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The Power of No

Who benefits from the community-university relationship? As it stands, the scale of power tips towards the side of higher education institutions. It’s time for that to change. The unequal power dynamics between university leadership and students and that of community leaders, organizations, and community members is a pressing issue overlooked when we discuss the importance of diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) and systems change. If we are truly intent on advancing the principles of DEI, we must critically examine the parts we play upholding inequity and oppressive relationships.

Colleges and universities have found it necessary, particularly following the increased activism and focus on social justice, in response to racial violence and police violence, to invest in DEI. Whether hiring DEI consultants, creating DEI staff positions and teams, hosting cultural conversations, or bringing in speakers to promote ideas of inclusion- it has now become part of the higher education business model to promote diversity and inclusion. Yet, it often stops there. Higher education leadership are speaking the language of DEI, yet the changes requested and often demanded by students, staff, and faculty end up in a pile locked away in an executive’s filing cabinet. The equity part of DEI is lost. We see empty promises of change and justice further dividing leadership and the campus. And the community isn’t even part of the conversation.

Power Imbalance

The community (the surrounding towns, cities, and municipalities- which lie adjacent or even host the university’s physical campus) often find themselves on the receiving end of college or university “interest”. This interest- institutions reaching out and offering assistance, whether physical locale improvement (also known as gentrification), area partnerships, or “helping” hands in governing practices and policy, is offered in what we hope is good faith, but leans towards assisting institutional needs more than community. What we see are institutions using their name, financial status, and power to come into these communities and offer benefits, in the guise of reciprocity.

Institutions that lead through a centralized model, one that is top down in its approach to managing projects and partnerships, create a scale of power without balance and burden community organizations and partners to manage up and lead through disjointed power structures which obstruct and even disable positive connections between communities and universities. Instead, institutions should seek decentralization of their efforts, acknowledging the importance of the community themselves to lead in collaboration efforts, and sustaining space for navigating no in community engagement (CE) relationships and leadership. They must acknowledge the cultural, social, and financial capital communities bring to the table and shift from stances of saviorism to allyship and advocacy in the work towards antiracism and systems-based change.

The Power of No

The Power of No is the acknowledgement of community self-governance and sovereignty. It is the need for higher education institutions to come into relationship with communities as equals or as learners, not as guides. With power generally skewed towards universities, I developed this framework in reflection of my own conflict as a scholar-practitioner, who sat in a liminal space between power due to institutional positionality and powerlessness due to my own values conflicting with institutional vision and priorities related to community engagement.

The Power of No Framework. Three sections, No, Knowing, and Knowledge which each describe a key aspect.
Power of No © Nicole M. Williams, 2022

The power of no recognizes that current community-university partnerships are not equal, and that lack of balance maintains systemically and historically socially oppressive ideology and practice. Instead, I offer a perspective for institutional leaders, community leaders, scholars, and students to reconsider how community-university relationships are formed and sustained. One that seeks to dispel historically supremacist practices which see institutions as the helper and the community as helpless or in need of guidance.


Part of the relationship dynamic which must be reevaluated is how institutions and institutional affiliates engage with and understand community assets. It is important that we rethink what we know about the communities we purport to support, especially as outsiders. Even institutions, which exist as a main part of a town or city, maintain an invisible barrier, sometimes even hyper-visible via gates and closed-off structures requiring ID access. Administrators, faculty, and students may find themselves unintentionally and intentionally reinforcing this barrier through their relationships with community members, by ignoring or overwriting cultural norms, communication, and traditions for the sake of “service” as determined by institutional vision. Instead, the relationship must be one of co-existing or even one that tips the balance of power to the community, where institutional affiliates not only recognize the values, knowledge, and voice of community members but uplift and center.


The power of no, through a community engagement lens, offers an opportunity for individuals, whether higher education affiliates or community members, to acknowledge power imbalances embedded within community-university relationships and develop personal and professional toolkits in redistribution of power. These toolkits include: bringing community leaders to the head of the table to CE committees, learning directly from leaders in the community when drafting policies and programs, including the community in institutional culture studies, educating students participating in CE courses/programs about the communities they will be engaging with through an antiracist lens, and rethinking the physical access points to campus. It is engaging with no and teaching higher education leadership and students to understand when a community leader, organization, or member may be unwilling or unable to engage in the way they expected. And teaching community members to assert the power they have in the relationship, to ask or demand for what they need, and refuse “help” which is actually a burden. It is altering our understanding of what is actually helpful and meaningful support and what is burdensome and problematic.

Reflections of Self

As a scholar-practitioner, I have found it increasingly difficult to justify practicing and teaching within institutions which preach antiracist values but maintain white supremacist (covert and overt) practice. As an educator and student, critical self-reflection has led towards a journey for justice. The development of this framework will better prepare community members, educators, and students to engage with power and privilege as part of education learning and practice, as we work to break through the unwritten hierarchy between universities and communities. I also offer the perspective of someone who practiced directly with students in the local community and has since reflected on her interactions with the student she advised and her mentorship from a community engagement perspective. It is necessary for everyone to reflect on their participation in the community-university relationship and decenter that which is harmful in an effort to work towards an antiracist and justice-based change in community engagement learning and practice. Without it, we remain in the vicious circle of oppression and further away from social systems liberation.


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