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Transformative Civic Engagement Through Community Organizing


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Table of Contents

  • Foreword by Scott Peters
  • Acknowledgements
  • 1) Introduction and Overview
  • 2) Four Community Organizing Practices: Creating Culture Change
  • 3) How Community Organizing Evolved at Occidental
  • 4) The Market, Civically Engaged Scholarship, and Reciprocity
  • 5) Concluding Points and Final Reflections
  • Afterword by Michael Gecan
  • Appendix
  • Glossary
  • References

About the Author

Maria Avila is a faculty member in the Master of Social Work program at the California State University, Dominguez Hills. She is a member of Imagining America National Advisory Board. Avila's research focuses on participatory action research with faculty and with community partners, aimed at creating democratic, civic engagement inside and outside of higher education institutions.

She was Director of the Center for Community Based Learning at Occidental College from 2001-2011, having earlier worked as a community organizer and a social worker in Mexico and in the US for over 20 years. Prior to working in higher education, Avila was a community organizer with the Industrial Areas Foundation, the international network founded by the late Saul Alinksy in the 1940s. She has performed volunteer and consulting work with a number of organizations, including Partnerships to Uplift Communities, the Northeast LA Education Strategy, the City of Los Angeles, Imagining America: Artists and Scholars in Public Life, and the Council for Social Work Education's Council on Global Issues. Avila has given numerous talks and workshops in the topics of civic engagement and community organizing at national and international conferences and venues, and has published several book chapters and journal articles.


Animportant book for those who are unsettled by the deterioration of our publicsphere but think that university civic engagement, under the right approach, can foster democratic societies.

-- "Journal of Community Engagement and Scholarship"
From the Afterword:
"With the publication of this work, Maria Avila joins a small but growing number of authors shedding new light on the role that colleges and universities have played - and play today - in American society. She applies the lessons and universals she learned as one of thirteen children raised by her parents in Mexico, a seventeen-year-old factory worker denied bathroom breaks and medical attention, a full-time organizer, and as a grad student and tenure-track faculty member, to the challenge of recovering higher education's public mission. Her description of the four practices of organizing - a process of individual meetings, building a team of talented leaders, analyzing and using power effectively, and be willing to engage in in-depth reflection and evaluation - is key to her public life, her approach to her work, and to this book.

She leads us through a series of experiences in a number of college and university settings, as she applies those practices in her daily life. In doing so, she conveys both the possibilities and opportunities that emerge when someone applies these practices with skill and patience, but she also communicates the obstacles and setbacks that occur. She shows what the work of organizing, in the context of higher education, looks like when it is done with professionalism on a day to day basis, over many years."--Michael Gecan, co-director "Industrial Areas Foundation" (5/1/2017 12:00:00 AM)

From the Foreword:
"Maria Avila... teaches us a set of practices that... can enliven and humanize our engagement work, and keep us from turning it into deadly, dehumanizing, formulaic programs. Used well they help us open spaces and paths for learning, theory building, and knowledge making that are highly complex and transdisciplinary (which, by the way, most of our pressing issues and problems are as well). They help us turn the naming and framing of issues and problems and the development and implementation of strategies for action to address them into a deliberative civic rather than expert-dominated technical task. And they enable us to pursue a key public purpose: the discovery, development and strengthening of civic leadership, capacities, agency, and power--individual and collective--for long term rather than episodic work. In short, they offer higher education a way to 'do democracy', in the living relations of person to person, at all its levels and in all its fields of specialization.

What Maria is offering us here not only gives us ways to enhance the effectiveness of our work, but also its joyfulness."--Scott J. Peters, Professor of Development Sociology "Cornell University; Faculty Co-Director (2012-2017), Imagining America" (5/24/2017 12:00:00 AM)

Since 2001, when she became founding director of the Center for Community-Based Learning at Occidental College, Maria Avila has been a pioneer in bringing the relational organizing methods she learned as a grassroots community organizer into cultural and institutional change in higher education. This is tough, difficult and also transformative work at the cutting edge of reviving the public purposes of higher education and education. Transformative Civic Engagement through Community Organizing is a brilliant gift to all who believe in and work for vibrant democratic societies in turbulent times.--Harry C. Boyte, Senior Scholar in Public Work Philosophy "Augsburg University" (8/25/2017 12:00:00 AM)

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