Faculty Spotlight: Dr. Greg Squires

The Nashman Center is committed to highlighting faculty that give back to the community and GW students through community engaged scholarship. Ashley Hidalgo, a Community Engaged Scholar with the Nashman Center, sat down to talk with Dr. Greg Squires, Professor of Sociology and Public Policy and Administration. 

Ashley Hidalgo (AH): Could you give me an overview of your service-learning courses?

Gregory D. Squires (GS): Generally I have had a social problems focus in my service learning or engaged scholarship classes.. My courses have tended to deal with cities and particularly racial issues in metropolitan areas. I have  given these students choices of places where they might work and then have them write their final papers based on that experience.  I ask them to evaluate the effectiveness of the organization they’ve been working at, in light of the theories they are reading about in their books, articles, and class discussions. I try to get them to understand how the organization understands the problems they addressed- what their theoretical understanding is – often with a general focus on whether the organization sees their issues  through the lens of individual failings they need to address, or structural institutional changes that they need to address.

AH: How long have you been doing community engagement projects?

GS: Well throughout my career, I have tried to connect my own work, particularly my research, with community organizations that have shared my interests. Even when I was in graduate school, my research assistantship was to direct The Human Rights Information Services at Michigan State University, and my job was to write newsletters for human rights organizations.We had occasional meetings and conferences, and my job was to interact with these kinds of organizations throughout the state of Michigan. My first job out of graduate school was  with the Chicago Regional Office of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights . At the Commission I was linking my work with community organizations, and have  continued to try to develop those kinds of linkages with community groups, government agencies, and non-profit organizations of various kinds.

AH: That is great work. You mentioned a vast variety of services - from indirectly helping communities in your past jobs, to directly serving in your graduate years. Why do you think it is important for GW faculty to be involved in community engaged scholarship?

GS: For a variety of reasons. First, it is in the interest of our students. It provides them with a learning experience that they wouldn’t get otherwise.  And it is more than just an internship. I think these engaged scholarship experiences help make classroom experiences come alive. They enhance what students get from the books and articles they are reading, the papers they are writing, and other classroom experiences It makes the academic work better, and the academic work makes their involvement in the community stronger.

AH: I completely agree with your statement based off of my own experiences taking these community-engaged classes.

GS: Yes, the Human Services and Social Justice program is particularly heavily focused on engaged scholarship.  However, other programs at GW also get students into the broader community. For example, the law school and medical school often have clinics that provide direct service. But, they are not really engaged in collaborative work that is the focus of engaged scholarship.  They are more engaged in the provision of services. This does not make one better than the other, but they are different.

AH: You mentioned your background in service, what issues are you exploring in your scholarship?

GS: I have been looking at the uneven development of cities, particularly racial inequalities within cities, and more particularly the role of financial institutions. So, I have done a lot of work on redlining, predatory lending , other related fair housing issues, I have done studies on banking practices, home-insurance practices, and in the process, I have published academic studies. But I have also been an expert witness in court cases. I have worked with community organizations on their projects. I have done a lot of writing for mass media including several newspapers, magazines, and blogs. So, this is the range of activities that are all part of the engaged scholarship practices.

AH: What are some of the less obvious ways that students can benefit from community partnerships?

GS: I don’t know if these are less obvious ways, but students can get to know people and are exposed to  perspectives on issues that they might not get otherwise. I think it helps them when they graduate, Getting out of the Foggy Bottom neighborhood will probably better prepare them to enter almost any field they will end up in when they graduate from here; whether it is professional school, graduate school, or a job. But particularly, with the social and cultural experiences they may gain, they will be better equipped to negotiate the world they are going to enter than they would be without those experiences.

AH: Could you share a favorite student story? Such as a favorite project, or an idea that was meaningful?

GS: My favorite story is about a graduate student who went to work with an organization called ONE DC, which is an organization that attempts to address the gentrification of the Shaw neighborhood. I think she has now been there for 8-9 years, and I have often told her that she is  my proudest and likely lowest-paid former student that I had at GW.

AH: Did she begin in her undergraduate years?

GS: No, she was here in our graduate program. She got her master’s degree in Sociology, and she began her journey from here to ONE DC after she completed her master’s degree.

AH: Did she take community-engaged scholarship courses?

GS: I don’t recall what she did as an undergraduate but we do not do as much engaged scholarship in graduate courses as we do at the undergraduate level. Many of our graduate students are working in various jobs, some of which are more connected to our graduate work than others. But, I can’t say we have strong engaged scholarship in the graduate program like we do in a lot of our undergraduate program courses.

AH: Moving forward, do you have any recommendations on how we would provide an indicator for the impact of your course(s)?

GS: Well, in the student-evaluations that students complete at the end of the semester, we might fold in some questions that ask them not just if they had a good experience or if they enjoyed their service-learning or engaged scholarship position, but we might also ask something more pointed. We might ask about their assessment of their engaged scholarship, or how their work outside of the university affected their academic work, and did they view them as two separate worlds or did they see an interaction between the two? Did their engaged scholarship help them in their academic work, or did it help them make more sense in their readings and in their writings? It would be interesting to see. My guess is that there would be some variation. Some students I fear would say that it was two separate spheres, which is what we are trying not to do. We are trying to integrate the two, but I do not know how much we have attempted to evaluate students or do this type of research to find out how they understand the value of their engaged scholarship.

AH: What would you say to a student who is unsure about taking a service-learning course?

GS: I think they should try it. In a sense, any course is a risk, particularly any elective. But, if they are unsure, it is all the more reason they should take one, and depending on how that goes, they can make a more informative decision as to whether or not they want to take more. But you know, we often say that engaged scholarship is not necessarily for everyone. Particularly, more from a faculty perspective, we are not saying that every faculty member has to be doing this type of research, but we would like to enable, encourage, and incentivize them to do this type of work if this is what they want to do. But you know, it is not something for everybody,. Those who feel that they would get a lot out of this type of activity should be encouraged to do more engaged scholarship, while those who have done it in one or two courses and found that this didn’t help them or further advance their objectives probably should not pursue it. But for a student who has never done this and is trying to decide whether or not they want to do it, I would say yes, try at least one course.

AH: I completely agree with that. I think also after trying it, they can decide whether they want to continue to take more or just volunteer.

GS: Right.

AH: As you mentioned, everyone has their own career path and interests, and it doesn't hurt to try.

GS: Or get their MBA!