For Laurita Torres, the implications of her decision to spend a semester in the Community Classroom immersion program in City Heights during the spring of 2012 came into focus one morning as she left the two-bedroom house she shared with four other PLNU students.

Not that she was looking for a deep insight on her commute. But, as so often seems to be the case, it’s in the mundane moments that the big picture becomes visible, if even for just the brief moment when a connection is made. She realized that her neighbors were commuting to work at low-paying jobs while she was preparing for a day of studying. They were side-by-side and yet in different worlds. “I’m still wrestling with that,” she said.

These are the moments for which programs like Community Classroom are designed, moments in which the experience of being thrust into situations where perceived difference—cultural, racial, religious, or socioeconomic— changes the nature of learning and of being a learner. In a very direct way, programs that take students away from their campuses force them to see the world and their place in it from a different perspective.

Often, this type of learning is associated with study abroad programs that take students out of an American context and drop them in the art galleries of Paris or the jungles of Costa Rica or a university in Capetown. In this cultural collision, students are pressed into the role of being the other in a culture that is not their own. When they return, they bring that perspective back to campus, effectively seeing it again from their shifted perspective.

Recently, however, universities are beginning to see that there are similar, if not even more impacting opportunities for this type of experience right in the cities where they are located. PLNU, resting in one of the largest and most diverse urban regions in America, is placed in just such a fruitful location.

But to take advantage of these opportunities for cross-cultural engagement, PLNU and other universities must become much more thoroughly acquainted with a shift in the way the various cultures of the world experience each other: glocalization.

Glocal Context: From the Boardroom to the City to the Classroom

Glocalism, or glocalization, is a term first used in the late 1970s by Japanese business leaders such as Sony’s President Akio Morita, who encapsulated the idea in his now commonly used phrase “think global, act local.” Pulled from the practice of adapting farming techniques in a variety of local markets, the idea was then popularized in the ’90s by sociologist Roland Robertson, who focused more broadly on the idea of glocalization in terms of how it “means the simultaneity—the co-presence—of both universalizing and particularizing tendencies.”

Moving forward, the concept of glocalism has become increasingly connected with the explosive growth of cities where it is predicted that more than two-thirds of the world’s population will be living by 2030. The term has generally been applied in two distinct contexts: business and social theory.

In terms of its business application, glocalization is the integration of local market needs into the production of the worldwide capitalist marketplace. In other words, it is or can be a moderating influence on globalism, the process in which large businesses look to make the experience of customers uniform across cultural contexts (see: McDonald’s in Moscow and Disneyland in France, though even those brands have made cultural concessions to various market demands). Glocalism, then, has the capacity to serve the needs of both business and market in conjunction with one another.

The glocalization movement is a product of two primary forces: the spread of globalization during the 20th century and the rapid advance of technologies and channels of delivery giving those markets the ability to be relevant in other cultural contexts. For example, Internet art purveyor Etsy provides independent artists and craft makers a global market for their very individualized products. And now, entrepreneurial sites like the Nakate Project, a web-based conduit for Ugandan artists to sell their works far beyond their locality, take the glocal concept and make it a central principle in their businesses.

Intertwined in the same glocalization channels that have carried products and services from local to global markets are also the various cultures of the countries where they come from, shifting patterns of immigration and the ways in which groups of people live in context with one another. The shift is bringing, at an increasingly quickening pace, various cultures once seen as separate into the same physical locations while creating new cultural experiences in the combinations these glocal places foster.

CERFE, an Italian economic and social science research group particularly focused on this shift, describes glocalism as a “diffused social action…that can be interpreted as a kind of ideal and cultural movement oriented towards linking the benefits of globalization to local situations, and toward governing globalization also through local situations.” In this way, some see the increasingly common presence of glocal markets as holding the potential to work against some of the negative effects of globalism, which tends to be a more one-way relationship in terms of the power and control.

For example, a glocally focused business model addresses its market differently. It doesn’t homogenize an experience—say putting a large, chain grocery store that mirrors all of the other stores in the chain in a diverse neighborhood. That approach requires the people in the market to bend to an external idea of what they need and want to buy.

A glocal focus would respond to the specific needs of a place, such as a Vietnamese market in City Heights carrying items to cater to the Somali population in the community. In this way, both the needs of the business (to provide goods that will sell) and the consumer (to find the goods they would prefer to buy) are addressed. But further, a new cultural context is built in the intersection of the two, creating a bridge that goes beyond commerce.

