course/initiative might be an opportunity to expand or deepen the PSU-community partnership (e.g. Latino Network’s partnerships with University Studies’ capstone program as well as GDI’s Latine Futures initiative)

To foster new community partner relationships:

    • Check in with with OAI staff Harold McNaron about potential or current partnerships that might be a good fit
    • Review PSU’s current community partners via University Relations’ Community Impact Team
    • View the Community Engagement Toolkit from PSU's Student Community Engagement Center about strategies for successful community engagement strategies.
    • Explore off-campus groups and individuals using the on-campus resources above whose work aligns well with departmental and course-based learning outcomes and themes (e.g. governmental water safety teams or entrepreneur support networks)
    • Take time to understand key elements of the community-based context of any potential partnership (e.g. history of their organization; current goals and areas of focus; current funders, collaborators) and to share key contextual elements with your new partner, especially if they are not accustomed to partnering with colleges or universities (e.g. academic calendars; PSU student demographics; potential for sustained partnership, funding)
    • Reach out to OAI staff Harold McNaron to assist with designing meeting agendas, partner agreements and other resources to help your new partnership set a firm foundation