Blase S. Scarnati

Blase S. Scarnati Contributor Blase S. Scarnati, Ph.D. (e-mail: served for the last decade as director of global learning in the Center for International Education, and is professor of musicology in the Kitt School of Music at Northern Arizona University. He regularly publishes and consults on community-based global-local learning and its pedagogies, social justice and…

In a recently published commentary in the University World News entitled “Reversing Racist Practices in International Higher Education,” I argued that “the question is not whether people [working in international education] are of good will – but, rather, what are the actual outcomes of decisions, practices and programs?” (Scarnati 2022).  Despite years of mindful effort to develop more socially just, diverse, and more inclusive spaces and programming, wide inequities in student participation in international education remain – especially within study abroad.  To substantively increase social justice and DEI impacts in our field, I believe that we must integrate key practices and pedagogies as used in the most effective local community engagement and agency programs, based on community organizing theory and methods, into our global learning curricula and its pedagogies. 

In my UWN commentary I underscored the point that, despite the important service role that international education centers provide, “international education is unambiguously focused on education – facilitating learning, curriculum issues, and pedagogy.” I argued that looking to the literature on decolonizing/decolonializing the curriculum can help us cast a critical eye on our programs, curricula, and pedagogies that are supported and promoted by our international centers and in our global learning initiatives (Scarnati 2022).  To this end, I used Riyad A. Shahjahan and colleagues large-scale survey of efforts to decolonize the curriculum and pedagogies used by multiple disciplines and universities world-wide (Shahjahan et al. 2022) to note powerful strategies and approaches that can assist us in examining our practices to address racist outcomes in international education. In this essay, I want to expand further on my University World News piece and explore several of these areas of concern.

For Senior International Officers, directors, and international center staff, key issues focused on geopolitics of knowledge, positionality, and moving beyond dominant systems of knowledge identified by Shajahan and colleagues are critical. We bear a special responsibility to work with disciplinary faculty partners to foreground these issues and interrogate the programs and pedagogies that we use in our global curricula and learning experiences. International educators must ensure that programs are not simply effective revenue generators or trips to popular European destinations, but that the learning spaces, ways of producing knowledge, and sites for programs are firmly grounded in a sharp awareness of positionality and that also move beyond the framework of dominant knowledge systems.  It may be a challenge to explicitly embrace social justice as a key outcome of international centers’ learning experiences, and one that goes beyond the norm, but we owe it to both our students going abroad and to our international students in residence.

Many argue that the faculty control curriculum, and that the SIO sets policy and division priorities for international centers. While both are true, much can be done at any level in an organization to build coalitions for change between faculty, staff, and students, foreground issues and priorities for internal discussion within a unit, work to build consensus, and recruit an effective network of allies to make inroads with intransigent colleagues or to change divergent priorities. All these efforts can contribute to building a decolonial-decolonizing university.

K. Wayne Yang (writing under the pseudonym, la paperson) uses a Deleuzian framework to inspire us to ally with the “bits of machinery that make up a decolonizing university [that] are driven by decolonial desires” and that, as “decolonizing dreamers who are subversively part of the machinery and part machine themselves, . . . [we can be the] subversive beings [that] wreck, scavenge, retool, and reassemble the colonizing university into decolonizing contraptions” (la paperson 2017, 9).  We can reassemble, reconfigure, and build alliances and coalitions for change and steer “resources to synthesize a transformative, radical project” (62). 

We can organize effective transformational coalitions no matter where we find ourselves in the academy.  There is a compelling literature on leading from the middle (Mautz 2021) and, further, powerful strategies to build alliances are available in the community organizing literature that can be readily adapted for use in higher education (Miller and Scarnati 2014). Ultimately, “international educators can choose to exercise agency within the latitudes and domains that they oversee” (Scarnati 2022). 

Shahjahan and colleagues also found that “strengthening collaborations between community, institutions, and larger sociopolitical movements” and working in collaborative and co-creative ways to generate knowledge “in the classroom, institution, and with external communities” are key elements of effective decolonizing curricular and pedagogical approaches (Shahjahan et al. 2022, 86-87). I argued in my University World News commentary that this aligns with the most effective practices deployed in local community engagement and agency programs in higher education in the United States. Many also see that local and global community organizing efforts and impacts are part of a single continuum (Sobania 2015 and also Hartman et al. 2018, with the latter being more in harmony with goals of this article).

I have argued that political theorist Harry C. Boyte’s concept of public work (Boyte and Kari 1996) is highly aligned with this project to increase social justice and DEI impacts in international education through global/local community-based learning. At its core, public work is based on traditional community organizing theory and methods (Chambers 2004) that offers a powerful and proven set of strategies for use in international education programming for effective social justice collaboration with community members, both at home and abroad.

What would these strategies be?

To begin, students would

  • cultivate practices of mutual accountability,
  • learn to power map, plan, and strategize action
  • practice effective collaborative meetings that are focused on building coalitions for change, and
  • act and assess impacts (Chambers 2004). 