But for this to happen, proponents of glocalism’s ability to change culture in positive ways insist it must be understood more specifically in the context of the urban environment. Such is the view of Globus et Locus, an Italian advocacy group intent on advancing the concepts of glocalization:

“In fact, there is no longer any place on the planet which has not been touched to a growing degree by various types of global flows and, at the same time, there are no global flows which are not increasingly parsed according to the many different characteristics of the places. To use the term ‘place’ in a metaphorical sense, even our identity is, to a certain extent, a place.”

So, if where we live, no matter where that may be, has become the collision point of global influence, we cannot escape the exchange of culture. As a result, we must understand how to embrace it. And it’s in this need for better understanding where both the challenges and possibilities for educators lie as they try to help students process and push into the various important questions that must be explored regarding the ways in which the world is shifting around them.

Think Local, See the Global

The process of glocalization is so embedded in the development of business and culture in the 21st century that academia has begun placing a premium on helping students become glocally literate. This is necessary because focusing only on local perspectives regarding culture does not address a world in which business and relationships are conducted on numerous continents and in various cultural frameworks in real-time via distance-shrinking technologies and social networking experiences that allow a level of access to the broad varieties of people in the world unlike any time in history.

Coupled with the shift to a compressed, urban experience as the primary living option for the majority of the world’s population, it would seem that failing to prepare students for the impacts glocalization is having and will continue to have on their lives is beyond impractical.

This idea of the shift from the state to the city as the primary shaper of culture resonates with what PLNU cultural anthropologist Dr. Jamie Gates has seen, both here in the San Diego-Tijuana metroplex and in cities around the world.

“Cities are the new generators of economies and thinking and culture, not states. Thus this focus on seeing the complexities of the place we’re in is critical,” Gates said, placing a particular emphasis on the physical closeness that increasing urban growth will continue to create. As such, educators and students must avoid seeing the trend toward glocalization merely in theoretical or digital terms.

“The potential is here because geography still matters, even in this time of decentralization,” he said. “I think that to best prepare students for the abstract global places, we need to give them a deeper understanding of this place. And if we can give them the skills to understand this place, they can really thrive in this place.”

For PLNU students, the unique nature of the San Diego-Tijuana trans-border region provides a number of opportunities for work in understanding this change of focus to the dynamic interplay of city and world. Combined, San Diego and Tijuana make the largest border “city” in the world with more than 5 million residents. Each day, more than 300,000 people cross the border between the two cities, creating what Gates describes as a synthesis of cultures.

The Classroom in Glocal Context

That synthesis is exactly what Dr. Kevin and Becky Modesto see when they look at their City Heights neighborhood, a place that has been described as the most diverse spot in San Diego. After years living there and working with various groups from the numerous ethnic communities that call City Heights home, the Modestos played a key role in the genesis of the Community Classroom program, a dual project of the academic and community ministry arms of PLNU.

“This is the world,” said Becky, former director of community ministries at PLNU and now PLNU adjunct faculty member and director of university relations for Price Family Charitable Foundation. “The world is right here as our neighbor. And there is so much it has to offer.”

A localized study abroad experience, the first Community Classroom immersion cohort began in spring 2012 with a group of five students, including Torres, who lived in the neighborhood and took almost all their classes for the semester at the campus of the Church of the Nazarene in Mid-City (pastored by PLNU theology professor Dr. John Wright). The combination of living and studying provided a unique experience for the members of the group.

“It was an opportunity for me to apply Point Loma in San Diego, (to apply) what we are taught by our professors and in chapel,” said Torres, a senior social work major who took courses in Christian tradition, health, and race and ethnicity specifically designed and focused on City Heights as part of the Community Classroom experience. “The program goes well with the school’s mission of teach, shape, send.”

Karisa Ham, a senior nursing major who also took part in the fledgling program, said one of the best parts of the experience was being reminded that the world is a much broader place than one often remembers when caught up in life on the Point.

“In City Heights, it’s ok to be different because everyone is different,” she said. “At Point Loma, you know that, but sometimes it’s hard to remember.”

One of Ham’s favorite cross-cultural memories is a very simple, yet very glocal one—the diversity of foods reflecting directly the diversity of the people in the neighborhood.

