[Personal] Reflection on Identifying as a “Critical Scholar”

Originally Prepared for: ARNOVA Conference, Austin, TX, November, 2018


My entrance into critical nonprofit and voluntary action studies was winding and non-linear. This reflection essay highlights my journey to identifying as a critical scholar, how I see this identify in relation to my identities as a scholar-activist and feminist, how critical perspectives have shaped my approach to both teaching and research. While it may be perceived as academic navel-gazing, the goal of this essay is to highlight that critical scholarship is not an exclusive club, but a broad umbrella under which a range of critical perspectives are valued.

I was not trained in big “C” Critical Theory, but instead stumbled into it. My undergraduate degree was in psychology, and I minored in women and gender studies. My graduate degree was in public (and nonprofit) administration. With a few notable exceptions, my course work emphasized professionalism and a neo-managerialist approach to in public and nonprofit management, rather than public service and social equity (for a discussion of these two conflicting paradigms see Eikenberry & Kluver 2004; Denhardt and Denhardt, 2015; Rivera & Nickels, 2018).

So I sought out course work in macro-social work, reading and discussing Freire (1970); I independently read and tried to find ways to apply feminist theory to my nonprofit (and public admin) coursework. For a long time, I did not know that there were scholars that merged these areas of research and practice under the broad mantle of critical nonprofit (and critical PA) studies. In fact, I was often conflicted in classes, frustrated that activist, organizing, and social movement voices/ theories were not represented in course syllabi. How could we talk about nonprofit management without talking about social movement organizations? I often felt like something important was missing. I just assumed—as was often stated or alluded—that public and nonprofit scholarship focused on management, while social work could talk about issues of social justice and equity; power and privilege.

Outside of (and before starting my career in) academia, I was immersed in social justice work and community organizing. I recently wrote about one of my earliest activist memories. Along with my co-author (Dani Vilella), we note: “… our first collaborative activist effort was in sixth grade. Together with our peers, we organized a petition to overturn a decision made by our school’s principal. We succeeded. Long before we knew the words activism, organizing, or advocacy, we were working together to make change” (Nickels & Vilella, 2017).

My activism and organizing has taken on many forms throughout the years. From organizing marches to chairing a county-wide task force aimed at ending sexual and intimate partner violence to planning state-wide conferences for feminist activists. My approach to activism, even from a young age, was to organize collectively to resist, confront, or call attention to power structures and how they scaffold inequalities.

When I began as an assistant director of volunteer management and community outreach at a university-based women’s center, I was excited to engage activist work. In my role I trained students to be activists, volunteers, and interns. Acting as a liaison between community partners and faculty, I sought to 1. Structure our work from a social justice (rather than charity) perspective; 2. Meet students where they were, recognizing that just as our identities develop, so to do our activist- identities; and 3. Meeting the needs of the community, not just the needs of the program manager. When I started digging into the literature, I found that most of the research on volunteerism and philanthropy, especially within the context of student affairs, focused on the individual benefits of volunteering rather than system change. So, again, I looked to feminist scholarship. Together with my interns, volunteers, and community partners, we built a program centered on feminist models of volunteerism—volunteers were expected to unpack their privilege and examine they ways their work was (or was not) done in solidarity with, rather than for, the community (see Nickels & Trier-Bienieck, 2017). We examined different models of community organizing and development, how nonprofit organizations perpetuated or disrupted systems of oppression, and together interrogated the historical dimensions of university-community relations, but intersectional praxis was core to the work. Our emphasis was on activist identity development and social change, rather than professional development.

I began teaching at the university level and publishing reflections on and evaluations of my work (e.g. Nickels & Kowalski-Braun, 2012). I embedded discussions of power and privilege into my courses (Nickels, Rowland, and Fadase, 2011). I discovered a cohort of scholars advocating for a different approach to and understandings of public service and civil society (e.g. King & Zanetti, 2005; Eikenberry & Kluver, 2004), thanks, in part, to professional conferences like ARNOVA.