Effective collaborations with community leaders from marginalized communities abroad have regularly been at the pedagogical center of the programs offered by some non-profit NGOs, such as Global Brigades’ virtual or in-person Kambia curricular programs.  Kambia’s Community Development Program, for example, prepares students to be accountable to each other and to their community partners.  Students learn to power map to analyze local centers of power to help them understand how best to effectively collaborate with community leaders. They work with community leaders to plan and strategize the details of development projects, build community support and participation to pursue projects prioritized by the community, work alongside community members (in-person programs), and then assess the impacts of those projects over time.

Students would also develop a willingness to work with anyone, so that we work with “any and all who are willing to enter into collaborative relationships, not just those who think like ourselves” (Coles and Scarnati 2017).  We seek to push against the increasing narrowing of our civic life where we only talk, associate, and socialize with those who think as we do. To broaden and build coalitions for change, either at home or abroad, we must engage and seek to build effective public relationships amid difference.

Students need to become increasingly open. Moreso, they become “radically receptive” – where we stretch ourselves as “we listen attentively to, and allow ourselves to be altered in relation with, others who see things very differently” (Coles and Scarnati 2017).  This is a heightened application of much of the best discussed under the framework of intercultural competencies.

We use decentralized decision-making, and work in a consensus-based manner among students and community members (Coles and Scarnati 2017).  This lies at the root of all community organizing work and is applied in the most successful local community engagement programs. It is also used as a core tenant in community collaborations through the various interdisciplinary and disciplinary programs of Kambia.

Further, the community-based learning experiences that we offer students must be fundamentally political, in that they focus on building power collaboratively with community members in marginalized communities on issues that communities, themselves, prioritize. This builds on the fundamental assumption from community organizing that “generating power is the ultimate aim of organizing by and with communities for economic and social justice ends” (Chambers 2004).

Our community-based projects must be inherently reciprocal, flat, non-hierarchical, co-creative and deeply collaborative. At the end of the day the community members, themselves, make the decisions on their priorities and which projects they elect to pursue. Additionally, these collaborations with community members are on-going, multi-year projects – not one-off experiences. Finally, these projects celebrate various knowledge holders, ways of knowing, and intergenerational groups of community participants (Coles and Scarnati 2014). 

Beyond the Kambia virtual and in-person curricular programming discussed above, other non-profit organizations offer effective and powerful community-based learning programs, such as Amizade, and those that employ Fair Trade Learning practices that work together through the Community-Based Global Learning Collaborative.

In sum, to expand the impacts of DEI and social justice in international education, we must focus on programs that collaborate with community members in marginalized communities, both local and abroad; focus on building power and capacities for expanding agency; and implement catalytic and transformative change that can all connect with the aspirations and the imaginaries of low income, BIPOC, and underrepresented students (Charles, Zhou, and Scarnati 2021 and Scarnati and Armstrong 2021).


Boyte, Harry C., and Nancy Kari. 1996. Building America: The Democratic Promise of Public Work. Philadelphia: Temple University Press.

Chambers, Edward T. 2004. Roots for Radicals: Organizing for Power, Action, and Justice. New York & London: Continuum International Publishing Group.

Charles, Harvey, JY Zhou, and Blase Scarnati. 2021. “Foregrounding a Globalized Localism for Social Justice Through the 21st Century College Curriculum.” Global Impact Exchange (Winter/Spring): 38-40. (Access also at

Coles, Romand, and Blase Scarnati. 2014. “Beyond Enclosure: Pedagogy for a Democratic Commonwealth. Higher Education Exchange. 65-79. (Access also at

Coles, Romand, and Blase Scarnati. 2017. “‘Sing us a new song’ – Listening to the heartbeat of democratic transformation at Northern Arizona University.” Kettering Foundation Research Project.

Hartman Eric, Richard Kiely, Christopher Boettcher, and Jessica Friedrichs. 2018. Community-Based Global Learning: The Theory and Practice of Ethical Engagement at Home and Abroad. Sterling, VA: Stylus Publishing.

Mautz, Scott. 2021. Leading from the Middle: A Playbook for Managers to Influence Up, Down, and Across the Organization.  Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons, Inc.

Miller, Michelle, and Blase Scarnati. 2014. “Engaging Faculty for Student Success: The First Year Learning Initiative.” Teacher-Scholar: The Journal of the State Comprehensive University 6 (Fall): 3-14. (Access also at

Paperson, la [K. Wayne Yang]. 2017. A Third University Is Possible. Forerunners: Ideas First. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Shahjahan, Riyad A., Annabelle L. Estera, Kristen L. Suria, and Kristen T. Edwards. 2022. “‘Decolonizing’ Curriculum and Pedagogy: A Comparative Review Across Disciplines and Global Higher Education Contexts.” Review of Educational Research 92, no. 1 (February): 73-113.  DOI: 10.3102/00346543211042423.

Scarnati, Blase. 2022. “Reversing Racist Practices in International Higher Education.” University World News (June 4).

Scarnati, Blase, and Melissa Armstrong. 2021. “Developing a Globalized Localism Model and Practice for Social Justice.” Global Impact Exchange (Summer): 44-47. (Access also at

Sobania, Neal W., ed.  2015. Putting the Local in Global Education: Models for Transformative Learning Through Domestic Off-Campus Programs. Sterling, VA: Stylus Publishing.


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