“The City Heights Farmer’s Market has such weird vegetables—but locally grown and very specific to the various cooking styles (of the different cultures),” she said. “I mean, the farmer’s market there has its own cookbook. What other farmer’s market has its own cookbook?”

Along with the immersion component of the program, a second approach has been in place since fall 2011. Sociology professor Dr. Kevin Modesto calls it the “classroom in context,” and it includes courses specifically designed for students to come into City Heights and benefit from the connection the program provides them with the community while not living there full time. Several hundred students have participated.

“We hope that the Community Classroom program challenges students to be immersed in a multi-cultural setting, whether students take one class or live and study in City Heights full time,” said current program director Dana Hojsack. “It’s an incredible opportunity to not only study the issues in context, but to truly engage with the world.”

“This program can really be impacting in the way it engages students with local organizations working with local issues that are confronted here. It helps people realize that San Diego isn’t just what happens under the beautiful sun. It’s a place where a wide variety of people live and deal with real issues,” Kevin Modesto said.

And in some ways, according to Becky Modesto, the local nature of it actually makes the experience more impacting for many students than a traditional study abroad experience because it happens where they already are.

“This program offers an opportunity for our students to realize that in America there still is the other,” she said. “That the other is their neighbor. It counteracts feelings that prejudice and racism have been moved beyond, and … might even be a starker experience because it’s here … because this happens 10 miles away and people find ways to just ignore it. It’s somewhat harsher because you don’t go into it with your heart and mind prepared in the way you would going into the developing world.”

Senior nursing major Naomi Will, also part of the initial group of immersion students, found this to be the case. “I was drawn toward the learning of so many cultures—it’s so connected to where I want to go with nursing. But this exposed my ignorance of how I saw other people and myself. Compassion and learning about people is something nursing majors have in themselves, but this really opened my eyes to what it is to have that compassion … to really love other people no matter who they are.”

Beyond learning lessons, Becky is convinced it is equally important that the academic aspects of the Community Classroom be combined with service or ministry components to keep students from seeing City Heights as merely a laboratory.

“This place has been surveyed and studied to death, and I wanted to make sure that it wasn’t merely that,” she said. “I want students to be a part of it.”

Community Classroom’s ministry engages existing relationships PLNU has in the community, matching students with tutoring programs, a community healthcare clinic, and the regional food distribution center housed on the Mid-City church’s campus.

In those capacities, students can help. However, according to Wright, the benefit is generally as great for students as it is for the community, if not more so.

“For many students, they are participating in something that has been at the heart of the Christian experience all along,” Wright said. “It helps them see that the church at its core is more than therapeutic, recreational programs, that it’s there to make visible the mission of Jesus.”

This connection with the community is also intended to create the most glocal of experiences, one in which the Community Classroom courses are eventually filled with a balance of students from campus and members of the City Heights community learning together and from each other, something that excited the various groups with which the Modestos met in City Heights before starting the program.

“This is a way for people from the community to gain access to us so that it’s not just us taking from them,” said Kevin.

Only the Start Programs like Community Classroom, and various others already in existence at PLNU, are a strong start at preparing students for the glocal world in which we live. Moving forward, PLNU and other institutions will likely consider even more ways for students to engage and learn.

Gates, who also serves as the director of the Center for Justice and Reconciliation (CJR) at PLNU, sees opportunities for designing an academic focus on regionally central issues such as homelessness, human trafficking, and immigration—all issues the CJR and groups of students and faculty are already seeking to address and learn more about. Since Gates sees the greater San Diego-Tijuana metroplex as a singular region, he believes a glocalized approach to education makes a great deal of sense and will lead to new and exciting sets of questions to explore.

Pressing into a more glocally focused education is something members of the first Community Classroom immersion cohort feel would greatly benefit many students.

Will, Torres, and Ham all describe still being somewhat conflicted over what to take away from the experience. At times, their feelings seem to align with the same questions people ask about short-term missions.

“I’ve felt like a fraud at times,” said Will. “I chose to go live in a neighborhood where people don’t get to choose to leave. And I benefitted from it. But, I really care about people differently now. It’s just such a blessing to be able to have these debates within ourselves.”

By Michael Dean Clark
Michael Dean Clark, Ph.D., is assistant professor of writing at PLNU.

PLNU’s the Viewpoint publishes relevant and vital stories that grapple with life's profound questions from a uniquely Christian perspective. In addition to the content offered online, the Viewpoint print magazine is published three times a year in spring, summer, and fall.