Bridging Theory and Experience: Anna Stilz Honored with Community Engagement Award

Monday, Jan 13, 2020
by Emily Eyestone

It might come as a surprise given the impact Anna Stilz has already had at Princeton University, but according to her, service is something that “snuck up on me.” Stilz, director of the undergraduate certificate program in values and public life and the Laurance S. Rockefeller Professor of Politics and the University Center for Human Values has been named a 2019 recipient of the John H. Pace, Jr. ’39 Center for Civic Engagement’s Community Engagement Award.

At the heart of Professor Stilz’s approach to her chosen field of political theory is meaningful praxis. This idea permeates her interests both as a scholar and as a teacher, as she continually pushes political theory outside the classroom. Her hope is to lend concrete resonance to what might otherwise remain abstract discussions of social values like justice and equality. Professor Stilz explains that, “in the aftermath of the election in 2016…it just seemed unconscionable to me that all we could do would be to sit in a seminar room and discuss human values from a theoretical perspective, it just seemed wrong.”

This ethical imperative has been at the core of Professor Stilz’s scholarship and pedagogy since she joined the Politics Department faculty in 2008. Professor Stilz has left an outsized impact both within the Princeton community and far beyond. But as she explains, service has given her much more in return. “It’s not so much that I have brought something to the world but that the world has brought something to me that has transformed the way I view my vocation as a political theorist,” she said. “I now think that I can’t really understand the problems in the right way unless I get out into the world and experience them and see what people are doing on the front lines of some of these issues at a local level.”

Politics Professor Anna Stilz with her award.

Anna Stilz,  the director of the undergraduate certificate program in values and public life and the Laurance S. Rockefeller Professor of Politics and the University Center for Human Values, with her Community Engagement Award from the Pace Center. Photo by David Kelly Crow

One of the most impactful examples of Professor Stilz’s local engagement can be seen in the Kentucky-Princeton Summer Institute, which she founded in 2018. The first session of this program was organized around the theme of inequality, and the next one - planned for 2020 - will focus on migration. The institute brings together undergraduate students from Princeton and universities around Kentucky to discuss problems of social inequality and injustice.  They chose to examine inequality through an extremely local lens, through site-based learning in the communities of Louisville and Lexington, Kentucky, which included service projects.

By bringing students and faculty from an elite private university into dialogue with colleagues from significantly less well-financed campuses in a much poorer region of the country, and enabling this group to have shared experiences in community outreach, they aimed to forge personal connections and to create an experience that students could carry with them after graduation. The project is personal for Professor Stilz, who grew up in rural Kentucky and understands deeply the particular needs and character of the area. As Melissa Lane, the Class of 1943 Professor of Politics and director of the University Center for Human Values explained, this collaboration aimed to, “forge personal connections and to create an experience that students could carry with them after graduation.”

This exchange was far from one-sided though. Professor Stilz and her collaborator at the University of Kentucky, Professor of Philosophy Avery Kolers, arranged for the students from Kentucky schools to travel to Princeton in October of 2018 to work as a group to produce a series of op-eds about their takeaways from the program, and to meet with Princeton faculty.

Students participate in group discussions.

Twenty students participated in the inaugural Kentucky-Princeton Undergraduate Summer Institute on Inequality, held at University of Louisville and sponsored by the Princeton University Center for Human Values. Photo by Tom Fougerousse/University of Louisville.

The Princeton-Kentucky Institute is unique in the way that it brings together students and faculty from two very disparate regions of the country and invites them to engage in thoughtful conversation around very particular issues affecting their communities. Professor Stilz explained the origin of the idea in this way: “With all the resources that we have at Princeton, where I grew up in Kentucky there was nothing, for hundreds of miles that could be theoretically informed rich conversations on values like justice and power…” And only a year and a half later, Professor Stilz made this happen.

Besides her sustained commitment to elevating the needs of her home community in Kentucky, Professor Stilz has perhaps not surprisingly, dedicated herself to engagement in her adopted Princeton community as well. She has been a strong advocate for Princeton’s Prison Teaching Initiative, even going in herself to lecture to students “on the inside” on political theory. The program is entirely staffed by graduate student teachers, making Professor Stilz one of the only faculty to participate actively in teaching.

Much of Professor Stilz’s research lately focuses on migration, an interest which - true to her character - is reflected both in the classroom and in her service. She recently took a group of undergraduate students from a political theory class she taught to Buffalo, New York to better understand refugee experiences. Of this experience, Professor Stilz remarked that, “Nothing that we had read about refugees in the classroom was as impactful as that trip was. And it also changed the way that they read that material. It’s not that the theoretical material is not interesting but there is a fundamental shift in perspective on the theoretical material that you get from having this surface space interruption."

This “surface space interruption” which can only be accomplished by getting up and out of the classroom through active engagement, captures Professor Stilz approach to research, pedagogy and civic engagement masterfully, and it is also why she is recognized with the Pace Center’s Community Engagement Award.