DISSERTATION DEFENSE ANNOUNCEMENT Ph.D. in Education Program: Marina Feldman “Welcome to the Conversation Garden! Cultivating Learning Communities, Critical Praxis, and Asset-Based Thinking”

10:00 am - 12:00 pm

While universities’ interest in community engagement has grown over time in the United States, the public pedagogies set forth by them do not always reflect a commitment to sustaining community-engaged learning. Additionally, commitments sometimes manifest along with savior mindsets and the language of “helping” the community or “fixing” a problem – deficit-based approaches, as opposed to the mindset that students are there to learn with and from community members. This dissertation is about what a cohort of students learned and how they made sense of their learning as they engaged with community members and community-based organizations through a language partnership program. It is also about what their community-engaged instructor, the author, learned with and from them. The Conversation Garden has been a successful community-engaged program for more than a decade, sustaining old partnerships and building new ones over time, despite a lack of sustained institutional support. The program facilitates opportunities for immigrant adults to practice English through conversation with university students, who in turn learn with and from those adults and their rich cultural and linguistic repertoires. I ask: How do students in a community-engaged language-focused program make sense of their experiences and learning with and from local immigrant community members and organizations? This question is answered through a threefold analysis that centers around 1) sociability and interactions; 2) funds of knowledge and funds of identity; and 3) power-informed social critiques and agency, with an emphasis on students with an immigrant background. Asset-based approaches orient this program, along with a critical Freirian pedagogy of ongoing reflection and practice, informed by theories and our own situated knowledges. To do so, students were welcomed into their classroom learning communities in ways that not only acknowledged their whole selves but engaged with parts of their background and knowledge as key sources for theorizing. Through a critical, reflexive práxis, students learned to identify and leverage strengths in immigrant communities, and to situate their challenges within an understanding of social structures. At the same time, they were identifying and leveraging their own assets and challenges, striving to become better conversation facilitators, while also theorizing their experience and how it will impact their future societal roles. Hence, while this dissertation explores students learning about the strengths and challenges of immigrant communities, it dives into how this práxis facilitated learning about their own selves, backgrounds, identities, and agency. In doing so, I highlight reflexive dimensions of learning in community, as students and I learned about ourselves – our identities, orientations, and aspirations for social change – by engaging, reflecting, and theorizing with others.

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