Town Square Academia

Town Square Academia

How it Began

In 2011, during a global wave of protest against social injustice, a unique mixture of academic faculty, students and local residents (Arabs and Jews, religious and secular, women and men of different ages and political worldviews), established at the city of Kiryat Shmona a new project named: Town Square Academia. The vision was Socratic type of study, and therefore our mission is to galvanize an academic-community dialogic partnership, which will pro-actively join academic and local experts to reduce social and environmental injustice.

In Practice

Activities are co-led by small teams of local experts and academic faculty, with 10 courses per year on topics chosen by the public, 4 community-science research projects and 2 symposia. 3 international workshops took place during the past four years with experts from Harvard, Stanford, University of Pennsylvania, The Hebrew University, Technion and many more, sharing their knowledge with the community, resisting stereotypes and aiming for a regional partnership, hence all activities take place outside the campus, in underrepresented localities. Enrolment fee is symbolic (8$ for a full course), and produces high quality results, among them 15 papers, grants above 1 million$, 4 prizes on a national scale and 3 policy changes.

Changing Perceptions

As the project developed, we realized that it was promoting not only the sharing of academic knowledge with non-academics, but in many cases expanding the scientists’ own perceptions of their fields. An essential element of academic research is presenting valid and robust findings, and what could be more robust than including the life experiences and observations of many more kinds of people than one's fellow academics? This approach raises the validity and quality of the scientific work. Another transformative aspect of the program is its locality. Rather than preferring abstraction and generalization, the program posits that universal understanding and policy can stem effectively from local and specific observation and action. This has already proven true in the academic papers, grants and symposia. Thus, what appears to be an innocuous course will transmit critical knowledge and carry within it a message of activism and equality, empowering residents to take their destiny into their own hands. This vibrant message of local empowerment lies at the heart of the Town Square Academia initiative.

A Bridge Over Troubled Waters

Climate change differentially impacts human society, deepening its existing eco-social gaps. Here are two examples – from an Arab and Jewish settlement – resisting such injustice. At the heart of the historic Bedouin village of Tuba was a local stream, now physically inaccessible and politically transparent. Until recently no trail led to it, the young generation was detached, and its name disappeared from online and physical maps. Two local experts, Shadia and Nawall Albaib, together with an academic historian, water scientist, ethno-botanist and philosopher of ecology co-built a series of courses on their Bedouin heritage. It led to an action group that compiled high quality biodiversity data via traditional methods of plant collecting and tracking, established a trail in honor of its indigenous roots, won state recognition and sponsorship and conduced countless Jewish-Arab meetings.

Another example is the border-town of Kiryat Shmona. Its rich local history, biodiversity and beautiful streams ignored by tourists, incoming college students and even by most town residences, who migrate to the more affluent settlements around it. Again, it was a pro-activist partnership, local experts working with professional historians, philosophers and scientists from Tel Hai College, UPenn and Harvard. Co-designing long-term biodiversity surveys and nature-based education programs for changing the city’s image, making the data interoperable to iNaturalist and to Israel’s Museum of Natural History, co-building a new science-based policy for stream restoration, co-authoring and wining a 10 million NIS grant to test and implement this policy.
Many such examples exist in Town Square Academia, producing publications for the academics, national prizes for the locals, and a platform for a true and equal collaboration between academia and community.

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