My research is now focused on urban governance, local politics, community development and grassroots activism.  My work, much like my academic background is interdisciplinary. With a Ph.D. in Public Affairs with a specialization in Community Development, I was finally able to find the thread that weaved together my interests in community organizing, public policy, local politics, and nonprofit. But it was not until after I completed my PhD and secured a tenure-track position that claimed the label “critical scholar.”

What does this look like for me? Currently, my research (and teaching) explores the relationships between how communities are governed—be they cities, neighborhoods, or grassroots organizations—and political participation, activism, and engagement among groups and individuals. My work is grounded in a commitment to equity and social justice, and is therefore often focused on the interplay of governance, politics, and power. My current research agenda is motivated by three inter-related questions: 1. how does policy design and implementation, as well as the associated values embedded therein, create new politics at the local level; 2. how are power structures manifest within local governing arrangements, particularly with regard to grassroots, nonprofit, and philanthropic actors; and, 3. In what ways does this power structure shape how different constituencies frame, make meaning of, and respond to social problems?

As a “critical scholar,” (public intellectual or activist scholar) engaged in research focused on activism and community organization, I am [also] committed to publishing work that centers the voices of local activists and organizers. The best example of this is my 2017 co-edited book, Grand Rapids Grassroots: An Anthology (Belt Publishing). This project was a great exercise in community collaboration, as my co-editor and I worked directly with community members, mostly activists, organizers, and community leaders, to write and publish their own stories. Our project served as a tool to amplify the voices of Grand Rapids’ grassroots activists; it is emblematic of the sort of community-engaged and participatory scholarship to which I aspire, but too seldom achieve. We also invited some of the authors to participate on a panel, “Grassroots Responses to Big Philanthropy,” at the 2017 ARNOVA conference. It was an amazing experience to participate in the exchange between academics—who research community-based organizations, voluntary action, and activism—and community organizers who spoke about their experiences on the ground and the tradeoffs of writing their own story versus the reality of censoring themselves for fear of losing funding.

So, what does it mean to be a critical scholar? For me, critical scholarship (and praxis) is a broad umbrella that:

  • Examines and questions the status quo
  • Identifies and challenges power structures
  • Unpacks the historical legacies and contemporary manifestations of oppression/ systems of oppression
  • Centers the voices of historically marginalized communities
  • Focuses on intersecting oppressions
  • Emphasizes radical democratic praxis
  • Engages in critical reflexivity and constant self-reflection
  • Reimagines governance
  • Requires difficult dialogue and deliberation
  • Celebrates participatory or engaged scholarship

For me, becoming a “critical [nonprofit] scholar” and claiming the label was long and winding path. It was a path rooted in my own activism and organizing experience and my own feminist/ activist identity.



Denhardt, J. & Denhardt, R. (2015). New Public Service Revisited. Public Administration Review, 75(5).

Eikenberry, A & Kluver, J. D. (2004). The marketization of the nonprofit sector; Civil society at risk? Public Administration Review 64(2).

Freire, P. (1970). Pedagogy of the Oppressed.

King, C. S. & Zanetti, L. (2005). Transformational Public Service. New York, NY: Routledge.

Nickels, A. E. & Kowlaski-Braun, M. (2012). Examining NIARA: How a student-designated program for women of color is impacting mentors. Advances in Developing Human Resources, 14(2), 188-204.

Nickels, A. E., Rowland, T. & Fadase, O. (2011). Engaging undergraduates to be agents of social change. Journal of Public Affairs Education.

Nickels, A. E. & Trier-Bienieck, A. (2017). Developing a Feminist Activist Pedagogy. In Feminist Pedagogy, Practice, and Activism: Improving the Lives of Girls and Women, edited by Jennifer Martin, Ashley Nickels and Martina L. Sharp-Grier.  New York, NY: Routledge.

Nickels, A. E. & Rivera, J. D. (2018). Democratizing community development policy and administration. In A. E. Nickels and J.D. Rivera (Eds.), Community Development and Public Administration Theory. New York, NY: Routledge.

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