Community development is traditionally a subfield of social work, sociology, and urban planning curricula.

“However, it is also a relatively small but extremely important subfield in public policy, public affairs, and public administration,” explains Nickels, a Ph.D. candidate in Rutgers University–Camden’s public affairs-community development program. 

Ashley E. Nickels, Rutgers-Camden PhD candidate in Public Affairs
 To draw attention to the important role of community development in public affairs, Nickels coordinated and serves as a guest editor and contributing author for a symposium on community development in the spring 2015 issue of the Journal of Public Affairs Education. The publication serves as the flagship journal for the Network of Schools of Public Policy, Affairs, andAdministration.

The discourse, which includes contributions from authors William Hatcher and Karina Moreno Saldivar, public-affairs scholars who teach community development on the collegiate level, examines best practices for integrating various elements of cultural competency and community betterment – centering around the notion of community development – into the public-affairs curriculum. Nickels wrote the introduction to the piece, exploring the “amorphous” definition and practice of community development, and its place in academia.

Nickels writes that community development has been traditionally difficult to define, variably referring to the process in which community members or organizations act collectively to exert control and/or generate solutions to common problems affecting communities. However, in practice, she explains, community development often addresses poverty and its associated issues, making it “more synonymous with public housing or economic development and growth than collective action.”

In addition, notes the Rutgers–Camden Ph.D. student, with community-development efforts focused on restoring communities, which includes working with marginalized groups, it raises the questions of how these efforts fit into public administration and, likewise, how practitioners are trained to work in collaboration with different communities.

“This symposium begins to tackle these questions by sharing the insights from two public-affairs faculty members that teach community development, whether as a standalone class or as a component of a public-management course,” writes Nickels, who also serves as a reviewer and a member of the Board ofEditors for the Journal of Public Affairs Education.

Nickels posits that local governments are making concerted efforts to address issues of social and economic inequality through various means, such as economic development, neighborhood improvement, or government collaborations with local organizations. However, she affirms, it is important for public-affairs practitioners to understand these issues when designing public policy, as well as the impact that their decisions are having on the communities they serve.

“Ultimately, they need to understand how to work with members of the community in order to find community-driven solutions,” says Nickels.

For those who know Nickels, her focus on issues of inequality and community-development pedagogy are familiar themes. Prior to arriving at Rutgers–Camden, she served as assistant director and outreach coordinator for the Grand Valley State University Women’s Center in Allendale, Mich. In that role, her primary responsibility was to work as a liaison between academic departments and community organizations to implement volunteer and service-learning programs for students.She also served as an adjunct instructor of public administration at Grand Valley State and began writing articles on her teaching experiences for the Journal ofPublic Affairs Education.

Nickels also became a recognized force in the community, serving as president of the Grand Rapids chapter of the National Organization for Women (N.O.W.) and subsequently vice president of Michigan N.O.W. She also served as chair of the Kent County Domestic Violence Community Coordinated Response Team and as a community representative for the Women’s Resource Center Governance Committee. In 2011, Nickels was named “Activist of the Year” by Michigan N.O.W. and received the “Advocate Award” from the Young Nonprofit Professionals Network of Grand Rapids. 

In time, Nickels’ organizational and teaching experiences drew her interests in the confluence of curriculum, community development, and student outcomes.

“I became particularly interested in how these three parts connect: how teaching connects with student learning, and how teaching and learning influences the community more broadly,” says Nickels, who earned a bachelor’s degree in psychology and a master of public administration degree from Grand Valley State.

Nickels then pursued a doctorate at Rutgers–Camden in one of the only public-affairs programs in the country specializing in community development. Her dissertation research examines the politics of municipal takeovers and their impact on local democracy, focusing on Flint., Mich., as a case study.

True to form, the self-described “activist scholar” is carrying out her research by collaborating with members of the Flint community, with the ultimate goal of community betterment in mind.

“I want my research to be meaningful,” says Nickels. “I am fulfilling the responsibilities of a rigorous research project, but I am listening to what community members want out of the process.”

Tom McLaughlin
Rutgers University–Camden
Editorial/Media Specialist
(856) 225-6545