A University-Community Partnership Starts with Door to Door Dialogue

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April 18, 2012; Source: Columbus Dispatch

A new partnership between the Northland Alliance—a group of 25 Ohio civic organizations including the YMCA, the Columbus Metropolitan Library, the North Side Health Advisory Committee and the Helping Hands Free Clinic—and Ohio State University (OSU) focuses on learning about Beaumont, a small, diverse community situated east of Columbus, Ohio.

Funded by a $5,000 grant from the local United Way, leaders will go door to door, asking residents about community needs. Topics will include health care, jobs, education, and transportation. This survey follows the success of a similar project in another Columbus neighborhood, Weinland Park, where results helped guide community services offered.

Results from the research will be utilized by the different groups to achieve their own goals. Nonprofit groups are particularly keen to understand the needs of the area in order to offer the most relevant services.

Tamar Motts Forest, the associate director of the Institute for Poverty Solutions at OSU, describes the center’s goals for the Beaumont project as three-fold: “Developing a model for participatory research in urban communities that includes residents in the process as key stakeholders,” “developing a holistic model for community revitalization that includes interacting, multiple facets—e.g., education, health, economic development, and family/child well-being,” and “developing a model for university-community partnerships.”

This project showcases the emerging trend of public universities offering their research expertise to nonprofit groups and cross-sector coalitions as part of their missions. Ohio State University is a member of TRUCEN (The Research University Civic Engagement Network), which “works to advance civic engagement and engaged scholarship among research universities and to create resources and models for use across higher education.” In many ways, the Beaumont project exemplifies the types of projects suggested by TRUCEN.

We would love to hear from NPQ newswire readers located in other big university towns. Is a new chapter in university-community partnerships being written? Are universities reaching out to partner with nonprofits more or less than before? Are the types of activities being done with universities different in other qualitative ways? –Michelle Shumate

  • Susan Philliber

    We use a similar strategy that we call the Community Engagement Process to collect information so as to design more intelligent programs for communities. But, we hire, train, pay and supervise community residents to take part so that they too feel like they are “engaged” in the work. They get excited about being part of the data collection and often stay on to take part in community deliberations about what to do next. We always close this exercise with data sharing–sometimes a barbecue in the city part where the five most important things we learned that are actionable are displayed on large posters and those who come can sign up to help work on that issue. Sometimes we hold town meetings to display the results and ask for people to help with next steps. There are other strategies as well.

    One word of caution about the university partnership. We have worked in several communities where these began only to be a disappointment to local residents because the university people wouldn’t work during the summer, on their winter breaks or at any other time when the university was not in session. A resident in one of these communities once said to me “Why don’t they know that our problems don’t go away during university vacations.”

    Best wishes for a successful project!

  • Jeremy Gray

    Strong university-community partnerships are certainly becoming more common. A couple of good examples are the College Hill Alliance (Mercer University & the Beall’s Hill neighborhood in Macon, Ga: http://www.collegehillmacon.com/) and the University Park Alliance (The University of Akron & the University Park neighborhood in Akron, Ohio: http://www.upakron.com/university-park-alliance). Other large, anchoring institutions are also building partnerships with their communities (see for example the good work of the Bon Secours Richmond Health System hospitals in Virginia).

    A lesson I’ve learned from my own experience with these types of projects: communities will see right through the motives of the university “partner” if those motives are false or one-sided. There needs to be a reciprocal relationship between the university and the neighborhood residents, not just one of mutual benefit. A survey of neighborhood residents may benefit the students who participate by providing a rich contextual experience; it may benefit the residents by resulting in services that better meet the community’s needs. But was the survey done “to” the community or “with” the community? The previous commenter describes a more reciprocal relationship wherein the residents are asked to do the surveying rather than just be surveyed. When the data was presented to the community, residents were asked to contribute to development of next steps.

    I’ve see universities spend huge sums of money investing in their communities only to make the community residents more suspicious of the university and more dug in against it, all because the approach was wrong. And unfortunately, communities can have long memories of such events. But when thoughtfully planned and carefully implemented, university-community partnerships can result in substantial goodwill with the community, rich experiences for the univerity’s students and staff, and economic development for the town or city as a whole.

  • Brent Hafele – NewDay Nonprofit Solutions

    There is a public private partnership happening in Eau Claire, WI between the University of Wisconsin – Eau Claire, the City of Eau Claire, Eau Claire County, The Eau Claire Regional Arts Center, numerous other nonprofit agencies, private developers, and philanthropists. The Confluence Project, as it is called, is an effort to build a state-of-the-art shared performing arts center along with a private mixed use residental and commercial building at the confluence of the Eau Claire and Chippewa Rivers. Learn more at http://communityfortheconfluence.org/

  • Heidi Holtz

    Syracuse University has been developing strong partnerships on the Near West Side of Syracuse, and I urge folks to look into their progress. http://www.saltdistrict.com/. The Gifford Foundation was a major player as this initiative developed – we handled the community engagement aspect and through our efforts a neighborhood association emerged that now has the capacity to be at the table with the more powerful university. I agree wholeheartedly with the belief that key stakeholders should be included – this is a primary tenet of our foundation philosophy. In addition we learned that power dynamics can play an important role and in our town at least, SU is one of the more powerful. It was very helpful for the residents to have someone like us at the table – we have a reputation in town for listening, and I believe we were able to bridge that gap in power. My point is not just that one can never listen enough but that who you have listening is vital – authentic and intentional and trusted. Most important is being willing to make adjustments based on what you hear – be flexible and open to change. You can’t just listen and then act differently – and often you might not like what you hear. True community engagement can be two steps back for every three steps forward and it takes extraordinary patience. This can sometimes be hard for higher ups to understand.